Is My Ship Safe?

November 27, 2007
Shipwrecked Explorer Leaks Potentially Damaging Oil
Passengers Head Home; Sunken Ship Raises Questions
Passengers, Crew Evacuate Sinking Ship in Antarctica
Ship Sinking in Antarctic

Editor's note: We first published this story in April after a Greek cruise ship struck a volcanic reef and tragically sank in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Santorini. Now, the topic of ship safety is top of mind again, after ice punctured the hull of G.A.P. Adventures' expedition ship, M/S Explorer, necessitating evacuation (that ship also sank).

We've updated the piece, so read on for the latest information.

After hours of research on Cruise Critic, you know your balcony cabin will be roomy, the food plentiful and the family program excellent -- but how do you know if your ship is safe?

The answer isn't cut and dry. Because the job of enforcing safety standards is shared among the country that a ship's registered to and those to which it travels, finding safety data can be tough -- particularly for international ships like Sea Diamond and M/S Explorer.

What can you do to protect yourself before you even set sail? Here are a few tidbits and tips:

Surf the Port Exchange Information System. This is a database of vessels that call at U.S. ports (i.e. not ships like Sea Diamond; query local agencies for safety statistics on fully international vessels). The system is maintained by the United States Coast Guard and is searchable by vessel name, number, flag, build year, etc. Once you've found your ship in the database, you can view a list of active documents and certificates; when we plugged in Carnival Legend, for example, we learned that it received its SOLAS Passenger Ship Safety Certificate just this past July.

Check the Coast Guard's annual reports. Though not as useful as the Port Exchange Information System, these annual reports will tell you, for example, how many passenger ships were detained during a particular year for safety and security breaches (in 2005, none). Mainly, it's a reminder of the Coast Guard's presence onboard: they witness fire and abandon drills, examine vessels for compliance with all laws and regulations, and have the authority to require corrective action on deficiencies before allowing a ship to take on passengers in any U.S. port.

Consider CLIA. CLIA, Cruise Lines International Association, is a trade organization that represents cruise lines and agents. A cruise line must meet strict international safety standards to become a CLIA "member" (as of November 27, 2007, 24 lines are -- click here for a list); CLIA also provides classroom seminars, Internet-based courses and video training to affiliated travel agencies.

Learn about SOLAS. On October 1, 2010, the International Convention of Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) will require all ships of 167 signatory states plying international trades to comply with the latest fire safety requirements. Find out what the new rules are and who's affected in Trendwatch: 2010 SOLAS Deadline Looms For Older Ships.

Above all, take a deep breath and relax. According to CLIA, the Coast Guard conducted a study that found cruising to be "the safest form of commercial transportation" -- and over the past two decades, 90 million passengers safely enjoyed a cruise vacation.

--by Melissa Baldwin, Managing Editor