Putting Things into Perspective

| November 12, 2007

Are reports of mishaps involving cruise ships and their passengers really as bad as they would seem?

There continues to be written in various articles and on some web sites, reports of crimes and mishaps involving cruise ship passengers and even the cruise ships themselves. Are things really that serious? If not, then what's happening? To understand all of this you have to put things into perspective.

Ships Involved in Collisions and Sinkings If anyone ever had a doubt, the Titanic proved that there is no such thing as an "unsinkable" ship. Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of the vessels that have experienced severe difficulties over the past year, are ones that do not even visit American ports. When cruise vessels were involved, they were usually older and/or smaller vessels which did not fall under the aegis of United States safety or maritime standards.

Just as importantly, the cruise lines that own the ships involved in the most serious instances, are not members of CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association). CLIA members make up the major cruise lines on which 97 percent of Americans cruise, both here and overseas.

The cruise vessels that were involved in these sad incidents included: MS Sea Diamond, a small ship of 22,410 tons registered in Greece, that foundered in the Mediterranean after inexplicably striking a well marked reef off the Greek Island of Santorini; a 37 year old Israeli owned cruise ship, Dream Princess, that maintained a list of 10 degrees for an extended period due apparently to improper ballast maintenance; and the Salamis Glory, a tiny (1,400 ton) 45 year old Cypriot owned cruise vessel that collided with an Israeli freighter off the coast of Haifa in the southern Aegean, resulting in the sinking of the freighter. While yes these incidents indeed happened to cruise vessels, they are certainly not a fair representation of the cruise ship industry.

One should also understand that if a cruise ship embarks or disembarks passengers in a US port, that vessel, it's passengers and its crew, are subject to both rigid safety standards and Federal Criminal Statutes, regardless of wherever they may be flagged (and regardless of what you may have read or heard elsewhere). Neither of the three vessels above met either criteria.

As a legitimate comparison, American commercial aviation, as well as that from countries servicing the US, must meet stringent safety/maintenance criteria. Such aircraft will always be much better maintained and far safer than many of the world's smaller airlines, often from third world countries, that use older and poorly maintained equipment that would never be allowed off the ground in the US.

The Difference Between a Ship and a Boat There seems in some quarters at least, to be much confusion about the difference between a deep water cruise ship and a tour boat, with some media outlets preferring to lump all vessels under the term "ship." Such misrepresentation only serves to highlight ignorance of things nautical. Boats, even larger types, are generally far smaller than ships.

A number of vessels involved in unfortunate incidents that some have referred to as being "cruise ships" are clearly coastal craft and not even exceptionally large boats at that. Allow me to share with you the easiest and best way (if indeed an oversimplified one) that I have discovered to explain the differences between the two types. That definition defines "ships" as having to be large enough to carry "boats" with "boats" having to be small enough to be carried by ships. There are exceptions such as the Navy's submarines as well as large ore transporters that ply the Great Lakes and some large ferries. Usually, if it's a large passenger vessel (say over 23,000 tons) and routinely travels long distances especially over a multi-night period in what mariners refer to as the "deep ocean," it's usually an ocean liner or a cruise ship.

Many cruise ships that service American ports are especially large. Several of them even have tonnage numbers that eclipse by almost one third, that of the U.S. Navy's enormous 102,000 ton Nimitz class aircraft carriers, the world's largest. Even significantly larger cruise ships are nearing completion as I am writing this article.

One last thing; while ocean liners of yesteryear did cruises in the "off season" or when they became older, they are nonetheless very dissimilar from today's cruise ships, both vessels being purpose designed from the keel up.

Just How High are the Deck Railings? Some people, especially those who can't swim (my wife being one), are really frightened when they read or see statements that are either totally untrue or taken completely out of context. Take the proverbial "fallen overboard" on cruise ships.

