A legendary ship, a monumental collision, and a miraculous rescue operation off the coast of nantucket.

Since the Sparrowhawk sank off Orleans in 1626, the Cape and Islands have seemingly crooned siren songs to thousands of ships, luring them to destruction in their shifting shoals. While “Cape Cod Girls” may be the best known of local sea shanties, “The Mermaid” may be the most apt, with its closing lines: “Three times around spun our gallant ship/And she sank to the bottom of the sea.” One of the most infamous of these lost vessels is the Andrea Doria, which rests on the ocean floor today about 53 miles southeast of Nantucket. She sank at 10:09 a.m. on July 26, 1956, some 11 hours after a freak collision with the Stockholm, a Swedish passenger liner. Nearly six decades later, mystery continues to drive interest in the Andrea Doria—because the collision never should have happened. After all, how can two large luxury liners crash into each other on the wide-open ocean?

The Wreck of the Andrea Doria

Artwork by Marissa Freeman

Hailing from Genoa, the hometown of Christopher Columbus, the Andrea Doria was launched in 1951. At a length of 697 feet, the ship was neither the largest nor swiftest of her day; instead, Italian architect, Giulio Minoletti, designed the Andrea Doria for luxury—and for safety. According to the 2006 PBS documentary, The Sinking of the Andrea Doria, the ship carried plenty of lifeboats and had 11 watertight compartments “meant to keep her afloat even if two were breached.” In theory, the ship could have struck an iceberg without sinking. This attention to passenger safety contributed to the ship’s glowing reputation; at the time of her demise, the Andrea Doria had become an escape for the elite, an ocean-bound Aspen—or Nantucket—whose guest lists boasted such luminaries as Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Taylor, Cary Grant, Orson Welles, and Kim Novak.

Though only two lesser-known Hollywood actresses—Ruth Roman and Betsy Drake (Cary Grant’s third wife)—were passengers aboard the ship’s final voyage, the Andrea Doria’s fate drew a spotlight that would illuminate televisions across the globe for months, even years to come. On July 25, 1956, the final day of the vessel’s nine-day cruise from Genoa, the liner was bound for Manhattan at a brisk clip of 23 nautical miles per hour when, at around 3 p.m., she ran into fog near the Nantucket Lightship.

The Wreck of the Andrea Doria

Photo courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association

Captain Piero Calamai, a lifelong sailor from Genoa, sounded the fog alert and stayed on the bridge, but, according to the PBS documentary, he “made a less cautious decision that would haunt him the rest of his life.” Calamai barely reduced the ship’s speed, dropping only to 21.8 knots. The documentary continues, stating, “the rule of thumb is that a ship should never go fast enough she can’t stop in half the distance visible from the bridge; in heavy fog that evening, visibility was extremely limited.” Speed was but one of the factors in this boating disaster, though, and not all of the mistakes made were by those aboard the Andrea Doria.