Italia’s Pride – The Grand Dame of the Sea
The Italia Line, once a dominating presence in the Atlantic passenger trade, struggled with Italy’s collapsed economy following World War II. Many of the company’s liners had been lost in battle; the rest had been claimed by Allied countries seeking restitution. By the beginning of the 1950’s, however, the Italians were ready to sail once again. Two liners, Andrea Doria and Cristoforo Columbo, would signal Italia’s reemergence into the market. The elder of the two sister ships, Andrea Doria, was the first Italian transatlantic ship launched since the end of the war. Sleek, graceful lines gave Andrea Doria an air of sophistication and modernity. Ornately designed public rooms and cabins inexorably tied her roots to Italy’s rich artistic heritage. Passengers quickly took to the new ship, calling her the most beautiful liner of the postwar era. Andrea Doria soon made her niche as “The Grand Dame of the Sea”, becoming a symbol of pride for the Italia Line.
Though not quite the leviathan of yesterday, at 697 feet long, Andrea Doria was the largest ship in the Italian fleet. She was also the most luxurious. Sailing the “Sunny Southern Route”, she provided her passengers with comfort and diversion as they traveled the Atlantic enroute to a tropical destination. She was the first ship to feature three outdoor swimming pools; one for each passenger class. Those who sailed on Andrea Doria marveled at the superb service and attention they received. She was truly a luxury liner.
Andrea Doria was also a safe ship. Her double hull was composed of eleven watertight compartments separated by bulkheads that extended up to her A-Deck. She was also equipped with RADAR. This allowed her crew to spot nearby vessels and obstacles even in low visibility.
One would think nothing could lead this ship to tragedy…
Tragedy at Sea
The evening of July 25th, 1956 found Andrea Doria on her 51st crossing, a nine-day trip from Genoa to New York. She was loaded to near capacity with 1,706 passengers and crew. Her captain, Piero Calamai, was a 39-year veteran of the sea and one of Italia’s most respected skippers. Captain Calamai’s service record was spotless. Despite this, as Andrea Doria steamed toward the Nantucket Lightship through heavy fog, Captain Calamai had reduced speed only marginally. He had been steaming through the fog since mid-afternoon and at times the ship’s bow could not be seen from the bridge. The only precautions Calamai took were the placement of a lookout on the bow and the closing of the watertight doors.
Unknown to Captain Calamai and the Doria crew, another liner, the much smaller Swedish-American Stockholm, was on its way home to Scandinavia. At only 528 feet long and 12,165 tons, Stockholm was one of the smallest post-war liners built. The Swedish liner was well north of the suggested outbound route for leaving North America. Third officer Johan-Ernst Bogislaus Carstens-Johannsen, Carstens to his friends, was the bridge officer on duty. The night was clear with a bright moon. Carstens had no reason to slow down; he had yet to encounter the fog bank that Andrea Doria was steaming through. He did, however, have every reason to expect fog in the area of Nantucket Island, where the cold Labrador Currents from the north meet the warm Gulf Stream from the south.
At about 10:40PM, the radar on Andrea Doria picked up the smaller vessel at a distance of about seventeen nautical miles. It appeared to be about 4 degrees off the starboard bow, bearing to the right. Captain Calamai assumed it was a small coastal vessel that would turn north to Nantucket Island. Despite the fact that the radar showed the oncoming vessel to be straight ahead, there was ample distance to safely pass the vessel, as had been done a thousand times before. Again assuming it was a small coastal vessel that would head north for it’s home port and seeing how it was already bearing to the right, Captain Calamai decided to pass the ship starboard-side-to-starboard-side. Even though standard procedure called for a port-to-port passing; it was more of a custom than a regulation. At 11:05PM, Calamai ordered a four-degree course change to port. The oncoming vessel was now three and a half miles away.
On the bridge of the Stockholm, the situation appeared quite differently. To third officer Carstens, the oncoming vessel on his radar screen appeared to be just a few degrees off to port on a parallel course. Stockholm’s radar did not have the range of the larger Italian liner and had not picked up the approaching ship until it was twelve miles away. Swedish Line procedures required that the oncoming vessel’s course be plotted. This required two radar fixes. By the time this had been done less than six miles separated the ships. He had not yet come into the fogbank, and Carstens planned for a port-to-port passing, making a course correction to starboard as soon as he could see the approaching ship.
Given the technology of radar at the time and common human error when “eyeballing” a ship’s course on a radar screen, minor error can be greatly exaggerated. On the bridge of Andrea Doria, it looked as though the oncoming ship was just off the starboard bow. To the crew of Stockholm, it appeared as though the other ship was off the port bow. The intentions of the two commanders were to turn their vessels mistakenly in the same direction.
Just as Andrea Doria made her 11:05 course correction, the two ships made visual contact. Less than two miles separated them now; given their combined speed of over 40 knots, this was a very short distance indeed. Because they were converging at a slight angle; with the Doria crew seeing lights to its right and Stockhom’s crew seeing lights to its left; the assumptions made off of the misread radar screens was reinforced. What happened next set the stage for disaster. As third officer Carstens on Stockholm’s bridge decided to make his turn to starboard, he failed to signal his intention with the usual blasts from the ship’s whistle. The ringing bridge phone diverted his attention. As the Swedish liner made its turn, Carstens still did not realize that he was turning into the course of the oncoming ship. On Doria’s bridge, however, Captain Calamai realized what was happening as he saw the other ship’s navigation lights cross from right to left across the bow of Andrea Doria. “Titto sinistra!” he shouted, “Full left!” As the larger Doria began to veer left, Carstens on Stockhom’s bridge realized what was happening and ordered “Hard-a-starboard!”
