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Bottoms up!

IMG_0548Us Swedes like our herring. And with herring, we serve chilled akvavit, served in small glasses. When we eat herring and drink to the herring, we often sing, strange songs about pike fish with legs (but that one we can blame on the Finns, it’s their song) or about hopping frogs, or about girls that ride pigs (naughty, won’t go there). As the consumption of akvavit increases, the will to sing decreases. Maybe not the will, maybe it’s more about the capacity to sing. This is when yet another little Finnish song comes in handy, the one word “nu!” (now). Or we skip the songs altogether, going for a loud “skål”. When my father reached this stage, he would occasionally holler “Andrea Doria” instead, looking somewhat guilty.

Why the guilt, one wonders. Well, thing is Andrea Doria is a ship that sank, went bottoms up, so to say. And while many of my father’s generation found this little version of “cheers” funny, they were also aware of the fact that they were making fun of a tragedy, ergo the twinge of shame. So what happened to Andrea Doria?

Allow me to take you back to the 1950s. The world had survived the war, and after years of restrictions, global economy was taking off. People had money, and that global phenomenon, mass tourism, was about to take off. As yet, most of the travelling across the Atlantic was done by ship, but air travel was beginning to eat into the previous so profitable Atlantic shipping routes. The solution to the profit squeeze was to create floating entertainment centres – voilá, the luxury cruise liner was born.

Initially, it was mostly about bracing sea air and playing shuffleboard, but soon enough these floating hotels were ferrying people from one side of the pond to the other, there to take in the sights. Many Americans had Italian roots, ergo they wanted to go to Italy. The Italian Line catered to these wishes, with a fleet of ship that went back and forth. Being proud not only of its fantastic food but also of its Italian heritage, the Italian Line named its ships after famous Italians, at times something of a misnomer as many of the people so honoured never defined themselves as Italian, but rather as Florentines, or Veronese, or Venetians. Whatever the case, when Italian Line decided to launch their new, top of the range cruiser, they named it Andrea Doria.

Mr Doria, as Neptune

Andrea Doria the man was a seafaring man, a proud Genoese. Born somewhere around 1466, he spent his younger years as a soldier of fortune, at some point transferring from land to sea, where he quickly became a successful naval commander, serving the interests of Genoa. At the time, Italy was being torn apart by Francis I of France and Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. While Doria was chasing Turks and pirates over the Mediterranean, Francis invaded Genoa, and for some time Doria served the French king, but finding him miserly, he switched sides. In return, the Holy Roman Emperor helped oust the French from Genoa, and Doria was allowed to set up a republic, albeit within the umbrella of Charles V’s massive empire.


Years of fighting the Turks, the Barbary pirates, the French – Doria was not a man to sit about, serving his imperial master well into his ninth decade. He was given command of the assembled navies in 1538 to finally defeat the Ottoman Turks, but at the Battle of Preveza he lost. He lost again at the Battle of Ponza in 1552, and not until 1571 (at which point Doria was long dead) would the Christian navies finally defeat the Turks, at the horrifically bloody Battle of Lepanto (in which a certain Miguel Cervantes de Saavedra lost the use of his left arm, ergo his nickname, El Manco de Lepanto). Doria himself died at home, a rich and respected man – despite never having quite succeeded in defeating those pesky Turks.

Oh, dear: talk about a tangential excursion – especially as Mr Doria’s exploits have nothing to do with what happened to the ship named for him.

Andrea_Doria_posterAs many of us know, Italy’s economy was in shambles after World War II. Being a nation of merchants and engineers, the Italians regrouped and concentrated on rebuilding their nation. When the Andrea Doria was launched in the early 1950s, it was viewed as the most luxurious of all the ships plying the Atlantic. It was also considered one of the most beautiful ships ever built. As an add on, it was also presented as being “unsinkable”. One would have thought such adjectives went out of use after the Titanic, but the Italian engineers were more than proud of their improved construction, the ship divided into eleven watertight compartments, two of which could be flooded without actually sinking the ship. As  final feature, Andrea Doria also carried sufficient life boats to accommodate all passengers and crew – in the unlikely event that it should, despite all that security, become incapacitated while at sea.

In July of 1956, the Andrea Doria was en route for New York. Life aboard was a party, albeit carefully segregated. First Class passengers did not mix with the lower classes, or vice versa. As a consequence, the ship had three outdoor pools – one for each class – separate restaurants, separate walkways. It would not do for some lowlife in tourist class imposing on the daintier and more fragile creatures that travelled in first class. But whatever the class, people had fun.

There were other cruise ships doing the Atlantic route. Some were famous such as the Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary. Some were anything but famous, such as little M/S Stockholm, of the Swedish American Line. M/S Stockholm was about half the size of the Andrea Doria, and was originally built for practical comfort rather than luxurious cruises, but the general interest in sea holidays in the early 1950s resulted in the ship being refurbished, an additional floor added to offer more and better cabins. It was also a ship designed for cold climates, thereby provided with a prow designed to plough through ice if needed. Not that anyone expected ice to be an issue on that warm and balmy July day when the M/S Stockholm set off from New York, making for distant Europe.

