Fram Update: Passengers React to Accident, Compensation

January 24, 2008

While Cruise Critic is featuring Ben Lyons' wonderful journey through Antarctica with his father, we decided that it was time to follow up on Hurtigruten's MS Fram's collision with a glacier in the region last month.

On December 28, 2007, the ship was near Brown's Bluff, the first mainland stop on its Antarctica itinerary. Its engines had ceased operating due to what was later discovered to be a problem in the electrical system. The accident occurred when Fram drifted sideways into a glacier, crushing one of the lifeboats and bending a railing.

When it was apparent that there would be a collision, all 258 passengers were told to gather warm clothing and to meet in the lounge on Deck 7. According to Duncan Ballantine, a passenger on the ship, there was a relatively minor impact but the massive glacier reached as high as the deck they were on.

When the engines finally restarted, the ship made its way to Frei Station in Maxwell Bay, King George Island, a Chilean air station where the engines and hull were inspected. With obvious concern about the engine issues, ship officers decided that the ship would return to Ushuaia, but there was a problem. Because of the crushed lifeboat and the subsequent reduction of lifeboat space, the ship didn't meet the standards for safe passage through the Drake Channel and back to Argentina. For this reason, Fram sailed in tandem (part of the way) with Academic Ioffe, another expedition vessel in the region.

Passengers disembarked in Ushuaia, transferred to a hotel in Santiago and flew home the following day. They had managed to see Brown's Bluff, but the weather did not allow them to access the boats that would take them to mainland Antarctica, the goal of every passenger onboard. With their trip cut short, they did not have the opportunity.
"We were prepared for weather impeding our voyage," says Peter Landis, another Fram passenger on the ill-fated trip who contacted us via e-mail. "It's Antarctica, after all. What we didn't expect was that the ship we had chosen would fail us, put us in danger, and eliminate half of our trip."

Everyone agrees that they were very lucky indeed; there were no injuries and all crew and passengers arrived safely back in Argentina. It was, however, a frightening experience.

"People were anxious, frightened," says Landis. "There didn't seem to be much acknowledgement of that aspect of the incident."

Ballantine goes even further, claiming that there appeared to be little crisis management training and that the expedition leaders were quite cavalier in their behavior to the passengers onboard. "They were reluctant to fully respond to our questions, they appeared impatient and snippy at times," he told us. "One of them gave us incorrect information [about lifeboat capacity] on several occasions and at one time was corrected by the captain."

Landis believes that the crew did the best they could under the circumstances and has little issue with the way he and his wife were treated while onboard. He does, however, have a problem with the way passengers were treated by Hurtigruten in terms of compensation for the shortened journey.

We were surprised that the passengers on the next cruise, which was canceled, received better compensation than those whose cruise was interrupted by the accident. While those booked on the January 2 trip received a full refund and a 50 percent discount off of a future cruise booked by March 31, 2008, the passengers on the affected cruise were offered a 50 percent refund of the cruise portion of their total fare and a 30 percent future cruise discount.

"That's not enough," says passenger Yvonne Noel. "What happened to us was not a case of unfortunate 'force majeur' -- our trip was canceled due to equipment failure and perhaps human error. This is 100 percent the responsibility of the company -- 'bad luck' for the company maybe, but not simply 'bad luck' for the passengers."

"Given the choice," she continues, "I would not have invested two weeks of vacation time to spend four days on a plane and ship crossing the most treacherous seas in
the world just to arrive, immediately slam into a glacier, then spend the remaining six or seven days of the trip listening to briefings of how we were going to try and make it back to our starting point safely. This was not what we paid for and the company owes us a full refund."

Hurtigruten spokesperson Elliot Gillies says that the refund amounts are reasonable and "far more generous than offers made by other cruise lines that have had to shorten sailings due to mechanical issues. In fact, as long as they book by March 31, they get a second cruise at the equivalent of an 80 percent discount."

Since the package price included air segments, hotel stays and taxes, no one is quite sure how to break out the cruise-only portion of the cost. Landis and his wife received a check that seemed to equal half of what they had paid; Ballantine says his check equaled about 41 percent. Neither is content with the compensation.

The 12,700-ton, 318-passenger Fram is a new ship in the Hurtigruten fleet (formerly Norwegian Coastal Voyage). Launched last year, it was purpose-built with an ice-hardened hull for expedition cruises to Greenland and Antarctica.

"It is important to keep in mind that most ships in their first year undergo numerous issues as they break in," says Gillies. "The difference here is the Fram is an expedition ship so its 'trial' is rather tougher and its track record to date has been excellent."

Landis sees it differently.

"It's also important to keep in mind that passengers aboard a ship during its first year at sea expect and deserve the same level of service and safety as those who come later," he says.

The passengers with whom Cruise Critic has spoken are still attempting to negotiate a more comprehensive refund package and are not cashing the checks they have been sent. If anything changes, we'll keep you posted.

--by Jana Jones, Cruise Critic contributor

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