Sixty Years Later: The Wreck of the Andrea Doria

On the foggy night of Wednesday, July 25, 1956, two ships collided off the coast of Massachusetts, not far from Nantucket. The great ocean liner Andrea Doria was struck by the much smaller MV Stockholm and perished in manner that should never have happened. Now, almost 60 years after that fateful night, the first manned-submersible exploration in twenty years of the Andrea Doria’s wreck has been completed.

In the mid-1950s, the postwar passenger boom was at its peak. More than 50 passenger liners sailed the sea lanes between Europe and America. Among the newest and most luxurious were two ships of the Italian Line, the Cristoforo Colombo and the Andrea Doria.

The Andrea Doria had graceful lines and her public spaces were lavishly decorated and filled with artwork. Her desirable first-class suites were as sumptuous as any that had come before. She was a superb expression of her time and nationality, a ship that combined 1950s modernity with a keen awareness of Italy’s extraordinary artistic heritage.

As a ship sailing the sometimes difficult waters of the Atlantic, she was well-equipped with the latest in technology and navigational equipment. The ship had two sets of radar to warn of approaching dangers. In the unlikely event of a collision, her 11 watertight compartments were constructed to keep her afloat if any two were breached. Yet the Andrea Doria was destined to become the great transatlantic passenger ship lost in the Atlantic. Despite many hours of testimony after the accident and much analysis, no one will ever be completely sure precisely how it happened.

We do know that on that fateful evening of July 25, 1956, two passenger ships were converging on a point southwest of the Nantucket Lightship, which marks the entry to and exit from the crowded approach to New York harbor. The 697-foot-long Andrea Doria was carrying a nearly full complement of 1,706 passengers and crew and was approaching the end of a sunny nine-day voyage from Genoa to New York. The Stockholm, at 528 feet in length was one of the smallest of the new postwar liners. It was just beginning its homeward voyage to Sweden.

At 10:20 pm, the Andrea Doria came abeam of the Nantucket Lightship and her Captain, 58-year-old Piero Calamai, ordered a new course that aimed directly at the Ambrose Lightship, which marks the mouth of New York harbor. The two ships were approaching on parallel courses, but were beyond the range of each other’s radar and were as yet unaware of each other’s presence. To complicate matters, the Andrea Doria was running through fog, while the Stockholm sailed through a clear moonlit night.

Given the circumstances, neither ship was exercising maximum caution. Captain Calamai was confident that his radar would alert him in ample time to avoid any problems. He had, however, ordered various standard fog precautions – a lookout was posted in the bow and the watertight doors were closed. The Stockholm had as yet no reason to reduce speed, but every reason to expect fog in the waters south of Nantucket Island. Furthermore, the ship was traveling to the north of the recommended outbound route on a course likely to bring it into contact with incoming ships in one of the busiest sea lanes in the world.

The Andrea Doria’s radar had a slightly greater range than the Stockholm’s and detected an oncoming ship at about 10:45 pm at a distance of about 17 nautical miles. Curzio Franchini, the ship’s second officer, alerted the captain and Calamai immediately requested the other ship’s bearing. She was only four degrees off the starboard bow – in other words, almost dead ahead. This information didn’t worry the Andrea Doria’s captain or the two watch officers on the bridge. There was ample time and distance to pass the oncoming vessel with plenty of room. They had done so a thousand times before with a thousand other ships. Only one important decision needed to be made, whether to pass the ship to port or starboard. According to Franchini, the oncoming ship continued to bear slight to the right, causing Captain Calamai to begin to think it was a small coastal vessel that would soon turn north to Nantucket.

On board the Stockholm, the officer on duty saw things quite differently. He had just picked up a blip on his radar indicating a ship 12 nautical miles away and slightly to his port. Acting according to standard Swedish line procedure, he plotted the course of the oncoming vessel, which required two radar fixes. By the time he’d completed his calculations, the other ship was fewer than six miles away. It appeared set to pass to the north, but by less than a mile. As soon as the other ship came into view, Captain Carstens told himself he would alter course to starboard to increase the width of their passing distance. After several minutes, he began to wonder why the other ship’s lights did not appear. He could still see the moon and the possibility he was sailing into a fogbank seems never to have occurred to him.

Those navigating the two ships racing toward each other at a combined speed of roughly 40 knots and had somehow come to opposite conclusions. Aboard the Andrea Doria, the approaching ship seemed to be maintaining a position just off the starboard bow. According to the Stockholm’s radar, the other vessel seemed clearly to be a few degrees to port and on a parallel course. One of the radar sets, or one of the men who read them, was wrong. The men in command on both ships seem to have had more faith in their radar and their ability to interpret it than they should have.

This faith led Captain Calamai to make one of his most controversial decisions of the night. He decided to pass the approaching vessel starboard side to starboard side. Standard procedure when two ships meet at sea is for a port-side-to-port-side passing, but the Andrea Doria’s skipper thought he had good reason for making an exception. The other ship was already to starboard, or so he believed. A port-side passing would mean crossing her bow and sailing closer to more heavily-traveled coastal waters. Given the wide and empty ocean to his left, it seemed natural to stay port and stay clear. About 11:05 p.m., with the other ship about three and a half nautical miles away, Captain Calamai ordered a small four-degree course change to port to increase the passing distance. Neither ship had yet seen the other, except on radar.

