The Miami Herald's article today (by Hannah Sampson) regarding what is described as the "behemoths at sea" raises a basic question - how can you safely evacuate 5,000 passengers and 2,000 crew members from one of these "super-size" cruise ships?
The answer is simple, you can't.
Maritime regulations require the task to be completed in just 30 minutes. Several retired Coast Guard officials (who didn't sell out and join the cruise industry) tell me that there is no way that a cruise ship like Royal Caribbean's Oasis, Allure or the to-be-built Harmony can accomplish this feat.
It doesn't seem like the cruise lines have much confidence that they can either. Quite frankly, they don't seem to think that they have an obligation to do so. Ms. Hannah interviewed a dozen cruise executives and managers, including Carnival chief maritime officer William Burke who said "big ships are inherently more safe than the smaller ships . . . and so as a result, there is less likelihood of ever needing a lifeboat.”
Royal Caribbean’s global chief communications officer Rob Zeiger echoed this we-really-don't-need-a-lifeboat sentiment telling Ms. Sampson: “These things are designed now on the theory that the ship is its own best safety vessel. It’s as much about designing them to remain stable and in motion as anything else.”
Of course this is same mentality that doomed a thousand souls on the deck of the sinking cruise liner Titanic over a hundred years ago.
Two years ago, I pointed out in Titanic Redux that the Allure and the Oasis were designed not to have enough lifeboats for all of the crew and passengers. The crew, and maybe some passengers, will have to jump down a chute into a raft. It's a dangerous procedure even if the weather is perfect and the ship is in port. But if the giant ship is engulfed in flames, experiencing storm conditions or heavy seas, or is far from port, the outcome will become a disaster.
Ms. Sampson interviewed one voice of reason in her article, Captain Bill Doherty (former safety manager for NCL), a director with Nexus Consulting Group. Captain Doherty said “You’ve got to get out there and you’ve got to physically assess your worst-case scenarios. Real time, real people, real hardware drills that clearly identify where the holes are."
The reality is that the cruise lines, which are in competition to build bigger and bigger ships, are not conducting such real life, worst-case-scenario drills. It's disturbing to hear Carnival and Royal Caribbean cavalierly tell Ms. Hannah that lifeboats may not really be needed after all.
I hate to think what the guests and crew will be thinking when they hear the captain announce "abandon ship" from one of these gigantic monsters floundering in the middle of the Atlantic.
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Photo Credit: Jim Walker