By CHABELI HERRERA For Bradenton Herald
For one avid cruiser on the Miami-based luxury line SeaDream Yacht Club, the niche company’s small ships were a big part of the appeal.
The North Carolina-based passenger knew she’d likely get to know many of the SeaDream I’s 112 passengers and 95 crew members — including a Portuguese bartender, whom she had met on past sailings with the line and who was joining the ship in Dubrovnik, Croatia on the same day she was in June 2015.
But on a choppy night in the Adriatic Sea four days into the seven-night journey, the ship’s familiarity and intimacy would turn on the 46-year-old woman in an unexpected way.
In a suit filed Thursday in Miami district court, the woman, who has chosen not to give her name, alleges the bartender “brutally” raped her vaginally, anally and orally that night. She claims that SeaDream was negligent.
The night of the alleged rape, June 24, 2015, the woman said in an interview, she had taken her usual sleeping tablet, a medication she had taken for four years at that point, along with a seasickness tablet handed to her by a concierge.
That’s when she headed over to the piano bar, where the bartender worked. Accompanying her was a lifelong friend who was on the voyage with her.
The bartender, whom she and her friend knew well from previous sailings on the line, gave her water to take the pill, a ginger drink to soothe the nausea and a glass of wine, she said.
That’s where her memory starts to get fuzzy, she said, likely because of the combination of pills.
In and out of consciousness, she remembers two things, she said: Her friend leaving her with the bartender, who promised to get her back to the room safely, and the bartender raping her behind the bar.
The bartender, she alleges, closed the blinds surrounding the bar and “forcibly” raped her.
“He was raping me in all areas possible and I was crying and I was asking him, ‘Why are you doing this to me? You are hurting me,’” she said in a phone interview arranged by her attorney.
The woman was eventually dropped her off in her room, where she said she stayed for almost the remaining time of the trip as she tried to cope with what had happened, she claims.
As the ship neared its destination in Venice, Italy, she decided to call the ship’s doctor, who was unable to perform a full examination because there was no rape kit on board the SeaDream I, she said. The captain, she alleges, didn’t come see her when she called for him.
Instead, he asked her friend as they were disembarking the ship, “Does your friend intend to sue SeaDream?” she recalled in the phone interview. “At that point it wasn’t even a consideration,” she said.
SeaDream declined to comment on this story, citing pending litigation.
The woman has been deeply affected by the alleged rape, according to the lawsuit.
“For a while I was in the depth of darkness,” she said in the phone interview. “If there is anyone that even slightly resembles the way that he looks, it takes my breathe away. If I’m in the bedroom, my husband has to let me know in advance before he walks in the door.”
“I’m now a member of a club I didn’t wish to become a member of.”
In the suit, the plaintiff is asking for $25 million in damages from the cruise line, which she alleges was negligent in providing a reasonably safe environment for its passengers.
Lawsuits involving rapes on cruise ships are typically settled, said the plaintiff’s attorney, Michael Winkleman, of Miami-based firm Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman. The firm, which specializes in maritime claims, handles dozens of sexual assault cases on cruise ships every year, he said.
But the current volume of cases his firm sees is at “epidemic levels,” he said.
“The vast majority of these cases resolve with confidentiality provisions and that of course is because the cruise lines have a very strong interest in keeping these types of tragedies quiet,” Winkleman said.
Cases involving crew members raping passengers are fairly common, he said, but the severity of the SeaDream passenger’s case is “very rare.”
In 2010, Congress passed the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act in response to a high number of sexual assault cases. Per the act, “sexual assault and physical assaults on cruise vessels were the leading crimes investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation with regard to cruise vessel incidents” from 2005 to 2010. Under the law, cruise lines are now required to self-report criminal activity.
Sexual assault is the No. 1 crime reported by the major cruise lines. Of 114 reported crimes between April 2015 and December 2016 from major lines, excluding SeaDream, more than 60 percent were sexual assault cases involving either passengers and crew members.
Still, based on the volume of cases he sees, Winkleman said, “it’s our opinion that [sexual assaults] are dramatically underreported.”