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Ship Happens

There was no doubt about it. The ship was dead in the water. Without electricity, passengers had no air conditioning and were subjected to lukewarm beverages, basic and unheated meals, and nonworking lavatory fixtures. The closest land was a couple of hundred miles away.


Recent news story? Depends on how one defines recent. The year was 1974; the ship was – wait for it – Queen Elizabeth 2.


Stories of mechanical failures on three of today’s cruise ships have permeated the media incessantly in the past few weeks to the point that many non-cruisers are left with false impressions of cruise ship safety. In a rush to get “information” to the public, journalistic standards degraded heavily. Fact-checking was incomplete, if employed at all, and the most emotional passenger accounts were shared as if they were representative of all guests. The steps taken by the cruise line to investigate these incidents were given considerably less coverage.


There is no disputing that three ships of one cruise line experienced notable problems in the last four weeks, including two just one day apart from each other. Certainly, the first was severe, requiring a three-day-long tow to the States with passengers onboard—a situation we are not minimizing by any means. Yet, the most recent—a malfunction of one of the ship’s azipods that did not impact passengers’ return home—was so minor that it likely would not have made the mainstream news had it not been for the previous two events.

The point is that—sensationalism aside—power outages on ships seldom result in major casualties and should, therefore, not malign an entire industry or even a single cruise line. Although several ships per year suffer some kind of mechanical mishap that lasts for more than a few hours, the ships’ crews are well-trained to keep passengers safe. Of the 223 million passengers and crew who traveled on cruise ships between 2002 and 2011, there were 28 fatalities, of which six were passengers, resulting from operational failures. This is a rate of five deaths per 40 million passengers and crew. (Credit: G.P. Wild (International) Limited.)

As for that fateful voyage of Queen Elizabeth 2 in April 1974, her roughly 2,500 passengers and crew were transferred safely during a day-long process to Sea Venture (later to become the beloved Pacific Princess) and QE2 was then towed to Bermuda for repairs. And, as we all know, QE2 enjoyed a successful career that lasted another 34 years.