Cruise Ship Safety - Berlitz Cruising & Cruise Ships 2017 (Berlitz Cruise Guide) (2016)

Berlitz Cruising & Cruise Ships 2017 (Berlitz Cruise Guide) (2016)

Cruise Ship Safety

How likely is an accident at sea? What if there’s a fire? Can you fall overboard? How good are medical facilities aboard?

When Costa Cruises’ 3,800-passenger Costa Concordia capsized off the coast of Tuscany in January 2012 with the loss of 32 lives, questions of safety at sea inevitably arose. But this tragedy was entirely avoidable: if Costa Concordia’s captain hadn’t deviated from his computer-set course to sail too close to the island of Giglia, it would have been just another uneventful Mediterranean cruise. The company was so fortunate in its crew, who did such a wonderful job of evacuating more than 3,000 passengers from the stricken ship, in what were rather chaotic circumstances.


A typical life jacket demonstration.

Douglas Ward

Other losses over the past 25 years include Jupiter in 1988 and Royal Pacific in 1992, both following collisions; Explorer, which struck an iceberg near Antarctica in 2007; and Sea Diamond, which foundered on a reef off the Greek island of Santorini in 2007. Given that more than 22 million people take a cruise every year, the number of serious incidents is perhaps considerably lower than one might have expected, and, after 48 years of going to sea, during which I have experienced minor fires and groundings, I have no doubt that cruising remains one of the safest forms of transportation.

Evacuations are rare events and will hopefully become rarer still. At the time of the Costa Concordia calamity, the IMO (International Maritime Organization) was bringing in new regulations requiring all new cruise ships to be designed with the capability of making the nearest port in the event of a major casualty, fire, or loss of power.

Safety measures

New safety procedures have been implemented both upon the industry’s own initiative and by regulators, and further regulations will be discussed and implemented for some time due to the Costa Concordia incident.

All cruise ships built after 2010 having a length of 394ft (120m) or greater, or with three or more main vertical zones, must have two engine rooms, so that, in the event one is flooded or rendered unusable, a ship can safely return to port without requiring passengers to evacuate the ship. This requirement (contained in the 2009 SOLAS treaty) came about as a result of the growth in size of today’s cruise ships, and the fact that several ship fires and loss of propulsion/steering have occurred during the past 20 years or so.

Following an industry-led operational safety review during 2012, some 10 new policies were introduced. These include muster drills, bridge access and procedures, life jacket availability and location, lifeboat loading drills, recording of passenger nationalities for on-shore emergency services personnel, and securing of heavy objects.

Also, a mandatory passenger muster drill prior to departure from port is now part of the international SOLAS Convention. Passengers who don’t attend may be disembarked prior to sailing.

International regulations require all crew to undergo basic safety training before they are allowed to work aboard any cruise ship. On-the-job training is no longer enough. And safety regulations are getting more stringent all the time, governed by an international convention called SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea), introduced in 1914 in the aftermath of Titanic’s sinking in 1912.

All cruise ships built since 1986 must have either totally or partially enclosed lifeboats with diesel engines that will operate even if the lifeboat is inverted.

Since October 1997, cruise ships have had: all stairways enclosed as self-contained fire zones; smoke detectors and smoke alarms fitted in all passenger cabins and all public spaces; low-level lighting showing routes of escape (such as in corridors and stairways); all fire doors throughout the ship controllable from the ship’s navigation bridge; all fire doors that can be opened from a remote location; and emergency alarms made audible in all cabins.


Fire drill aboard Hanseatic.

Douglas Ward

Since 2002, all ocean-going cruise ships on international voyages have had to carry voyage data recorders (VDRs), similar to black boxes carried by aircraft, and, since October 2010, new SOLAS regulations have prohibited the use of combustible materials in all new cruise ships.

Crew members attend frequent emergency drills, the lifeboat equipment is regularly tested, and the fire-detecting devices, and alarm and fire-fighting systems are checked. Any passenger spotting fire or smoke is encouraged to use the nearest fire alarm box, alert a member of staff, or contact the bridge.

Take a small flashlight, in case an emergency arises during a blackout or during the night. I have strongly recommended that all cruise lines fit rechargeable flashlights under each passenger bed (this recommendation was forwarded to the IMO.)