Stockholm rammed Andrea Doria broadside, puncturing the starboard hull plates just aft of the bridge and ripping open seven of her eleven decks. For a moment the small Swedish liner was lodged into the opening, which reached almost all the way down to Doria’s keel. The Italian liner was moving at full speed, however, and the force of rushing water soon tore the smaller ship away. Almost immediately, Andrea Doria began to list to starboard. The time was 11:10PM.
Everyone on board Andrea Doria felt the impact. In first-class Belvedere Room, the band was knocked off its podium and dancing couples to the floor. A panic ensued in the tourist-class dining room where a movie was being shown and the screen went dead, plunging the room into darkness. Immediately, people began rushing to their rooms to wake sleeping children and grab their life jackets. One passenger, Thure Peterson in cabin 56 on the starboard side, actually saw Stockholm’s bow slide past him before he lost consciousness. His wife, unfortunately, was buried under wreckage and died from her injuries. Fourteen-year-old Linda Morgan was asleep in her bed and was catapulted out of her bed and onto the crushed bow of the Swedish ship. A crewman found her crying and calling for her mother. Her sister, asleep in the bed next to her, was killed instantly. All over the Andrea Doria, many passengers thought of a recent movie; Walter Lord’s A Night To Remember, and thought of Titanic. It remained to be seen whether the fate of Andrea Doria would resemble the loss of that famous ocean liner. Within minutes of the collision, however, the list exceeded twenty-five degrees. Beyond fifteen degrees the watertight compartments would be compromised, allowing water to spill over the tops of the bulkheads fore and aft. Captain Calamai knew there and then that his ship was doomed. The only question was how long she would stay afloat. He ordered a distress call sent out.
It was clear from the outset that Andrea Doria would capsize before help could arrive so an evacuation was ordered immediately. The crew soon discovered however that the ship’s list prevented the port-side boats from being launched. The starboard lifeboats, if fully loaded, could only carry about 1,000 of the 1,706 on board. It’s perhaps this grim reminder of Titanic’s fate that kept Captain Calamai from sounding the abandon-ship signal. It was over an hour before the first lifeboat was launched and it left Doria with more crew than passengers. Stockholm, it’s bow crushed but in no immediate danger, soon dispatched its own boats to aid in the evacuation. But the evacuation of Andrea Doria was far from ordered. With so many of the crew abandoning ship, many passengers were left to fend for themselves. Many of the first and cabin-class passengers waited for three hours at their muster stations with no word from the ship’s captain. In tourist class, passengers found themselves fighting their way through oily seawater to reach the upper decks.
At 2:00AM, the liner Ile de France, art-deco precursor to Normandie, arrived. The fog had lifted and Captain Baron Raoul de Beaudean had picked up Doria’s distress call, he had turned his massive liner around and made full speed for her reported position. With the safe rescue of all Doria’s passengers in mind, Captain Beaudean parked his ship 400 yards away from the stricken liner and began to take on survivors.
At first, Captain Calamai refused to leave his ship until all of the passengers and crew had left the ship. Still hoping that Andrea Doria could be saved, he remained on his ship even as the list exceeded forty degrees. He ordered the crew to abandon ship, but many refused to leave without him. He reluctantly stepped into a lifeboat as dawn broke about 5:30AM. By now several ships were on the scene as well as charted airplanes carrying reporters and photographers. As the disaster was recorded for posterity, Andrea Doria lay on her side, slowly tipping over as water rushed into her hull. At 10:09AM on the morning of July 26th, Andrea Doria finally capsized and sank. It had been eleven hours since the collision. For fifteen minutes after the sinking, a 700-foot-long swath of bubbles churned the sea as the remaining air escaped the sunken ship. She lay in just 250 feet of water.
All told, 46 people on Andrea Doria and 5 crewman on Stockholm lost their lives; all as a result of injuries sustained in the initial impact. The fact that it had taken so long for the ship to sink reinforced the notion about the improved safety of the new ships. Stockholm was able to make it back to port unassisted and after repairs was returned to Atlantic service. But the sinking of Andrea Doria came at the end of ocean travel’s post-war boom. Two years later, airplanes had captured nearly 70 percent of transatlantic passenger business. Within the next ten years, that figure rose to 95 percent. As dusk settled on the Age of Ocean Liners, more and more ships were retired from service and scrapped. The few that remained in service usually traveled nearly empty. One winter crossing in the 1960’s found Queen Elizabeth crossing with 200 passengers and 1,200 crew. By the 1970’s, the ocean liner was all but extinct.
Diver’s Dream – The Wreck of Andrea Doria
The wreck of Andrea Doria lies in 250 feet of water in an area where the underwater weather can change drastically very quickly. The wreck is well within reach of serious divers. Strong currents, heavy sediment that can reduce visibility to zero, and sharks all pose a serious hazard to anyone exploring the wreck. In addition, thick fishing nets drape the hull and an invisible web of mono filament fishing lines, easily snagging scuba gear, provide more danger. Doria’s long, dark corridors offer a maze in which a diver can become hopelessly lost. Several divers have lost their lives diving on Andrea Doria.
For those that do venture down to the Italia liner, the reward is tantalizing. Doria is still recognizable as the luxury liner she once was. Her name is still visible on her bow and stern. Divers usually enter the wreck through “Gimbel’s Hole”, an opening in the side of the hull cut by Peter Gimbel in an effort to retrieve the ship’s safe. Easily reached are the dining room, cocktail lounge and gift shop as well as several staterooms. The site has been looted of anything worth salvaging now. The statue of Genoese Admiral Andrea Doria, for whom the ship was named, was removed from the first-class lounge. The ship’s bell was taken in the late 1980’s. I’m sure that divers will continue to find items of value, but for most the appeal is simply exploring the wreck. Andrea Doria is the remnant of an era long-gone; a tangible link to the Golden Age of Ocean Liners.