Feb 272010

M/V Explorer - a Titanic problem?

With the launch of Part One of The Case of the Little Red Ship
MAC’s UK correspondent looks at polar cruises. Anyone looking for comfort will find little warmth.

Complacency and hubris are the birthing pools of marine tragedies and it seems one such icy pool will soon claim another major victim if fears over cruise ship polar voyages are realized.

Cruising is big business and deservedly growing fast in popularity but where money rules safety and caution often take a back seat. In Greenland waters alone there were 36 cruise ship visits last year, two with over 4,000 on board. This has led to concern in the Danish navy, which polices Greenland’s vast waters with only two heavier vessels. It has warned of a Titanic-style disaster as cruise ships stray too close to the region’s icebergs.

One of the navy’s commanders, Jan Bogted, fears that: “It is not a question of if but when it happens. Cruises are sold as adventures, and getting as close enough to icebergs so that you can almost touch them is adventurous and makes a better story to tell back home. That is how the cruise companies see it but for those of us who deal with rescue we want them to keep as far away from icebergs and glaciers as possible. It is extremely dangerous to get too close,” concluded Bogted.

Some of the smaller ship operators are frank enough to admit that the Antarctic “is a very dangerous place and a lot of operators are not realizing that,” says Mr Sven Lindblad, president and founder of Lindblad Expeditions. “The odds of an accident happening are only going to go up as more ships go down there. We prefer that the large ships don’t go down there at all. It would be a huge issue if a 2,500-passenger ship had a problem. There isn’t anything anywhere near there to rescue that number of people.”

The commanding officer at the Danish base of Arsuk Fjord in southern Greenland, rear admiral Henrik Kudsk, says: “Experience from Antarctica shows that you need a cruise ship to rescue a cruise ship. No other vessels have the capacity so we are advising cruise companies to cooperate to sail in pairs in Greenland waters.” This makes good sense for other polar cruising areas but so far there seems little sign of such cooperation. There are IMO guidelines for polar cruising but they remain just that, and therefore often ignored.

The 2007 sinking of the Liberian-registered 2,400 tonne cruise ship, M/S Explorer, in the Antarctic shows just how important such ship chaperoning can be. Although no lives were lost among the 150 or so on board it would have been very different if another cruise ship had not been nearby in calm waters. There is little doubt that in the four open lifeboats, three of which failed to start their engines, fatalities from hypothermia would have resulted if any rescue had been delayed by only a few hours. And had there been no Zodiacs to tow the powerless lifeboats there would have been more deaths.

The Explorer incident also shows the importance of the master’s experience in polar cruising. The accident occurred, says the Liberian accident investigation report, because the master entered an ice field he declared as first year ice. In fact it was much harder land ice and the master should not have entered the ice field during darkness.

The investigation also raised concerns over the lack of immersion suits, which SOLAS regulations do not require for all passengers. Such suits are critical to the survivability of passengers, says the report, and recommends that all passenger vessels visiting polar regions should carry enough for all on board.

Passengers should also ask themselves if their chosen vessels include arctic grade steel double hulls, and if the non cruising staff (proper crew members) are sufficient to oversee abandonment procedures. Some cruise lines rely on untrained staff to help out in emergencies, and that was an issue with the Explorer sinking. Most important, however, is the master’s experience of polar cruising and his resolve to place safety above commercial concerns and passenger thrills.

The Case of the Little Red Ship


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