Cruising will become much safer due to the Concordia disaster, I believe. Cruise ship captains are truly the masters of the ships they operate, and mishaps are rare. At the same time, however, there must be an effort to learn from the Concordia tragedy, and while the investigation will be ongoing for some time, here is a Conde Nast Traveler journalist’s prediction of six ways in which cruising will be safer: 1. Muster drills
The scenario today: Muster drills, essentially another term for safety drills onboard ships, are required by the International Maritime Organization’s Safety of Life at Sea initiative to take place within 24 hours of a cruise ship’s setting sail. (Prestige Cruise Holdings, which operates Regent Seven Seas and Oceania Cruises, today announced it would endeavor to hold its muster drills before ships sail.)
Tomorrow? Following the lead of the U.S., in which most cruise lines operate safety drills before ships even leave port, there will be new restrictions on how much time passengers are allowed to be at sea without taking part of a safety briefing.
2. Standardizing the muster
The scenario today: Cruise lines have a lot of leeway in the instruction offered during these muster drills, which typically last between 30 and 45 minutes. The traditional muster requires passengers to go to their cabins before the drill, pick up their lifejackets (ordinarily stored in cabin closets), and report to a designated spot, either on an outside deck or in a public room (such as the ship’s theater or dining room). You participate in a demo on how to put on a life jacket, listen to a voice from the bridge intoning emergency procedures, and endure a roll call that checks, cabin by cabin, to make sure all passengers are attending. But there’s some controversy; some lines are relying on specially produced muster drill videos rather than the ships’ captains to educate passengers; and a number of cruise companies these days do not require passengers to pick up their own muster jackets, so there’s no actual chance to try them on.
Tomorrow? Less leeway. Passengers will be required to try on life jackets with a muster drill leader nearby, to guide if necessary. There may still be a video production showing techniques, but we expect more of a leadership presence from the bridge. Will cruise lines will be required to hold these drills at the actual muster lifeboat stations, rather than in a more comfortable theater or restaurant? Not sure that makes a huge difference, with a huge qualifier: Passengers should be required to know where their lifeboat station is located.
3. Sail-bys will be prohibited
The scenario today: While cruise routes on all seas are established and approved by cruise line HQ, captains—and this depends on individual policies that vary by company— sometimes do veer off course to sail by various places to salute friends, family and co-workers. I was on an Adriatic Sea cruise once when the captain pulled into a lovely, small harbor to say hello to his wife and twin daughters, who were in a motorboat waving up at him. At the time I thought it was charming and it didn’t occur to me it could possibly be unsafe. But in the case of Costa Concordia’s sail-by, the captain didn’t have on hand the wealth of knowledge, research, and maritime charting that could have kept the ship away from rocky terrain.
Tomorrow? Any line that currently permits captains to go off course for reasons other than emergencies will prohibit the practice of sail-bys unless expressly authorized.
4. Does a captain deserve ultimate authority onboard?
The scenario today: It’s a part of maritime tradition that, at least on board some cruise lines, there’s a hierarchy in which captains are the unquestionable masters of their ships (they do have bosses, of course, at cruise line HQ). They can’t be challenged by lower officers and staff, even if they’re in the wrong.
Tomorrow? There’s already talk that this remnant of maritime tradition is on its way out. In Il Corriere Della Sera, a Milanese daily Costa CEO Pier Luigi Foschi has predicted the change: “To work with the government so that captains no longer have absolute power—a more collegiate form of management on the bridge would be better. The code of shipping places absolute power in the hands of the captain and owners can’t intervene to change decisions.”
5. Are maritime training requirements for senior officers adequate?
The scenario today: To attain the lofty position of captain of a cruise ship, marine officers undergo massive amounts of training that starts with graduation from an accredited marine academy, and continues with tests, certification exams, and the progression of onboard experience from a low position such as deck officer through various levels all the way up to staff captain and then, ultimately, captain. Training doesn’t stop there; all senior officers are given regular annual exams, undergo simulation training, and learn new technologies. But what’s missing is any industry-wide regulation that relates to psychological aspects of leadership.
Tomorrow? In this eerie and haunting story that appeared in industry chronicler Cruise Business Review a week before the Costa Concordia accident, Star Cruises’ Gustaf Grönberg, Fleet Captain and Senior Vice President of Marine Operations, offers prescient advice: “I think the focus on the human element will have to further increase, including more psychological assessment work when recruiting but also in the daily working life of seafarers. Because the International Safety Management Code does not address the human factors, error management must be developed and implemented as a vital part of a proper safety management system for the shipping industry.”
Expect this to be developed sooner, rather than later.
6. What responsibilities do passengers have?
The scenario today: All passengers are required to attend the muster drill. Most cruise lines are quite diligent about making sure they do so; taking roll call is one way to know who’s attending. In all cases, all ship services stop during the safety briefing—but there’s always a handful of passengers who show up to the muster with cocktails in hand, or who engage in spirited conversations that overshadow the official goings-on, or who simply don’t attend (and hide in their cabins).
Tomorrow: A muster drill may be the most boring 45 minutes of anyone’s cruise, and I’ve never known anyone who really wants to go, but this accident will remind passengers, especially veteran cruise travelers, that it’s an important necessity. While crew are trained to guide and assist in an emergency, it’s still up to travelers to know where designated lifeboats stations are located, what would happen if their kids were in another part of the ship when an emergency call went out, and whether or not you should go back to your cabin to retrieve your jacket (most lines say no) or just head down to your muster station.