Concordia skipper admits showing off before cruise ship crash, but not to blonde

Costa Concordia's captain Francesco Schettino reacts as he arrives at his trial in a local theatre in Grosseto on Tuesday. , Dubbed "Captain Coward" by tabloids over the spectacular crash of his cruise ship in 2012 with the loss of 32 lives, he went
Costa Concordia's captain Francesco Schettino reacts as he arrives at his trial in a local theatre in Grosseto on Tuesday. , Dubbed "Captain Coward" by tabloids over the spectacular crash of his cruise ship in 2012 with the loss of 32 lives, he went on trial on Dec 2 charged with manslaughter. -- PHOTO: AFP 

GROSETTO, Italy (AFP) - Costa Concordia captain Francesco Schettino told a court on Tuesday that he was showing off when he steered the cruise ship onto rocks off the Italian island of Giglio.

But he denied that the person he was most trying to impress was a blonde Moldovan dancer nearly 20 years his junior who was with him on the bridge at the time of the January 2012 disaster, which resulted in the death of 32 passengers and crew.

Testifying for the first time in his trial for manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning his ship, Schettino presented himself as a captain who had been badly briefed by his crew about the disastrous route the 115,000-tonne vessel was fixed on when he returned to the bridge after dinner.

On the sidelines of the hearing, prosecutor Francesco Verusio revealed he was planning to request a 20-year prison term for the captain.

Schettino, 54, told the court that it was normal "commercial" practice to navigate close to the coast to impress passengers.

On this occasion, he also wanted to "salute" a retired colleague living on Giglio and the ship's head waiter, who came from the island.

"I was trying to catch three pigeons with one bean," Schettino, said, using an Italian expression that translates as "killing three birds with one stone".

At the moment he resumed control of the boat, he believed it to be fixed on a safe route which would take it past Giglio on a line 0.8 kilometres offshore.

"If the crew had any doubt about that, they should have told me." Asked why he had asked the coastguard "is there water at 0.3 miles (0.5 kilometres)?", Schettino replied: "I was just making conversation."

The captain denied taking a reckless risk to impress Domnica Cemortan, with whom he had just dined.

An employee of Costa, the Moldovan dancer was on the ship as an unauthorised passenger. She has testified that she was having an affair with the married captain.

Wearing a grey suit and aviator-style sunglasses, the man dubbed "Captain Coward" had appeared pensive as he arrived at a theatre in the Tuscan town of Grosetto which is being used as a temporary courtroom.

But he testified confidently in his first appearance in the trial which began in July 2013, using colourful language in the broad accent of his home city, Napoli.

Recordings played in court from the "black box" voice recorder on the ship's bridge appeared to indicate that he had no idea of how much danger the ship was in. Just minutes before disaster struck, the captain is heard ordering a change of direction before joking in English: "Otherwise we go on the rocks."

In the final sentence of the recording, after the crash, Schettino is heard to say: "Madonna, what have I done?"

The Concordia, twice the size of the Titanic, was moving at a brisk 16 knots and had 4,229 people from 70 countries on board when it struck the rocks at 9.45 pm.

Holed below its waterline on impact, the giant vessel ended up half-submerged on the sea-bed on its starboard side.

Schettino's employers have accused him of making an "unapproved and unauthorised" deviation from the ship's set route.

He is also accused of recklessly delaying the evacuation order until after it was clear the ship was going down - a charge the captain dismissed in court.

Schettino's ignominious reputation is largely based on his conduct after the crash.

Only 29 minutes after he had given the order to passengers and crew to evacuate, and with lifeboats still dotting the surrounding waters, Schettino himself left the vessel with hundreds of those onboard still unaccounted for.

He later rebuffed a furious coastguard officer's order that he return out of respect for both the law and centuries-old sailors' code.

The Concordia was owned by Italian cruise operator Costa Crociere, which is a subsidiary of the British-American group Carnival Corporation.

Salvaging the Concordia from Giglio and the still-ongoing process of dismantling it in Genoa is expected to cost nearly US$2 billion (1.6 billion euros). The disaster also decimated the exclusive and picturesque island's tourist industry.

The cross-examination of Schettino will continue Wednesday.