Cruise Ship System Failures

| 3.15.13

The facts, your rights and advice if your ship suffers a major system failure.

The Dream sits in St Martinthe morning after the cruise was canceled

We just heard about a probelm with Carnival Dream where the cruise line chose not risk taking passengers out to sea with a ship with a faulty back-up generator. This was a good decision by Carnival, although one that cost them a certain amount of credibility and money. Next week's cruise was also.

It is hard to say what would have happened if Carnival had just taken the passengers back home, chances are it could have been a non-eventful cruise, but Carnivel chose to err on the side of caution.

The reason I say that is that we know that cruise lines often delay major repairs for a time when a ship is scheduled for regular maintenance. This actually makes sense, cruise ships are unique in the sense that if a ship needs extensive maintenance, but is still working, it makes more sense to keep it in operation rather than cancel sold cruises.

When a ship requires an unscheduled repair is more than an inconvenience; it's a logistic nightmare for the thousands of people who have cruises booked during those weeks. They have already taken time off work, paid for the cruise and the airfare, booked hotels and arranged for house sitters. Cruise lines try very hard to keep a ship running until its scheduled maintenance period. If it develops a problem in the meantime they assess the options and shoot for the least inconvenience for the greatest number of people. A hobbled ship may miss a port, but it's a smaller inconvenience than cancelling entire cruises.

When "random events" start to happen with palpable frequency, one wonders about the root cause. Last month the Carnival Triumph went dead in the water after an engine room fire and was towed for 72 hours from the Gulf of Mexico to Mobile, AB. Yesterday another Carnival cruise ship, the Carnival Dream, reported an engine problem and subsequently canceled the cruise in progress. Fortunately, the ship was sitting in port at St. Martin in the Eastern Caribbean.

Dream was scheduled to set sail at 4:30 p.m., Wednesday, to return to its home port, Port Canaveral, Florida. At 5:30 the ship was still docked when an announcement about testing the electrical system was made. Power went out shipwide but was soon restored. About 10:00 p.m. the same sequence of events occurred. Some of the toilets overflowed in a lower level public bathroom. Of course, certain news channels reinstated the "sewage on the floor" headlines from last month's Triumph disaster.

By the wee hours all onboard systems were fully functional again, but the ship was still in port, which had many passengers wondering. It wasn't until 10:45, Thursday morning, that the passengers were told a charter flight was coming to return them to Orlando, the airport for Port Canaveral. These guests will all receive a refund equal to three days of the cruise, 50-percent off a future cruise and reimbursement for any non-refundable travel purchases.

What is the Problem Here?

These events are not a coincidence. Just two days earlier at the largest annual conference in the cruise industry, "Cruise Shipping Miami," Carnival CEO, Gerry Cahill made a H1 public declaration about plans to thoroughly test and fix the electrical systems on all of its ships.

Importantly, cruise ships are floating power plants fully dependent on their electricity generators for power to the propellers, toilets, plumbing, food storage, air conditioning, lights and more. A cruise ship with no power is but a large bobbing cork, dead in the water.

Not surprisingly, there is nothing unusual about power problems on the hundreds of cruise ships in service worldwide. One web site,, logged seventeen incidents of various degrees of severity in 2011 alone. In most cases the ship was able to restore power, or managed to complete the cruise with only partial power; the worst consequence being a missed port of call.

How Cruise Ship Maintenance Affects You

Cruise ships are designed to run non-stop for years at a time and real maintenance usually means taking it out of service for weeks, so scheduled maintenance is always planned years in advance, so no cruises need to be cancelled, and as much work as possible can be planned and completed.

But it is less than ideal to be on a ship that is missing ports of call, even though in most cases you will receive some compensation from the cruise line when it happens. So it is better to book a different ship.