Just as the Andrea Doria changed course, the two ships finally made visual contact. Only two miles separated them, a very short distance, given their combined speed. They were converging at a slight angle, so that the Andrea Doria saw lights to its right and the Stockholm lights to its left. Thus, the first sight of the other ship only reinforced the false assumptions on each bridge: The other vessel was where it was expected. On the Stockholm’s bridge, the order was issued to make a sharp turn to starboard to give the oncoming ship a wider berth. Without realizing it, the Stockholm was turning toward the Andrea Doria’s course, additionally the ship failed to signal its turn with the usual blasts on the ship’s whistle.

With the approaching ship only a mile away, its masthead lights finally materialized clearly enough from the fog for Captain Calamai to visually determine its course. He watched intently as the lower navigation light crossed from right to left in front of the higher one. The other ship was turning right! Then the red light appeared, indicating the ship was showing its port side, confirming the worst. Third Officer Eugenio Giannini had seen it too. “She is turning, she is turning!” he shouted. “She is coming toward us.”

All 39 of Captain Calamai’s years at sea must have passed in front of his eyes. “Tutto sinistra,” he called out. “Full left.” He would put his faith in the Andrea Doria’s speed and maneuverability, hoping to turn left faster than the other ship was turning right. But a huge ocean liner going nearly full speed doesn’t turn like a sports car.

The Stockholm had turned away just as the other ship began its hard left turn. Soon the bridge officer grasped what had happened – the other vessel was turning across his bow! He wrenched the handle of the engine telegraph to full astern and shouted to his helmsman, “Hard-a-starboard!” It was too little, too late.

Had Captain Calamai turned right instead of left he would have avoided a collision, or minimized its impact, but the collision course resulted in the Andrea Doria receiving a broadside ramming. The bow of the Stockholm plunged into the Italian liner’s starboard hull plates just aft of her bridge, ripping open seven of her 11 decks. The resulting gaping wound extended almost all the way down to her keel. A torrent of seawater began to pour through the enormous hole in the Italian liner’s hull. The time was just past 11:10 pm. Within minutes of the impact, the Andrea Doria had taken on an alarming list to starboard, it soon exceeded 20 degrees, the point where the system of watertight compartments were compromised.

Captain Calamai quickly took steps to organize the evacuation of the Andrea Doria by lifeboat. But the list made it impossible to swing the port-side boats out and a surplus of lifeboats now became a shortage. Fully loaded, the starboard side boats could carry only 1,044 of the 1,706 on board.

The Stockholm launched its own boats to aid in the rescue, but the greatest number of passengers were taken off by the liner Ile de France, captained by Baron Raoul de Beaudéan, who brought his huge liner to rest a mere 400 yards away from the doomed ship.

The Andrea Doria capsized and sank at 10:09 am on July 26, eleven hours after the collision had taken place. The Stockholm made it back to New York under her own steam. Only 46 of the 1,706 passengers and crew perished in the sinking or its aftermath, almost all of them as a result of injuries sustained in the initial collision. Five crewmen from the Stockholm also lost their lives. It could easily have been much worse. If the Andrea Doria had sunk as fast as Captain Calamai and his officers at first had feared, there would have been a catastrophe on a Titanic scale.

The Andrea Doria lies within reach of serious divers, but it is not a place for the faint of heart. The ship lies at a depth of about 250 feet in an area where the underwater weather can change suddenly. Fishing nets drape the hull, but even more treacherous is the invisible web of tough monofilament fishing line that can tangle on the tanks or fins of divers. But the reward for those who venture this deep is to briefly rediscover a ship still recognizable as the luxury liner that cruised the southern Atlantic route in the 1950s. Most of the deck hardware and all three swimming pools are clearly visible. The ship’s name can still be made out on both the bow and stern.

OceanGate was contracted by Argus Expeditions to provide a manned submersible and marine operations team to survey the iconic wreck of the Andrea Doria. The primary objective of the Andrea Doria Survey Expedition was to capture sonar images of the shipwreck to document its current condition. The expedition team departed Boston, Massachusetts, on June 2 of this year, towing Ms.Lars and the five-man submersible Cyclops 1 to the site of the Andrea Doria. Dive operations began and Cyclops 1 became the first manned submersible to explore the shipwreck since 1995. The ship is laying on her starboard side with much of the superstructure having collapsed to the sea floor, leaving the keel side of the vessel relatively clean and free of hazards. Although weather conditions prevented the team from conducting as many dives as planned, the crew did successfully capture the first detailed sonar scans of a portion of the wreck and of seabed scouring around the wreck. The wreck continues to decay, possibly at an increasing rate.

Sixty years have now passed since the sea claimed the great liner.

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