Incident at Venice - Loss of Cruise Ship Engine Control

MSC Opera

Published Jun 4, 2019 12:34 AM by Harry Valentine

People at the Port of Venice were horrified to witness the cruise ship MSC Opera sailing toward and colliding with a small cruise vessel and a dock. Unlike a sudden engine shut down, some reports suggest that the engine was “blocked” and with thrust still fully operational, causing the ship to accelerate. If this is indeed the case, the presence and operation of the emergency engine shut-off system becomes an area of focus.


The smallest of modern powered vessels involve a propeller powered by an outboard engine with a tiller handle providing directional control. Ship designers in China were the first to install rudders to the stern of large vessels, with a remotely placed steering wheel connected to the rudder through a series of hemp ropes and pulleys. When engines were first introduced into ships, engine room maintained engine operations under direction from the bridge. Advancing technology transferred control of engines and rudders directly to the bridge, using advancing remote control technology that until now has operated reliably.

The “blocked” engine occurrence aboard the MSC Opera at Port of Venice now raises questions about the reliability of the remote control technology that links the ship’s bridge to the engine. In the history of the transportation industry, some passenger vehicles have included built-in redundancy such as multiple circuit braking systems that allow for continued braking capability despite failure or malfunction in one of the braking circuits. During the “blocked” engine incident, navigation control remained operational aboard the MSC Opera. So we ask, did a “blockage” occur between the bridge and the engine throttle control?

Snapped Towing Cables

Several years ago, an incident occurred off the coast of Florida that involved a stricken cruise ship. The towing cable attached between the ship’s bow and the rescue tug snapped. During the “blocked” engine incident that occurred at Venice, a cable connecting between the MSC Opera and one of the tugs is believed to have snapped as the tugs were attempting to slow the ship. Perhaps the only question that might be asked about the Venice incident is whether a stronger cable would have sustained the tension load caused by the “blocked” engine and reduced subsequent damage. 

The Learning Curve

An American investigator into airline mishaps recently commented that practically every advance in airline safety came about as the result of a previous incident, some of which were catastrophic. In the history of commercial transportation, incidents have occurred involving the throttle control on automotive diesel engines, where shut down could not be activated and the engines revved themselves to destruction. Some commercial diesel engines have featured some form of emergency shut-off mechanism. So in the case of the MSC Opera, questions will likely be raised about the operation of an emergency engine shut-off system.

Several weeks ago off the coast of Norway, the cruise ship named Viking Sky experienced an engine shut down during stormy sea conditions. While the occurrence of a sudden engine shut-off is certainly problematic, the ability to rapidly switch to alternative emergency propulsion and navigation becomes essential. The incident at Venice illustrates the implications of sudden loss over engine throttle control and the need for rapid engine shut off control, with an alternative technology being available to provide emergency short-term navigation and propulsion.

Barge Mode Towing

The incident at Venice involved tugs navigating a ship that has the engine still running and providing power to both ship propulsion and navigation. However, teams of tugs have the ability to propel and navigate large ships in confined areas at times when ship propulsion and navigation is non-operational. During such occurrences, the ship is essential the equivalent of a very large non-powered barge. The main drawback is that ship companies have to pay tugboat companies for their services. Cruise ships equipped with steerable electrically-powered propellers are well proven to negotiate tight turns along narrow channels.

Battery-Electric Option

A cruise ship with steerable propellers that is able to switch from diesel-electric propulsion to battery-electric propulsion in narrow channels, with diesel engines disengaged, would likely be able to avoid the “blocked” engine loss-of-control incident that occurred at Venice. A flick of a switch quickly could disengage electric power if the electrical relay were in optimal operating condition. At a future time, ports such as Venice that have narrow navigable channels could require cruise ship companies to include technology aboard their ships that would assure greater navigational safety when negotiating through narrow channels. 

At some future time, only ships with the proper technology could be allowed passage through narrow yet scenic channels at ports such as Venice. Operators of such ships would likely attract market share as their vessels would be able to access locations that might otherwise become off-limits to vessels not equipped with the required navigation and propulsion technology. Ports that begin to enforce restrictions on cruise ship exhaust emissions would likely become destinations and ports-of-call for ships equipped with short-distance battery-electric propulsion. Some cruise ship companies could have a business case to include that propulsive option in their vessels. 


The incident at Venice involving the MSC Opera could result in cruise ships being required to include an emergency engine shut-off system combined with an alternative short-distance propulsion technology such as battery-electric technology that could almost immediately be activated following either an unexpected or crew-activated engine shut down. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.