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Imagine this captain's misery

25 January 2012 - 02:23 By Peter Delmar

If last week was a bit lousy for you, consider this: imagine that you're Francesco Schettino right now.

First of all you prang a very, very expensive piece of your employer's equipment: billions of rands' worth of ultra-luxurious cruise ship, because you're showing off for your friends. Then people start dying on your watch. Then your country's press calls you "Captain Coward", accusing you of being a scaredy cat and of disgracing the entire nation.

They put you under house arrest, call you names and threaten you with criminal charges.

Your employers disown you, your career is in ruins, your reputation in tatters. (You see, things could be a lot worse. Maybe that's why you read this column so religiously: apart from the Wednesday dose of intellectual edification, it makes you feel a bit less bad about suffering your weekly share of slings and arrows. Don't you feel better already?)

Poor Schettino.

The captain of the Costa Concordia has been hung out to dry, summarily drawn and quartered. The chances of him rehabilitating himself and getting anything remotely resembling a fair trial are next to zero. While blame swirled around the unfortunate Italian mariner's head, I found myself wondering: whose ship is/was the Concordia anyway?

Who are Costa Cruises, the wronged owners whose supposedly rogue employee had dropped them so squarely in the dwang?

I directed a request for more information about the company to this column's research department.

They scurried away, trawled through musty maritime archives and finally Googled the company before plonking a weighty dossier in my in-box. According to the first line of a history of the company on their website, Costa Cruises is "a story of entrepreneurial success".

It seems the "Costa" bit of the name derives from the name of the company founder, who started trading in fabrics and oil between Genoa and Sardinia way back in 1854. When, a few decades later, Italians started emigrating en masse all over the world, giving far-flung cities their first decent restaurants, Giacomo costa fu Andrea began shipping olive oil, tinned tomatoes and all things Latin to far-flung Italian communities.

Before you knew it, the Italian entrepreneurial company had built up a sizeable fleet and was transporting thousands of rich European and American people on voyages that had no point to them other than the hedonistic indulgence of rich retirees.

But as much as Costa Cruises might be an entrepreneurial success story, it is no longer an owner-managed business. In 1997 Carnival Cruises bought half the company and, in 2000, bought it out lock, stock and funnel. This is probably just as well for Captain Schettino. Can you imagine how an irate Italian papa-owner might have reacted to a foolish employee crashing his prize ship? He would probably have flown out to Giglio and punched the errant sailor on the nose.

On the day that our local papers were splashing "Captain Coward" headlines, my local afternoon daily carried a front page advert for, believe it or not, MSC Cruises.

This was a most unfortunate juxtaposition, of course, and one that, with a bit of foresight, Independent Newspapers might have spared one of their best advertisers.

So who owns MSC, the people whose yellow containers we often see on our roads and who are the only operators of regular luxury cruises from our shores?

Exhaustive research shows that MSC stands for Mediterranean Shipping Company (fancy that) and that it is the world's biggest shipping company in terms of container vessel volume.

Apart from containers, the company also ships people, having bought what was left of the ill-fated Lauro cruise business in the 1990s. (The Achille Lauro was famously hijacked by Palestinian terrorists who dumped a wheelchair-bound passenger overboard. Eventually, like its only other sister ship, it burnt to the ground. Or the waterline, or whatever ships burn to.)

But MSC (which is worth a few bob) is still owned by its founder, Gianluigi Aponte, a Neapolitan sailor who became a ship owner in 1970. By buying secondhand ships one at a time, Aponte built up a vast shipping empire that, according to Wikipedia, serves 270 ports and employs 29000 people. By my reckoning, that means it really is one of the world's great entrepreneurial success stories.

Personally, I think it's another reason to support MSC cruises out of Durban: I'll bet you the captain of the MSC Sinfonia would be far too scared of Aponte to give the citizens of Umhlanga a dangerously close cruise-by salute.