Today the Miami Herald published an article entitled "Overboard Cases on Cruise Lines Often Under-Reported to Public."

What jumps out from the article is that the cruise industry, as a whole, fundamentally still lacks transparency regarding the issue of cruise ship passengers and crew members going overboard on the high seas.

Miami Herald reporter Hannah B. Sampson was seemingly unable to obtain a straight answer from the cruise lines or the cruise trade organization regarding exactly which cruise ships have implemented automatic man overboard systems with an alarm to the bridge which comply with the 2010 Cruise Cruise Safety and Security ActVessel Safety & Security Act (CVSSA), and which cruise ships have no systems or "passive" system which don’t notify the bridge and are in violation of the law. The closest the reporter could come to this basic issue is obtaining a quote from a company which installs both systems stating that “a significant number” of cruise ship just use passive technology.

The bottom line inquiry is whether the cruise industry is in compliance with the CVSSA. My assessment is that the industry is largely not in compliance at all.

A Carnival spokesperson told the Miami Herald that the industry needs to be transparent and showcase the steps it takes to provide the public with the "safest and highest quality vacation experience available." But Carnival won’t state what basic steps it has taken to comply with the CVSSA, 

Does a single one of the 100 plus cruise ships owned by Carnival Corporation and sailing under the flags of Costa, Cunard, Holland America Line, P&O or Princess have an alarm system which provides real time data to the bridge such that emergency rescue measures can be immediately undertaken? I have seen no evidence of that. Cruise lines like Princess are still reviewing CCTV images to try to figure out what happened. Meanwhile, the ship continues to sail on and the prospect of a successful rescue diminishes.

The proof of compliance or not, of course, is simple enough. Has a single cruise passenger or crew member been successfully rescued after an automatic system has detected a person going overboard?  I have seen no evidence of that either.

Cruise expert Professor Ross Klein, who was quoted in the Miami Herald article, has documented 57 overboards from 2011 to the present since the 2010 safety law was enacted. Not one automatic overboard system has been documented to be in use and resulted in a saved life.

Take, for example, the latest passenger going overboard from a cruise ship a few days ago. A woman in her thirties went overboard the Grand Princess north of Hawaii. There were no announcements that a CVSSA-compliance automatic system detected and immediately signaled the woman going overboard. Instead, the cruise line announced that they were able to verify another passenger’s account only after reviewing images discovered during an after-the-fact review of closed circuit television (CCTV) images.

The public relations team at Princess Cruises were quick to announce that the woman "intentionally" went overboard. The media was equally quick in extrapolating that comment to mean that the woman intended to end her life via suicide. Cruise fan sites like Cruise Critic were quick to bash the woman as selfish and responsible for ruining everyone else’s cruise. Lost in the blame-the-passenger PR efforts were any discussions whether Princess was in violation of the CVSSA and whether the woman could have been rescued if the cruise line had been in compliance with the cruise safety law.

It is irrelevant under the CVSSA whether the person going overboard jumped to end their life, or jumped as a plea for help, or jumped in a state of confusion while intoxicated (we received at least one comment, to our article. that the woman may have been drinking heavily), or fell, or was pushed. This is a point I mentioned recently in an article in the Huffington Post.

Three years after the CVVSA the cruise lines find themselves substantially in violation of the cruise safety law. They are still playing the game of blaming "suicidal" passengers rather than admitting that they have not invested into the new overboard technologies to try and save everyone who goes overboard for any reason.  Unfortunately, there will be no widespread compliance with the CVSSA until substantial penalties are levied against non-compliant cruise lines.

Late discovery of a missing crew member or passenger results in massive search and rescue efforts by the U.S. Coast Guard costing literally a million dollars. Cruise ships not in compliance with the CVSSA should be required to reimburse the U.S. taxpayers who are paying for the unsuccessful rescue attempts. The costs associated with one search and rescue effort would pay for an automatic system.

Yesterday a reader of Cruise Law News made these comments about the Princess passenger going overboard:

Obviously the penalties for not complying with the Cruise Vessel Safety and Security Act are not sufficient. If the captain of the ship and the directors of the cruise line faced manslaughter charges every time someone disappeared from a non-compliant ship, the compliance rate would rapidly approach 100%

The cruise line should also be liable for search costs, and should be required to have a suitable rescue boat/vehicle ready to go at all times. Considering the size of some of these ships, they should probably be required to have several rescue boats ready, guaranteeing a mandatory maximum response time to the overboard person.

Particularly where jurisdictional issues could prevent prosecutions, non-compliant vessels could be prohibited from operating in US waters, or the waters of any other country with similar legislation, and the promotion and sale of cruises on these vessels could also be prohibited within these countries. Whilst there would be loopholes, such as internet sales, the financial impact on these vessels should be enough to ensure rapid compliance.

  • Ed Enos

    In their defense, all large ships are required to have “fast rescue boats” onboard and a certain amount of crew trained/certified to operate these boats. In fact, passengers probably witness drills with these boats and ships crew while in port (I have many times). However, no matter what the level of training or experience of the crew in a fast rescue boat, going into the water mid-ocean, possibly at night. Even in good weather, is a daunting prospect even for the most well seasoned crew. As a pilot, I do it all the time in a relatively large boat equipped to do the task specifically. But most rescue boats on cruise ships are relatively small inflatables that must be lowered away to the water from vey high up and then later recovered. This is an extremely difficult and dangerous task. A Shipmaster choosing to do this puts MORE bodies at risk on an effort to save one more. Thus, you have some idea of their hesitation.

    Having said all that, Jim’s comments are well taken. This is just one more example of the cruise industry making statements publicly and in front of the US Congress and assuring everyone about their efforts for safety of their passengers and crew. However, what their ACTUAL behavior and actions reveal, are usually quite the opposite.

  • Aaron

    Is this not much a do about nothing though? As the Miami Herald article states (which you decided to exclude from your article):

    What’s next? Is every passenger going to be required to wear an ankle bracelet to keep track of how many times someone falls on the stairs? Is the cruise industry going to be required to keep a tally of how many people are injured due to a fall in bad weather?

    While cruising is one of the safest types of vacation, it obviously has its risks, you’re on a ship at sea for goodness sake. The cruise industry shouldn’t have to baby everyone. These are adults, that knew the risks they were taking by going on the ship, if they get drunk and fall/jump overboard the cruise line can’t be held responsible – if they fell overboard because of a flaw in the design of the ship (railing to low, or railing loose etc) then I could understand, but this all just seems like overkill.

  • John Goldsmith

    Good Day Jim,
    I was looking at the documents for the law entered into Congress. If, as you say the cruise lines do not comply with the law, there are virtually nothing in the penalty section.In the act, the law only covers the cruise ships registered in the U.S.And covers only U.S. Citizens. I have mentioned before , that a law with no teeth is just that, no circumstances that are encountered+ no reprocussions.I do not know what form the monitoring will be, but I can bet it will be challenged by those who don’t want a Nanny state following their every move on board a crusie ship.Also , since they are not Government owned or funded directly, any coproration can tell you where to go regarding proprietary information unrelated to a particular crime or incident.
    Please correct me if I’m wrong.
    I feel, that as a business they do what they can to secure the highest dollar from each passenger, I understand that. In order to do what you feel they need to do, would require total open books and transperancies. In the U.S. that won’t wash.
    But let me know where I don’t see the reason for too many laws.