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Costa Concordia shows size does not make modern cruise ships impregnable

Costa Concordia built to ‘symbolise peace and harmony between European nations’, has raised the spectre of the kind of disaster cruise lovers hoped was long past

The Costa Concordia was Europe’s largest-ever cruise ship when it launched in 2006, with a giant spa and two swimming pools covered by a crystal roof – a ship, Costa promised, to “symbolise peace and harmony between European nations”. Today, it raises the spectre of the kind of disaster the cruise industry and its passengers hoped was long past.

What the world now sees is that ships costing the better part of a billion dollars can be holed by a rock.

Instead of size making them impregnable they are, as 100 years ago on the Titanic, liable to be the scene of terrifying, tragic disaster. And as on that famously “unsinkable” ship, passengers relied in vain on inadequate lifeboats.

With more than 21million passengers carried annually – and no mass loss of lives since the Greek Royal Pacific collided with a trawler in 1992 – the industry can correctly claim that cruising is a relatively safe form of travel.

Yet it is less than five years since the last cruise ship sank in the Mediterranean; when the Sea Diamond hit a reef off Santorini in April 2007 the captain and five crew were charged with negligence, although the prosecution was eventually suspended.

According to Nautilus International, the maritime professionals’ union, some safety issues have been exacerbated, rather than solved, by the shape of modern cruising.

“The alarm bells have been ringing with many of us for well over a decade now,” says Andrew Linington, Nautilus communications director. “These ships are floating hotels – skyscrapers, really. The design has been extrapolated from that of smaller ships: they have a high sides, a small draft [the height below the waterline] and are very difficult to manoeuvre in high winds.”

Ship design has focussed on building ever more upper deck cabins, shopping malls and pools that test stability compared to the traditional ocean liners. The Concordia, by some measure the biggest casualty to date, is dwarfed by new behemoths such as the Allure of the Seas, which can carry more than 6,000 passengers and 2,000 crew.

“We believe a lot of basic safety principles are being compromised to maximise the revenue,” Linington said.

Costa is part of Carnival Corporation, the world’s biggest cruise operator, based in Miami (although incorporated in Panama to avoid tax on its bn (£1.3bn) annual profits. It also owns Cunard and P&O. The two American corporations that run the bulk of global cruising have vaunted the ships’ state-of-the-art technology.

Yet some officers fear training is struggling to keep pace with the sophistication of the vessels when things go wrong. Last month the Marine Accident Investigation Branch reported how an explosion in a switchboard room left the Cunard flagship the liner Queen Mary 2 disabled, floating for an hour outside Barcelona in 2010.

Advances in automating navigation have not eradicated human error. The Crown Princess was a month in service in March 2006 when it heeled violently from port to starboard as an officer overrode the automated steering, injuring nearly 300, 14 seriously.

Marine engineers have long raised questions over the likelihood of safe evacuations from bigger ships. The 17 still unaccounted for on the Concordia, which had yet to carry out its evacuation drill, make such fears look prescient.

Multinational crews and passengers, exacerbate any problems Linington said: “People panic in their own language. Safety training is a fraction of what it is on airlines, for example.”

Evacuation itself is hazardous enough to have claimed the lives of frailer cruise passengers when the Mikhail Lermontov was wrecked in New Zealand in 1986 and when the Achille Lauro burned and sank off the Somalian coast in 1994.

Maritime safety, underpinned by the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) conventions dating back to post-Titanic inquests, has been based on the premise that the ship is its own best lifeboat: that the ship should head for port after sustaining damage, and passengers should stay on board as long as possible. Nautilus says the Italian disaster further throws that principle into doubt.

The safety of vessels is not the only issue to beset the cruise industry lately. After a spate of onboard incidents, campaigners formed the International Cruise Victims association to highlight dangers to individual passengers. Dozens have died or gone missing at sea in unexplained circumstances in the last decade – deaths compounded for their families by the legal limbo of international waters that have hampered any investigation. A 2010 landmark US cruise safety act sponsored by John Kerry put a new onus on cruise lines to report to the FBI.

The disappearance of Rebcca Coriam, a British crew member from the Disney Wonder last year was investigated by a solitary policemen flying in from the Bahamas, which had jurisdiction as the flag state. The majority of cruise ships are still registered in the Bahamas or Panama, sailing under flags of convenience for softer regulation on employment and tax.

The International Labour Organisation has long criticised the employment standards on ships beyond that of the visible, white officer class. Service crew are often drawn via agencies from developing countries on low-paid contracts, relying on tips. Below deck ratings are typically hired from the Philippines, whose seafaring credentials were last year called into question by the European Maritime Safety Agency. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds