How Safe are We at Sea?

And although the world changed dramatically on September 11, one thing that has not been required to change as much as other aspects of travel is cruise ship security. That's because cruise ships have, for the most part, always adhered to very strict security guidelines and practices. While the cruise lines and governments around the world have tightened and refined security after the recent turn of events, cruise ships have always been relatively secure.

As an avid and frequent cruiser, I decided to explore the subject. I talked to a number of people in the cruise industry and some in the U.S. government. Some things you'll find surprising, others you will not. If you're looking for real in-depth information about precautions, policies and tactics, please look elsewhere. It wouldn't be proper to discuss or divulge any information that is considered sensitive.

Immediately after the terrorist attacks of September 11, cruise lines implemented what they call "Level 3" security measures, as outlined by the U.S. Coast Guard's "Security for Passenger Vessels and Passenger Terminals" regulations. These measures include:

  • Screening of all passenger baggage, carry-on luggage, ship stores and cargo; intensified screening of passenger lists and passenger identification; close coordination with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and other federal agencies to ensure that any passengers or crew suspected of being on the INS "Prevent Departure" list are promptly reported to the federal authorities.

  • Restricting access to any sensitive vessel areas, such as the bridge and the engine room.

  • Implementing onboard security measures to deter unauthorized entry and illegal activity.

  • Requiring all commercial vessels to give 96 hours notice before entering U.S. ports. Previously, ships had to give 24 hours' notice.

  • Maintaining a 100-yard security zone around cruise ships.

    Let's look at some of the basic fundamentals of cruise ship security.

    Controlled Access One thing that contributes to the security of cruise ships is that it's relatively easy for them to move about and alter ports of call if any are deemed unsafe. Cruise ships are also relatively easy to "contain"--that is, it's easy to control and limit access to the ships. When a ship is in port, passengers and crew can only enter through one or two controlled access points, where ship's security personnel can check IDs, manifests and such. Because access to the terminals and docking areas is limited as well, it's relatively tough to get onboard if you don't belong there.

    Anti-Terrorism Measures The greatest threat to passengers and the ships themselves is terrorism. Consequently, the cruise lines are taking preventive measures like security checks of all passengers, carry-on parcels and checked baggage. Unlike the airlines, which only x-ray 10 to 20 percent of all checked baggage, cruise lines have the time to thoroughly x-ray every bag that goes into the ship. All passengers and crew are now required to pass through metal detectors before boarding. The crew and port officials also examine every shipment of supplies that is brought aboard. When ships are in port, watches are posted on deck, and at night, the decks are lit and ropes are let in.

    The ships are also keeping records of who is aboard and not aboard at any given time, and most major lines now have automated systems that enable security personnel to see exactly who is on the ship at any given moment, at the touch of a button. Recently, when the Golden Princess departed the Azores for Fort Lauderdale, it happened that two passengers had suddenly disembarked the vessel without notice. At that point, the ship abruptly reversed course heading back for the Azores and the entire ship was searched from stem to stern. Eventually the staff realized that there was no threat and all was well.

    Trained Security Security onboard varies from line to line and ship to ship. Some cruise lines hire former military and naval personnel to implement and oversee their security, whiles others hire private security firms or former law enforcement officers. In the past, most security measures were intended to deal with passenger disturbances, but the focus now is on maintaining a safe and secure environment, eliminating or minimizing the threat of harm to passengers, crew and ship. Some lines even have dedicated security personnel whose primary job is to assess the risk potential and work with onboard crew to make sure all the proper procedures are taken. Each port is reviewed for its history of security-related incidents, stowaway threat, contraband threat, shore-side security operations and equipment, and so on. Ship staffers are trained to recognize and deal with things like a crew member being in an unauthorized area, an unfamiliar face in a crew area, a passenger in an off-limits area, or a bag being found somewhere it

    Some lines carry security to extremes: Princess Cruises uses Gurkahs, the famed and extremely fierce Nepalese fighters of the British Army, for it's fleetwide security force. They have been in place for some time; at last report, there were at least six on both Grand Princess and Golden Princess.

    Passengers often ask if there are armed security personnel aboard. For obvious reasons, I cant answer that--but no one really wants to find out, do they?

    Big Brother is Watching Did you realize there are surveillance cameras all around you onboard ship? Security personnel, officers, staff and crew can visually monitor virtually ever area of the ship. There are cameras in the embarkation areas; corridors; public rooms; entry points to the "out of bounds" areas for passengers such as crew areas; machinery spaces; and even common deck areas such as the promenade and pool areas.

    Port Security Abroad Don't assume that foreign ports are any less secure, or security conscious, than North American ports. England, for instance, has laws that oblige the terminal owner/operator to take specific actions and provide certain equipment and procedures, and require the ship owner to take specific measures as well. As one cruise ship captain with a great deal of security experience told me, "European ports have always struck me as being more security conscious in general. When sailing from countries that have had previous land-based terrorist activities, there has been more active screening processes, identification checks, and a higher general awareness of port security. The general level of security in the European ports, both on the northern coast and on the Mediterranean coasts, has been fairly consistent. Most European countries have, unfortunately, been touched by terrorism. England has dealt with the IRA, Spain with the ETA and Germany, Greece, and others have all dealt with various threats."

    What to Expect Now Since September 11th, much stricter security measures have been in place to protect ships and their passengers.

    Every U.S. port now maintains and enforces a minimum 300-foot "no float zone," a security perimeter that prohibits private craft from coming near cruise ships. In addition, cruise ships are getting an armed U.S. Coast Guard escort in and out of port.

    There is also stricter access control to ports and terminals: Passengers are now required to show their tickets to enter both the port area and the terminal.

    Look for multiple security checkpoints: You can expect to pass through three or four security checkpoints before being granted access to your cruise ship.

    Cruise lines are working with local, state, federal and international authorities such as the port authorities where ships call, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, the U.S. Customs Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Interpol. This will enhance the safety and security of everyone onboard cruise ships.

    Embarkation and debarkation may take longer to accommodate additional security procedures, so plan your flights accordingly.

    Expect strict enforcement of required ID and nationality/travel papers. Boarding will be denied if you don't have the proper documents.

    Don't expect to catch that early morning flight home. Passengers and lines have been reporting delays in disembarking passengers. In most cases, don't expect to be ashore before 9-10 a.m.

    Have patience. You may encounter some long lines as you wait to embark or disembark. Everyone is in the same boat, so keep your sense of humor and remember, it's for your own safety!

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