A lifeboat aboard Aegean Odyssey.

Douglas Ward

Is security good enough?

Cruise lines are subject to stringent international safety and security regulations. Passengers and crew can embark or disembark only by passing through a security checkpoint. Cruise ships maintain zero tolerance for onboard crime or offenses against the person. Trained security professionals are employed aboard all cruise ships. In the case of the US, where more than 60 percent of cruise passengers reside, you will be far more secure aboard a cruise ship than almost anywhere on land.

It is recommended that you keep your cabin locked at all times when you are not there. All new ships have encoded plastic key cards that operate a lock electronically; doors on older ships work with metal keys. Cruise lines do not accept responsibility for any money or valuables left in cabins and suggest that you store them in a safety deposit box at the purser’s office, or, if one is provided, in your in-cabin personal safe.

You will be issued a personal boarding pass when you embark. This typically includes your photo, lifeboat station, restaurant seating, and other pertinent information, and serves as identification to be shown at the gangway each time you board. You may also be asked for a government-issued photo ID, such as a passport.

Passenger lifeboat drill

A passenger lifeboat drill, announced publicly by the captain, must be held for embarking passengers before the ship departs the port of embarkation. The rule was adopted by the global cruise industry following the Costa Concordia accident and improved on the existing SOLAS regulations, which require a drill to be held within 24 hours of departure.

Attendance is compulsory. Learn your boat station or assembly point and how to get to it in an emergency. Note your exit and escape pathways and learn how to put on your lifejacket correctly. The drill takes no more than 20 minutes and is a good investment - the 600-passenger Royal Pacific took fewer than 20 minutes to sink after its collision in 1992.

General emergency alarm signal

In the event of a real emergency, you’ll hear the ship’s general emergency alarm signal. This consists of seven short blasts followed by one long blast on the ship’s whistle and public address system.

On hearing the signal, go directly to your assembly station. Follow the direction signs and arrows. If you are close to your cabin, go to your cabin (if possible), put on some warm clothing, collect any essential medication, grab your lifejacket, and go quickly, but quietly, to your assembly station.

Assist anyone who needs help.

Follow the directions of crew members or those given over the public address system.

Don’t return to your cabin to collect your property.

Don’t search for others in your party (the assembly station is the meeting point).

Don’t use the elevators.

If the nearest exit is blocked, use an alternative exit as marked in the plan (usually shown as a dotted arrow).

Low location lighting

In an emergency, a light strip in the floor will lead to an exit. If there is smoke in the corridor, keep close to the floor and crawl if necessary to avoid breathing the smoke and to be able to see more clearly (smoke typically rises).

Assembly stations

The assembly station is where passengers assemble in an emergency. They are marked by a sign on the plan on the back of your cabin door. Follow the instructions of crew members, and remain calm. You will be provided with a lifejacket (and with children’s lifejackets), if you do not already have one.

Can you accidentally fall overboard?

Of course, you can’t always stop passengers having too much to drink and falling over balconies. But all cruise ships have railings at least 3ft 7in (1.1m) high to protect you and your children.

Medical services

Except for ships registered in the UK or Norway, there are no mandatory international maritime requirements for cruise lines to carry a licensed physician or to have hospital facilities aboard. However, in general, all ships carrying over 50 passengers do have medical facilities and at least one doctor.

The standard of medical practice and of the doctors themselves may vary from line to line. Most shipboard doctors are generalists; there are no cardiologists or neuro­surgeons. Doctors are typically employed as outside contractors and will charge for use of their services, including seasickness shots.

Piracy in the Gulf of Aden

The UN Security Council has renewed its authorization for countries to use military force against the pirates operating off Somalia who have been sabotaging one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. There were scores of pirate attacks in Somali waters in 2010, with nearly 40 cargo ships, several fishing vessels, one yacht, and one cruise ship attacked or hijacked.

The pirates rarely harm people - their aim is to take hostages and demand a ransom from a ship’s owners. Cruise ships are not immune from attack, particularly smaller ones. But MSC Melody, carrying 1,500 passengers, was attacked in 2009; its crew repelled the pirates by firing in the air and spraying water on them. Oceanic, the Maltese-flagged educational cruise ship attacked with grenades in 2010, escaped by blasting the pirates with high-pressure water hoses.

