The sea can be a dangerous place and, despite ever stricter safety regulations, cruiseships are sadly not immune from its depredations, as an unfortunate run of incidents has dramatically shown recently. Cruiseships are being made safer, but what happens when an incident occurs and evacuation becomes a necessity?

“The topic that concerns our readers the most when it comes to safety at sea is the question of evacuation in the event of an incident,” says Melissa Baldwin of CruiseCritic.com.

Prevention is, of course, better than cure and the designers of today’s super cruiseships take full account of considerations such as fire protection, stability after a collision and evacuation, but the sheer size of these ships can give causes for concern.

“They are designed to be floating palaces, dream destinations in their own right, with soaring atriums and huge public spaces and this brings major headaches,” says specialist cruise writer Gary Buchanan.

A relaxing ‘holiday of a lifetime’ environment can also make people dangerously lax in their safety concerns. Under the IMO Safety of Life at Sea regulations, cruiseships are required to conduct a safety drill within 24 hours, with full instruction on the use of life jackets and how and where to muster. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to get passengers – and sometimes even crew members – to understand just how important these safety drills are.

Aldo Molinaro is a Canadian survivor of Sea Diamond when it sank off the island of Santorini in Greece in April 2007. “In my opinion, the crew didn’t handle things at all well,” he says. “It took them 20 mins to announce that we had actually hit something and then once it was announced they didn’t really tell us how to proceed.”

An extensive British study conducted back in 2004 revealed that as many as 70% of passengers experience impaired reasoning during a serious incident at sea, with 15% displaying irrational behaviour such as uncontrollable weeping and only 15% remaining calm and alert. “Such things are rarely taken into consideration,” says Baldwin. Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.

COLD CONCERNS

With their speed and technology, modern cruiseships can outrun hurricanes and sidestep rough seas, but demands for ever more remote and adventurous destinations bring fresh concerns.

For centuries, even the most hardened of seafarers have feared the icy waters of the Antarctic, which is today one of cruising’s fastest growing destinations. Recently, an international rescue operation involving coastguards on three continents had to be launched when an iceberg punctured the 2,400t Finnish-built mv Explorer and it went down in freezing Antarctic waters.

That the crew and all 100 passengers survived reflects how much the industry has moved on since the Titanic disaster almost a century ago, but this sinking refocused attention on the need to put safety first without detracting from the carefree nature of a cruising holiday.

“China is the latest country to seek help from other nations to help boost its own search-and-rescue capabilities.”

Explorer had five deficiencies when we carried out an inspection in Scotland back in May,” says British Maritime and Coastguard Agency spokesman Mark Clark. “These included missing search-and-rescue plans, lifeboat maintenance issues and watertight doors that would not secure properly. All these problems were dealt with promptly. The vessel would not have been allowed to sail if this had not been so.”

According to Lloyd’s List, a further six deficiencies, including two concerning navigation issues, were found when Chilean authorities inspected the ship at Puerto Natales in March, but these too were rectified and Explorer was passed as fully seaworthy after a dry-dock inspection in May.

The near 40-year old Liberianregistered vessel had departed from the Argentinean port of Ushuaia – the world’s most southerly town – for a 19-day voyage through the Drake Passage. The iceberg collision occurred in the Bransfield Strait, 26 miles from King George Island, at a spot where the water is around 2,000ft deep. The damage amounted to a hole not much bigger than a man’s fist, but it was below the waterline and the water quickly filled the cabin then flowed into other parts of the ship, causing it to quickly list at 45 degrees and take on water.

The US naval base at Norfolk, Virginia, directed four US ships in the area to proffer rescue assistance while HM Coastguard in Falmouth, England, were involved because they held a copy of the cruiseship’s search-and-rescue plans. As part of an internationally coordinated effort, the Chilean air force sent two Hercules C130 aircraft to the city of Punta Arenas from where they flew on to Antarctica to pick up the passengers.

REMOTE RESPONSES

There has been a dramatic increase in cruiseship visits to the Antarctic in recent years, with a total manifest of around 35,000 tourists making the trip during 2007. This has focused attention on the need for a pre-planning response to incidents in remote areas.

Such internationally coordinated rescue operations are becoming increasingly common in busier waters too: China is the latest country to seek help from other nations to help boost its own search-and-rescue capabilities.

“In Alaska, smaller cruiseships sailing its waters in increasing numbers caused concern as far back as summer 1995.”

“China urgently needs the help and advice of countries excelling in these matters to help train our maritime rescue teams and exchange experiences,” said Zhang Jingshan of the China Rescue and Salvage Bureau, speaking at the fourth two-day China International Salvage and Rescue Conference.

“We are currently in negotiations with the US Coastguard to strengthen cooperation and already have agreements in place to work with France and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, while the UK’s Royal National Lifeboat Institution has helped us to buy 20 self-righting lifeboats at low cost.

We already have a full and part-time staff of 10,000, 54 rescue vessels, 132 salvage vessels and nine helicopters and we are investing heavily in new equipment.”

China’s increased levels of shipping plying the country’s 20,000km coastline has resulted in an increase in emergency incidents. “At present we lag behind countries such as the US, which has more than 200 aircraft available for offshore life-saving missions,” Jingshan adds. “But we are set to increase our helicopter fleet to 25 aircraft by 2015 and are improving our training measures with a three-year course available for new recruits to our service.”

In Alaska, smaller cruiseships sailing its waters in increasing numbers caused concern as far back as summer 1995 when four foreign-flagged cruiseships experienced difficulties. In July 1998, the 174ft Spirit of ’98, operating a day cruise out of Juneau, struck a rock and quickly sank, though all the passengers and crew were safely evacuated.

CONSTANT IMPROVEMENT

Despite such incidents, 94% of the 1,700 CruiseCritic website subscribers who responded to a recent survey said they believed cruiseships to be safe. Of those respondents, 76% said: “I have no worries about cruising at all”, while 26% ticked: “I’d cruise but I would be more safety conscious in future”.

While that is encouraging news, cruiseship operators should not become complacent. Like everything else onboard a well-run vessel, safety equipment and procedures should be constantly overhauled and updated.

Following the Scandinavian Star evacuation tragedy of 1990, low-level lighting was introduced to the industry to aid evacuation from smoke-filled corridors and stairways.

However, a fire on Nieuw Amsterdam questioned the effectiveness of this measure when a passenger became disorientated by smoke in the corridors and failed to escape, despite the presence of low-level lighting.

“Given the increasingly multinational composition, language issues mean that evacuation drills are not always as effective as they might be.”

An added problem was that SOLAS regulations did not take into account the large public areas featured on the bigger cruiseships coming into operation. Following independent trials supervised by the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency and Scotland’s Strathclyde University aboard Caledonian MacBrayne ferries in Scotland and Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Conquest in Italy, the UK and German governments’ maritime administrations put forward to the IMO the suggestion that the new directional sound evacuation technology should be introduced across the world’s passenger ships as a safety measure that is not only more effective than low-level lighting, but also more cost-effective.

Under recent changes to the SOLAS regulations these new DSE systems can now be used as an alternative to low-level lighting on new ships. Better still is to use both systems together, thus catering for the needs of both visually and hearing impaired people while meeting mandatory obligations under both US and European disability discrimination legislation.

Proper training is at the core of shipboard safety and it is critical that everyone knows what to do in an emergency. However, given the increasingly multinational composition of both groups, language issues mean that evacuation drills are not always as effective as they might be – and getting people to take them seriously is sometimes a problem. It is vital to design systems and their implementation to be as foolproof and simple to understand as possible.

CONSTANT VIGILANCE

Currently, the IMO is undertaking a major global review of safety issues as applied to cruiseships, while the 81st session of the Maritime Safety Commission (MSC) in 2006 announced the completion of its major initiative to ensure that the regulatory framework should be strengthened to ensure that greater emphasis would be placed on preventing incidents from happening in the first place, and that future cruiseships be designed for improved survivability so that if accidents occur then any casualties can be treated and cared for safely onboard while the ship proceeds to port.

Amendments are being proposed to SOLAS and STCW Conventions and their supporting guidelines to focus on training, fire prevention, navigation safety and contingency planning.

“The IMO is undertaking a major global review of safety issues.”

Cruises in areas such as the Antarctic, which are remote from save-and-rescue facilities, are a particular concern and the MSC is developing amendments to Safety Of Lives At Sea Chapter III to focus attention on the need to reduce the time it takes to recover people from survival craft and the water, to improve coordination between save-and-rescue authorities, and to provide guidance to seafarers who are taking part in save-and-rescue operations. Also receiving attention are new guidelines for the establishment of medical safety programmes and a revised guide to cold water survival.

Today’s cruiseships have a good safety record, but constant vigilance is essential. Around the globe an average of 230 vessels and over 1,000 lives are lost at sea every year. The names of Dona Paz, Fierté Gonavienne, Scandinavian Star and others are there to haunt us. Preventing incidents in the first place and carrying out a safe evacuation when things do go wrong remain an essential part of life at sea.