This week's commentary by TravelPage.com's European Cruise Editor, Malcolm Oliver looks at the recent incident onboard the Crown Princess that caused the ship to suddenly list to one side.
Princess Cruise Line's newest cruise ship, the 'Crown Princess' made a sudden, sharp turn, shortly after leaving Port Canaveral a few weeks ago, injuring 240 passengers, three of them seriously.
Since then, there has been much debate about this incident across the Internet and within our very own CruseTalk discussion forum. It would be easy to minimize the magnitude of this event by simply reciting the fact that occurrences such as this are extremely rare and that the ship was never in any danger of capsizing. Never the less, many people were injured and several were hospitalized for several days. Given the litigious times we live in, it should come as no surprise to learn that lawsuits against Princess Cruise Lines have already been filed on behalf of some passengers.
There is a misconception in some cruising circles that modern cruise ships are top heavy, which probably stems from the fact that they simply look top heavy compared to the ocean liners of the past, which had lower more balanced profiles. In contrast, new ships are very tall with up to fifteen decks and many look more like office blocks than ships.
There is also a myth that modern cruise ships have poor sea keeping abilities. The reality is that today's cruise ships are in fact very stable. They have all of their heavy plant such as engines, generators, tons of fuel, water and provision stored in the lowest decks, deep within the hull. In addition, ships like the QE2 and the 'Voyager' class have the uppermost decks constructed of lightweight Aluminum. Therefore their center of gravity is much lower than it actually appears to the naked eye; hence they are in fact very stable. I understand from several maritime engineering sources that modern cruise ships can actually recover safely from a list of as much as 40-50 degrees.
As for sea-keeping qualities, although many modern cruise ships have a shallow draft and were never designed for the weekly rigors of the North Atlantic or winter crossings; they do have very good sea-keeping qualities. In addition, there shallow drafts allow them to get into ports that the old ships could have never have achieved.
A fact that I find fascinating is that the original 1934 'Queen Mary', which was of course purely designed for crossing the North Atlantic, was recorded as listing by 45 degrees in an Atlantic storm! Even if it had been possible to walk down a passenger corridor at that moment, you would need one foot on the floor and one on the wall. In contrast the 'Crown Princess' reportedly listed about 15-18 degrees. While that may not seem very much to those of us ensconced safely at our keyboards, I don't doubt that it must have felt very scary indeed especially for those who were inside the vessel at the time. Without any external reference points such as the horizon it could very easily have seemed as if the ship was about to tip over on it's side. Unfortunately, for some of the passengers, especially the first timers, this experience might have been frightening enough to keep them from trying another cruise.
Although he investigation into the actual cause of the sudden list is still under investigation by the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board, Princess has already released a statement attributing the blame to "human error". I find it quite ironic that with all on hi-tech onboard such as advanced communications, radar, sonar and an auto-pilot computer, the weak link was one made of 'flesh and blood'.
Although the media now regularly highlight the incidents of passengers disappearing from cruise ships, onboard crime, viruses and fires at sea, let's not forget that the modern cruise industry has an exemplary safety record. Millions of people cruise on thousands of ships each week, and have a fun, safe experience, without incident.