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Post Carnival Triumph: How Safe is Your Cruise?

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Yesterday, we reported on the deteriorating conditions onboard the Carnival Triumph. The disturbing circumstances—no electricity, few bathrooms, stifling heat, and limited food—launched a surprise Facebook debate about the merits of cruising in the 21st century. Peter uses his Travel Detective blog to weigh in on what happened, his thoughts on cruise safety, and whether he would cruise again after this disaster.

Let’s talk about the facts and not about fear. Cruising remains an incredibly safe operation. In 2011, 20 million global passengers took a cruise. And with very few exceptions, notably the Costa Concordia a little more than a year ago, there have been remarkably few fatalities on cruise ships.

The most terrifying thing that can happen on a cruise ship is an onboard fire. But today’s modern cruise ships are equipped with great fire detection and suppression systems. On the bridge of the Carnival’s Triumph, officers were alerted immediately about the fire and its exact location. Water-tight doors were immediately closed, the ship’s air conditioning and ventilation systems shut down, and then the fire suppression system went into action, essentially flooding the entire engine room with chemicals designed to inert the oxygen and starve the fire. The fire suppression system worked as designed.

But what also happens in a situation like this is that while the fire suppression floods the engine room and starves the fire, it also knocks out everything that operates on fuel, i.e. engines, generators. So, the good news is the fire was extinguished quickly, and no lives were lost. The bad news: The ship was dead in the water…floating, with minimal electrical power.

And thus with no power to operate refrigeration or air conditioning, or its entire waste management program (modern ships use electric hydraulic toilets, for example). Conditions went from good to worse very quickly.

Creature comforts disappeared almost exponentially, and as long as passengers had access to the power from their cell phones, they were texting reports of the horrendous conditions on board.

No doubt it is a PR nightmare for Carnival, up against 3,000 plus passengers almost all in possession of a cell-phone camera.

Can cruising be made safer? Absolutely. I’ve been arguing for years about better safety, cross-training of crew, of mandatory dual language requirements (so that crew can not only talk to each other, but passengers as well), and better waste management systems, and a zero tolerance policy of disposing trash or toxics overboard.

In the wake of the Costa Concordia tragedy, a number of cruise lines have revised their muster (life boat) drill schedules to make sure they now take place BEFORE the ship leaves its first port. And in many cases, new ships have waste management and recycling programs that are more exacting and stringent than many of the cities from which they depart.

So, in the wake of the Carnival Triumph incident, would that stop me from cruising? Not in the least. The odds are overwhelmingly in your favor. And there are still a number of compelling reasons to take a cruise, not the least of which is price.

Obviously, safety is the number-one priority. And let’s not forget that the real crisis with the Carnival Triumph — an engine room fire that could have been catastrophic — was extinguished.

Yes, the ship will arrive in Mobile, Alabama, sometime Thursday with some very angry passengers. Not only will the Coast Guard meet the Triumph, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a number of attorneys will be dockside as well, about to pursue Carnival in court for emotional or physical distress or other damages claimed by their clients.
And yes, from an image point of view, the notion of a large ship as a potential floating biohazard is not the best news for Carnival.

But it doesn’t take a math genius (and I admit I consistently failed math) to figure out the real numbers here, and they are arguably on your side. I am not being a cheerleader for the cruise industry here, but I am about some common sense and perspective.

For more cruise safety:

By Peter Greenberg for PeterGreenberg.com

Feature image: credit Wikimedia Scott L.

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