Safety At Sea For Families – Lessons From The Costa Concordia

After covering the topic of safety at sea in depth in light of the November 2010 incident aboard Carnival Splendor, I never dreamed that I’d feel compelled to address this topic again just 14 months later. Well, unfortunately, serious safety related questions have arisen in light of the recent tragedy aboard Costa Concordia.

On the evening of January 13, 2012, Costa Concordia struck a solid object off the coast of the Italian island of Giglio. The twelve hours that followed will undoubtedly become legendary in a very short time, but we as cruise passengers must react to this tragedy with swift action today by changing some of our behaviors now.

I’m about to sail on my 32nd cruise and each and every time I step aboard, I wince when thinking about having to sit through yet another muster. Well, perhaps it is important after all. New passengers who boarded Concordia in Rome didn’t have the advantage of a general muster and organized safety briefing. Perhaps that exercise may have saved their lives that night – we’ll never know.

In accordance with SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea), cruise lines are required to perform a general muster of passengers within 24 hours of sailing from an embarkation port. In the case of Concordia, she has three ports of embarkation, so the decision was made to minimize the discomfort by performing a single muster for both Rome and Savona passengers on Saturday. That day would never arrive for some.

Thankfully, most cruise ships departing from North America conduct a general muster prior to sailing, even during heavy rain or other inclement conditions. However, in the event that it does not occur prior to sailing, there a a few things that you can do to prepare yourself. It may even be a good idea to perform these few simple steps even if your muster does occur prior to departure.

  1. Check your cabin to be sure that all lifevests are present and in good condition. If you have children, their lifevests should be weight appropriate. Any issues should be immediately addressed with your cabin attendant. (Note that on the world’s largest ships, Oasis and Allure of the Seas, lifevests are not kept in cabins)
  2. Review the map on the back of your cabin door. Not only will your muster station be clearly marked, but the evacuation path will be highlighted. Make it a priority to memorize this path and any alternates as you begin exploring the ship.
  3. Take 5 minutes to do a trial run. Walk from your cabin to the muster station, then to the lifeboat embarkation area. Note any landmarks that would help you to navigate this path in the dark. Having a small flashlight is an essential item for your packing list.
  4. Make a plan for your family to follow in the event of an emergency. We cover this topic more extensively in our book – Cruising With Kids.

Keep in mind that your muster station may be a lounge or other public area. Not only should you familiarize yourself with this location and the various entrances and exits, but also familiarize yourself with its location relative to your lifeboat and other lifeboats.

Costa Concordia was an unusual situation in many respects. Within a few short minutes of impact, the ship began to list. By the time the order to abandon ship was given, the ship was listing so badly that launching the lifeboats became a rather difficult process. So, what do you do when your lifeboat is unavailable? Luckily, there are canister launches that inflate upon hitting the water, so a lack of lifeboats is rarely an issue, although in extreme circumstances there may be a shortage of usable launches. Ships are required to have enough capacity for all passengers and crew plus 25%.

In the past, we’ve always advised passengers to follow the instructions of the crew. Unfortunately, this event has us revisiting that mantra. While crew instructions are typically accurate and based upon the most updated information from the captain, the chaos on the Concordia proved that perhaps we as passengers need to be partly self-reliant, as well. For example, if the ship is listing at 20%, returning to your cabin might not be a wise idea, despite what a crew member may tell you. Lifeboats are only designed to launch up to a 20% list. I guess what I’m saying is that we need to utilize common sense. Lifevests are always available at your muster station, so you will not be without one should you not retrieve it from your cabin.

Never wait to react. Take precautions and always put safety ahead of comfort. Having said that, do not overreact. Know your surroundings. Before sailing, you should research your route, becoming familiar with water temperatures and conditions. Also, pay close attention to the daily report from the bridge and other posted information regarding route and weather conditions during your cruise. Having this information in the back of your mind might be useful in the event of an emergency. Many passengers jumped from Concordia in an effort to swim to nearby land. For some, the cold waters were unexpected and deadly. It is never a good idea to jump into the sea unless it is a last resort.

Remain clam, listen closely for information updates and don’t be afraid to consult seasoned cruisers who might be able to provide valuable information. Thankfully, tragedies such as this are infrequent. However, they do remind us of the things that we take for granted. Crew members train for these emergencies each and every week. Cruising is safe, but the risks can’t be ignored. Prepare yourself and your family for potential emergencies and you’ll feel much more confident and in control if and when an emergency situation arises.

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One Response to “Safety At Sea For Families – Lessons From The Costa Concordia”

  • To ensure that passengers are informed about safety measures and emergency procedures before they even set sail, three cruise industry associations have joined forces to incorporate a new muster policy, effective immediately. The old policy required a muster drill within the first 24 hours aboard. The new requirements call for all embarking passengers to participate in a safety drill before leaving port. Any passengers who arrive on the ship after the safety drill has been completed will promptly be provided with safety briefings that meet the requirements of the international convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). It is expected that these briefings will either slightly delay departures or require earlier passenger boarding in order for the safety drills to be completed.

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