Take precautions on a cruise ship


September 15, 2008

You’re off on a long-dreamed-of vacation, a cruise to sunny Caribbean islands. You’re on a big cruise liner with a couple thousand other passengers. There are doctors and nurses on board, locks on your stateroom door, lots of public spaces, and ship personnel at your beck and call. Safety isn’t something to worry about.

Not so, says Miami maritime lawyer Charles R. Lipcon in a new book, “Unsafe on the High Seas.”

“The problem is, people don’t think anything bad can happen,” Lipcon said in an interview. But as on any vacation, things can go wrong even on a cruise ship, he says, and passengers need to keep their guard up.

Most importantly, he says, don’t leave your common sense behind.

“Getting on a cruise ship is like traveling to a strange city. Take some precautions,” Lipcon said.

You wouldn’t walk alone at night in a strange city; don’t do it on a cruise ship. You wouldn’t go to a stranger’s room ashore; don’t go to a crew member’s room on board.

Those are some of the safety tips that Lipcon gives in his book.

“That’s the reason I wrote the book – to tell passengers how to avoid problems,” said the Miami attorney, who has filed many lawsuits on behalf of clients who experienced problems aboard ship.

“When you get on a cruise ship, you’re not in the United States anymore,” he warned. The laws of the ship’s country of registry aren’t the same as those in America, and you may not get the protections. Medical care is limited and may not be up to U.S. standards.

Passengers having too good a time at a ship bar also may be at risk, Lipcon writes. “Fueled by firewater, people do crazy things.” Young women in particular can fall prey to the date rape drug. His advice to them: Only drink beverages you have witnessed being prepared, and ask that bottled drinks come unopened. “That’s a must.”

Stateroom safety is another area Lipcon touches on. “Never open your door to strangers,” he writes. All valuables should be locked in a safe and guard your key card, just as you would your credit card ashore.

That said, the vast majority of passengers never experience any problems aboard, except perhaps for spending more than they intended.

Cruise line representatives say crimes on board are extremely rare. Quoting from testimony at last year’s Congressional hearings, Michael Crye, executive vice president of the Cruise Line Industry Association, said that of the 4.4 million passengers who sailed from April to Aug. 24 in 2007, only .01 percent were involved in reported incidents.

While Lipcon’s recitation of what can happen aboard ship can sound intimidating, the attorney says the intent of his book is not to scare people away from taking a cruise, but to send them off with their eyes open.

“Have fun, be cool, but be wary,” he advises.


Here are some precautions Charles Lipcon cites in his book, “Unsafe on the High Seas“:

-Before you step aboard, read the fine print in your cruise contract.

-Meet fellow passengers in public areas, not cabins. Remember that a cruise ship is like a small city but with an often inadequate security force, so be alert.

-Set rules for your children, just as you would at home. Think about using walkie-talkies to keep in touch with them.

-Never go alone anywhere on ship where it is isolated, especially in the evening and early morning.

-When you enter your cabin, check the bathroom and closet while the door is still open.

-Use all the locks on the cabin door. Never open your door to a stranger.

-If you drink, do so in moderation. Only drink beverages you have seen prepared.

If you are a victim:

-Take photos of the scene and of your condition.

-Call the FBI (305-944-9101 or 202-324-3000) and Coast Guard (Atlantic, 757-398-6390; Pacific, 510-437-3701) from the ship, get them involved. Don’t expect the cruise line to take physical evidence.

-Contact U.S. Embassy or Consulate if you are at a foreign port of call. Notify your family, doctors, lawyers, insurance companies, etc.

-Get names, addresses and phone numbers of possible witnesses. Take statements.

-Sexual assault or rape victims should not eat, drink, shower, bathe, brush teeth or go to the bathroom before a rape exam is done by a physician.

-Blood samples from the victim should be taken immediately.


Ships are breeding grounds for disease-causing viruses, and one of the most common of these is the notorious Norwalk virus, or norovirus.

“You need to be careful on board,” says Jean Fleming, a registered nurse who is clinical director of infection prevention for Nice-Pak Products, which makes sanitary wipes. “You can get norovirus and MRSA (a common staph strain) from high-touch surfaces such as handrails, elevator buttons, door knobs and computer keyboards.”

Her advice:

-Wash your hands frequently.

-Carry hand sanitizing wipes with you. She says wipes are better than gels.

-Wash your hands before eating.