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 Allure of the SeasCaribbean’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

  • Blair Breton

    Profits before safety. A dangerous mix. Insurers may be the best pressure point.

  • Orlando

    Mr. Walker,

    Are you totally against cruising?

    I am a cruiser who happens to have enjoyed myself along with my spouse on all the cruises we have taken. We do understand some of the short comings involved with the industry, and the risks. We also understand that certain areas of the industry are in definite need of improvement, such as increasing safety. Some of the negligence, whether at an individual level or institutional level, is sometimes downright criminal. With this said I would like to point out that other areas catering to vacationers and tourism, such as resorts, and group tours are also risky. The risks involved with traveling are not confirmed to the cruising industry, and I am sure you are aware of this. Planes fall, and cars and trains crash. Even when people decide on visiting places on their own are at risk they are at risk. You are at risk when traveling locally as well as nationally or internationally.

    I have been on 6 cruises, and have never had any issues, but as I stated earlier I am aware the industry has lots of room for improvement. I know that every time I step out of my home there are risks, and even while I am home I could slip and fall. I choose to enjoy my vacation whether cruising or any other type of recreation. Am I happy with some of the non-sense cruise lines engage in? No! I am also not happy with drunk drivers or pilots. I am not happy with people robbing people at resorts or tourists being kidnaps. Governments should be held responsible for keeping the public safe, but people need to do their part as well.
    I refuse to become a prisoner or hostage to those that do wrong or to people who only spread fear. I read your website because, although many times it is one-sided, you do present information that the public needs to be aware of. You, sometimes, are the voice for people who have been wronged by the industry that have no place to go. It appears you have had a change of heart going from being an attorney for a cruise line to becoming a public advocate against the same industry that you once represented. A change of heart is a very good thing, but I am not clear whether you are entirely against cruising or in favor of cruising as long as the industry operates in a safer manner. Issues that put the general public in harm way should be addressed, but, unfortunately, there are too many variables impeding this from taking place. I will continue to read your website because it presents the other side, and for now I will continue to cruise as well.

  • Silvia

    One doesn’t have to be brilliant to know this is so! Even if you had the 5,000 able bodied cruisers…. add “panic”, “human condition” and older disabled, heavier, cruisers, and there is simply no way of vacating these huge ships!

  • Frank Duffin

    Sadly, Mr Walker is correct. Maritime regulators have been warning about this for years but the cruise lobby and shipping interests in general have always won the debate at IMO. Should I be forced to go on one of these monsters I would take my chances on the liferaft chute…..if it deployed.

    Ex mariner, ex regulator

  • Dan

    A common misconception in this matter of the 30 minute restriction to abandon ship. This does not mean 30 minutes from the muster alarm sounding to gather all passengers, but the alarm to abandon ship (which is usually verbal from the Master). So yes evacuating these monster ships is a challenge but if everyone is mustered the time to abandon ship is more reasonable.

  • Anonymous

    I worked on ships for years, and on my last ship I was required to do an evacuation drill using the chute and raft as described in the article (this was on one of those mega-ships, but not one of the ones in the article).
    It took hours to get all the crew out. Hours. In calm-ish waters, alongside a dock. Granted, this was using only one slide/raft combo, but I came away from that drill (during which at least one crew member broke their leg, among other injuries) with a very grim view of emergency procedures on those big ships…
    Did I mention that was my final contact? Yeah.

  • Stuart Jordan

    No need for lifeboats? Hmmm, I wonder what the people on the Concordia would say to that?

  • gep2

    Of course, getting people OFF the damaged ship is only the first part of the problem. The remaining problem (and possibly a bigger one) is getting them ONTO other rescuing ships in a timely fashion, and taking care of them once they’re there.

    One of the things that I think is a concern is that some of the new ships that Carnival has announced will pack on about as many passengers as an Oasis-class ship does, but onto a ship that’s something like 60,000 tons smaller! This would seem to give a lot less margin for error, both for time-to-evacuate as well as ability-to-rescue.

    I do think we have to consider the potential for overconfidence (which Titanic’s designers certainly were guilty of) but also remember that the likelihood of accident, injury or illness is probably even worse on the way to the airport or pier, or after disembarking on the way home.

    I’ve been on 43 ocean voyages, but the only times I’ve gotten norovirus was on land… once on a trip to Sea World of San Antonio, and once during a stay at Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas. You can get that virus wherever a large number of people gather, not just on cruise ships.

  • Jen

    Sometimes I think people forget that this blog is written by an attorney who represents people who have suffered at the hands of cruise lines. That is his job, his area of expertise, his interest. Of course that is what he writes about. I don’t believe Mr Walker is against the cruise industry, after all if there were no more cruise lines he would have to find a new job!

    I understand when people want to feel like they are making a good choice by pretending the companies they give their business to aren’t endangering them, but we all have something to gain from attorneys like Mr Walker doing his bit to make cruising safer. Unfortunately that is how most corporations work nowadays – keep the dollars in the pocket until they are forced by either a court or a lawsuit to spend money on improving safety.

  • Marcos

    Dont forget its because of people that ships sink, planes fall and people die! Greed is a big factor and once you are paying for your enjoyment onborad a Beautiful gleaming vessel why would you let your delicious Buffet go to waste to muster for some simple stupid rule right! As a ex crew, i can asure you that people are the problem! Guests have to understand that they cannot walk onboard a ship and think that they can do what ever they feel like. Do it responsibly and understand the consequences.

  • B.

    The sad thing was that Titanic could have been a successful shipwreck, in that most lives could have been saved if only there had been enough lifeboats aboard. The ship did not list significantly until the end, and the sinking itself took several hours – enough time for everyone to have been safely evacuated.

    One can only imagine the horror of a modern equivalent of the Empress of Ireland, a ship that sank within 15 minutes, most especially if one of these oft-touted “safer” mega cruise ships lists to a certain degree (which can make it impossible for the lifeboats to be launched). The top heaviness of these ships, which could contribute to a dangerous list, should be a great concern, especially if the engines were to go out and leave it adrift.