In cruise incident, a conservative approach

By Tom Stieghorst

*InsightWhy didn’t Carnival Cruise Lines try to get passengers off the powerless Carnival Triumph?

To understand that, it may help to look at another cruise mishap that was overshadowed in the U.S. last week by the Triumph.

In the Canary Islands, five crew members of the Thomson Majesty died in a lifeboat drill.  A cable snapped, plunging the boat 65 feet to the water.  Now imagine that same boat full of passengers.

Lowering lifeboats is not an especially safe activity. The Thomson Majesty episode becomes the latest example in a history of such incidents.    

A 2001 study by the U.K.'s Marine Accident Investigation Branch found that 15% of all deaths involving professional seafarers involved lifeboat drills, with 12 deaths over 10 years and 87 people injured.

The problems include complicated and balky release mechanisms, inadequate maintenance and lapses in the training of crews on how to safely lower boats to the water.

Still, cruise ships tender passengers from ship to shore all the time. Why not lower the boats empty and put *TomStieghorstpassengers on that way? Marine safety experts say the risks of injury remain high. The chief risk is transferring passengers from ship to tender while wave action moves the two vessels independently. The transfer has to be done twice for each passenger, once leaving the stricken vessel and again boarding the rescue vessel, doubling the chances of injury. In addition, the evacuation would be done in open seas instead of in sheltered coves or bays that are the more typical environment of a ship-to-shore tender operation.

Nonetheless, it may be time for the cruise industry to take another look at whether a tender-rescue operation makes sense in calm seas. Working with the U.S. Coast Guard or a private rescue vessel, under the right conditions, it might be possible to remove passengers from an immobilized ship and send them back to port, sparing them the discomfort endured by those on the Triumph.

It is worth bearing in mind that no one died on the Triumph. It was a miserable week but not a tragic one.  A non-emergency ship evacuation could go well, or it could introduce additional variables beyond the line's control; in the worst-case scenario, a death or a serious injury.

Something must be done. Laws should be changed. That’s a refrain I heard last week from travel agents. In cases like the Triumph, the image of the cruise line and the cruise industry in general takes a beating.

But whatever reforms are undertaken have to be responsible ones. And that means being truly conservative about passenger safety, and not introducing unnecessary risk.

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