Recently I read an article that implied that falling overboard is rather easy even under normal circumstances inasmuch as the deck railings on cruise ships only have to be 39 � inches high. That statement is at best, very misleading. Folks contemplating their first cruise will read that and actually believe that cruise ship open deck railings are that low. I don't know where the author of that piece obtained their information, but even should it prove technically true, in actuality the open deck railings on today's cruise ships are far higher, more in the neighborhood of 4-1/2 feet!

That means that even someone of my height (6'4") would literally have to climb or be hoisted up to get over the railing in order to go overboard. In short, it would be virtually impossible for even a relatively tall individual such as I, to trip and accidentally "fall" or even be blown overboard by a powerful gust of wind.

Even individual balcony cabins with railings of a height more commensurate to those of apartment balconies (40-42 inches), nevertheless still pose a significant safety barrier. That is of course, unless the passenger is engaging in inappropriate behavior.

Even under the most adverse sea conditions, cruise ship balconies by the very nature of their construction, afford some wind protection and except in storms and conditions cruise ships rarely experience, do waves reach the height of balcony level cabins. To prove my point, try to find the last time anyone was ever proven to have been washed overboard from a cruise ship balcony by a wave.

As an added safety measure in the case of heavy weather, large passenger ships will often temporarily restrict passenger access to outside exposed deck areas until the weather clears. There are nevertheless going to always be means by which determined passengers can still gain access to restricted areas. When that happens and an injury or God forbid a tragedy occurs, the injured individual or a family member often blames the cruise line. This is despite the fact that in addition to defeating formal safety barriers, the victim also chose to ignore basic rules of good common sense.

The Problem of Suicides Hundreds of people "fall" from building balconies and terraces every year. Many of those falls prove fatal. While most may involve excess alcohol consumption or the neglect of (yet again), common sense safety precautions; assuredly a number of these fatal falls involve despondent individuals bent on committing suicide.

In the same vein, bridges are frequently the choice of suicides. The Golden Gate in San Francisco, as revealed in a TV documentary. often serves as such a platform. What one must remember is that in addition to the Golden Gate, there are literally hundreds of bridges of various size throughout the country (one a short distance from my own home) that suicidal individuals have utilized for the same purpose.

The Golden Gate alone was the venue for 34 confirmed jumps made in just the year 2006. That is twice the number of cruise ship passengers who during the same period, died as a result of going overboard for whatever reason (including those ruled a suicide) from all cruise ships combined. One must also remember, the cruise industry serviced well over 10 million passengers in that same year.

Why "Falls" from Buildings and Bridges don't Receive More Press Why then do not "falls" from buildings (especially those located in major hotels and theme parks) or bridges, etc., receive the level of notoriety as those occurring on cruise ships? Why do a couple of politicos including an ex-Presidential candidate, while calling for cruise ship legislation addressing such problems, never mention holding congressional hearings for the other and quite exponentially greater facet of the same issue on land? It's certainly not because these politicians value one life over another. It's just that the media has determined that cruise ship deaths are more "newsworthy," Remember as well, that wherever the publicity, there you'll often find a nationally known politician or two demanding redress � especially in an election year.

Sadly, the overwhelming number of jumps and falls from buildings and bridges are considered "routine" by the public. To prove my point, how many times would you guess that you have heard or read a phrase along the lines of, "He/she jumped/fell off the bridge." or "He/she jumped/fell from the building." Hundreds? Now, rephrase the comment to, "He/she jumped/fell off a cruise ship?"

That being understood, the extremely small number of cruise ship deaths and injuries from all causes which end up receiving all of the attention, while an astronomically larger number occurring under similar circumstances on land are under reported, still leaves me scratching my head.

Cruise Ship Safety is Ongoing This is not to say that ways to identify and address safety issues on all cruise liners aren't ongoing. Important improvements for passenger safety (some obvious, some not so obvious) are constantly occurring. The operative word, as it is in all things, is the word "reasonable." We all must understand that there is no way that every conceivably potential issue can, nor should we expect it to be, addressed.

So, What do we do Now? Since none of it's going to end probably any time soon, I recommend you do what I do. Book your cruise, then log onto Cruisemates.com, and look forward to your cruise vacation.

Hey, it works for me!

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