How big is big enough for a cruise ship, and is putting 4,000 people out to sea really worth the risk?
Nowhere in the glossy marketing brochures and sun-soaked ads promoting Carnival Cruise Lines is the Carnival Triumph described as a “floating toilet”.
Yet as the stricken ship is towed into the port of Mobile, Alabama, that is what it has become and that is the focus of media headlines. The only thing worse for the Carnival Cruise Lines public relations staff would be if a ship belonging to one of its companies sank off Italy with 32 dead.
Yes, sure enough, the Costa Concordia that ran aground and capsized in January last year was operated by a subsidiary of Carnival Cruise Lines. The PR people must dream about handling traditional problems like food poisoning or long Customs delays rather than trying to function under the brutal scrutiny of the world’s media.
For reporters, the passenger accounts of life on the Carnival Triumph while under tow are harrowing and an absolute delight. No flushing toilets, using basins and showers as restrooms, or even having to go in a plastic bag. Sewage in the companionways, “liquids” seeping from walls. Wonderful stuff. Dockworkers must have been able to smell the ship long before it tied up alongside.
All facetiousness aside, at least no one died in this latest cruise ship disaster. But what the incident does is illustrate, yet again, the danger of placing so many people on a ship and sending it out to sea. After the Concordia sank, we raised the same point: No matter how well drilled the crew is, how impossibly free of panic the passengers are and how functional and accessible the lifeboats are, if a ship is going down fast it will be a monumental task to safely evacuate more than 4,000 passengers.
It would be interesting to find out whether the risk models for the large liners have a certain number of “acceptable losses” in the event of a sinking at sea.
Fortunately no one died this time around, but the ship was in a perilous position following a fire that knocked out the engine. Talk about nightmare scenarios. With no power the Carnival Triumph was at the mercy of the Gulf of Mexico swells, unable to deploy its stabilisers. Passengers have described it as listing alarmingly from time to time. Had the weather turned, the headlines would not be focusing on the toilets.
The size of ships is certain to increase in line with demand. Hong Kong’s new cruise terminal opens this year and several other ports in Asia will have expanded cruise terminals, all geared to capturing rapidly growing China interest in passenger ship travel. This insatiable appetite will drive the cruise market for years and cruise lines will keep looking at building bigger and bigger vessels. The question is how big is big enough?
Just like the growing size of container ships and bulk carriers, it is all about reducing unit cost and increasing yields. The difference is that when a passenger ship runs into disaster, the unit cost is measured in human lives.