How do you know if a ship is having propulsion or other problems? I asked Michael McGarry, Senior Vice President of Public Affairs for CLIA ( the "Cruise Lines Industry Association," a group dedicated to assisting the cruise industry in government affairs and educating the public) if there was a place to research cruise ships and he told me, "The U.S. Coast Guard keeps records of their examinations on all ships that operate out of US ports, including records on cruise ships." It is called the USCG Cruise Ship National Center of Expertise

One can also take the opposite approach of picking a new ship or one that has just been refurbished. When a ship completes an extensive scheduled maintenance the line makes significant improvements - adding new decor, restaurants, entertainment, suites, etc. This news is always written up in press releases which one can find on any cruise line web site. A newly refurbished ship should not suffer any technical problems. Just one caveat; the "shakedown cruise" of a new, or newly upgraded ship, can sometimes have some glitches, so it is best to wait a few months to make sure the wrinkles are worked out.

If you already have a ship picked out, but you want to check on its conditions, your best bet is to Google the name of the ship along with the words "propulsion," "missed port," "problems," etc. For example, if you Google "Carnival Liberty propulsion problems" you get a Feb. 2012 post from CruiseMates that says "I am currently aboard the Carnival Liberty and it is experiencing a propulsion problem with one prop." In fact, the same search result mentions four other Carnival ships that have had propulsion problems over the last few years.

Passenger Rights for Cruise Ships

While there have been a number of congressional hearings about the cruise industry in the last eight years, and even a law called the "Cruise Safety Act of 2012" passed last year, there is no specific charter delineating "passenger rights" for cruisers. In fact, compensation for a cruise gone bad is almost always at the discretion of the cruise line, depending on what they feel is fair. According to McGarry, "As with other business-to-consumer industries, refunds are handled on a case-by-case basis and are determined by the circumstances at hand."

For example, many ports of call charge a "head tax" to the cruise line for every passenger it brings. Those are, of course, included in the cruise fare. So if a ship misses a port the line will surely refund those specific port fees. These fees are usually less than $50, so they are taken off of your onboard charges.

When it comes to suing a cruise line; the problem is centuries-old maritime law which in most cases protects the merchant and not the "souls" onboard. For example, it is very hard to sue a cruise line at all. The cruise ticket mandates that any civil legal action must be filed in the state where the line is incorporated (Florida, California, Washington State) and they insist on arbitration first.

Secondly, maritime law limits liability for the merchant, even in cases of death, to what the deceased would have earned in his lifetime had he not died. There are no punitive damages allowed, and compensation can only go to the immediate family. In the famous "Honeymoon cruise" case where the groom disappeared the bride settled with Royal Caribbean, making it impossible for his parents to sue the cruise line.

James Walker is an outspoken and candid maritime attorney who has represented some of the highest profile cruise plaintiffs in history. Walker was one of the few maritime attorneys to notify Triumph cruisers (mostly through his very active twitter feed) that he did not see a case to sue the cruise line due to no real negligence or pain and suffering.

What if This Happens to You?

As far as your legal rights, Michael McGarry answered this question.

Why should passengers expect if their ship has to be towed?

Passengers can expect to receive essential needs and services while a ship is towed to port and to be provided focused attention from the crew on their comfort and care.

Taking it a step further, if you are unfortunate enough to be stuck on "dead ship" here is my advice:

A ship that is "dead in the water" is a dangerous situation, but manageable. For example, the Costa Concordia was dead in the water after it hit the rock that tore a hole in its side. That incident could have developed many different ways, but the ship eventually drifted to land and tipped over. It is conceivable that the same could happen to any ship "dead in the water" because with just wind and currents alone large cruise ships can build up a great deal of momentum.

However, Concordia had a huge hole and was quickly taking on water. The officers onboard were seemingly panicked and never dropped the anchor even when they were over reefs that could have held the ship so it would not hit land. They chose to wait because the ship was sinking and they apparently hoped it would drift over land shallow enough that the ship could sink but not fully submerge, but Concordia hit an underwater reef anyway.

