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:
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.