Cruise industry debates whether mega ships are safe enough


When it comes to safety, how big is too big?

That’s a question being asked about the two largest cruise ships in the world: Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas, both operated by Royal Caribbean Ltd.

Each vessel is 225,282 gt, 1,187 feet long and 215 feet wide. Each can carry 6,360 passengers and 2,394 crew, for a total capacity of 8,754.

Each vessel has 18 lifeboats that carry 370 people each, with inflatable or rigid life rafts for the crew.

Industry observers are concerned that issues such as evacuation of passengers and crew, fire suppression systems and the difficulty training a large crew could pose safety problems in the event of an emergency.

“The question is, are we getting too big to manage it?” said William Doherty, director of maritime relations at Nexus Consulting Group, about major problems on cruise ships. “There should be contingency planning … for the worst-case scenarios for every possible event on a passenger ship.”

When asked about questions that ships of this size could have more safety problems because they are significantly larger than other cruise ships, Cynthia Martinez, spokeswoman for Royal Caribbean Ltd., said these concerns are not accurate.

Courtesy Parbuckling Project

32 people died in the Costa Concordia disaster off Italy. Among the difficulties were problems with evacuation and lifeboat egress.

“Both Oasis and Allure of the Seas, the largest ships in the world, were created by the world’s leading marine safety and design minds using the latest commercially available technology,” she said. “This has raised these two ships to new standards in cruise ship safety, resulting in a very high level of safety inherent in the ship’s design.”

Doherty, former safety manager for Norwegian Cruise Lines, said this contingency planning is not being done. Passenger evacuation and rescue is one of his biggest concerns on mega cruise ships (see story, left). But a fire on board is more common than a vessel striking a ledge, as happened in the Costa Concordia disaster.

“What is the scariest thing that can happen on a cruise ship? How about a fire?” said Doherty, citing a lack of adequate backup electrical or propulsion systems on some cruise ships that could leave thousands of people drifting in the ocean.

Martinez said Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas have independent machinery systems for power, propulsion and comfort. Redundant systems include HVAC and water.

“(The) redundant propulsion system ensures that if one engine compartment is flooded or damaged, the other can sustain the vessel,” she said. This means that the ship “can return to port, even if a system problem develops on board.”

Last year, three Carnival cruise ships were disabled due to fire or engine problems. Carnival Dream, carrying 4,363 passengers, lost power and some toilets stopped working. There were problems with the Azipod units on Carnival Legend, which slowed its sailing speed and cut short its cruise. The worst incident was an engine-room fire on Carnival Triumph when the vessel was 150 miles off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. The ship’s automatic fire suppression systems put out the flames, which were confined to the aft engine room. There were no injuries.

However, Triumph lost propulsion and operated on emergency generator power as it drifted for four days. Passengers said showers and toilets stopped working, resulting in raw sewage coming through shower drains and urine and feces flowing into the halls. It took eight days to tow the vessel to a port in Alabama.

Carnival knew of the problems that led to the fire, according to lawsuits filed in federal court in Miami. Frank Spagnoletti, of the Houston law firm Spagnoletti & Co., filed a suit alleging that Carnival knew there was a fire risk on Triumph, but allowed it to sail anyway. Spagnoletti cited a company report that stated that the No. 1, 4 and 6 generators were overdue for maintenance. In addition, the company was aware of leaks in fuel lines in the engine room.

“The cruise line was recommending the installation of spray shields on some, but not all, of its ships to protect flanges and hoses from leaking fuel on hot spots that would ignite,” said Jim Walker, a maritime lawyer who writes the blog Cruise Law News. “The hose which was not shielded on the Triumph sprayed fuel which ignited the fire. This was foreseeable and preventable.”

As a result of the incident, Carnival Chief Executive Gerry Cahill announced a comprehensive review of all 23 of the company’s ships, focusing on prevention, detection and suppression of fires. Carnival said it would invest $700 million in fire prevention and backup power.

Another problem with fire is that it could destroy life rafts or the access to lifeboats. “A fire could wipe out the whole side of a ship,” Doherty said. “It would wipe out your mustering stations.”

By Professional Mariner Staff