Titanic Redux? Can Royal Caribbean Safely Evacuate 8,500 Passengers & Crew from the Oasis of the Seas?

Oasis of the Seas - Viking Dual Evacuation Chute SystemA retired U.S. Coast Guard official called me last week about issues of cruise ship safety. We had an interesting hour and one-half discussion about whether modern cruise ships are designed to safely evacuate passengers and crew members in times of emergencies like fires or sinkings.   

Our conversation began with Royal Caribbean's biggest cruise ships in the world, the Oasis of the Seas and the Allure of the Seas.  

Royal Caribbean touts these news ships as technological marvels of the world. But the evacuation procedures are strictly old-school.

Some aspects of the emergency abandon ship systems are flat-out dangerous. 

The cruise line's press releases mentions that the cruise ship has 18 lifeboats each with a 370 passenger capacity. It says that "lifeboats on Oasis of the Seas have been entirely redesigned and approved as part of a holistic evacuation concept."

But the truth of the matter is that Royal Caribbean had a major problem when it designed the largest cruise ships on the planet. There is a regulation stating that the maximum number of people permitted aboard a lifeboat is 150. There is no way that the cruise line could build a ship with over 55 lifeboats carrying 150 people each. So in order to cram enough people into lifeboats, the cruise line obtained a waiver to increase the maximum lifeboat capacity up to 370 people. 

Oasis of the Seas Canister Chute SystemRoyal Caribbean not only has the largest cruise ships in the world, but it has the largest lifeboats in the world.

But does it have enough?

18 lifeboats with a capacity of 370 equals only 6,660 people. Oasis has a total maximum population of around 8,500 when you count its capacity of around 6,300 passengers and 2,200 crew members. That means that there are around 1,850 people without the lifeboats which Royal Caribbean raves about.  

Royal Caribbean's press statement makes no mention of it, but those who are not assigned or cannot fit into the limited number of lifeboats must use "emergency evacuation chutes."  The term used on the Royal Caribbean ships is "Viking Dual Evacuation Chute."  What is this you may ask?  You won't find Royal Caribbean talking much about the chute system.   

If you look at photographs of the Oasis (or the Allure), along the side of the ship at deck 4 you will see three large lifeboats in-a-line leading from the stern. Then you will see a row of canisters (others may call then cylinders), looking like old depth charges, positioned one on top of the other on deck 4.    

Oasis of the Seas Emergency Evacuation Chute SystemWhen these canisters are opened (see video bottom), a life-raft inflates in the water below. (We are talking about life-rafts - not lifeboats). These life-rafts are connected to a series of chutes running up to deck 4. The passengers and/or crew evacuate the cruise ships by jumping into the entrance to this emergency evacuation apparatus on deck 4. They then rapidly slide / fall down a steep, vertical drop into the inflated life-raft below.

These type of devices are dangerous. There have been a significant number of people killed or seriously injured while trying to evacuate 4 or 5 stories down steep chutes like this. 

In November, I wrote an article about 20 crew members seriously injured in a drill using this type of system who suffered broken bones, sprained ankles, and friction burns during the steep descent. Further injuries were avoided only when other crew members refused to jump. A union representative characterized the evacuation system as "unsuitable and dangerous."      

PBS aired a documentary on behalf of "Inside Nova" which looked at the Oasis of the Seas' evacuation procedures. PBS videotaped the operation of the chutes. In the video below you can see crew members tugging on the chute when suddenly a crew member comes flying out - landing violently on Oasis of the Seas Chute Evacuation Systemhis buttocks. After catching his breath, he exclaims "I got stuck!"

Now the first reaction to the video may be that it seems funny. But if you think about it for a second, it is actually terrifying. The placard on the cruise ship shows families with little kids and infants who are lining up to jump. The drawing on the ship actually show a mother clinging to her infant sailing down the chute a few feet above another passenger while a large man is jumping into the chute above her. I cannot imagine a more dangerous scenario.

Can you imagine what would happen if a 235 lb man lands on a 130 lb woman holding on to her 25 lb infant at the bottom of the chute?  Serious injury would occur.  Serious head injuries are likely if multiple people and children are in the chute at the same time. Far fetched?  Hardly. This scenario is actually depicted in the instructional drawings on the Oasis itself.

Royal Caribbean may say that only crew members are suppose to use this system. That's mentioned on the PBS video where you can see photographs of the chute system. That does not say much for the cruise line's consideration of the safety of its own crew.  

But why do the drawings of the chute system depict passengers with children and mothers clinging onto their infants descending the chutes?  These images are directly from Royal Caribbean's cruise ships. And if in fact only crew members are assigned to the chutes, why should they be subject to such dangers on a cruise ship which its owners tout as the safest ship in the world?

The other issue to consider, of course, is what happens if the Oasis suffers a Costa Concordia type of accident where the cruise ship lifts heavily to one side?  As we know from the Concordia, the lifeboats could not be deployed once the ship listed to 22 degrees.  Half of the Concordia lifeboats, on the port side of the vessel, were useless once the ship listed to the starboard side.  If anything like this happens on the Oasis, there will be a riot where passengers and crew fight to get into the remaining Abandon Ship Oasis of the Seaslifeboats and the rest will be left to take their chances jumping down the chutes hoping to land in a raft many stories below. 

Then there are the wind and sea conditions. All of the drills for the Oasis or Allure take place on sunny days in the calm waters of the Caribbean. Take a look here for an example.  Around and around the lifeboats drive in the protected waters of a beautiful lagoon in the Caribbean. What fun.

