It was a coincidence, but the timing was interesting nonetheless. Just as Cunard Line was reaching an agreement with a French shipyard to build the largest, longest and most expensive cruise ship in history, the U.S. Coast Guard was calling for higher safety standards for the cruise industry due to the influx of bigger ships.

Coast Guard officials, speaking on a panel at the Seatrade Cruise Shipping Convention earlier this month, said the cruise ship industry has demonstrated "a fairly good safety record," but pointed out a number of problem areas, including crime on ships, marine pollution and passenger medical emergencies.

Cunard's Queen Mary 2, which will be built by France's Chantiers de l'Atlantique shipyard, will weigh in at 150,000 tons and measure 1,130 feet in length.

The Queen Mary 2 announcement comes a few months after the launch of Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas, which at 142,000 tons is the largest cruise ship in service. The Queen Mary 2, an ocean liner, will be a different class of ship, and it represents the latest milestone in the bigger-is-better competition.

A few days after the Seatrade convention ended, the International Council of Cruise Lines adopted new safety policies requiring designated helicopter pickup areas and additional life jackets on all of its members' ships. The policies address some but not all of the Coast Guard's concerns about the upsizing of cruise vessels.

The cruise lines contend that they are adding capacity, including the megaships, because demand is increasing. And they may be right. This is an exciting time for cruising, and the Queen Mary 2's expected arrival late in 2003 promises to be one of the most eagerly anticipated events in the industry's history.

But the Coast Guard is also correct in sounding the safety alarm before -- and not after -- a disaster at sea actually happens.

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