In 2008, the US Navy created a special unit, called Combined Task Force 150, to combat piracy in the Gulf of Aden.

In February 2009 the Maritime Security Patrol Area, introduced by coalition navies in 2008 as a safe passage corridor, was replaced by two separate 5-mile-wide (8-km-wide) eastbound and westbound strips, separated by a 2-mile (3.2-km) buffer - this was to help prevent collisions. Today, passengers aboard ships in areas of potential piracy are usually given a briefing before entering the area.

Regrettably, many cruise lines make medical services a low priority. Most shipboard physicians are not certified in trauma treatment or medical evacuation procedures, for example. However, some medical organizations, such as the American College of Emergency Physicians, have a special division for cruise medicine. Most ships catering to North American passengers carry doctors licensed in the US, Canada, or Britain, but doctors aboard many other ships come from a variety of countries and disciplines.

Cunard Line’s Queen Mary 2, with 4,344 passengers and crew, has a fully equipped hospital with one surgeon, one doctor, a staff of six nurses, and two medical orderlies; contrast this with Carnival Paradise, which carries up to 3,514 passengers and crew, with just one doctor and two nurses.

Ideally, a ship’s medical staff should be certified in advanced cardiac life support. The equipment should include an examination room, isolation ward/bed, X-ray machine (to verify fractures), cardiac monitor (EKG) and defibrillator, oxygen-saturation monitor, external pacemaker, oxygen, suction and ventilators, hematology analyzer, culture incubator, and a mobile trolley intensive care unit.

Existing health problems requiring treatment on board must be reported when you book. Aboard some ships, you may be charged for filling a prescription as well as for the cost of prescribed drugs. There may also be a charge if you have to cancel a shore excursion and need a doctor’s letter to prove that you are ill.

Shipboard injury

Slipping, tripping, and falling are the major sources of shipboard injury. Here are some things you can do to minimize the chance of injury.

Aboard many ships, raised thresholds separate a cabin’s bathroom from its sleeping area. Mind your step to avoid a stubbed toe or banged head.

Don’t hang anything from the fire sprinkler heads on the cabin ceilings.

On older ships, note how the door lock works. Some require a key on the inside in order to unlock the door. Leave the key in the lock, so that in the event of a real emergency, you don’t have to hunt for the key.

Aboard older ships, take care not to trip over raised thresholds in doorways leading to the open deck.

Walk with caution when the outer decks are wet. This applies especially to solid steel decks - falling on them is really painful.

Do not throw a lighted cigarette or cigar butt, or knock out your pipe, over the ship’s side. They can easily be sucked into an opening in the ship’s side or onto an aft open deck area and cause a fire.

Surviving a shipboard fire

Shipboard fires can generate an incredible amount of heat, smoke, and often panic. In the unlikely event that you are in one, try to remain calm and think logically and clearly.

When you first get to your cabin, check the way to the nearest emergency exits. Count the number of cabin doorways and other distinguishing features to the exits in case you have to escape without the benefit of lighting. All ships provide low location lighting systems.

Exit signs are normally located just above your head - this is virtually useless, as smoke and flames rise. Note the nearest fire alarm location and know how to use it in case of dense smoke. In future, it is likely that directional sound evacuation beacons will be mandated; these will direct passengers to exits, escape-ways, and other safe areas and may be better than the present inadequate visual aids.

If you are in your cabin, and there is fire in the passageway outside, put on your lifejacket. If the cabin’s door handle is hot, soak a towel in water and use it to turn the handle. If a fire is raging in the passageway, cover yourself in wet towels if you decide to go through the flames.

Check the passageway. If there are no flames, walk to the nearest emergency exit or stairway. If there is smoke in the passageway, crawl to the nearest exit. If the exit is blocked, go to an alternate one. It may take considerable effort to open a heavy fire door to the exit. Don’t use the elevators.

If there’s a fire in your cabin or on the balcony, report it immediately by telephone. Then get out of your cabin, close the door behind you, sound the alarm, and alert your neighbors.