Cruise Ships and Fog: Clearly Stated Answers to Your Questions

March 1, 2011
Galveston-Cruise-Ship-Fog (12:30 p.m. EST) -- The blanket of Texas fog that scuttled cruise plans out of Galveston the past few weekends has us wondering: Who makes the final call to hold and release cruise ships? Why can't sophisticated vessels navigate in low visibility? And, why is fog so unpredictable, anyhow?

Cruise Critic reached out to a number of experts, including a pair Royal Caribbean marine ops people and a dispatcher from the Gal-Tex pilots, the group of mariners who guide cruise and other ships safely in and out of the Galveston port, for answers to our questions.

Who decides when the fog makes it unsafe to berth?

When docking in Galveston, cruise ships are legally obligated to board at least one pilot, ostensibly an expert in local maritime navigation, who will see the ship into berth. If the pilots deem the berthing conditions unsafe, they will "close the bar," which means they won't board the cruise ship. No pilot, no berthing.

"You're talking about safely transiting 2,500 to 4,500 [people] into berth," said a Gal-Tex dispatcher, who wished to remain anonymous. "Safety is the number-one issue." At various times over the past 10 days, the Gal-Tex pilots determined that navigating the haze was too risky. Last weekend, the fog chomped two days out of a Carnival Ecstasy cruise, and the ship's five-day Caribbean sailing with two port stops became a three-day cruise to nowhere.

And, the lines trust the pilots' expertise. "They're moving an $800 million asset in our case, and we're going to trust them to make a judgment based on prevailing conditions and their experience," said Larry Bowling, RCCL's vice president of global security and maritime safety.

Technically speaking, the Port of Galveston was never closed. That would be a U.S. Coast Guard decision. But, because pilots determined conditions were not suitable for safe navigation, the port, for all intents, was intermittently shuttered.

Can cruise ships safely navigate through fog?

Yes, but there's a big difference between sailing through open waters and pulling into a congested port channel. In Galveston, in particular, the width of the channel provides limited space to maneuver. "At some spots in the channel, you simply can't deviate," said the dispatcher, "so you wouldn't be able to avoid a collision."

"There's a risk-management aspect for the pilot," said Chris Van Raalten, Royal Caribbean's director of maritime safety and compliance. "If something were to happen, they stand to close down the entire port."

While foggy conditions may make it too dangerous for berthing, cruise ships can generally navigate in low visibility by relying on a bevy of sophisticated equipment, including radar and electronic charting systems. It's something akin to flying by instrument. "In open waters, we do it frequently," said Bowling. If the ship is sailing through fog, however, the captain will reduce speed.

"But, if the captain can't see the bow of the ship [which was the case at times with Voyager of the Seas], I don't think anyone is going to be really comfortable," he added. "You can have all the technology you want, but you have to look out the window."

What can passengers expect when fog threatens a cruise?

It's a dicey situation. On the one hand, said Van Raalten, you may only have a short window of a few hours when the fog clears to get out of port -- so cruise lines want passengers on standby. On the other hand, if fog sparks a delay, the line has to make an effort to keep passengers from arriving at port too early.

Logistically speaking, the lines need space between the end of one cruise and the start of the next. "You try to communicate with your passengers," he said. "'Please do something else, but oh by the way, stand by because we need you when the window opens.' It's a very tough situation."

For its part, Royal Caribbean told passengers via its Web site not to come to the Galveston port until the line knew the ship was ready for boarding. If passengers arrived, line spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez told us, RCI reps had a letter ready to hand out.

Do other ports suffer from fog issues?

Galveston is not the only port where fog can stymie a cruise. Other cruise ports along the Gulf Coast, including Mobile and Tampa, have been known to disappear into the haze and impact cruises.

Can't fog be predicted?

Determining when the fog will lift is a "wait-and-see game," said Van Raalten. The line does, however, keep a close eye on the forecasts. "Our weather forecasting is sophisticated enough that we've been successful finding windows," he added.

There are seasonal variations, however. In Galveston's case, said the Gal-Tex dispatcher, the sea fog forms due to the difference between the air and water temperatures. Usually it's around this time of the year, when the water temperature gets down into the 40's and the air temps hit the high 70's or low 80's. The result is a sea fog, which can act like a house guest who refuses to leave. "I won't say we experience it every spring, but in my experience, it's probably 75 to 90 percent of the time," he noted.

Martinez concurs. "When I was typing the guest letter, I based it on the letter we used last year -- and the date was exactly the same," she said.

--by Dan Askin, Cruise Critic Contributor

--Image appears courtesy of CGBCruiser.

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