Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Nearer, my God, to Thee

There is a big hoo-hah in the news this morning about the world's largest cruise ship arriving in Southampton. The BBC put one of their business correspondents aboard to ask about payback times, cruise ship sizes, passenger demographics and all that. But what I found frustrating is that he didn't ask what I have always felt is the most fundamental question about these gigantic ships - are they actually, you know, safe?

Putting aside the fact that being stuck in a hotel/shopping mall with 8,500 other people for several days, probably in a cabin with no window, would be a personal vision of purgatory, 8,500 crew and passengers is a staggering number of people to be literally all in the same boat. That's nearly four times as big as the Titanic, and twice the size of the Costa Concordia, which sank four years ago amid some pretty chaotic scenes. The Costa Concordia's ill-fated captain made one crucial decision, which was to steer the ship for shore. That meant that although the ship began to list too heavily for the lifeboats to be lowered on one side, most passengers were able to swim to safety, and because the ship settled on the seabed with part of it still above water, others could just cling to the ship and wait for rescue. As a result, 'only' 32 lives were lost.

Now imagine a huge mega-cruise ship like the Harmony Of The Seas in the mid-Atlantic, perhaps on fire, or suffering some other catastrophe that requires evacuation. Well, presumably there at least are sufficicent lifeboats for everyone to get into, right? Wrong. The ship carries 18 lifeboats, and each is rated to carry up to 370 people. That is 6,660 people, on a ship which can carry 8,700. Can they actually do that? Well, yes, apparently they can. The rules on these things are set by the International Maritime Organisation's SOLAS (Safety Of Life At Sea) convention, which says that a ship need only carry sufficient lifeboats to hold 75% of the crew and passengers, the rest can be dealt with by (inflatable) life rafts. Well, oookay, I guess - but it's funny how no-one ever mentions these kind of things in the brochure. What's also not mentioned is that SOLAS specifies a maximum size of lifeboat of 150 people, and the Harmony had to get special permission to have lifeboats that can hold so many, otherwise it would have had to carry 45 lifeboats. Can 16 crew get 370 people into a lifeboat during an emergency? That remains to be seen. SOLAS requires that a vessel can be evacuated in 30 minues from the 'Abandon Ship' order being given. It took five hours to get everyone off the Costa Concordia, with numerous shortcomings highlighted in crew training. And larger ships also run with larger passenger: crew ratios; on the 1960s-era QE1 it was 1: 1.8, on the Costa Concordia 1: 2.8. On the Harmony of the Seas it is 1: 3.2.

And even given all that, that still means that there are over 2,000 people, probably quite a lot of them elderly - we're talking about a cruise ship here - who can't fit in the lifeboats at all anyway. They need to be able to get off a 16-deck ship into little inflatable boats bobbing in the water. How? I'm glad you asked. The answer is via a slide which unfurls from canisters on the evacuation deck, a bit like the escape slide on an airliner. But an airliner on the ground only needs to get people down 20 feet - the deck of the mega cruise ship is 50 feet or more above the water. That's a long way to fall, and people do get injured in such escapes. Serious questions have been asked about whether this is a suitable way of getting off a huge liner - fine in calm conditions in the Mediterranean or Caribbean but not necessarily workable in heavy seas. Caribbean Cruise Lines calls this a "holistic evacuation procedure", but the whole thing sounds very dicey to me.

The IMO said it was taking the Costa Concordia sinking "very seriously",  but the new generation of mega-cruise ships seems to be pushing at the boundaries of what is permissible or indeed advisable by current safety legislation. It was that kind of exceptionalism that led to the Titanic setting sail from Southampton with only enough lifeboats to carry half the crew and passengers, because putting more on would have 'spoiled the look of the ship', and because the existing regulations had been designed for smaller vessels and hadn't caught up with the then-new generation of mega-liners. Plus ca change.