The 697-foot-long luxury liner Andrea Doria was the pride of the Italia Line. Named after a 16th-century Italian Admiral who was a contemporary of Christopher Columbus, the great ship was considered by many to be the most beautiful vessel afloat. She was literally a floating art gallery, and her decks were graced with great works specially created for her by renowned artists. Her passenger accommodations were divided into three classes, each having its own dining saloon, bars, cocktail lounge and swimming pool.
Her sleek black hull and raked white superstructure gave her the look of a speedy ship; her normal cruising speed of 23 knots lived up to her appearance. Constructed in Italy between 1950 and 1953, the Andrea Doria was equipped with all the latest navigation instruments. Her captain, Pierro Calamai, had at his disposal both magnetic and gyrocompasses, an automatic pilot, radio direction finders, a loran receiver, two radar scopes and even a complete meteorological station; she was as well equipped as any liner on the ocean.
Pierro Calamai had commanded her since her maiden voyage in January 1953, and when she left Genoa, Italy on July 17, 1956, heading for New York Harbor, it was the beginning of her 101st Atlantic crossing. Not all passenger liners in the transatlantic service were as large as the Andrea Doria, which was the thirteenth-largest liner in the world. The Swedish-American Line’s Stockholm measured only 524 feet in length, and had the distinction of being the smallest ship in the transatlantic service. Somewhat more austere than the extravagant Andrea Doria, the Stockholm’s interior was simple and comfortable. Her designers had chosen the quiet elegance of rich wood paneling rather than the plush works of art found aboard the Doria.
Both her hull and superstructure were painted a glistening white, a reminder that her native land lay in the cold northern waters of Scandinavia. To that end she was equipped with a specially reinforced bow of heavy steel plate, giving her the ability to break through sea ice in the cold winter harbors of her homeland. Built in Gothenburg, Sweden shortly after the war she was launched in 1948, and like the Andrea Doria, was equipped with a large range of modern navigation instruments. Her bridge equipment included magnetic and gyrocompasses, radio direction finders and two radar scopes, although she lacked a loran navigation system.
On July 25, 1956, the Andrea Doria, inbound for New York Harbor, found herself passing through intermittent fog as she headed directly toward the Nantucket lightship. The Stockholm was outbound from New York, and traveling on an eastward course that would bring her one mile south of the Nantucket lightship. This was against the advice of the 1948 Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, which recommended that eastbound ships travel a lane 20 miles south of the lightship; the northern lane was reserved for westbound ships. But the recommendations of the convention were not rules, and ships often ignored the traffic lanes in the interest of saving time. The Stockholm had chosen to ignore the Convention’s recommendations.
The waters south of Nantucket Island are often shrouded in heavy fog, and as the Andrea Doria passed through these drifting white blankets of mist her captain ordered a token reduction in speed, from 23 to 21.8 knots. The radar sets were switched on and her foghorn began blasting its intermittent warning to nearby shipping. A careful course plot was kept on the Doria’s bridge, using both time-honored dead reckoning and the ship’s accurate loran receiver. Desiring to adhere to her scheduled arrival the next morning, the Doria sped west toward New York, her electronic “eyes” peering through the dense fog.
Despite warnings of fog ahead, the slower Stockholm found herself in clear weather and continued to speed eastward at her full 18 knots. Lacking the convenience of the modern loran navigation system, her dead reckoning plot was constantly updated with the older, but well proven, method of radio direction finding. These electronic fixes placed the Stockholm several miles to the north of her intended course track. In order to bring the ship back onto the intended course, her Third Officer, Johan-Ernst Bogislaus August CarstensJohannsen, altered course slightly to the south. At 10:20 P.M., the Andrea Doria passed one mile south of the Nantucket lightship.
The crew’s only indication that they had passed the navigational aid was a small blip on the Doria’s radar scope and the sound of a foghorn somewhere to starboard. At 10:45 P.M., the Andrea Doria’s radar scope displayed another greenish blip, 17 miles ahead and only four degrees off her starboard bow-almost directly in her path. A few minutes later, a similar blip appeared on the radar scope aboard the Stockholm, slightly off her port bow. The two ships were racing through the night, closing on each other at a combined rate of nearly 40 knots; two small, greenish blips on a cathode-ray screen were all they could see of each other. There was no time for indecision.
To the officers aboard the Andrea Doria, the ship ahead appeared to lie slightly to starboard; to those on board the Stockholm, the approaching vessel appeared to lie slightly to port; both interpretations could not be correct. As the two vessels approached each other, their respective commanders both believed that the ships would pass safely in the night; Captain Calamai aboard the Doria believed the ships would pass starboard-to-starboard, while Third Officer Carstens aboard the Stockholm believed the ships would pass portto-port. At 11:05 P.M., Captain Calamai ordered his ship’s course altered four degrees to port to give the approaching ship, now only three and one-half miles ahead, more room.
Two minutes later, Carstens ordered the Stockholm turned sharply to starboard with the same intention. At the very instant the Stockholm began its turn, the dim glow of her navigation lights broke through the fog bank and appeared as a nightmarish vision to the Andrea Doria’s captain. The Doria’s officers watched in horror as the Stockholm turned rapidly toward their ship. Big ships do not turn or stop quickly, and when traveling at very near full speed, their response is positively sluggish. The two ships were only one mile apart and traveling directly toward one another at breakneck speed. In a futile attempt to avoid the inevitable, Captain Calamai ordered the Doria turned hard to port. At 11:10 P.M., the reinforced bow of the Stockholm crashed into the Andrea Doria’s starboard side at full speed, just below the bridge.
When two ships whose weight is measured in thousands-of-tons crash into one another at full speed, the destructive power unleashed is difficult to imagine. A huge, gaping hole was ripped into the side of the Doria’s hull, all had been accounted for there were 51 persons killed in the accident, while 1,660 persons were successfully rescued from the sinking Andrea Doria. The ship herself was doomed, and despite staying afloat for 11 hours, she disappeared beneath the waves at 10:09 A.M. the following morning, July 26, 1956. Man’s modern navigational wonders had failed. while the Stockholm’s bow was crumpled like an accordion.
The two ships stuck together for several seconds, then as the Andrea Doria’s momentum carried her forward, the Stockholm pivoted about the impact point, ripping out more of the Italian liner’s bowels as she pulled free. Despite the enormous damage done to her bow, the Stockholm’s collision bulkhead held. The Andrea Doria’s steel hull had been ripped clean open, however, and she began to flood rapidly. The Andrea Doria quickly took on a list so severe that her port lifeboats could not be launched. The Doria’s starboard lifeboats, along with boats sent over from the nearby Stockholm, were put to work evacuating the passengers and crew. A fleet of rescue vessels, including the French liner Isle de France, had been summoned by radio and soon arrived on the scene.