Wading in Murky Waters


By Sheila Marikar

This year, more than 12 million people will book trips on cruise ships, hoping to relax and kick back onboard luxury liners. But sojourns on the high seas aren’t always smooth, and in some cases they can even be dangerous.

Recent incidents of passengers falling overboard, mysteriously disappearing, falling victim to crime and abusing alcohol have made the cruise experience seem more murky than placid.

Earlier this week, a man and woman fell from their Princess cruise ship balcony into waters off the coast of Texas. Before that, in early March, Michael Menckmyer plunged 60 feet into the dark abyss of the Caribbean after drinking too much.

The high seas can also pose a risk of high crimes. According to the International Council of Cruise Lines, there were 178 complaints of sexual assault, four robberies and 24 missing persons aboard cruises between 2003 and 2005.

False Sense of Security

Terry Riley, cognitive psychologist and author of “Travel Can Be Murder: The Business Traveler’s Guide to Personal Safety,” believes that because of the sense of safety cruises provide, people onboard sometimes let themselves go a little too wild.

“They tend to feel secure because they’re thinking, ‘I’m not in a foreign country where all those other people are,’ so they think they can relax,” he said.

Because of this false sense of security, cruise passengers often make themselves susceptible to crime.

“They think, ‘I’m around the pool, it’s OK. I can leave my stuff here, because where’s somebody going to escape to?’ And they might not even notice how things are gone until they get home,” Riley said.

Drinking only exacerbates that line of thinking. When alcohol is thrown into the mix, people are prone to make bad decisions — like imbibing on a balcony floating 60 feet above the ocean.

In March, Michael Menckmyer let loose on a seven-day Bahamas cruise to celebrate a godson’s birthday. Whether an adverse reaction, or just too much of a good time, Menckmyer blacked out.

“I had ordered some room service and beer, and I was drinking that. I don’t remember much after that,” he told ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “Apparently, the alcohol took over with the medication I was on.”

Just after midnight, Menckmyer inexplicably leapt off the side of the ship found himself floating in the Caribbean. He was rescued and revived hours later.

Riley explained that passengers who drink too much can run into danger on deck, too.

“Criminals tend to narrow in on people who are drunk,” Riley said. “They are followed from bars because that’s where the drunks are and that’s where the bad guys can see the behavior they’re looking for.”

Be Aware of Risks

Lawyer Charles Lipcon has made a career out of prosecuting cruise lines for crimes against passengers. He doesn’t think the average person is aware of the risks that go along with a high-seas vacation.

“They don’t understand the dangers,” he said. “They mistakenly believe they’re in a totally safe environment and nothing could be further from the truth. It’s quite dangerous for themselves and for their children.”

Because it’s hard to prosecute a crime that happens in international waters, Lipcon believes sexual predators and other dangerous people flock to cruises.

“It’s a great place to murder somebody and nothing will happen,” he said. “Nobody investigates.”

Making Safety a Priority

The Cruise Line International Association maintains that it constantly works to ensure passenger safety and says people rarely fall overboard or go missing.

“Our passengers’ safety and security is the cruise industry’s highest priority. Cruising is one of the most popular vacation options, in large part because of its excellent safety record,” the CLIA said in a statement. “The recent incidents of passengers falling overboard are isolated. In 2006, cruise lines provided Congress with data that showed that less than one per 1 million cruise passengers went missing over a three-year period.”

Carnival, the cruise line on which at least six passengers have gone missing since 2004, said it exercises a zero tolerance policy towards crime onboard its ships and trains security personnel in specialized areas, including bomb detection, crisis management, first aid, firefighting and fire prevention.

“The safety and security of guests and crew is our No. 1 priority,” Carnival said in a statement. “Any allegation of crime aboard our vessels is taken seriously and reported to appropriate law enforcement authorities.”

Despite criminal activity and overboard incidents, the cruise industry hasn’t suffered. The CLIA expects approximately 12.6 million people to travel aboard cruises this year, up 500,000 from last year.

What Cruise-Goers Can Do

Lipcon urged those who board luxury liners to pack their common sense with them.

“As far as crimes go, they should never walk by themselves late at night on an outside deck. Children always need to be supervised,” he said. “It’s the kind of thing where you’ve got to use your common sense. People leave their common sense at the dock. They think they’re totally safe.”

Riley offered the following tips for behaving onboard a cruise ship, or in any travel situation.

  • Pack a small flashlight: You may need it to light your way in an emergency.
  • Carry a cell phone: It’s like traveling with a “virtual” buddy, and help is only a few button presses away.
  • Make eye contact: Develop a habit of looking around and making eye contact with others — especially with those behind you.
  • Avoid alcohol and other drugs: If you can’t think straight, you are setting yourself up to be a victim.
  • Trust your instincts: Listen to your internal warning system. In most cases it won’t let you down.
  • Stay with others: There is safety in numbers.
  • Never trust others to arrange for your safety: You are ultimately responsible for your personal safety while traveling.