Cruising after the Concordia grounding: what you need to know

When Costa Concordia ran aground off the coast of Italy, the world watched as what seemed to be a lazy traveler’s easy road to adventure had thousands scrambling for their lives. Forget the bingo, shuffleboard and buffets; all of the sudden what was thought to be impossible unfolded before our eyes. The Concordia grounding was a clear example of just how wrong things can go when we travel, highlighting the importance of safety but yielding very few lessons. Odds are, it will be business-as-usual for the cruise industry soon with a few minor but important tweaks.

“We were having dinner when I heard a huge bang and suddenly it felt as if the ship was being ripped apart,” Concordia passenger Agata Martisi told the Telegraph. “I turned to my husband and said, ‘My God, that sounds like we’re on the Titanic!'”

Not since the disastrous sinking of the RMS Titanic, a hundred years ago in April, had the world turned its attention to maritime matters in such a serious way. A great many lessons were learned from Titanic, giving birth to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), an international maritime safety treaty that imposed strict regulations on seagoing vessels. Those lessons are in force today, making a cruise one of the safest travel options available. But that knowledge was probably of little comfort to those 4,000+ passengers and crew on the Concordia who saw their vacation/workplace/lives come to an abrupt end on Friday, the 13th of January.”The captain of the Costa Cruises ship that partially sank on Friday after hitting rocks off the coast of Italy had diverted the vessel onto a route not authorized by the company,” reported USA Today, quoting Costa chairman and CEO Pier Luigi Foschi.

Accounts of events leading up to the grounding, including blame and how the ship’s evacuation was handled, vary. But one element of the story seems clear: the chaotic reality of actually abandoning the ship was far from the well-organized, methodical process consistent with safety training that millions of cruise travelers have received over the years.

“The accident is a reminder of the importance of safety procedures and a wake-up call for the 16 million or so passengers who embark annually, some of whom may have become complacent about those nettlesome safety drills,” said the Los Angeles Times.

That appropriate training was viewed by passengers very much like the safety talk given by airlines before the beginning of every flight — something the line is obligated to do but will probably never come into play. Rarely do passengers offer their full attention. We can only imagine what those who did not pay any attention at all were doing when the delayed “abandon ship” order was given on Concordia. Recently released video suggests that the chaos was not only among passengers though as we see here:

As always, paying attention during a safety drill is a good idea that will go a long way to getting us off a ship in a timely manner if the need should arise and if the abandon ship order is given.

Another good idea would be one that travel agents have recommended for years, to memorize the deck plans of the ship, or at least be somewhat familiar with them before boarding. In the past, the idea was based on the belief that it would keep passengers from bumping into walls, trying to find their way around the gigantic ships for the first day or two, adding to more quality time on the ship. In the future it may mean the difference between getting off the ship in an emergency, or not.

“In a situation that is similar to the Titanic tragedy, crewmembers of the cruise ship, Costa Concordia, repeated many of the same mistakes as the workers on the Titanic did years ago,” reported CruiseLineJobs. “Primarily, when it became obvious that the Concordia was sinking and the passengers were seeking escape, chaos ensued, and as one passenger of this shipwreck stated, ‘It was every man for himself.’ According to one official from Italy there was no clear leadership for the rescue effort.”

As anticipated, and as appropriate, the global cruise industry recently announced a new emergency drill policy requiring mandatory muster for embarking passengers prior to departure from port. The new policy is consistent with the industry’s announcement of a complete safety review in response to the Concordia grounding and as part of the industry’s continuous efforts to review and improve safety measures.

The Cruise Lines International Association, European Cruise Council, and the Passenger Shipping Association put forward the new policy with the support of their member cruise lines.

In a joint statement, the cruise ship associations said: “The formal policy is designed to help ensure that any mandatory musters or briefings are conducted for the benefit of all newly embarked passengers at the earliest practical opportunity,” reports the Telegraph.

Under the new muster policy:

  • A mandatory muster of all embarking passengers will happen prior to departure from port.
  • Late arriving passengers will be promptly provided with individual or group safety briefings that meet the requirements for musters applicable under the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS).
  • The policy is designed to help ensure that any mandatory musters or briefings are conducted for the benefit of all newly embarked passengers at the earliest practical opportunity.

This is probably nothing new to American cruise travelers sailing from North America where safety drills are customarily done before departure anyway. Though by international law, ships were only required to do safety drills within the first 24 hours. This change addresses the situation that may have contributed to what was reported as “panic” and “miscommunication” on board Costa Concordia for over 500 passengers who had just boarded that fateful day and had not received a safety briefing.

And that’s probably about all that will come of the legacy of Costa Concordia. History will probably write it as a near miss or a shot across the bow with a call for more safety, but documented facts indicate that cruising is already extremely safe. Safety measures in place before the grounding of Concordia were thought to have all possible contingencies addressed. But just as airline crashes, also rare, teach caution airlines to reexamine safety protocols, so has the grounding of the Costa Concordia served to remind cruise lines just how horribly wrong things can go.

[Flickr photo via EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection]