An engine fire ... a cruise ship dead in the sea without the power to provide the basic of needs. A pleasant ocean escape to the Caribbean becomes a bad cruise to nowhere. Such was the picture on board the Carnival Triumph on its 4-day sailing last week.
The unpleasant details of life on board that cruise need not be repeated here. We've all seen the video footage and heard the news reports. When the disabled ship finally reached the dock in Mobile, Alabama, greeted by 200 Carnival personnel who would assist in getting the tired passengers home, TV cameras were on hand to fill us in with more images and interviews of anyone willing to talk, providing sensationalized news coverage at its best - playing off other people's misery. The sorry thing is that the general public sitting at home on their couch eats this stuff up, only encouraging more of this. Such is journalism, I guess.
Who do I feel sorry for the most? The first-time cruiser. Imagine you're embarking on your first cruise. You've been on the fence for a long time about cruise travel, but you decide to make the leap, choosing a nice, short 4-day Caribbean cruise to get your feet wet, so to speak. You're all relaxed, you've found your way around the ship, having a great time, thinking - yeah- this is pretty nice. Suddenly, you learn that a small fire has broken out in the ship's engine room. Although it has been quickly contained, the fire has knocked out most of the electrical power to the ship. The vessel has crawled to a halt, aimlessly adrift, and you soon discover that there is no air conditioning, no running water, no working toilets, and no hot food. The ship is slowly being towed to dock in Mobile. It's an agonizingly slow process, with wind, sea currents and a busted tow line impeding the way. You are told it will take days to reach land. Gone is your dream cruise vacation. Instead, you find yourself on a floating sewage barge. Some first cruise. You tell yourself you should have trusted your instincts and picked that all-inclusive resort. Here, on this ship, there's no escape.
Despite what some passengers have said to the contrary, Carnival seems to have fairly and adequately compensated its passengers. Each passenger was given a full refund, paid transportation home, and a future cruise credit. I don't know what else they could have done to satisfy their passengers, short of giving them a fully-paid cruise - on Carnival or any other line the customer chooses.
The real shining stars of this cruise are the crew of Triumph. Stories abound of crew members who never ceased to smile, offered words of comfort, remained professional, and otherwise made the best of a bad situation. They are to be commended and, I hope, appropriately compensated for their efforts.
The same cannot be said for Carnival. Assuring the safety and comfort of its paying customers is, or should be, the cruise line's #1 priority. Regrettably, Carnival dropped the ball on this one. It was unnecessary and inexcusable for cruise passengers to be exposed to the foul conditions caused by the power failure. It was reported at one point that there were five working toilets for 4,000 souls on board - far from comfortable.
What could Carnival have done to better assist its passengers during this unfortunate journey, and what steps could the line take to prevent another incident like this in the future? Dare I say that some of the following suggestions may seem elementary and overly simplistic, but I can't help myself.
Perhaps the cruise line should have reconsidered evacuation of passengers, even if some risk was involved. Surely, somewhere a ship could be found to make the transfer, at least giving passengers the option of getting away.
Portable toilets. It sounds like a ridiculous idea onboard a mega ship, but I have to ask. Why don't cruise ships have a supply of porta potties stored away on board for emergencies such as this? Not possible? Drop 'em in by helicopter.
Portable generators - huge ones. I don't pretend to know the inner workings of getting electrical power to all areas of the ship. I only know that when average Joe Homeowner has a power outage, he powers up his portable generator. There must be a large-scale way to do the same on a super-sized cruise ship.
Lifeboats. Why are they there, if not for evacuation of cruise ship passengers. Bobbing at sea in a lifeboat at sea might be preferable to conditions on the ship - at least to some folks - no matter how risky it might be.
Above all, an emergency back-up plan. With each new ship comes bigger sights, bigger sounds, bigger everything - requiring big power. It would seem that cruise lines would have in place adequate back-up power relative to the size of the ship it is selling to its customers.
In the meantime, while the potential for litigation brews, investigation of Triumph's engines are under way. Reports of past engine problems have prompted discussions of whether or not the ship should have sailed in the first place. Time will tell. Just as the Costa Concordia forced changes to safety and security all throughout the cruise industry, so may Carnival re-examine its response to shipboard emergencies as relates to passenger safety and comfort. At least I would hope so.
What about that first-time cruiser? Will he choose to cruise again, or has this hellish five-day cruise to nowhere turned him off to cruise vacations forever? If you were to pole the veteran cruisers on board that cruise, asking if they would continue to cruise, I would bet the majority would say "hell, yeah!" Hundreds of ships sail every year without a single major incident. Nevertheless, just like any other form of travel, incidents and accidents sometimes occur. Some of them may be simple annoyances, some may be terrible ordeals, and every now and then one may even result in fatality. Each one can be a learning experience for all involved. For the cruise line, it is a way to change, improve and correct that which is faulty.
Just as the old hippy expression says: ***t happens. There is an abundance of seaworthy ships, and there are fascinating places to explore. Opportunities for new discoveries are as endless as the sea. So get back out there, trump the Triumph travesty, and choose to cruise!
To read more of my personal cruise and travel stories, visit my blog: Seven Sea Journeys at CruiseCrazies.com