After the Concordia Disaster: How Common Are Cruise Ship 'Salutes'?

January 25, 2012
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(4:20 p.m. EST) -- A "salute" -- or "sail-by" as it's also known -- loosely refers to taking a cruise ship closer to shore to give passengers and/or land-based onlookers a thrilling view. But since the Costa Concordia disaster, which put sail-bys in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, cruisers may be wondering how often lines participate in the practice, just for the sake of scenery.

Last week, beleaguered ex-Costa captain Francesco Schettino claimed in court that his bosses ordered him to "salute" the Italian island of Giglio -- an accusation the line has vehemently denied. Schettino told magistrates that his Costa superiors had insisted on the move, which took Concordia within 150 meters of Giglio, to please passengers and attract publicity, reported Reuters. And it may not have been an isolated incident: Schettino conducted similar sail-bys at the island of Capri and the Sorrento coast near Naples, as well as previously at Giglio, because Costa thought "it was a good way to promote its cruises," said the U.K.'s Guardian.

Costa's top executive, Pier Luigi Foschi, has asserted that Schettino's diversion, which led to the sinking of the ship, was "unauthorized, unapproved and unknown to Costa."

So is it a common practice? Cruise Critic reached out to a number of popular operators to ask if they had official sail-by policies. All but two declined to comment, referring us to the Cruise Lines International Association, the industry's trade organization.

Those that responded said the practice was extremely rare or non-existent.

Sail-bys are strictly against Princess Cruises policy, a company spokeswoman told Cruise Critic. "There is a voyage plan that is briefed to Deck and Technical Officers several days before the transit," said media relations manager Karen Candy in an e-mail. "It is not deviated from to get closer to land or to greet residents."

At Crystal Cruises, passage planning meetings are held prior to departure , the company said in an e-mail. The meetings cover the navigational risks on the route, the safest and closest approaches to land and weather, current and fuel issues. "With little exception, no deviations from that planned course, including opportunities to show guests a coastline, may take place without making an amendment to the passage plan," the company said. If changes are made, they must be reviewed with the entire navigation team and approved by the captain well in advance, Crystal said.

For its part, Costa has admitted to at least one previous salute of Giglio. On the Monday after the disaster, Foschi revealed that a pre-authorized sail-by in August was timed to coincide with the island's patron saint day. The Costa chief said that route was planned with the local maritime authority.

Indeed, having a navigation plan is mandated in the International Safety Management Code, regulations that all shipping vessels must follow, according to the United Nations' International Marine Organization (IMO). In order to sail, every cruise ship has to have what's called a Safety Management System, or SMS, explained CLIA spokesman Bud Darr. The purpose of the SMS is simple, Darr said: "Each ship will have one and it will reflect the company's safety management and ship-specific policies." Even at the same company, the SMS will vary between different ships, because of vessel sizes and routes, he added.

Part of that SMS is having that aforementioned navigation plan, said Brad Schoenwald, senior marine inspector for the U.S. Coast Guard's Cruise Ship National Center of Expertise. Paraphrasing the IMO guidelines, Schoenwald noted: "Before getting underway, a voyage plan should be charted to make sure weather conditions are okay, that there's sufficient sea room, that maritime and environmental regulations are followed, and that charts are accurate and up to date."

But even the most restrictive SMS has to leave room for the captain's judgment, Darr said. "The captain does have overall responsibility and has some discretion to make decisions," he noted. "You can see the inherent tension there."

Still, the decision to deviate from the authorized course is not made easily -- or at least it shouldn't be, explained Captain William Wright, senior vice president of marine operations for Royal Caribbean, during a cruise ship safety conference last week. "It is standard protocol, known as bridge resource management, that mandates that the voyage plan is followed," he said. "If there should be an alteration, the bridge officers would go through a two-person check [as the captain of an aircraft does with his or her first officer] to make it. There would be an evaluation by the captain and the bridge team of the appropriate change in the ship's course to make."

The legality of the salute is another matter. "There are no national or international rules that forbid ships steering close to shore," a spokesman for Italy's Coast Guard department, which deals with maritime security told Reuters. "It's not that we knew about and allowed these salutes as you might suppose, it's that you can't really stop a ship from approaching within a minimum distance of the shore for tourism purposes." Cosimo Nicastri, a Coast Guard official in Rome, told La Repubblica (via Reuters) there was "no specific ban" on cruise ship salutes, but "general norms" about keeping a safe distance exist, and Schettino violated them.

In the aftermath of the incident, environmentalists and politicians have been calling for an end to the practice. Italian environment minister Corrado Clini told the parliament in Rome that the government was considering legislation to ban saluting, reported the Associated Press.

Last week, Carnival Corporation, the parent company of Costa and nine other cruise lines, announced that it would be auditing and reviewing safety and emergency response procedures across all of its cruise lines. When asked if the review would include examining sail-bys, a spokesman for Carnival would not comment.

Some suggest there isn't much of precedent. "Sailing close to shore -- for whatever reason other than for the safety of life, and especially not for entertaining passengers, crew or people ashore -- is certainly not commonplace," John Dalby, a former oil tanker captain who now runs Marine Risk Management, told Reuters. "The vast majority of masters, officers and owners are far too responsible to indulge in such potentially dangerous practice. ... Neither do I know of any owners -- including Carnival -- who would advocate, propose, suggest or order such reckless, irresponsible actions."

But other industry watchers believe that the practice, no matter how infrequent, should be closely examined.

"How much risk are these guys taking to give a wave? That's what we're talking about,” former captain Jim Staples told Cruise Critic. “It's not worth the reward to make people happy when you look at what can go wrong."

Now it's your turn: Have you ever been onboard during a sail-by? Share your story in the comments.

--by Chris Gray Faust, Cruise Critic Contributor

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