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Originally published Sunday, May 12, 2013 at 7:33 AM

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Taking a hard look at cruise-ship problems

Counting up the power failures, fires and other unwelcome incidents aboard cruise ships in wake of the Carnival Triumph’s high-profile problems.

The New York Times

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Its name is Triumph, yet this year has been anything but that for the 14-year-old ship owned by Carnival Corp., the world’s largest cruise company.

The ordeal of Triumph passengers this winter transfixed the nation. In case you’ve blocked out the vile details: in February a fire in the engine room shut down the Triumph’s power, propulsion, sewage and air-conditioning systems, leaving 4,200 passengers adrift for days in the Gulf of Mexico with little to eat and raw sewage seeping through the ship’s walls and carpets. Even in the homestretch — when the crippled ship was being tugged to port — a towline snapped, prolonging the rescue.

Savvy travelers have to ask: Is this normal? How many fires, power failures and other unwelcome incidents are there in the life of the average cruise ship?

Amazingly, the Triumph’s travails didn’t end after it finally reached port in Mobile, Ala. Early last month while undergoing repairs, the ship became unmoored in strong winds, crashed into another boat and wound up with a 20-foot-long gash in its side. Could the Triumph be more unlucky? Yes. A few weeks later explosions from fuel barges on the Mobile River forced workers on the nearby Triumph to evacuate.

Accidents do happen on other passenger ships. But it’s worth looking closely at the Triumph because it belongs to a company that spent more last year than any other cruise line on lobbying Congress, according to the secretary of the U.S. Senate.

Is what happened to the Triumph normal? Obtaining answers is not easy.

“No one is systemically collecting data of collisions, fires, evacuations, groundings, sinkings,” said Jim Walker, a maritime lawyer in Miami who has attended more than half a dozen congressional hearings about cruise ship crime and passenger safety. The reason for the lack of data is that cruise lines, while based in the United States, typically incorporate and register their ships overseas. Industry experts say the only place cruise lines are obligated to report anything is to the state under whose laws the ship operates. “The whole industry is essentially outsourced abroad,” Walker said. Or, as Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement after the Triumph debacle: “Cruise ships, in large part operating outside the bounds of United States enforcement, have become the wild west of the travel industry.”

Vance Gulliksen, a spokesman for Carnival, said that given that the company carries 4.5 million passengers annually, the incidents on the Triumph “are quite rare.”

“Carnival’s ships are extremely safe and we meet or exceed all regulatory standards in every respect,” he said in an email. “Nonetheless, Carnival has taken the recent events extremely seriously and we want to do everything we can to prevent it from happening again.” To that end, Carnival said it has begun investing $300 million in enhancements across its fleet, including improved emergency power capabilities, and increased fire prevention and suppression systems.

Yet for the industry overall, there remains no comprehensive public database of events at sea like fires, power failures and evacuations. Neither the International Maritime Organization nor the U.S. Coast Guard track everything. But there is one unlikely man who does.

“It’s a Canadian professor of sociology,” Walker said, “who testifies in front of the senate.”

Ross A. Klein, an American with dual citizenship who is a professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada, was a longtime cruise enthusiast, spending more than 300 days at sea between 1992 and 2002. During that time, he saw that there were differences between what the cruise industry was saying about environmental and labor issues, and what he was observing.

Today, Klein is an authority on the cruise industry, having testified at hearings before the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate about onboard crimes, disappearances and industry oversights. His website, CruiseJunkie.com, is a record of fires, sunken ships, collisions and other events at sea over the last few decades that have been culled from news reports and sources like crew members and passengers. There are some limits: Klein receives fewer reports about incidents in Asia, Africa and South America, therefore most of the information is about cruises in North America and Europe. And he is unlikely to learn about problems that are not reported by English speakers or English-language news organizations. “I’m sure there are a lot more incidents going on that we don’t know about,” he said.

I used the statistics Klein does have — many of which were part of his testimony last year before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation — to help determine just how rare (or not) the events aboard the Triumph were. Here’s what the data reveal.

ADRIFT AT SEA

Loss of power is common. “It’s inconvenient,” said Klein, who has logged dozens of incidences of power shutdowns over the past couple of decades. But most of them last no more than a few hours.

EVACUATION

Evacuations are infrequent, and when they do happen, they are usually done safely. Klein said that about three or four times a year there is preparation to abandon a ship, though actually abandoning it is rare. One of the most recent evacuations was in 2007, when a GAP Adventures ship called the Explorer struck ice off Antarctica and began sinking. All 154 people on board were safely evacuated. Still, even larger evacuations in the ocean are possible: In 1999 a Sun Cruises ship caught fire and sank off the coast of Malaysia, but the more than 1,000 people on board safely made it onto lifeboats and rafts.

FIRE

Fires are not unusual. There have been about 79 fires onboard cruise ships between 1990 and 2011, according to Klein’s data. Up until about 2006 there were usually three or four fires a year. From 2006 onward the number of fires doubled to about seven or eight a year. That increase, Klein said, is the result of a combination of better reporting (thanks, social media) and the exponential growth of the cruise industry.

OVERFLOWING TOILETS

Plumbing issues are, bewilderingly, par for the course on cruise ships. Klein said part of the problem is that the ships use vacuum toilets and if passengers (particularly those on upper decks) flush anything down the toilet other than human waste or toilet paper, the line of pipes from the top cabins to the bottom (and usually several cabins across) stop working. But Triumph had a bigger problem: it lost power. The resulting raw sewage put it in the rarest of ship categories — that which inspires bathroom humor by David Letterman, Conan O’Brien and Jon Stewart.

RUNNING AGROUND

It’s more likely that a cruise ship will run aground than sink. In 32 years, 99 cruise ships have run aground, according to Klein’s figures. On average that’s about three ships a year.

SINKING

When the Costa Concordia (Costa Cruises os a subsidiary of Carnival Corp.) partially sank last year in the waters off Giglio, Italy, killing 32 people after crashing into a submerged rock, it was one of the first times a cruise ship had done so since the Explorer in 2007. In the 32 years between 1980 and 2012, about 16 ships have sunk. They tend to be ships that sail in inhospitable waters like the Antarctic Ocean, or ships that belong to smaller cruise lines. One of the most devastating accidents during that time was in 1994 in the Baltic Sea, when the Estonia sank and more than 800 people died. Today, “ships don’t sink with everybody dying,” Klein said. “The chances of loss of life are pretty minuscule.”

THE BOTTOM LINE

So are the events that unfolded on the Triumph normal? Yes and no. “We see maybe two to four of these kinds of incidents a year, and they range in severity,” Klein said, “with the Triumph certainly being one extreme.” (The most severe, in case you’re wondering.)

“I think that what the numbers say is that things go wrong and in most cases there is no threat to physical harm,” Klein said. “In probably 95 percent of the cases, it’s purely inconvenience.”

“Just endure it as best you can,” he advised. “If something goes wrong, your attitude is what’s going to get you through it.”

And when it’s over, you can help build the public record by telling Klein all about it: ross (@cruisejunkie.com.

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