Two nights ago, the Thomson Dream stopped when the crew noticed an abandoned life raft. The cruise ship was sailing from Sardinia towards Naples.
The ship stopped for around 40 mins. The crew pulled the life raft to the shell doors and then went aboard to inspect it. The life raft was brand new and undamaged. It was too big to take onboard. It had a capacity of 100 plus. It had no IMO number or other identification markings.
The captain decided to cut the life raft free and notified the Italian coast guard.
Several passengers on the ship have asked me for an explanation. I would think in most cases that an abandoned life raft probably broke free from the ship. But the lack of identification on the life raft is confusing.
Anyone else run across this life raft during a cruise? Does anyone have a reasonable explanation?
This morning I received messages from readers of Cruise Law News indicating that a passenger deployed a liferaft from a canister during a three night "cruise to nowhere" sailing from Australia. One person on the ship said:
"I have just returned from a 3 night cruise on the celebrity Solstice out of Sydney, Australia. On the 2nd night we saw one of the inflatable life boats had been deployed and the ship had to actually turn around and go back to retrieve it. We were told by several people that it was actually a passenger that threw the capsule overboard."
Other passengers mentioned that the cruise was a real booze fest during which someone apparently thought that activating the liferaft was a good college-type-of-prank to perform.
I received a photo from another passenger, apparently posted on Facebook, but I don't have a name for attribution.
Activating a liferaft canister like this can be written off as a hair-brain shenanigan, but it is alarming to me. No one should have access to the canisters nor should they be able to deploy one. A terrorist or someone wanting to cause harm to the vessel's operations could easily deploy a dozen of them if they are so easily accessible & deployable and there are no security precautions in place.
It reminds me of a situation several years ago when a drunken passenger entered a "restrictive" area and dropped the ship's anchor on a Holland American Line cruise ship. You can read about that combination of drunken passenger conduct and ship security lapse here: Drunk Passenger Drops Cruise Ship Anchor.
October 27 2014 Update: We received a comment from the IP address of Royal Caribbean (see below) stating that "Nobody deployed the raft . . . the raft fell in the water as the strap failed . . . we did check the CCTV cameras on Deck and we also have the video already . . ."
So what happened? Did the canister deploy by accident? Seems like this should have been disclosed on the ship. Anyone have additional info?
Cruise ships like Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas have different emergency evacuation systems for the passengers and the crew. Passengers are loaded onto lifeboats at their muster stations on the port and starboard sides of the ship and then lowered into the water. The lifeboat is motored away from the burning or sinking ship by a crew member.
Crew members, on the other hand, are required to use life-rafts which are jettisoned into the sea from large canisters primarily located at the stern of the ship.
You can see right canisters in the image above and sixteen canisters located at the stern of the Grandeur in the video below (credit: solandtravel / YouTube) which was sent to my attention this morning by cruise expert Professor Ross Klein.
These canisters, and the evacuation chutes and life-rafts therein, appear to have been destroyed or partially burned during in the two hour fire early Monday morning (see photo below right, via WTSP.com). It is my understanding that the life-rafts have a capacity of around 25 persons each. So assuming these 16 canisters were all that were destroyed in the fire, life-rafts for around 400 crew members - about 50% of the crew - may have been burned up.
There are some "extra" canisters on the cruise ship, but not nearly enough to accommodate all of the crew.
If the fire on the Grandeur had not been extinguished, the passengers would have been safely evacuated in the lifeboats which had already been lowered to deck level and were awaiting loading upon order of the ship's Master. But a few hundred crew members may have found themselves faced with jumping into the water.
Considering that a nearby Carnival cruise ship was on standby, and Coast Guard vessels were enroute, the crew members without a life-raft may have been transferred to other vessels in this particular case. But a fire like this which is not contained, and which occurs further at sea and in rougher weather, may pose serious consequences to the crew's safety.
A 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.
Royal 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.
When 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 his 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 lifeboats 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:
Maritime & admiralty lawyer & attorney James M. Walker of Walker & O'Neill Law Firm, offering services related to injuries, sexual assaults, fires, negligence, rapes & disappearances on cruise ships, pirate & terrorist attacks, missing passengers, shore excursions, wrongful death and the Jones Act, serving cruise passengers, crew members, cabin attendants, utility workers, waiters, bar tenders, ship doctors and cleaners on cruise ships worldwide.
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