This is a guest blog by Eve Baxton.
Nowadays, cruise ships are widely regarded to be one of the safest forms of travel, more so than both airplanes and automobiles. Like with all forms of travel however, when an unfortunate disaster does strike, it usually provides stark lessons for the future – prompting new safety procedures, policies and changes in law to avoid the same ever happening again.
Perhaps the most profound maritime example of this was in 1912 with the sinking of the RMS Titanic. Since the disaster, which claimed the lives of over 1,500 people, swift changes were made within Maritime law in regards to passenger safety; namely, providing enough lifeboats for all on-board. An obvious safety precaution it would seem, but human error can still find a way – as the sinking of the Costa Concordia earlier this year also demonstrated.
Around 9:45, on the evening of the 13th of January, the Costa Concordia struck a rock just off the eastern shore of Islo Del Giglio, on the western coast of Italy, tearing a 50 metre gash on the left side of the hull. Parts of the engine room immediately began to flood and having lost power, the ship drifted back towards the shore of Giglio, where it grounded and began to sink on its starboard (right) side (otherwise known as ‘listing’) – eventually rendering the lifeboats on that side unusable. Instead of being evacuated within 30 minutes of the abandon ship announcement (as Maritime Law dictates) it took over six hours for all surviving passengers to make it off the ship, despite the close proximity to shore and calm sea. The disaster resulted in the deaths of thirty people, with another two missing and presumed dead.
Both the captain, Francesco Schettino, and Costa Cruises received heavy criticism for the disaster and loss of life which could’ve been avoided had multiple safety violations not been made and protocol been better adhered to. Like the Titanic, and other more recent maritime disasters (such as the MV Le Joola in 2002 and the MS al-Salam Boccaccio 98 in 2006, killing over 4000 and 900 people respectively) the sinking of the Concordia has prompted multiple changes in maritime law.
The sinking was a direct result of the Concordia moving off its designated route, to within 150 metres close of the shore, in a manoeuver known as a ‘salute’ or ‘showboating’, a sail-by for promotional purposes. Most if not all cruise liners perform these manoeuvers, which by their nature have the potential to be dangerous, but are safe if they’re properly navigated. This one however was instead scheduled to take place a few days previous, but was cancelled due to bad weather. It was claimed by crew members that Schettino, deviated from a GPS navigated route past the shore in order to make this salute; which ultimately led to the Concordia’s collision.
With too many of the hull compartments breached with water to keep the ship afloat (in such a way that mirrored the fate of the Titanic) and its sinking inevitable, fatalities still could’ve been avoided. After the initial impact and power had been lost, frightened passengers were told that there had been a power failure and not to worry. Once the extent of the situation was established, passengers were eventually told to get put on their life jackets and to go to their muster stations. However, illustrating the lack of direction and communication amongst the Concordia’s crew, a crew member was filmed telling passengers that all was well and to go back to their cabins, just 30 minutes before the abandon ship announcement was made. When it eventually was, the crew were reluctant to lower lifeboats, almost an hour before the ship began to list making them impossible to deploy thereafter. Consequently many passengers were left stranded on the ship, whilst some made it to shore on lifeboats, others being helped by locals, and others attempting to swim to shore. The captain broke protocol by leaving the ship whilst his passengers were still on-board. The evacuation efforts went on until 4:46 am.
The Changes in Law
Perhaps the most prominent change in maritime law prompted by the Costa Concordia is that all cruise liners must now hold safety drills for passengers before the ship even leaves the dock. Previously, it had to be held within the first 24 hours of setting sail. In the Costa Concordia’s case, this drill was held within the first 24 hours for new passengers, but of the 4,252 passengers, 696 people who boarded the ship at Civitavecchia had not been briefed on safety procedures, with the drill scheduled for the next day. This naturally caused a lot of confusion and panic when passengers were called to the muster stations.
Other procedures under review include the way in which crew take the muster. Amidst panic during an actual disaster, or during a routine drill which holidaying passengers may not take seriously (or pay attention to) the accuracy of calling out names and ticking off lists comes into question – especially on large cruise liners with thousands of passengers. Royal Caribbean Cruises have adopted a more effective method on two of their cruise ships. Both Oasis and Allure of the Seas (two of the largest cruise liners in the world) have a far more accurate method in which the crew scan passenger’s key cards, allowing them to determine who is present in a much swifter, less chaotic fashion. Another possible change is the addition of more life jackets in public areas. With the power cut on the Costa Concordia, dark conditions made it difficult for passengers to go back to their cabins to retrieve their life jackets, more so for recently boarded passengers unfamiliar with the ships layout. Royal Caribbean Cruises again have been quite innovative with their solutions, handing out lifejackets at the muster stations instead.
Countless other regulations, precautions and procedures are also being reviewed, with staff training also being reassessed. The nature of disasters such as the sinking of the Costa Concordia, or even the Titanic, are so often made up of one initial incident, mistake or otherwise, which doesn’t necessarily have to pose a threat to human life. What does pose a threat however is when the correct procedures are not adhered to, or are ineffective, causing more mistakes to be made and turning something preventable into a disaster. Maritime law has continued to push for the highest standards to protect everyone who goes on a cruise, with each (albeit statistically rare) disaster over the years shedding light on areas that need improvement; having a large impact on the safety regulations, precautions and procedures of today. These all serve to protect passengers, whatever the situation. And perhaps it’s because we learn so much from the past that a cruise ship still remains one of the safest ways to travel.