The Grand Dame of the Sea

“We have collided with another ship. Please. Ship in collision,” said the message to East Moriches.  That terse transmission, at 11:22 p.m., July 25, 1956, was the first word on a nautical calamity that took 51 lives and sent Italy’s proudest ocean liner, the Andrea Doria, to the bottom of the Atlantic.

The voyage started out as every other crossing, and soon had Andrea Doria left the greater part of the Atlantic behind her.  The ship’s staterooms and lounges were filled with people who enjoyed the comforts of an Atlantic crossing by ship.  The vessel was almost filled to capacity, and this showed how popular and successful Italy’s new ship was.

At the same time, on July 25, 1956, the Swedish American Line’s Stockholm prepared for her departure from New York to Göteborg.  She was scheduled to depart at 11:31 a.m., and was under the command of Captain Gunnar Nordenson.  He, just like Captain Piero Calamai of the Andrea Doria, was a very skilled captain who had entered the sea-business in 1911 and became a captain in 1918.  He had never been involved in any serious accident on his ships.  His present ship, the Stockholm, was a ship that differed from others on the North Atlantic.  It was about half the size of the Andrea Doria and five knots slower.  She was the smallest ship in the Swedish American Line.  She had entered service in 1948 as a combined passenger and cargo-ship.  She only had two classes in which passengers traveled, first class and tourist class.  On this voyage she carried 534 passengers (almost full, considering her 570 passenger capacity), only 18 of them in First Class.

As the two ships approached Nantucket, the weather was absolutely clear as far as the Stockholm was concerned.  Coming from the other way, Captain Calamai was very well aware of the fog in which he steamed through.  He and Nordenson was closing up on each other at two parallel courses, but was not aware of each other’s presence; the radar could not reach that far.  Actually, it was not Nordenson on the bridge at this very moment, but Johan-Ernst Carstens-Johannsen.  Suddenly, Carstens noticed a ship some one-and-a-half miles ahead and slightly to his port.  He realized that the two ships would pass within one mile of each other, and Captain Nordenson had said that the distance should be at least one mile.  So he ordered Stockholm to turn slightly to starboard in order to increase the distance.  On the Andrea Doria, Second Officer Curzio Francini discovered the Stockholm somewhat earlier due to their slightly more powerful radar.  He alerted Captain Calamai, who saw that the approaching ship was almost dead ahead.  The danger was not immediate, and the two men discussed on which side they would pass the other vessel.  They decided to turn to port in order to avoid the ship.

Carstens could not believe what had just happened.  The other ship was turning the same way he was. He ordered his ship hard to starboard, but maintained his speed.  At the Andrea Doria’s bridge, Captain Calamai was just as confused as Carstens, just a few minutes before.  He turned his ship even more to port, but did not reduce the speed.  The effect of having an unstable ship of 30,000 tons run at almost 22 knots at hard to port made the great ship skid towards the Stockholm.  When Carstens saw this he ordered the engines put full astern, and maintained his course.

At these two courses the ships were doomed.  When the Stockholm was almost put to a full stop, the Andrea Doria came skidding with her starboard side into Stockholm’s bow.  The Swedish liner’s knife-sharp bow cut through Andrea Doria’s hull like it was made of butter.  The Andrea Doria continued her 22-knot-race whilst the Stockholm stood still, badly damaged and very confused.  Immediately, Andrea Doria gained a twenty-degree list to starboard.  Her engines were ordered to a halt, and Captain Calamai ordered the crew to uncover the lifeboats.  That Andrea Doria was seriously damaged was quite obvious for the passengers and information to enter the boat deck for them was not required.  The combination of that the damage was in-between two different watertight compartments and the fact that the ship had such a large list to starboard sealed the Andrea Doria’s fate.  Since the list very quickly entered twenty degrees and thereafter slowly, but steadily increased, the portside lifeboats were useless.  Another contributing factor was that between the generator room and the fuel tanks, in two different compartments, there was no watertight door.  Water rushed through the open tunnel and made the bulkhead useless.  The Andrea Doria was sinking.

Crew and passengers on the Andrea Doria proceeded to abandon ship from the starboard-side life boats.  However, due to an increasing list, the port-side life boats were rendered useless.  The collision resulted in 46 fatalities from the Andrea Doria and five fatalities on the Stockholm.  Once the Stockholm was inspected and it was realized she was in no imminent danger of sinking, her lifeboats were launched to rescue people from the sinking Andrea Doria. In addition to the Stockholm’s lifeboats, many other crafts came to the rescue, among them the magnificent French liner Île de France and the Cape Ann.

After eleven electrifying hours since the collision, the Andrea Doria rolled over and sank.  The Stockholm, which in addition of her own 534 passengers was now carrying 327 passengers and 245 crewmembers from the lost Italian liner, blew her whistles and slowly started her return to New York.

The Île de France with rescued passengers from the Andrea Doria steams into New York harbor.

The mangled bow of the Stockholm; note the ladder that was deployed following the collision.

The Stockholm was repaired and put back into service with a new bow.  The Swedish-American Line later sold the liner in 1960.  After the ship changed hands and names a couple of times, she was eventually sold — ironically enough — to the Italian cruise line company Star Lauro in 1989.  In need of a refit, she was towed to Genoa, the former home port of the Andrea Doria, to be overhauled.  Upon her arrival there, she was given a chilly welcome by the press — Italy had not forgotten that this was the ship that sunk their magnificent liner 33 years earlier.  The former Stockholm is still in service to this day as the Caribe, sailing to Cuba on a regular basis for Festival Cruise Lines.