More on the Canadian Military’s Staged Cruise Ship Accident from Our Maritime Attorney

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Icebergs can pose a danger to cruise shipsA few days ago, our maritime attorney, Michael Winkleman, discussed a rather unusual exercise carried out by the Canadian military with the goal of improving emergency response tactics. One of the exercises involved staging a cruise ship accident. The “fake” accident is part of the Operation Nanook 2014 initiative and is scheduled to take place at the port of Iqaluit, capital of Nunavut, wherein a “distressed” vessel will attempt to call on the port.

Unlike previous exercises, this particular safety tactic goes above and beyond to provide trainees with as realistic of an experience as possible, even using actual volunteers to represent cruise passengers. The area where the training mission is scheduled to occur is riddled with hazards. Large ice blocks, rogue waves and extreme frigid temperatures all make for an exceptionally difficult sail for cruise ships in the area, which often leads to accidents. Moreover, the harsh environment of the Arctic makes it difficult for emergency responders to execute their rescue missions when an accident does take place. Sometimes, cruise ships become stuck on icebergs, and because of the surrounding ice, it can take days for a rescue crew to even make it to the scene of the accident to assist those in distress.

In planning for this year’s exercise (one of the military’s annual safety initiatives to improve safety and emergency response times), the military examined previous initiatives as well as prior cruise ship accidents. In particular, the military drew from a 2010 incident in which all 28 passengers aboard the Adventure Canada ship, Clipper Adventurer, had to be evacuated after the vessel ran aground near Nunavut.

The operators claimed the vessel struck an uncharted rock, and while we usually would not be inclined to believe this, as one of the world’s most catastrophic cruise accidents, the Costa Concordia capsizing tragedy of 2012, was the result of the ship striking a rock. The captain of the Concordia, Francesco Schettino, claimed the rock was not on his nautical maps. However, the difference here is that the waters around Giglio, Italy (where the Concordia capsized) are nothing compared to the waters in the Arctic. It is much more likely that Schettino misread his maps over the possibility that a giant rock was not chartered. The waters in the Arctic are extremely volatile and the landscape ever-changing. What may have been a “rock” the Clipper Adventurer was believed to have struck could have been an iceberg or other ice structure impeding navigation that lied below the surface. It is much harder to accurately map out Arctic regions, which is why it is imperative these types of realistic emergency training initiatives take place.

In the face of an emergency in the middle of the Arctic where the ice formations may or may not be chartered, it’s critical that responders have a plan in place and can maneuver around any obstacles to reach victims as quickly as possible.

This week’s training scenario was modeled partly on the future voyage of the Crystal Cruises ship, Crystal Serenity, which is scheduled to sail through the Northwest passage in 2016 with a carrying capacity of 1,070 passengers. Despite the fact that these Arctic waters don’t see the same kind of traffic as other areas that are popular for cruise travel (i.e. the Caribbean and Europe), nor are they sailed by large vessels, the fact still remains that if any cruise ships traverse the region, a plan needs to be in place ready to go in case something goes wrong. Crystal Cruises is even working together with the Canadian military to help create as realistic of an emergency scenario as possible. And the best part about the initiative is the fact that the same kinds of tactics employed for the Arctic mission can be used as a model for other remote and hazardous regions and applied in those areas’ rescue endeavors.

However, while we largely applaud the efforts of the Canadian military and wish actual cruise lines would follow suit and improve their own emergency tactics, it doesn’t take away from the fact that cruise ships sailing in the Arctic need to be able to handle emergencies on their own. Like we said, it can be a few days before an emergency crew can even reach a distressed ship, so it’s important for the vessel’s operators to effectively carry out an evacuation if need be.

And equally important – if not priority – is the need for cruise ship operators to take all reasonable precautions to prevent accidents first and foremost. Yes, knowing how to handle an emergency after the fact is something every maritime organization should know how to do in their sleep, but not enough attention is placed on the need to prevent accidents before they occur.

By investing a sufficient amount of time and resources into better and more detailed safety training for cruise ship crew members, hiring qualified lifeguards and security guards, and installing better surveillance equipment (and actually reviewing it), the rate of cruise ship accidents would drastically drop. Many accidents at sea or in port are the direct result of a cruise line’s inability to maintain onboard safety. Many of their protocols are outdated and their technology sub-par. And perhaps most glaringly, cruise lines are often understaffed and the workers onboard the ships dramatically overworked.

Some cruise operators whose vessels pass through the Arctic carry out extensive training sessions for their crew and risk assessment endeavors, but this should be an industry-wide mandate.

And even then, the Canadian military’s efforts might not be as “realistic” as it should be. The organization stated that in the event of inclement weather, the location of the staged accident will be moved elsewhere. This pretty much defeats the purpose of the mission. If responders don’t learn how to work through the kinds of adverse conditions that may present themselves in the Arctic, what’s the point of carrying out the mission to begin with? As the popular expression goes, “Go big or go home.” If the mission is going to be as realistic as possible and provide the best training for a future emergency, it should be performed in the harshest conditions possible.

The Clipper Adventurer did reveal there would be some “holes” in the crew’s level of preparedness and ability to respond to emergencies, so that will make for a pretty realistic scenario. One of the largest criticisms about the Concordia accident from survivors was the fact that none of the crew members seemed to know what they were doing once the catastrophe began. Everything was pure chaos, with crew scrambling around, speaking in different languages and unable to maintain order and as calm of an environment as possible for the evacuation of the passengers.

Regardless of what initiatives are in place, the fact remains that cruise ships can encounter peril at any time, and it doesn’t appear as though safety initiatives will be at their full capacity anytime soon. For these reasons, it’s important any cruise passenger is fully aware of their rights in the event an accident takes place. Anyone who has suffered an injury, lost a loved one or who has become in a capsizing accident has the right to contact a maritime attorney for help. An experienced lawyer can help determine whether or not the victim has a viable case and can ensure they obtain justice for the negligent actions of a cruise line or crew.

Nonetheless, we commend and appreciate the efforts of the Canadian government and military in staging this exercise and hope that it will serve as a model for the cruise industry as a whole. If nothing else, it is a reminder of how effective government monitoring of the cruise industry can be.