A hundred years ago, or even 50 years ago, going out to sea inspired fear — or at least a kind of primordial wariness. All of human history reminded us that ships were at the mercy of the mercurial gods of weather and human frailty; they could be swallowed whole or thrown off course in terrifying storms. The oceans were giant commuter lanes, vast and dangerous highways you had to cross to get somewhere, not destinations in and of themselves.
Not so today. We go on cruises to nowhere. The ocean is a destination, and luxury megaships are massive floating hotels where millions of us go to escape the angst of our lives each year. In an age of stressful and often humiliating air travel, the cruise industry has successfully rebranded the unpredictable sea as an oasis of tranquility on which ships offer a womblike atmosphere where you are rocked to sleep in cushy cabins and fed on demand.
(PHOTOS: Saving Italy’s Stricken Costa Concordia)
So when we see images of a stricken white whale like the Costa Concordia, all 114,000 tons and four football fields long of her, flipped dramatically on her side after striking a rock off the coast of Tuscany, it taps into a profound vein of anxiety. Even factoring in the incompetence of a bad captain, it’s hard to wrap your mind around the idea that a structure that has 14 swimming pools could be so quickly and profoundly disabled while tooling along an idyllic coastline in good weather. It feels a little like a failure of everything, our computer systems, our regulations, our ability to protect people when they pay a lot of money for an experience advertised as utterly stress free.
Sure, we know that we’re much more likely to be killed in a car and that the death toll from cruising isn’t something that should keep us up at night. Nonetheless, our ancient ambivalence about the sea has been so quelled, and we have been so thoroughly convinced that these giant vessels are indeed unsinkable oases, that the sight of this giant, fatally injured ship is another disturbing reminder, 100 years after the sinking of the Titanic, that we still can’t build things to be totally foolproof or nature proof.
In fact, our taste for grandeur on the sea may make these ships more vulnerable. The Concordia is more than three times as heavy as the 46,000-ton Titanic and can carry nearly twice as many people, with 3,200 passengers and another 1,000 in crew. She and her modern sisters are tall, unwieldy, top-heavy wedding cakes, with amenity stacked upon amenity, 12 and 14 decks high, almost arrogantly challenging the forces of the sea. Meanwhile, our fondness for cruising has grown even faster than the size of the ships. In 1980, about 2 million people took cruises — today it’s 16 million. From 2011 through 2012, 22 new ships will be built, at a cost of $4.6 billion. Five of them will be Concordia-size megaships. And it’s unlikely that this recent tragedy in which at least 11 lives were lost will make a dent in this growth. The seduction of cruising is simply too great — especially for North Americans, who make up more than 70% of cruisegoers. But what is it? Why board these sealed resort-ships? Why not just go to a full-size resort?
The most exquisitely apt description (and condemnation) of why we adore the peculiar atmosphere of a megaship was written more than a decade ago by David Foster Wallace. In his famous Harper’s magazine piece, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” about the “nearly lethal comforts of a luxury cruise,” he writes about how the ships’ sheer glossy whiteness and obsessive maintenance of their hulls is a “Calvinist triumph of capital and industry over the primal decay action of the sea,” and why that might have particular appeal to the middle-aged and older cruisers who are waging their own wars against decay. But of course, the infallibility — of humans and of ships — is just an illusion.