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Many readers will already have read about the collision yesterday between MSC Opera, a cruise ship of about 66,000 tons, and a river cruise boat. The collision happened as the Opera was passing along the Giudecca Canal. The ship went out of control and went into the quayside where the river cruise boat was moored. Some passengers on the river boat ended up in the water, and there were some injuries – I’m not clear if these were the same people as went into the water. Fortunately there don’t seem to have been any fatalities.

There are still a lot of uncertainties about the actual events. There’s a persistent account that the Opera was actually under tow, or had tug assistance, as she was passing along the Giudecca canal and that the line between Opera and the tug snapped, or failed in some way, allowing Opera to move freely. There’s another account, however, supported by transmissions from the pilot to the shore, that suggests that Opera may have been transiting the Giudecca on her own power when control was lost, and it was at this point that the tugs attempted to bring her back under control. I’m assuming that there will be an investigation, though who will do it I don’t know – Opera is registered in the Panamanian registry.

This has immediately restarted the debate on what to do about cruise ships transiting the Giudecca canal to reach Venice cruise terminal. Just to recap: the Giudecca canal – (which isn’t actually a ‘canal’ as we understand it – a better translation would be ‘channel’) is the body of water that passes to the south of St Mark’s square & the Doge’s Palace, etc, and then on between the main island of Venice and Giudecca island. The cruise terminal is at the western end of this body of water; in order to reach the open Adriatic, ships must pass along this channel and then into a maintained deep channel through the Venetian Lagoon out to an entrance to the Adriatic some mile to the east. In fact, this is the only route for cruise ships to get from the Adriatic to the cruise terminal, and vice-versa.

In recent years there have been strong protests about the movement of cruise ships along the Giudecca and through St Mark’s Basin, on several grounds. First, that the passage of such very large ships creates a wash that penetrates the shallow water canals of Venice, erodes their banks and damages the under-water infrastructure; and secondly, that cruise ships are simple horribly out of scale in that place.

As a result of these protests various regulations have been imposed, removed, re-imposed…. it’s quite confusing. At one point, pre-2014, there seemed to be no restriction on ships passing along the Giudecca (as long as their draught wasn’t too great) so some very large ships were passing through that channel. (There were many pictures of the 137,000 ton MSC Divina doing so at that time, for example.) The authorities responded by restricting both the maximum size of ship that could make the passage, to 96,000 tons, and also the maximum number of such ships in the season. That regulation was appealed, may have been struck down, and may even have been re-instated, but it didn’t matter – the cruise lines chose to act as if the regulation was in force and have scheduled calls at Venice only by ships of 96,000 tons or less since then. So, for example, P&O switched Ventura (113,000 tons) away from the program of summer fly-cruises (which generally include a call at Venice) and replaced her with Oceana (77,000 tons). Similarly the italian lines, MSC and Costa, switched their biggest ships (which used Venice as a turn-round port) to other ports and placed their smaller ships in Venice. MSC, for example, has calls at Venice this sumer by Opera and MSC Sinfonia (both 66,000 tons), MSC Musica (89,000 tons) and MSC Magnifica (95,000 tons). Their larger ships, e.g. MSC Preziosa (137,000 tons) and MSC Bellissima (170,000 tons) are both sailing itineraries out of Genoa.

More recently even tougher regulations have been created, to come into effect at some time in the future. Essentially, the maximum size will will be 55,000 tons. Even that may not be enough, however – there are increasing calls for cruise ships to be banned from the Giudecca altogether. That’s a problem because, as I mentioned above, currently the passage along the Giudecca is the only way to get to the cruise terminal. If the Giudecca is to be closed to cruise ships, what other possibilities are there? Well, there are a couple, and the image below attempt to outline them.


The image shows a sketch plan of the various islands that make up ‘Venice’. Historic Venice is in the upper-centre; the Lido slants down across the centre, and the mainland is over on the left. The light blue areas show the existing sea lanes. The yellow areas are the existing ports – there’s the small area at the left-hand end of historic Venice (that’s the cruise terminal) while over on the mainland is the large area that’s the existing commercial freight port at Maghera. At present, cruise ships enter Venice via the the entrance labelled ‘Ingresso Passagere’ in the upper centre, and move westwards (towards the left) along the light blue channel until they reach the cruise terminal. That’s along the Giudecca. Cargo ships – container ships, tanker, bulk carriers, etc – enter the lagoon by the entrance down at the bottom centre, labelled ‘Ingresso Merce’, make their way direct towards the mainland, and then northwards to Maghera docks.

So how would cruise ships get from that passage along the mainland to the cruise terminal? Well, a new channel would have to be dug, or at least deepened, and I’ve shown that in red (that’s not necessarily the actual route of that channel, it’s just there for illustration purposes.) The need for that channel has been recognised for years – I made the image above in 2012 when this was first being talked about – but so far the Italian government has not been able to make the money available. Note also that the existing narrow blue channel from  Maghera to the cruise terminal isn’t big enough for cruise ships – that’s actually used by the small car ferries which go from Maghera over to the Lido (which has roads) – via the Giudecca….

If the new channel isn’t constructed, then the only possibility is for cruise ships to dock at Maghera. Of course, that will require a complete new cruise terminal to be built, and transportation facilities to be made available to get passengers from there to Venice, as any proposed cruise terminal at Maghera will be miles from the railway station at Mestre, or the existing bus routes at Mestre and the airport – these are both somewhere off the map to the north.

We must wait and see what happens.

3 Responses to “More problems at Venice”

  1. Ian Maguire says:

    An excellent summary – and very useful map. We called at Venice on Oceana three weeks ago and the Captain said that the tugs ( one each end) were a requirement of the port authority and were there as a precaution, perhaps assisting the ship round right corners. The MSC ship would therefore be under her own steam. There seems to have been some sort of catastrophic failure of the ships systems ( a suggestion I read was that a bow thruster was stuck on), but surely there is some sort of fail safe in these circumstances?Hopefully the full facts will emerge. In the meantime, MSC Opera is still being kept at Venice by the authorities ( even though the ship is apparent safe to sail).

    • Tom Burke says:

      Thanks for the comment, Ian.

      There are still lots about this incident that isn’t yet clear. I’ll keep looking for info.

  2. […] we go any further, readers might like to read this previous post which, I think, summarises at least some of the […]

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