First International

A false sense of security?

SIZE is a compounding factor in cruiseship safety.

The whole tragedy of Costa Concordia has been followed by all types of media and will no doubt continue to play out for some time to come. It has brought back to me an experience on a sistership a few years ago that has worried me ever since.

My wife and I boarded Costa Magica in Ft Lauderdale for a week’s cruise around the Caribbean, my wife as part of a group and me along for the ride.

We had not been cruising before, although we had been on the QE2 in a horrendous transatlantic crossing during which we ran straight through a major hurricane.

I have been on numerous cargoships that we owned or financed. But my first reaction on seeing Costa Magica crammed into Ft Lauderdale harbour with four other huge ships was one of amazement, as they dwarfed nearby office and apartment buildings and looked like a street of huge hotels.

Each was loading some 2,500 passengers, due to sail by mid afternoon. Getting on board was easy and much like boarding a plane, and our luggage was in our cabin by the time we reached it.

We sailed in mid afternoon down the east coast of Florida to Key West,where we stopped for dinner and sailed on the following morning heading for Mexico. We did our lifeboat drill on the second day when the ship stopped in calm waters off the tip of Florida.

Clutching the lifevests we found in our closet, we joined 2,000 other passengers on the boat deck in a location indicated on the notice behind our cabin door.

The boat deck was jammed and we waited to be counted with 15 other passengers allocated to one particular lifeboat that hung covered in front of us.

The person doing the counting was a senior restaurant waitress who told us that when we got back to our cabin we should look at the safety video on the television. There was no demonstration of anything and we were dismissed once all passengers had been accounted for. No lifeboats were lowered and nobody got into any of them, as far as we saw.

While this may have seemed OK when the ship was stationary in calm waters, I was very concerned about how things would operate in the event of a serious incident in deep waters that were far from calm.

The chaos that the passengers of Costa Concordia have described does not surprise me and raises serious concerns about the safety of these large cruiseships.

I recognise that these ships are built to class-certified standards and all operational and safety measures are also certified. But this only means that they are statistically safe under certain conditions.

The fact that Carnival has announced an audit of all its ships’ safety systems does not encourage me, as they will merely ensure that they comply with the various regulations, rather than look at those regulations’ effectiveness. Minimal conformity with regulations is a byline for much of the shipping industry today and the cruise sector is the leader in this regard.

If Costa Magica was in rough seas or if there were onboard problems such as a fire or grounding that caused the ship to list aggressively, the whole lifeboat drill would be redundant. And, as we have seen, with Costa Concordia, the passenger evacuation process would become chaotic.

Is a film or video on your cabin television really sufficient to fully explain safety and ship evacuation issues to the passengers?

I fear that the hotel mentality dominates the cruise industry today: not enough emphasis is placed on the sea dangers. Maybe this is because if these issues were fully covered it might dissuade passengers from travelling.

The fact that there are very few serious accidents on these large modern ships is more a function of their technical and mechanical designs, along with the routings they take and their avoidance of bad weather wherever possible, than of the safety systems or crew training.

When they do get into trouble, it is very scary. With Costa Concordia, the fact that the master brought the ship into the island shore after it had grounded and anchored it with the damaged side away from the land probably saved hundreds of lives.

Evacuating nearly 4,000 people in darkness and with the ship having rolled over, rendering many lifeboats useless, is an astonishing feat. But questions will no doubt be raised during the investigation over what plans and crisis management contingencies were in place.

The reaction of Costa Lines and the behaviour and public commentary of chairman Luigi Foschi is disgraceful , trying to lay all the blame on the master before a full and proper enquiry has even begun. Carnival, which is the overall owner, has avoided any real commentary. It needs to thoroughly review all the Costa operations and in particular the safety training systems.

There needs to be a complete overhaul of the safety measures on all the large cruiseships with situation simulation for the ship crew and also for many of the hotel crew. This will be difficult to achieve given the arrogance of the management of the large cruise companies and their reluctance to discuss any issues regarding safety or crew training.

The passenger video should be shown to all passengers in the theatre with the ship’s officers there to answer questions. A knowledgeable passenger is likely to be helpful and not merely waiting to be helped.

Above all the basic concept of lifeboat evacuation needs to be thoroughly reviewed in other than calm water scenarios: it is totally erroneous for so-called experts to claim that “size doesn’t matter” or that “large ships provide better platforms for evacuation”.

It is this nonsense, combined with the philosophy that stems from ordinary cargo ships with few people on board, that “the ship is your best lifeboat” that totally ignores the fact that these very big ships can sink quicker than most cargo ships.

Today’s cruiseships are predominantly electrical and powered by large diesel generators which inevitably shut down when flooded. This makes manoeuvring difficult, impairs the launching of the lifeboats, stops the elevators and turns out the lights.

Passengers have to all return to their cabins to collect their minimalist life jackets and then rise or descend darkened staircases to reach the boat deck and remember which side of the ship and where their station is located. Even on a calm, warm day this process is not easy, given that the passengers are predominantly elderly.

Giving passengers the impression that a cruiseship is no more than a large resort hotel built on a ship hull lulls them into a false sense of security. Cruiseships make little or no noise as they sail and I had the feeling that, once inside, you were no longer on a ship.

I several times took the wrong turning as there was no feeling of movement and from the inside corridors you can’t see the sea.

Now that the latest ships are twice the size of Costa Concordia, we are effectively dealing with floating towns that will need to evacuate as many as 8,000 people in an emergency. There is little or no land-based support in many areas that the ships visit, certainly none that could assist such very large ships.

Once away from land, cruiseships are totally dependent on their own resources.

Given the media coverage of Costa Concordia, passengers will be more deeply concerned about safety. And speaking personally, I was only too glad to get off the sistership back in Ft Lauderdale.

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