How to take steps to make your cruise safer


By Tom Stieghorst
July 17, 2006

How to take steps to make your cruise safer

Cruise safety has been in the news over the past year thanks to a fire, a fatal shore excursion accident, and accounts of passengers who have fallen overboard or have gone missing. Not to mention the ship hit by a rogue wave

While the industry points to a safety record better than other forms of transport, critics say cruise passengers face more dangers than the industry lets on, and that when things go wrong, there are few authorities to sort things out.

More regulation, as some in Congress suggest, is one approach to making cruises safer.

But maritime safety experts say there are also practical things passengers can do to help themselves enjoy a safe cruise. They range from packing the right clothes and emergency phone numbers to knowing how to get to evacuation stations and forming a family plan in case there is a shipboard emergency.

“It doesn’t have to be that time-consuming or expensive,” argues Ron Butcher, a retired Coast Guard ship inspector from Henderson, Nev., whose book Cruise Control; Your Peace of Mind at Sea was published in May.

Butcher said his most important tip for cruise passengers is to take responsibility for their own safety. Anticipate problems; stay aware of your surroundings and pay attention to your own good instincts.

But isn’t a cruise all about throwing your cares to the wind? Butcher said staying safe and being relaxed aren’t mutually exclusive.

“Think of it as locking the door of your house. There’s a certain element of safety that we like to have that leads to relaxation,” he said.

Safety starts well before the cruise. Passengers have a choice of which cruise lines to patronize and while the best-known brands have similarities, Butcher recommends reading the cruise contract before buying your ticket.

Some lines include language such as “no guarantee is given or shall be implied as to the seaworthiness, fitness or condition of the vessel,” wording that Butcher said should serve as a big red flag.

Next, be safety-conscious in planning and packing for your trip. Bring a whistle, for example, a cheap safety device that can be carried on a wristband and generates an ear-piercing sound that carries farther than a human voice.

Passengers should talk with their cruise companions before departure about where to meet in an emergency, about what safety ground rules they will observe and whether and how often to have a regular check-back meeting.

For families with children, this is especially important. The FBI in testimony to Congress identified sexual assault as the dominant threat to women and minors on the high seas. Talk to kids about staying out of crew areas, about not going into cabins alone, or opening their cabin door for people other than their parents.

Medical help on a ship is limited. Butcher said passengers should bring a week’s extra supply of prescription medicine, in case of unforeseen problems. Hand-washing limits the spread of viral gastroenteritis, which hits about 20 cruises annually.

A serious illness could require evacuation, which can cost up to $50,000, so passengers should check health insurance policies for coverage.

Shipboard doctors are contractors, not employees, and are typically trained overseas. “Don’t rely on getting U.S.-style medical care on the ship,” cautions Charles Lipcon, a Miami attorney who handles medical claims from cruise passengers.

Groundings, collisions or fires at sea are rare, but can happen. If an alarm sounds, know how to get to your lifeboat station, not only from your cabin but also from elsewhere on the ship. Sleep with a flashlight handy.

A declared emergency is one of the few times you may need to use crew stairwells. Know the one nearest your cabin.

To regulate body warmth in the water or in a lifeboat, Butcher recommends packing a scuba hood, and wearing several layers of clothes, starting with thermal underwear.

The cruise ship isn’t the only vessel passengers encounter on a cruise vacation. Many board smaller boats to reach the dock, or on shore excursions. Smaller boats have had more fatal accidents than cruise ships, and passengers should take a minute as they board to imagine how they would get off in an emergency.

Shore tours should be carefully considered for safety.

“I wouldn’t say cruise lines are the only place to book shore excursions,” said Michael Crye, president of the International Council of Cruise Lines, a trade group, “but if you book directly, try to be sure they have the right kind of insurance where you can bring a lawsuit in the U.S.”

In March, 12 people on a Celebrity Cruises voyage died on a tour when their bus plunged off a mountain road in Chile. Authorities said the bus was not yet registered to carry passengers and the driver fell asleep at the wheel.

If someone in your cruise party is missing, talk to ship’s security as fast as possible. After a reasonable time to search the ship, ask them to call the Coast Guard or call yourself. Bring a recent family picture to show the crew who is missing.

To safeguard against assault or other crimes on ships, passengers should stay with others. “People shouldn’t go anywhere all alone, especially on the outside decks late at night,” said Lipcon. Drinking to excess can leave you vulnerable to both crimes and accidental falls.

Hanging out with crew members isn’t a good idea, said Butcher. “I would avoid contact with the crew as much as possible outside the scope of their jobs,” he said.

Also, moving a party from a public area to your cabin late at night with people you met on the cruise is a risky idea.

If you are attacked or robbed, do whatever possible to preserve evidence afterward. Bring the phone number of a personal attorney with you. Having the phone numbers for FBI offices and U.S. consulates on your itinerary also helps.

Finally, although cruise lines say they take care of passengers who are victimized, civil attorneys say otherwise.

Remember that the crew and security team on the ship aren’t independent investigators. “If something goes wrong, [passengers] shouldn’t rely on the cruise lines to be looking out for them,” said Lipcon.

While cooperating with the crew, passengers should also call their own doctor, the FBI, the Coast Guard or a lawyer from the high seas, he said, especially if the incident takes place in a foreign port or territorial waters.

“They’re not going to get U.S.-style law enforcement there,” Lipcon said.

Tom Stieghorst can be reached at [email protected] or 305-810-5008