Lost at Sea

At night when river fog is up sometimes I dream of the Andrea Doria, the last beautiful Italian liner. Steaming east toward New York at a full 22 knots, through heavy fog, off the island of Nantucket, July 1956. At that late hour many of the thousand passengers sleep below in their cabins, lulled by the flat sea and steady engines. On higher decks stewards clear away goblets, silverware, tureens. The massive hull and all its decks and cabinetry, brass work, murals, fish forks and orchestras, all drive forward across the water as one complete object of design. A city at sea. More luxurious and safe than home.

Still some miles off and steaming head-on toward the ship the Swedish liner Stockholm razors westbound. There in the night, out on the empty plain of Atlantic, the distance between these two leviathans shortens until it is too late. A hubris of excessive speed, misread radar, panic, and ocean fog is manifest in this awful cracking of the Stockholm's bow as it rakes the starboard side of the Doria, which confusedly turns at the last right into the course of the oncoming liner. Once again, history made a mistake.

Listing heavily, cold seawater roaring into her torn bowels, the Andrea Doria managed to stay afloat all night, and though 46 passengers died in the collision and aftermath (and five crew aboard the less-damaged Stockholm ), more than 1,600 people were saved from the doomed Italian masterwork. Nearby ships sped to the rescue, and within hours even the famed Ile de France arrived en route from New York and stood nearby with all her outboard lights ablaze. Mid morning, and just about an hour after Captain Piero Calamai was the last to step into a lifeboat, the 29,000-ton Andrea Doria finally lost all buoyancy and went down by the head in a couple hundred feet of dark water. Lost at sea.

Death and injury is the real tragedy, of course, but the poor ship didn't deserve to die, either. Hundreds worked years to launch forth from the yards at Genoa this floating dream palace—the pride of a nation—and their hearts must have saddened when they learned that the greatest technologies of an age are not immune from man, and the grandeur they created had permanently slipped into the ravishing deep. But she wasn't lost for long, at least not in one sense. Within a day of the sinking skin divers had found and photographed the wreck laying on her side on the bottom, but although her location was fixed the vessel was lost to its original purpose, and from that there is no return—yet her allure remains. For decades divers have courted death in deep murk and dangerous currents to snatch what booty they can from inside the black ruin, what they call a “noisy” wreck, haunted as it is with the groans and clanks of decaying metal pushed around by an active sea. These ransacking prospectors fumble in the dark to capture any object of value—a plate, crystal bowl, safe or statue, or perhaps a sterling loving cup etched with the lonely tarnished crest of the line—and return it to its rightful place topside in the sunshine. Their desire exacts a toll, and over the years more than a dozen divers have perished in their pursuit. Drowning. Heart attack. The bends. The Andrea Doria continues to kill.

The risk must seem worth it, for once in hand these relics of an elegant failure bring with them a magic so narrow and gloomy that nothing else can ever come close to it. A reverence tempered by curiosity and greed for adventure. Then their reward of spoils, back home in a favorite chair sipping tea from a salvaged cup and saucer that once saw service on a raw sea, when even during the stormiest nights not a single drop was lost. This returns her to us in one small way, and maybe that has to be enough.

My own fever for nautical collecting also occurs in an armchair, but with none of the danger. Recently, while on a casual troll through the Internet, I located a photograph of the Doria for sale from a dealer in such ephemera in old Genoa. So I bought it, and once again the ship set out across the sea and eventually arrived at my home near the Hudson River, which was, after all, her scheduled port of call. It's a black and white photo, taken from a high angle aboard the vessel docked quayside at Naples, circa 1953. Only the front ten feet of prow is visible, where, next to another officer, Captain Calamai stands dressed in a spanking white uniform with his hand raised near a chest-high binnacle as he turns to look back across the unseen 700 feet of liner behind him. Beyond and below, several buildings of the Società di Navigazione Italia stand sentinel in the sinister and lovely Fascist style. It's a cryptic image, for almost nothing shows of the ship, and yet her full presence is felt looming just past the edge. I'll frame it and look at it and remember, dream, shudder, and dance. The Andrea Doria —found.


to have a look at the postcard,
click here: Andrea Doria, Naples


words: Michael Bergstein, New York (Conjunctions)
image: Dorothee Lang, Germany (blueprint21)


this page is part of the BluePrintReview