Shaken by the Liberian Bureau of Maritime Affairs report into the 2007 sinking of the MV Explorer in the Antarctic, most cruise lines are re-evaluating their procedures, training and equipment for future voyages into polar regions. At the same time, the industry is coming under pressure from official maritime bodies to tidy up its act before there is an ecological and human catastrophe.

For Hapag-Lloyd Cruises managing director Sebastian Ahrens, cruise lines reacted to the sinking by reviewing their procedures. "We’ve been cruising without incident in the Antarctic for 20 years but we did an immediate audit of all our systems after the Explorer event to check if such a thing could happen to one of our ships," he says.

Hurtigruten’s vice-president of marine operations, Torkild Torkildsen, was also driven to check his company’s procedures after witnessing the sinking of the Explorer, having helped coordinate a rescue operation by his own ship, the Nordnorge.

"I sat down with the captain afterwards and conducted a total review of all our written procedures, not just to see if they were adequate, but also to check they are being properly observed," he recalls.

“An immediate result of the Explorer incident has been a focus on improving passenger safety in the event of an evacuation by using alternative survival craft.”

While using the event as a catalyst for re-evaluating their polar operations, both veteran shipping executives were shocked at the fate of the Explorer, one of the first vessels to bring tourists into the region.

"I was unable to understand how an ice-class ship could have sunk. An expedition vessel does not sink. It can only happen if watertight compartments are compromised," Ahrens says.

Meantime, a flurry of maritime diplomatic action has been triggered by the report as bodies such as the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC) apply pressure through formal channels to establish the same safety, evacuation and ecological standards in the Antarctic that are required by sovereign states such as Canada.

The report

The sinking of the MV Explorer certainly shocked the industry. Although the vessel sank on 23 November 2007, the report did not appear until over a year later. It was released just as the 45 signatory nations to the Atlantic Treaty were conducting their annual meeting in Baltimore. "It was a big shock," says Barnes, who was present. "It was very sobering reading."

Conducted by the Liberian Bureau of Maritime Affairs, through which the Explorer was flagged, the report showed that the vessel had sunk in relatively benign conditions: young pack ice in mild weather. A mass tragedy was only averted by nearby cruise ships that rescued the 154 passengers and crew from lifeboats, an hour or two before a severe storm that could have seriously compromised the mission.

According to the Chilean Navy, which arrived shortly after the rescue, the captain had sailed the vessel in darkness into thick ice chunks reportedly up to 15ft high with underwater rams as long as 54ft. The report, which has received industry-wide praise for its thoroughness, concluded that the Explorer "sustained puncture and slice wounds" that extended for more than 11ft along its hull. The flooding could not be contained within the affected watertight compartment.
Disturbingly, crew members told investigators that a hatch between the engine rooms had faulty seals, allowing other parts of the ship to flood.

The report’s verdict was that the Explorer’s master, Bengt Wiman, who was on his first Antarctic cruise as captain, "transited the ice field with an overconfident attitude regarding the capabilities of the Explorer and, in all likelihood, struck the ‘wall of ice’ at a rate of speed that was excessive."

“We’ve been cruising without incident in the Antarctic for 20 years but we did an immediate audit of all our systems after the Explorer event to check if such a thing could happen to one of our ships.”

Although the captain was praised for taking the decision to abandon ship before it became locked in the ice, with likely difficulties in deploying lifeboats, the report was essentially damning of the seamanship.

The sinking of the Explorer was all the more disturbing, say Antarctic Treaty members, because it followed four other potentially serious incidents. In less than two years, the MS Nordkapp had run aground; the MS Fram lost power and smashed into a glacier; the MV Ushuaia struck a rock in the Gerlache Strait, requiring its passengers to be rescued; and the Ocean Nova ran aground.

"We need legally binding rules, not just guidelines. A full polar code," argues ASOC executive director Jim Barnes, citing a wish list of higher standards for ship masters, more rigorous ice-strengthening, tighter specifications for lifeboats, a ban on heavy fuel, and a mandatory requirement for thermal clothing for evacuated passengers in the event of a sinking (there was no such protection on the Explorer). "The cruise industry wants to do the right thing but individual companies can’t do it by themselves," Barnes adds.

And it would seem some of the pressure is being applied from the highest level. As the Antarctic becomes increasingly popular on cruise itineraries – 38,000 mostly ship-borne tourists visited the region in the winter of 2008 – the Obama White House is taking a close interest in its protection, in contrast to the Bush administration. Non-governmental agencies with interests in the region are also lobbying the industry to adopt binding rules.

An immediate result of the Explorer incident has been a focus on improving passenger safety in the event of an evacuation by using alternative survival craft. For instance, the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators has enthusiastically responded to suggestions of using Zodiac-type rigid inflatable boats instead of davit-mounted lifeboats because of the greater protection they offer. It has been several years since the relevant section of the regulations was updated and many industry sources think a review is overdue in the light of the incident.

Trust in experience

Incidents in the area clearly worry and perplex the majority of the industry that has not run into trouble in polar regions, although most cruise companies review their safety measures and evacuation procedures as a matter of routine. "We look at lifeboats all the time," Ahrens says. "We also look at sonar and other technology for identifying ice structures. Sonar is much more accurate than the naked eye. I see it as Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ responsibility to operate in a responsible manner in these sea ice regions."

Ahrens believes that, ultimately, safety in Antarctic waters is not a matter of lifeboats and immersion suits but about the competency of the crew. "Quite a lot of ships are not operating with a crew trained to Antarctic competence," he explains. "We have an established practice of only venturing into Antarctic waters with a bridge that has extensive experience of the region."

As a matter of routine, masters and first officers are required to have four to five years training in the polar regions. Even so, Hapag- Lloyd Cruises may introduce yet higher requirements in the light of the Explorer incident.

For Torkildsen, who likewise puts a premium on training and experience, the key issue is that the line gives responsibility to the ship master. It is the captain who decides whether it is safe to take a vessel into the ice and, if he does not, the company must
back him. "As it happens," says Torkildsen, "we did not venture into that area on that evening [of the sinking]. Our captain saw the ice was thick and he kept outside."

Torkildsen believes the industry has learned lessons. And there can be little doubt that those lessons will be applied, if not by the industry, then by official bodies.