Shockwaves were felt throughout the cruise industry when off the coast of Somalia the Seabourn Spirit was attacked in November 2005, by two high-speed pirate boats. Treasure seeking pirates in the twenty-first century; how could this be? With headlines reporting cruise ship mishaps ranging from groundings to missing people, what is being done now to ensure the safety and security of the traveling public? How safe are cruise ships?
The answer is simple, according to intelligence expert, Glenmore Trenear-Harvey; cruise ships are very safe. As the head of London based Intel Research, Trenear-Harvey travels the world as an intelligence consultant and lecturer. I caught up with him on the Seven Seas Mariner off the coast of Brazil. According to Trenear-Harvey, “international monitoring, communication and industry-wide cooperation combined with continual onboard training, international health and safety standards and vigilance make cruising one of the safest environments in which to travel. Per the number of departures worldwide, onboard incidents of any nature are rare.”
However, the past few years the media has portrayed cruise ships as unsafe and unhealthy citing everything from the publicized disappearances on Royal Caribbean to reported canceling of cruises due to Norwalk Virus. Despite efforts on the part of the cruise lines to be proactive and conspicuous in their efforts to protect the health and well being of all onboard, doubt remains. What are the facts?
Terrorism at sea
With the media keeping terrorism front-stage, I asked Mr. Trenear-Harvey, what measures are being taken to secure cruise ships? With over 40 years of experience in British intelligence he understands the mechanics of the intelligence community. “The cruise industry participates in the international collection and dissemination of information as it relates to terrorist threats. They work in cooperation with SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) of the US National Security Agency and Britain’s GCHQ, covering ‘internet chatter’ of suspect groups; and the CIA, FBI, MI6, MI5, Israeli Mossad, Russian SVR and French DGSE. Together with the Department of Homeland Security, the US Navy, Coast Guard and State Department intelligence is gathered and shared relevant to the industry. Noting that the usual ‘foot print’ of a terrorist cell attack is planned years in advance and there is constant monitoring of activity from countries and groups of concern. Ships are alerted immediately.” Mr. Trenear-Harvey cited an example of an incident aboard the Queen Elizabeth II, “The QE2 cancelled a call in the Gulf of Aquaba on the advice of the US and UK government on a security risk; the ship was escorted through the Suez with armed vehicles; Egyptian police and army cleared area a quarter mile ahead of the ship.” Ships receive information regarding satellite surveillance and GPS monitoring of not only other registered ships in the vicinity but also potentially rogue vessels.
Much concern has been raised about the security of US ports. Currently access to all major US ports is restricted and patrolled by US Coast Guard and sheriff’s boats. Documentation and contents are examined; “suspect” cargo is screened using GANTRY x-ray screening. Mr. Trenear-Harvey cites two incidents in Miami in January 2007, when suspect cargos aboard cruise ships were screened and destroyed. Containers are electronically “sniffed.” Dogs are used for spot-checks. Those ports into which cruise ships call have added precautions. Pointing out the Coast Guard escort alongside the ship Mr. Trenear-Harvey explains, “Their main objective is to provide a presence; deterring any vessel from coming alongside (last two incidents of terrorism at sea - French tanker Limburg and USS Cole - were perpetrated by small boats with explosives) that managed to get close enough for an attack. On occasion you will see Coast Guard on the ship; they board with pilot. These visits are random and again, serve as a presence.”
We all have experienced the arduous screening that now takes at airports around the world, what is being done to make cruise ships safe from terrorist attack? “A percentage of provisions and baggage is screened depending on port and security level. After the recent attack on the Sea Bourne Spirit in which grappling hooks were attached to the open decks at the stern of the ship; those decks are now closed-off by international law. In addition to normal crew safety drills it is up to the Chief Security Officer to train and drill the security staff in terrorist related emergencies. Traditionally across the industry that security staff has been comprised of officers from the elite corps of Nepalese Gurkas. Onboard officers are trained in the use of water cannons and Long Range Audio Device (LRAD) as well as defensive maneuvers.”
Mr. Trenear-Harvey touched upon another sensitive issue – profiling. “The cruise industry does not use guest profiling. Presently there are still concerns about how to manage and administer such a data base. Most cruise ships hire Filipino and Indonesian crew members; many of which are Muslim. It is a ‘concern’ when officers, staff, and crew have access to sensitive equipment and information. But at this time formal profiling has yet to been implemented for officers, staff, crew or passengers.”
