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Travel & Holiday

Stay safe on the high seas

The Costa Concordia disaster last month has raised questions about safety of sea travel but passengers should also take their own precautions while onboard
The Straits Times - February 7, 2012
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Stay safe on the high seas People are seen protesting the heavy sea traffic in Venice, Italy, as a cruise liner passes by. -- PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

New York - In the wake of the Costa Concordia catastrophe on Jan 13 that killed at least 17 people and raised troubling questions about the ship's captain, many tourists are wondering: How safe am I on a cruise?

Well, the chance of dying in a cruise accident is small. From 2005 to 2010, about 100 million passengers took cruises and there were 16 deaths attributed to marine accidents, according to the Cruise Lines International Association.

But the Concordia, which ran aground off the Tuscan coast of Italy a few hours after departure, has the cruise industry on the defensive.

'All of our members recognise the seriousness of these events,' said Ms Christine Duffy, president of the Cruise Lines International Association.

Still, no regulatory changes have actually been made, although there has been plenty of discussion about the growing size of ships and the 24-hour window after boarding in which ships must run safety drills.

Some travel industry experts say the sheer size of the Concordia and other cruise ships may pose greater evacuation challenges because of the large number of passengers. But cruise officials point out that regulations have kept pace with the size of the ships. Evacuation routes and safety equipment, including the size and number of lifeboats, are 'scaled in accordance with the increased size of the vessel', said Captain William Wright, senior vice-president of Royal Caribbean International, at a briefing convened by the Cruise Lines International Association.

There is no indication that size was a factor in the Concordia accident but the 24-hour window for safety drills is being scrutinised. Some critics argue that the window should be tightened so that passengers will be better prepared in case an emergency strikes early on as it did on the Concordia.

Unlike aeroplane safety announcements, which take place before take-off, cruise drills are not required before the ship leaves the dock. The Concordia passengers who had boarded before Civitavecchia had already been through the drill but about 700 passengers who joined the ship there had not. The next drill had been scheduled for the following day.

While the Carnival Corp said it will do 'a comprehensive audit and review' of safety procedures, at least one other cruise line, Prestige Cruise Holdings, the parent company of Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas, has announced that it will hold drills on the day of departure. Previously, those drills were occasionally held the next morning.

The Concordia tragedy has focused attention on safety and operating standards but there are other concerns that passengers should keep in mind.

Viruses: Cruise passengers are more likely to get a stomach bug than face shipwreck. Last year, there were 14 outbreaks of gastrointestinal illnesses on 10 ships, affecting hundreds of passengers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The illnesses included the highly contagious norovirus. Cruise companies increase cleaning and disinfecting procedures if there is an outbreak, including scouring 'high-touch' areas of ships, such as banisters and elevator buttons. But such measures cannot prevent a sick passenger from infecting others.

According to the CDC, the best defence against catching a stomach bug is simple: Keep washing your hands, avoid shaking hands during outbreaks and use alcohol-based hand sanitisers.

Crime: Crime on cruise ships has become such an issue that in 2010, Congress passed the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act. The law mandates reporting of kidnappings, sexual assaults and other crimes and requires vessels to be equipped with cabin peepholes and video-surveillance systems, among other security measures.

While it is easy to let your guard down on a cruise, travellers should not assume they are safe just because they are onboard, said Charles R. Lipcon, author of Unsafe On The High Seas, and a maritime lawyer who handles cases involving personal injury, cruise-line sexual assault and wrongful death claims.

Sure, a cruise may feel like a floating party and no one has to drive home but drinking too much can compromise your judgment. 'I like to tell people, don't leave your common sense at the dock,' Lipcon said. 'That's typically what people do and overdrink and get themselves into a risky situation.'

Fire: Even though modern cruise vessels are designed with smoke detectors and sprinkler systems, fire is a risk. Last year, a fire aboard a Hurtigruten cruise ship off the coast of Norway killed two people, injured nine others and forced the evacuation of nearly half of the 262 people aboard.

CruiseShipFires.com, a website dedicated to documenting blazes, explosions and other accidents on pleasure vessels, has photographs of similar events. Most of those fires started in the engine room in the lower part of the ship, said Ms Janet Huggard, editor of CruiseShipFires.com and its sibling site, CruiseBruise.com, devoted to publicising crime, injuries and other incidents on ships. She recommends avoiding cabins below deck.

'Higher is better in almost all cases for evacuation purposes,' she said.

Falling overboard: Although falling overboard is rare, it does occur. Last year, at least 22 people went overboard on cruise ships and passenger ferries, according to Cruisejunkie.com, which lists cases reported by the media on its website, including passengers who jumped.

One of the requirements under the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act is that ships must be equipped with rails not less than 1.07m above the deck, and with alarms and other technology to help signal and locate passengers who go overboard.

As a general rule, pay attention to safety announcements and try on your life jacket and know where your muster or lifeboat station is located. If you are travelling with friends or family, have a contingency plan so that you know how to find one another in the event of an evacuation.

'It is unlikely that something will happen,' said Ross A. Klein, who has written books on the cruise industry and operates Cruisejunkie.com 'but it is better to have a plan if something does happen than to be drawn into a hysteria when an emergency situation presents itself'.

 

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