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 100 years on from the Titanic, how safe is modern cruising?

April 2018

Serious incidents are today very rare indeed

It was at this time of year, mid April, that the big ship Titanic sunk just over a century ago. Since then of course cruise liners have changed out of all recognition. But is there still a risk as the modern gigantic liners cruise our oceans?

In recent years there have been some interesting incidents re cruise liners at sea but generally most have been caused by human error. Despite the alarming figures that 66 passenger ships have run aground since 2005 and 79 cruise ships have been in collisions in the same period, most of these were relatively minor. Any serious incident these days is all over the news in a flash...look at the live footage we had when the Costa Concordia was steered into the Italian coast in 2012. Or when the Carnival Triumph lost electrical power due to an engine room fire four years ago...the ship with over 3000 passengers were left adrift in the Gulf of Mexico for days.

But really these are incredibly rare incidents and thankfully there are very very few like the tragedy ten years ago this year when the Princess of the Stars sank in the Philippines with a large loss of life. This disaster was because a typhoon passed right over the ship. Which brings the question, should we still avoid taking a cruise during a hurricane season.

The hurricane season in the popular cruising region of the Caribbean really runs from mid August to October. The cyclone season in the South Pacific and Australasia runs from November to around April although further north in the Bay of Bengal the tropical cyclones come in later from April to June and can also come between September to November.

By careful planning and booking, you can avoid the worst of the hurricane and cyclone seasons, but weather is very fickle and that will never absolutely guarantee a sudden storm will not brew up right on your route.

The good news is that really no passenger should be worried in any way. There are lots of statistics proving that today air, car or even train travel can be far more dangerous than cruising on a large passenger ship, and even better weather forecasting has improved so much that the big cruise ships have a good idea of what they are heading into...and when they should adjust their route to avoid trouble ahead.

The crew on a big ship monitors the weather continually, checking with a number of agencies including the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System, where different stations transmit weather information and advice and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The captain and crew are well trained to read and understand weather forecasts.

If an unexpected hurricane or storm conditions look like heading into its route, a cruise ship will usually change route early to avoid the area. This may mean altering course quite dramatically and missing a port of call, but safety is always the priority. Of course shipping companies never want to do this, as a change of plan can cost a lot more in fuel and additional organisation.

When ships know there are some rough seas ahead, but not bad enough to adjust course, then this is when the ships stabilizers really come into their own. Cruise ships are all today equipped with these devices which stick out from the side of a ship like small wings. They can detect the heeling angle of a ship and then can pivot up and down as the water rolls over them to counter the movement of a wave.

If rough seas are forecast, then a captain will usually ask passengers to stay in their cabins to keep them safe from the vigorous movement..and from injury from any sliding or breaking furniture or equipment in the ship. 

Despite all precautions, the seas are unpredictable. This was shown more recently when a Royal Caribbean cruise ran into rough seas in the Atlantic and the captain ordered all passengers into their cabins as furniture flew around the inside of the ship. The ship had to turn around to Cape Liberty, New Jersey and four passengers were sadly injured. But it was a very unusual occurrence, even in the treacherous north Atlantic, and the company said that while they prefer not to encounter these conditions, the modern ships are designed to handle the conditions and there was never any threat to the vessel.

Despite that, most captains try to avoid trouble. Last autumn both the Royal Caribbean and the Norwegian Cruise Line cancelled sailings to avoid Hurricane Irma, while a number of other companies including Carnival, Celebrity and Disney Cruise Line all totally re-routed their ships to keep away.

Nearer home rough seas can sometimes be more damaging than predicted. This happened a few years ago when the MS Marco Polo was sailing near Brittany and the results were shown all over the UK television. A rogue wave smashed windows in the restaurant area and sadly an elderly passenger died after being showered by breaking glass.

Overall though, and also thanks to modern technology, the latest generation of huge cruise ships are safer than ever. However, everyone on a cruise does need to remember that despite the luxurious surroundings, they may well be out to sea a long way from assistance. So always attend lifeboat drills and learn where the life jackets are stowed and where you need to gather in an emergency..just in case.

But in 100 years things have progressed so far from the Titanic disaster, and really these days people can relax on their cruise totally confident that they are in the safest hands possible.

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