Are Cruise Ships Safe?

December 14, 2005
Folks who tuned in to CNN's "Larry King Live" Tuesday night may have been surprised to see a segment on passenger safety on cruise ships -- or lack thereof.

They shouldn't have been. King's guests -- members of the family of Michael Smith IV, the honeymooner who disappeared last summer while sailing on Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas -- were discussing the cruise line's involvement with the case, which is still not settled.

The news hook, so to speak, was the fact that the U.S. House of Representatives' Subcommittees on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations and Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources jointly called a congressional hearing to discuss international maritime security -- specifically cruise ship security as it relates to passengers -- on Tuesday.

Facts were bandied about. Such as? According to the International Council of Cruise Lines (ICCL), 13 people have gone "missing" on cruise ships in the past two years, a time in which some 20 million people have sailed on pleasure vessels. In the most recent instance, a Canadian woman disappeared last weekend as her ship, Royal Caribbean's Jewel of the Seas, was approaching a port call in Nassau. She has not been found.

In our experience, the issue of passengers who simply disappear is, no question, a tragedy for all involved. A couple of thoughts from our decade of experience covering the cruise industry:

Sadly, many cases of passengers who simply disappear are ultimately found to be suicides.

In other cases of folks who fall overboard, easily the most famous "maritime legend" (and actually it's not legend -- it's fact) is that of an inebriated Carnival passenger who, as the ship sailed out of San Juan, decided to stand on a table on an open deck and, er, urinate off the side. He accidentally fell overboard. Fortunately, he was able to swim to shore. Unfortunately, he decided to sue the cruise ship (Why? Why? Why?). The good news? He lost the case. But drunkenness is another common culprit when people go overboard.

It takes an effort, particularly with today's most contemporary ships, to "fall" overboard. Railings are built to insurance company specifications. The era in which you could lean over an iron railing and take a photograph, unimpeded by a protective glass covering that rises several feet above your head is, alas, over.

Cruise ships are relatively safe but, especially as they get bigger and bigger holding upwards of 3,000 passengers and about half that many crew members, they become more of a small town than an intimate vessel. As such, normal precautions -- and a heck of a lot of common sense -- should not go on vacation even as you do.

Cruise lines are taking care to some extent. For instance, on a recent cruise on Carnival Liberty, it was obvious that my room key card, used to purchase onboard services as well as getting off and on the ship, did not display my cabin number. Closed circuit cameras -- this is a hint -- are literally everywhere. Access onboard, particularly once underway, is completely controlled. Passengers (and personal details) are listed on an official manifest and crew members undergo significant pre-screening. In a statement signed in 1999 by all the major cruise line scions, a zero-tolerance policy, with regard to crimes committed onboard, was adopted.

Specifically, it said: "This policy establishes a single industry standard that requires allegations of onboard crime be reported to the appropriate law enforcement authorities which, for vessels calling on U.S. ports or crime involving U.S. citizens, would include the Federal Bureau of Investigation."

Ultimately, is this upswing in disturbing disappearances a nasty trend in the cruise industry? Should travelers be worried?

The media may be hot on the trail of this smokin' story but Chris Owens of Florida-based Dream Cruise Vacations, says he hasn't heard a word of concern from his clientele. "I think that anyone who has been on a cruise knows this is being blown out of proportion.

"This feels a lot like how the Norovirus was treated like the black plague when it first got in the news."

Which is not to say that cruise lines could not stand to improve, to do a better, more humane job of dealing with the tricky situation of a passenger who permanently disappears. No question, sensitivity to families often gives way to concerns about bottom line and lawsuits -- and there must be a better way. One particularly appalling story was told at the hearing, via written statement, by Jennifer Hagel Smith, the bride whose groom mysteriously disappeared off that Brilliance of the Seas Aegean honeymoon. She wrote that she was left alone in Kusadasi to deal with police there, came back to the ship to find that she was booted off -- and that her belongings (and those of her husband) were dumped on the dock in plastic Royal Caribbean souvenir bags.

If the hearings at the House of Representatives can achieve anything positive, it would be to clarify universally appropriate and standard procedures involving any passenger who disappears. And, we'll add, also emphasize the importance of communicating those standardized procedures clearly and properly to consumers, leaving as little room as possible for misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

We'll see. In the meantime, we'll keep you posted.