Second cruise ship in 5 months experiences generator fire, blackout off coast of Mexico

For the second time in just five months, a cruise ship loaded with passengers has experienced a blackout off the coast of Mexico. The incidents, both of which involved generator fires, may prompt marine engineers to rethink redundancies inside ships' engine rooms.

Ocean Star Pacific, on only its fifth day of service with a new owner, lost power and went adrift with 748 people aboard April 15 near Huatulco, Mexico.

The incident follows the November 2010 power failure aboard Carnival Splendor along the Mexican Riviera. In that emergency, 4,466 people were stranded while U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels delivered rations and bottled water.

Both vessel operators were very fortunate that weather conditions were favorable and aid was nearby, said Clark Dodge, a passenger vessel safety consultant. Combined with another threat, a full power loss could seriously endanger passengers. He said the industry will need to do some soul-searching and re-evaluate backup systems.

"Thou shalt never put the ship in the dark and dead in the water," Dodge said. "One freak accident is one thing. But if it's happening more than once, that's telling you that it's a bigger problem than just one ship."

The Ocean Star Pacific fire broke out in an engine room while the 637-foot ship was just six miles from Huatulco. The Oaxaca Civil Protection Agency said the generator fire was controlled quickly, and no one was injured. Passenger catamarans and port tenders evacuated the passengers and delivered them ashore.

In a statement, Ocean Star Cruises confirmed the generator fire and said the engines could not be restarted. The cruise line didn't reply to a request for an interview.

Both Carnival Splendor and Ocean Star Pacific are Panamanian-flagged. Unlike the Carnival Corp. ship, which was only 2 years old when it caught fire in November, Ocean Star Pacific was built in 1971. It was originally called Nordic Prince and was constructed for the Royal Caribbean fleet. In 1995, it was renamed Carousel for the now-defunct Sun Cruises. Under various operators between 1995 and 2010, it carried the name Aquamarine and Arielle.

Startup Mexico-based cruise operator Ocean Star Cruises acquired the ship in December 2010, and it underwent a multimillion-dollar refit in March 2011 at the AMK yard in Curacao. The vessel entered service April 10, with an itinerary including Acapulco and Manzanillo.

The Panama Maritime Authority and the Mexican Navy, which responds to and sometimes investigates maritime casualties, didn't reply to requests for comment on the April casualty.

Industry organizations may be reluctant to act before investigative reports are published that detail exactly what caused the casualties, Dodge said.

In the Carnival Splendor case, investigators were probing whether electrical wiring from each of the two supposedly redundant and isolated engine rooms ran through the aft engine room, where the generator fire burned. U.S. Coast Guard safety alerts to the industry said the ship's fixed CO2 firefighting system didn't operate correctly due to numerous leaks and component failures. The alerts warned the industry to maintain its firefighting systems properly.

Historically, cruise operators emphasized the need to keep the electric power flowing to passenger amenities, such as the restaurants and nightclubs, and revenue-generators, especially casinos, said Dodge, a former chief engineer who has not been involved with Carnival Splendor or Ocean Star Pacific. It may be difficult for the engineers to admit that blackout prevention didn't get the attention it deserved.

"Ships of a certain size or class were built under the same set of plans," he said. "Nobody wants to step forward and say, 'Hey, there is a major bug in this design,' and crews would be chastised severely from upper management if they said there was a flaw in the design."

Dodge predicts the recent blackouts will prompt the industry to redouble its emphasis on engine-room safety, including the redundant systems to prevent a total power loss.

"It needs to be looked at for the safety of the passengers," said Dodge, whose consultancy is based in Hawaii. "This could be turned into a team effort to resolve it. We could start something that makes those companies re-evaluate what they are doing and consider refurbishment."

Ocean Star Pacific was towed to Salina Cruz, Mexico, for repairs. The cruise line had announced that it would return to service in May, but by July it still had not.

By Professional Mariner Staff