Will Russian Submarines Off East Coast Affect Cruises?

August 5, 2009
East Coast U.S. Map (6:26 p.m. EDT) -- Today's news reports that a pair of nuclear-powered Russian attack submarines is lurking about in international waters some 200 miles off America's Eastern Seaboard have indeed made for splashy headlines. Beyond asking why the subs are enjoying such relative proximity in the first place, cruise travelers are eager to know whether their presence will impact voyages to and from the East Coast.

The short answer? There's little chance that the Russian submarines will have any effect on cruise traffic. Coast Guard spokesman Lieutenant Commander Chris O'Neil was not able to comment specifically on cruise ship navigation but did tell Cruise Critic today that that submarines operate in international waters all of the time -- which means these twins are neither an unusual nor challenging obstacle to cruise ship captains.

Michael Crye, executive vice president of Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), which represents 24 major cruise lines, offered a similar assessment.

"Subs generally operate completely submerged or on the surface, and if they're on the surface they are easily detectable by radar," Crye says. "United States military vessels, at the least the surface military vessels, provide more of an obstacle than submersed vessels."

He adds, "Under the rights of navigation, military ships have the right to innocent passage throughout the world. Russian submarines in general have the right to operate in and around the offshore waters. These submarines are likely to be tracked by United States military vessels -- [surface] as well as submarines."

As far as avoiding collisions, Crye, who spent 24 years in the Coast Guard, tells us that there are "rules of the road" every licensed mariner knows and understands. Ships' captains are responsible for giving one another ample room. Compass quadrants determine who has the right of way. In most cases, a vessel approaching your starboard bow has the right of way, though there are exceptions (for example, vessels that are not sailing under their own power pretty much always have the right of way, and sailboats generally take precedence over larger boats).

As for submarines, responsibility again falls to the captain to operate safely by letting other mariners in the area know a sub's position (and when it's coming back up to the surface).

We also today touched base with Carnival Cruise Lines, a major player on the East Coast with ships departing from cities all along the seaboard; a spokesperson for the line tells us that there have been no delays or itinerary changes and that ship traffic is proceeding as normal.

--by Melissa Baldwin Paloti, Managing Editor