Personal health and safety onboard
Everyone who has ever taken a cruise knows that before leaving port all passengers are required to muster in their passenger safety area on the first day. In the midst of unpacking learning the proper wearing of the life vest and familiarization with the appropriate passenger muster station can seem like a tedious start of a leisurely holiday. However, just as the FAA mandates the in-flight safety announcement, SOLAS (Safety Of Life At Sea) requires this drill be performed. In the unlikely event of an emergency, it ensures that all newly embarked guests know the emergency procedures of the ship. The first SOLAS Convention adopted in 1914, was an international treaty that set mandatory safety standards for all ships after the Titanic sinking. The latest in a series of many amendments were adopted in 1994. In addition to the passenger drill, the crew is exercised weekly in one of the many emergency procedures from fire fighting to man over-board. Crew is required to participate without exemption and their performance is part of their overall evaluation. It is not taken lightly. “Things to watch out for when traveling would include poor maintenance and seaworthiness of re-badged cruise ships and converted car ferries operated by low-cost companies under unusual flags-of-convenience. It is from these types of dodgy vessels that unfortunately collisions at sea occur due to poor radar and watch-keeping; fires; and poor sanitation.”
In discussing shipboard safety it is important to note that every ship has a full-time medical team. It’s a fact that maritime law states a ship can legally sail without a captain but it cannot sail without a doctor. Each ship carries at least one doctor and nurse; some ships have staffs of up to four full-time doctors and eight nurses. Crew members are also trained in CPR and other basic first aid. Many, many lives have been saved by the fast action of well-trained crew.
“Cruise lines operating in or from US ports are the cleanest and healthiest afloat, ” says Trenear-Harvey. Cruise ship standards for onboard cleanliness and sanitation are maintained at its highest level, that of the United States Public Health. USPH Inspectors are free to come aboard and conduct an inspection anything a ship is in United States waters. These inspections result in publicly published scores. “These frequent near forensic checks of hygiene make cruise ships cleaner than any land-based hotel.” Few countries require more than the United States, so maintain quality, USPH standards are maintained outside of the US as well. Local health inspectors from any host country are also free to inspect the ship when it is in their national territory.
The greatest incidents of “crime” onboard ship occur in the form of petty theft. In such a contained environment travelers often forget that they are surrounded by strangers. “Passengers are lulled into a false sense of security as the ship feels like ‘home.’ People tend to drop their guard.” Items carelessly left unguarded disappear at the hands of fellow guests and unfortunate crew members. Why unfortunate? Surprise cabin and baggage checks are routinely done in the crew area; any reported missing item found in a crew cabin is grounds for immediate dismissal including repatriation at the crew member’s expense. For the majority of crew who are the sole support of families back home, theft is not an option.
The press has also reported cases of assault and rape. Relationships that arise between passengers onboard ship cannot be policed. Domestic problems cannot be mediated. However Security Officers can step in when anyone is a threat to themselves or others including fellow passengers. The captain makes the decision to final disembark disruptive guests. Luckily, crew members accused of accosting or assaulting passengers are usually found innocent when the ship’s omnipresent security cameras are reviewed. Non-essential crew is not allowed in passenger areas and controls are in place to monitor activity in passageways and public areas. In an extremely customer oriented industry, customer service can be misinterpreted resulting in unwanted advances and sexual harassment. Staff and crew are trained to be professional and courteous avoiding the embarrassment.
“The greatest personal danger to any guest onboard a cruise ship,” according to Mr. Trenear-Harvey, “is oneself.” In closing he reminded travelers, “Far from home and in a holiday mood, people leave behind their sensibility. Fun can turn to excess. They over-indulge. They act out of character making unwanted advances, using unwanted words and actions. Bar room brawls escalate; domestic arguments erupt. Onboard ship there are no “accidents”; guardrails are of a sufficient height an average man of six feet and over cannot accidentally fall over.” Cruise ships make it easy to forget your cares; however with regard to the majority of the reported accidents and crimes, it boils down to one’s own actions and responsibility.
“It is reassuring to know that unlike security efforts on land which are sporadic and relate to current threat levels, the cruise industry operates on a constant level of alert.
GTH Observation - Not since the Achille Lauro has a cruise ship been the target of a terrorist attack. Were that to happen again it would be detrimental to the industry probably giving rise to more closures and/or consolidations. However, people would still cruise. With the average age of a cruise passenger being 65, this demographic is a bit fatalistic and has a different way of seeing the world.