So what have we here? On one side the opulent Andrea Doria, with approximately 1700 people aboard, on the other M/S Stockholm, carrying in total 742 people. While M/S Stockholm was cruising under a clear sky, Andrea Doria hd spent the last few hours stuck in a fog bank, a common occurrence off the Massachusetts coast. Andrea Doria’s Captain Calamai had accordingly reduced speed somewhat, had activated his foghorns, and closed the watertight doors.

M/S Stockholm reached the outer edges of the fog bank. The Andrea Doria was effectively invisible – except on radar. The Andrea Doria had no visuals of any other ships – except on radar. In actual fact, both Stockholm and Andrea Doria were aware that they had company, but from the information on the radar screens, they misinterpreted each other’s course. At some point, both captains realised they were on collision course with each other. At that same point, both captains took measures to avoid this collision. The Andrea Doria  steered to port, so as to enable a starboard-to-starboard passing. Stockholm decided to go for a port-to-port passing and turned 20 degrees starboard. Seeing as they were prow to prow, this meant both ships were turning in the same direction, i.e, instead of widening the distance between them, they were shrinking it.

You don’t exactly pull a handbrake on a ship. With both ships doing over 20 knots, the collision was unavoidable. Stockholm veered hard to starboard. The Andrea Doria turned hard to port. Just after eleven PM, Stockholm rammed into Andrea Doria’s side. Stockholms ice-breaker prow sliced Andrea Doria’s starboard side wide open. Water rushed in – not a problem, one would have thought, given the eleven watertight compartments and all that. Thing is, at the time of collision the Andrea Doria was cruising with almost empty fuel tanks. Those on the starboard side filled with water. Those on the port side acted like a floating device, and so within a few minutes of the collision, the Andrea Doria was listing badly. Suddenly, stairwells and passages began filling with water, causing further list. The generator room flooded, cutting all electricity. The pumps could not be started. Half of the lifeboats became impossible to launch, hanging way up high due to the list. It seemed the world had a new Titanic in the making…

Those of us gifted with vivid imagination have little problems imagining the ensuing panic. Cold water, no light, the floor tilting… People scrambled for the safety of the deck, all too aware that to be trapped below in the rising water was to risk a slow and anguished death. Even worse, Stockholm’s bow had crashed straight into five passenger decks. A number of people died immediately, like the young mother travelling with her four children, or the wife, whose husband was saved by the fact that he was brushing his teeth, or the eight-year-old girl who was crushed upon impact. One teenager was thrown from her bed, out into the night, but was miraculously discovered on the deck of the Stockholm, injured but alive.

M/S Stockholm

The damage to both ships was severe. The Andrea Doria looked as if it had been slashed open with a gigantic can-opener. The Stockholm had no prow, just a huge gaping hole in its bow. The Andrea Doria continued to tilt, and launching the life boats remaining proved a difficult task. Things didn’t exactly get better when eight of the life boats were sent off with 200 panicked crew members and no passengers… After a thorough inspection, the captain of M/S Stockholm concluded that his ship was not in danger of sinking – the night was relatively calm – and so redirected the efforts of his crew to help the Andrea Doria. Fortunately, the SOS messages had been picked up, and ships from all over were steaming towards the two ships. When the huge Ile de France appeared, I imagine the passengers cheered. The French liner placed itself as a bulwark along Andrea Doria’s starboard side, and lit its floodlights before launching its boats to the aid of the stranded passengers.

Andrea_Doria_at_DawnOn the Stockholm, more than 500 people from the Andrea Doria had been brought aboard – and amazingly enough, a large number of Stockholm’s passengers slept through the whole hullabaloo, a consequence of all that bracing sea air, one presumes. By early morning, the Andrea Doria was empty of all but Captain Calamai and a couple of his crew members. There was no hope for the ship, it was too damaged to be towed, and with every passing hour it took in more water. At nine, Captain Calamai gave the order to abandon ship, and exactly eleven hours after the collision, the Andrea Doria rolled over on its side, lifted its stern heavenward and slipped under the waves. In total, the tragedy had cost 52 people their lives.

Obviously, the legal aftermath was humongous. The most repeated question was why. Why was the Andrea Doria doing 20 knots in a fog as thick as pea soup? Why had the radar information been so misinterpreted? Why had the Andrea Doria turned port, when the accepted procedure was to turn starboard when meeting a ship? Many of these questions went unanswered as the two shipping lines settled out-of-court. Neither party had an interest in full disclosure. At the time, Captain Calamai was apportioned most of the blame, even more so as the Italian Line made it clear they weren’t about to hire him again. These days, the jury is out: yes, the Andrea Doria did that strange turn to port, yes it was speeding – but so was the Stockholm, and how come the Swedish officer so misinterpreted the radar information? We will never know.

Captain Calamai never accepted another command, living out his life in a haze of guilt. It is said his last words were, “Are all the passengers alright?”

And as to that odd tradition of hollering “Andrea Doria” while downing yet another shot of snaps, I am happy to report it went out of fashion long ago – and thank heavens for that!

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