But what happens when these ships are re-positioned to Europe, Indonesia or Australia where there are high seas and unpredictable weather?  After all, Royal Caribbean is ordering more Oasis class monster ships right now. Trying to evacuate thousands of people down chutes into life-rafts in high waves and winds could be a disaster. There is also the risk of the tether ropes breaking, the chutes twisting, or the life-rafts ripping away from the chutes.

I for one would hate to think of anyone's spouse, or kids, or parents, whether they are crew or passengers, having to jump into an evacuation chute and fall 50 feet into a raft in rough seas.  

A chute and a raft are hardly a "holistic" approach to survival.  It's a disappointing and antiquated way of trying to save lives on the supposedly most sophisticated cruise ship in the world.

Don't forget to watch the video of the chute system below:       

        

 

What are your thoughts on this evacuation system?  If you are a crew member, have you ever been down a chute like this? Join the discussion on our Facebook page.  

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Comments (6) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Cdr. Mark Gaouette - January 28, 2013 2:24 AM

Great article Jim! This is inviting disaster however, just as was tragically shown in the Costa Concordia sinking, getting that many people under emergency conditions to muster stations and actually onto lifeboats (or life rafts) is often overlooked. The Sea Diamond (1,600 passengers), when it sank off Santorini in 2007, took almost four hours to evacuate in calm waters. 2 passengers eventually drowned. SOLAS regs say it should take 30 minutes. How did RCCL get a waiver for increasing the lifeboat capacity anyway?

Tim - January 28, 2013 3:56 PM

If someone gets stuck under a real evacuation while folks are panicking, people are just going to keep piling onto the stuck person... it will be tragic. When I sailed on Allure, I had no illusion that there would be a safe way to evacuate the ship in an emergency. You don't even need to go to Europe to have rough seas, my Eastern Caribbean cruise on Allure after Thanksgiving was the roughest water I've felt on a cruise.

just me - February 11, 2013 12:45 PM

Hello, I am crew member on princess cruises ships lately on grand class, and guess what same system is used on board our ships! I did a simple mat in my 2nd contract 5 years ago if ship sink there absolutely no way that all of us survive ! Why, you may ask, well let me tell you! Like a crew member I first don't feel safe my self (in general I'm trying not to think of it but...) First, we do have a drill every week but for this 7 years with company I'm always been assigned to auxiliary party. What that means well in case of emergency, we are additional force which suppose to be assigned to help where needed. But in reality that means that every week when drill alarm sounds I need to go to my designated station and sit down for 1h chatting with colleagues waiting for captain to announce that drill is finished! And that all! For real! I am not joking! In this 7 years during the drill maybe only 10 times i needed to go out on deck preparing for evacuating ship! Now you tell me if that don't sound frustrating???? And that's just a beginning I also raise few times question about insufficient water supplies in those rubber "jump in- flouting things " (we do call them jump in and pray flouting things) and only answer i got is "well you need to try to bring us much water us possible with you!" What? Lets say ship is sinking everybody are panicking we are abandon ship trying to help to the passengers to get to their life boats and i need to think to carry with me galon or 2 of water? I seriously did not believe what I was told! And that was coming from the company sail safe officers, who are coming on board to prepare us for god forbid sityationes???? Other one suggested to bring a condom with us , why you are wandering well to put our mony in side not to get wet! Those were the answers believe or not! I could go on and on but I will stop there!
Other thing is bording like on the video unsafe and pardon me but stupid! I am NOT jumping in free fall from 5th floor building high in to rubber balloon! Once we had test jumping I refused just like many others! One more perfect thing was the fact that 3 but really 3 people jumped and tube broke! It was miserable! Those things have expiration date and I do believe that company is respecting that, but those thing are exposed to the sun all the time, in metal cylinders god knows are they still ok after 3 years of standing on the deck! Like I said in controlled environment they broke, can you imagine how that would look like with all the people panicking around! I can tell you many more story's of this kind, but then you will never step foot on the ship and I still need to get my salary ... so sorry! One more thing and I will be done!
I also ask few years ago one question which never got answer! That was if fire is in my emergency station where am I going? Nobody knew to tell me! Then on my one i asked high officer and answer was to your muster station ok but there is 400 of crew members then which need to fit in the muster station (small restaurant of 100 seats) in the same time when 900 passengers are arriving because my muster station is passenger muster station too!
Can you imagine panic of all of those people trying to enter and save them selves? Can you imagine then all of us trying to jump down the tube? Can you imagine 350 people breathing in rubber balloon? Can you imagine if one of those 2 rubber things start to sink? there is only 1 entrance to those things... can you imagine rough sea.... and to finish you tell me are we really safe?

PS. If you try to complain about this things you are very likely to get fired! They will give you some stupid reason and good bye! So questions are theire and no answers...

Debbie - October 28, 2013 9:25 AM

A few years back when we were on the Navigator Of The Seas our Muster Station was in the MDR. My husband joked that we had no muster station because there were not enough life boats for everyone. That made me think....what if that were true. Does anyone know why they would have the muster station in the MDR? Is there not enough lifeboats for all passengers?

Allure Crew - October 28, 2013 11:30 PM

Im actually a crew member on the Allure of the Seas and have been on the ship since it was in the shipyard in finland , i just thought i would add here that the Viking system on Allure and Oasis is only used for evacuating crew from the vessel . All passengers are assigned to lifeboats.

Jay - November 1, 2014 1:26 PM

Been on a number of cruises years ago. Would never go on one now with all these monster ships and "fun things" to do that I can do at home. The Titanic was also dubbed the safest ship in the world and we all know what happened to it. Don't tell me a lifeboat designed for 150 people can safely hold 370. Don't you believe it!

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