But a regular ship "dead in the water" could and would drop anchor before it hit land. Cruise ship anchors are completely gravity controlled (no electric power needed). Navigators have charts and would know when to drop - and even if they were off, eventually a hanging anchor will catch. So, the chance that a drifting ship will beach is very small.

What about that "list," the tendency of a ship to lean to one side?

I would not worry one iota. Have you ever seen a rubber ducky turn over? It can't be done as long as it is intact even in the roughest water. This is because is it designed to have enough buoyancy to keep it afloat, and enough weight at the very bottom to always keep it upright.

Like airplanes, cruise ship designers know all about the lightest and H2est materials. Most of the heavy steel weight is in the keel; a round slab of solid steel more the two football fields long. Modern ships are so stable they can stand upon their keels on land and not tip over. It is quite a sight to see a cruise ship out of water, standing upright on its keel with no outside support.

The only reason for the list on Triumph is the fact that a "dead ship" is like a large sail at sea. The wind and currents will cause it to lean to one side, but it will never tip over. The only way a ship can sink is if it is "breached," meaning enough water somehow gets inside the hull to overcome the natural buoyancy in the design.

In my opinion, the biggest danger on a "dead ship" comes from the passengers you don't know. I would be very careful about my possessions and personal safety. With no power people leave their cabin doors open for ventilation. If you do this be sure to hide your jewelry, money and important papers first. Also keep track of your children.

There was a big difference in the way the passengers acted during the Carnival Splendor incident versus the Carnival Triumph. On Splendor people remained calm, so the cruise line continued to give them free drinks, etc. On Triumph, one afternoon of open bar only made the situation worse, leading to the decision not to make alcohol available at all.

Getting Back to Carnival Dream

Why is Carnival flying passengers home from St. Martin in this incident, but chose to tow passengers on Carnival Triumph to Mobile, Alabama? No doubt, Carnival learned a valuable lesson from the recent Carnival Triumph disaster; that they can't depend on all passengers to always do the right thing. There were reports of thefts during the blackout while people were sleeping up on deck.

There were also people who were just grumpy and/or felt helpless. I asked Michael McGarry from CLIA if the crew members are specially trained to handle people like this and he replied:

Yes, crew members are trained to assist passengers by providing comfort and care in the unlikely event of an incident. The very positive and complimentary comments from passengers onboard the Triumph are evidence of the professionalism and great degree of care that crew provide to passengers.

There is also a maritime maxim that says "the ship as the lifeboat" is the surest and safest way to return a large population to safe harbor, and it is true; with both Splendor and Triumph not a single soul was injured. Michael McGarry from CLIA put it this way:

Why do they keep people on the ship when it is "dead in the water?"

In the unlikely event of a cruise ship with a loss of main power at sea, the safest place for passengers is typically to remain on the ship while it is brought into port. Moving passengers from a ship at sea to another ship on the open sea may, absent an overriding medical emergency or other compelling safety reason, presents risks that can be avoided by not moving the passengers. The ship's captain decides whether to disembark passengers at sea.

But there were subsequent surprises.

First was the drift factor; both ships drifted further away from the tugs trying to steam to their rescue. That added a full day to the Triumph rescue effort. Second was the problem of keeping certain passengers from acting out.

One reason they did not tow Triumph to Progresso, Mexico , was the fact that many passengers did not have passports. It is legal to take a roundtrip Caribbean cruise without a passport, but it is not legal to arrive in the U.S. by air without a passport. They had 900 people on Triumph with no passports, which affected the decision to tow the ship to Alabama.

Significantly, this time Carnival is flying passengers back from a foreign port. Carnival found a way to work with St. Maarten authorities and U.S. immigration to allow the people on Dream who do not have passports to fly home from the island.

So - we see at least one solid lesson has already been learned from Triumph - that it is better to get passengers to the nearest port and let them fly home than it is to worry about people without passports.

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