April 24, 2007

How can you check the sea-worthiness of your cruise ship?

This was in the belfasttelegraph.co.uk:

"Mark MacKenzie reports

The sinking earlier this month of the cruise liner Sea Diamond offers a timely reminder that holidays at sea are not without risk.

The ship, operated by the Greece-based Louis Hellenic Cruise Line, sank on Good Friday off the island of Santorini, after it ran aground on rocks. The 1,156 passengers, on a four-day tour of the Aegean, included Americans, Australians, Britons and Canadians. All but two were rescued. The two who are missing, from France, are believed to have drowned.

The cruise industry remains one of the fastest growing sectors in the travel market, attracting around 12 million passengers a year worldwide. In part, this is due to the increased capacity of modern vessels. The Titanic, on its ill-fated maiden voyage from Liverpool to New York, carried around 3,000 passengers. The largest liner currently in service, Freedom of the Seas, which is owned by the Royal Caribbean line, has a capacity for around 4,500 people. In 2009, the same company is due to take delivery of an even larger vessel, Genesis, a ship able to transport between 5,500 and 6,500 passengers, depending on which predicted estimates you believe.

As liners get ever bigger, so the global network of routes and destinations available to holidaymakers increases with them. As a measure of how far the industry has come, in February this year the port of Auckland in New Zealand, once considered too far away to be profitable for European-based liners, received nine major ships in the course of a month, including both the QE2 and Queen Mary 2. Disembarking the equivalent of 19 jumbo jets, the visits smashed all records for the southern hemisphere port.

The cruise industry is worth billions of pounds and, as a result, companies are continually seeking to reassure consumers that incidents such as that off the Greek coast are rare. But recent research suggests they might not be as infrequent as the industry likes to think. According to research undertaken by the University of Newfoundland in Canada, since 1980 21 passenger ships have sunk around the world, a figure made up of cruise liners and the vessels of ferry operators. To put it another way, that's roughly one a year. In the same period, a further 76 passenger ships ran aground and, in many cases, structural or equipment deficiencies have been to blame.

So how can you be sure your liner is safe? According to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), the body responsible for regulating the UK's liner industry, the first thing to check is the age of your ship. "There is no tipping point in terms of what makes a safe or unsafe ship," explains Prasad Panicker, of the MCA's vessel survey branch. "However, if it's more than 25 years old, you need to check its safety record.

"While your tour operator should be able to provide you with details, a more independent method is to research the safety history of the nationality or 'flag' the ship sails under," explains Mr Panicker. In 1982, an agreement known as the Paris Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed by the state organisations of 25 maritime nations, including all European coastal states and those of the North Atlantic basin. As a result, port authorities in member states have the power to detain a vessel, regardless of origin, a measure designed to remove sub-standard ships from service. The organisation born out of the accord, Paris MOU, is today responsible for more than 20,000 inspections around the world annually, covering everything from a ship's external structure to its propellor shafts and fire precautions, and the organisation lists all its findings on a website, parismou.org.

"Based on the record of its commercial fleet," says Mr Panicker, " each nation is rated using a flag system. White flags are awarded to those with the best safety records, such as Britain and the US, and black to nations whose vessels are regularly detained." Among frequent culprits are the flags of several eastern Europe states and the Philippines. " There are no rogue flags as such," he says, "but it's fair to say some countries take a more robust approach to vessel safety than others."

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