What Really Happens When a Cruise Goes Bad?

November 30, 2009
(6:23 p.m. EST) -- When something goes terribly wrong on a cruise ship -- like the total power outage that left NCL's Norwegian Dawn temporarily adrift in the Caribbean last Friday – affected passengers react differently. One traveler's "disaster" can be another's "slightly rough waters." And the reports that emerge from those onboard at the time can vary wildly.

What really happened onboard Norwegian Dawn this weekend?

As we reported on Saturday, the ship experienced a total power outage as it cruised a nine-night trip to the Southern Caribbean. At that time, Norwegian Dawn was 95 miles off the coast of San Juan. The total loss of power over approximately a 24-hour time span meant that not only were the lights out onboard, but the ship also had no propulsion or steering. That's clearly a scary prospect.

After several hours adrift, Norwegian Dawn's captain was able to regain enough power to make it to San Juan. NCL issued a sketchy statement that announced it was ending the current cruise in San Juan, that it would fly passengers back to the ship's Miami homeport, and that its five-night trip planned for Sunday would be canceled.

That's all we know. But of course, in this age of social networking and message board communication, passengers who were onboard posted about their experiences on Cruise Critic. A few days after the Dawn ordeal, there are some 300 posts and counting on a thread on Cruise Critic's NCL forum, some from passengers furious over the line's handling of the situation, others from those commending NCL's response to the emergency.

When did the fuse first blow? How long were the toilets out of order? Did the lack of air-conditioning force sweaty passengers to sleep out on deck?

Bottom line: What really happened?

The biggest issues reported by our readers who were onboard:

The Comment: No Onboard Air-Conditioning

Air-conditioning was out of service for some 24 hours, rendering indoor spaces, from cabins to restaurants, stifling.

People were sleeping on pool decks and balconies. Duff Man offered the following report: "The interior of the ship has been stifling hot. They have said that they are using whatever power they have to propel the ship, and a/c simply takes up too much power (makes sense to me!). They are using paper napkins at meals (can't wash linen napkins), paper cups for drinks (less dishwashing)."

From the "picture's worth a thousand words" school of thought is this photo from member Red_Dawn.

NCL's Response?

"Because of the limited power available, the air-conditioning was not operational for approximately 24 hours," NCL spokeswoman Courtney Recht told us. "It is important to note that once the ship arrived in San Juan, all guests were given the opportunity to disembark the ship and enjoy the day in San Juan. Air-conditioning was fully operational by Saturday afternoon."

The Comment: NCL Said It Would Pay for Flights to Miami but There Were Conditions

It was appropriate for NCL to pay for flights from San Juan to the ship's homeport, but a number of posters told us that the cruise line would only cover airfares for tickets it booked. Those who wanted to make their own arrangements -- and submit a receipt for reimbursement -- would not be compensated.

Others are saying they booked their own arrangements prior to learning that NCL would not cover them -- member Pieshops included. "We thought NCL did a great job up until the time they announced that they would take care of paying for any airfare, hotel, etc. incurred in getting back to Miami. We then booked flights ourselves on JetBlue for eight of us, and got a room in Fort Lauderdale for the night. Then, four hours later they made another announcement that NCL had chartered flights and would make hotel arrangements and we should not take care of this ourselves … as we would not be refunded if we did."

NCL's Response?

We haven't been able to confirm if that was the original statement from the line, but NCL has since responded:

"Norwegian flew all guests that wanted to utilize our transportation back to Miami via chartered flights. If guests opted to travel from Puerto Rico to their final destination on their own, we offered to pay up to $150/person in air change fees."

The problem, of course, is if guests made entirely new arrangements with different airlines -- before learning that they shouldn't do this -- then change fees wouldn't come into play. NCL has yet to respond to follow-up requests for comment.

The Comment: No Emergency Plan Spells Chaos

Some called the scene on the ship downright chaotic, suggesting that NCL should have had a plan in motion to deal with such emergencies -- and that NCL failed when it came to communicating clearly how things would play out. Lakeuser2002 said, "They should have a set plan, like a fire drill, on how to handle these situations. How do they decide who gets back first [who gets on the first charter flights?] I don't care if I'm first or last, just let me know."

HIGHMAINTENANCE added her own perspective: "I stood in line in the Atrium for 1.5 hours only to find out I was not scheduled on a flight Saturday or Sunday, they wouldn't send us to a hotel in Puerto Rico for the night, and said MAYBE I could be flown home Monday or Tuesday while remaining on the ship. SERIOUSLY!!! My husband went online and scheduled flights out of our own pocket ($987) because I started to get claustrophobic and my 5-year-old daughter was hysterical."

NCL's Response?

NCL has stated that all passengers requesting assistance have been accommodated at this point. In regards to who was booked on which flight, NCL said the following: "Guests who had international flights and those with early flights on Sunday were given priority on the charters since it was one of the busiest travel weekends of the year and flights were scarce."

The Comment: NCL Handled the Situation Well

Others are saying that NCL is making the best of an impossible situation, i.e. having to arrange air and hotel for 2,000-plus people. There was lots of high praise for the crew, who had to keep working in the unbearable situation. From piehops: "Again I cannot say enough about the staff and crew during the day we were adrift; the captain came on every half hour or so and gave us updates. We kind of went with the flow, did not want this to ruin our vacation, but the things I heard coming out of other guests' mouths was unbelievable. I was in the Internet cafe this morning around 5 [a.m.] and heard this woman screaming at one of the workers at the front desk two floors below me. Why people take things out on these poor people is beyond me."

What do you think of the situation? Were people fairly compensated? Should cruise lines have a better plan in place in case of such emergencies, or was NCL's response time satisfactory? Join the discussion here.

--by Dan Askin, Associate Editor, and Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief

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