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.

  • Cdr. Mark Gaouette

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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!

  • confused

    Some of the comments are complete Tosh. People shouldn’t write about things they have no actual knowledge of. The boats on these large ships are designed for the number stated and not all are 150. All liferafts are inspected every year by the service provider, repacked and returned to the ship. the Marine Evacuation system is primarily for crew but can supplement passengers if problems arise. I have been down many of the chutes on cruise ships and very few injuries (mostly friction burns) occur.

  • Christa

    Just read today that a passenger aboard the Norman Atlantic ferry died after becoming trapped in the chute during an evacuation. It appears you were correct about the dangers.

  • HookedOnCruisingButNotThatShip

    I can’t help but laugh as I see the life boats hold a total of 6660 people. If I didn’t know it, no problem, but that 666-0 number is enough to keep me off the Oasis. That’s like a Titanic omen. I would be worried the whole time.

  • also me

    These cruise ships are disasters waiting to happen. Look at what happened with the Norwegian Dawn last week. They hit the reef with 92.000 tons of force and they keep on sailing. Try to hit a can of coke in the corner of the table and see if it remains perfectly straight. Any damage that is under water is invisible and can be the Achile’s heel of this ship. All it takes is a big wave in the middle of the Atlantic. Remember, the hurricane season has just started. Yes, they said it is safe to keep sailing, but you also have to remember that any week out of service will cost the company millions of dollars. Now they’re just pushing the limit.
    As a passenger I try to rely as little as possible on the crewmembers. Although some of them are well trained and well intentioned, most of them will not cope with the pressure of an emergency situation. Look at your stateroom steward who can barely speak English and ask yourself if would trust him with your life. Yes, he is friendly and smiles a lot, but he is also the one who is supposed to lead you to safety.

  • Wretched Fryborg

    Well perhaps we’ve created another solution to the ultimate problem of Over Population – joining Plague, Famine, Pestilence and War… The Mega Cruise Ship! LOL In all fairness the statistics are pretty good in terms of historical cruise ship fatality rates. After all, Life is a gamble of sorts and here the odds are pretty good. But personally I don’t really want to be one of the rats drowning in yet another Redux of the Titanic. And of course, to sail with maximum safety for all passengers and crew, for all possible, or even probable scenarios, would make these ships financially impossible. Perhaps that is part of their allure, on some deep subconscious level, we are courting our own mortality, throwing the nautical dice, while veritably swimming in the lap of luxury…

  • Steve

    In a real situation when the ship is sinking and people are panicking some of the crew might not be so noble and may force themselves onto the lifeboats leaving some passengers to take the chute/rafts..there should be enough lifeboats for all passengers and at least some of the crew.

  • ryba

    I was on the Anthem of the Seas sailing… YES THAT ONE! There was 0% chance of the lifeboats or the chutes could have been safely deployed under the extreme hurricane conditions we faced. Royal Caribbean also took away lifejackets from passenger staterooms (now located at the Muster Stations). The crew was just as frightened as us passengers were and it would have been pandemonium if the abandon ship call was made. Terrifying to think that if disaster were to strike a Royal Caribbean ship, it would result in tragedy.

  • sam Appleyard.

    Appalling situation, greed as usual outweighs practicalities of safely evacuating passengers. The lifeboats look complex enough to deploy for trained crew, imagine having inexperienced passengers trying to launch them. Bloody cruise companies !!! You can more or less double the quoted prices.
    Very poor that they are deceitful about an issue like this.


    Harmony of the Seas has 2100 crew and can accommodate 6780 passengers.
    A total of 8880 people with 18 lifeboats.
    Nothing would persuade me to take a cruise on this ship.
    It would be like a week in a 1950’s Butlins Holiday Camp – and NO ESCAPE

  • Carla Mirabelli

    Wow. I just was about to put in my credit card number to take a cruise with my husband and boys on the Oasis of the Seas. Then I decided to research numbers of people, crew, lifeboats and then read this…,..HELL NO!!!!

    They are risking lives! If the ship did list to the side 1/2 would die. Those chutes? Forget about it! Did you see that average sized guy get stuck in the video? He was normal size. Let’s see a fat guy go down one!

    Oh man. No thanks!

  • Sandeep Kumar

    Hello All,
    RCL SHIPS ARE Unsafest ships on earth, lot of accidents happen as the ships crew is not trained the management only care to make money.

  • Carla

    I’m canceling my cruise on this ship. If I were a crew member during an evacuation, I’d sure as hell pretend I was a guest and get my ass on a boat. I’m not bringing my kids on this death trap.

  • David

    I read this article and called royal caribbean and spoke to a manager in their reservations department and cited this article as the reason for my cancellation. They asked for the detailed URL so I hope I’m allowed to share.

  • Jim Walker

    The latest large cruise ship is the Symphony of the Seas
    6680 passengers
    2200 crew Total 8880
    8 lifeboats [capacity 370 each – 18 x 370 = 6660]
    This is a disaster just waiting to happen.
    Why didn’t they just name it TITANIC II ?????

  • Dr Warren Torchinsky

    When we arrived at our muster station we were told that the life boats were outside of the doors adjacent to the muster station. During a walk on the life boat level it became clear to me that there was no life boat at that station. I inquired at the information desk and was told that that muster station had a chute and a life raft . We were passengers and not crew members. My fiancé addressed this issue with the captain at the Captains Corner. The captain didn’t deny the fact that there wasn’t a life boat for that muster station but he said that any passenger that didn’t want to go down the chute would be placed in a life boat upon request. Unbelievable!! There were no life jackets available to us except in closets at the muster station, 5 stories below our room. I did send Royal Caribbean a note concerning this issue and it was never addressed by the company. I then communicated with my Senator, Cory Booker. That was over a year ago and these issues have not been addressed. If you see something, say something!! Then no one does anything about it.

  • Buck Wilder

    Odd how many passengers fly on planes to board these ships, what about their lifeboats?