Cruising for Disaster: Are you Prepared?

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Editors Note: The following guest article has been generously contributed by reader Sideliner 1950 and discusses preparations many of us neglect. Disasters don’t only happen when we are expecting them, so to leave preparedness practices behind when you are traveling or on vacation could end up being a huge mistake. Sideliner’s article describes how one such incident changed his thoughts on preparedness for the future. It might adjust your perspective as well.


 

When we travel, whether for business or pleasure, we leave behind the comfort, structure, and relative security of our home environment. Each time we venture to new and strange places we expose ourselves to risks that may be completely unknown or unfamiliar to us. As much as possible, reasonable people want to stack the deck in our favor to improve our chances of survival, should the SHTF somewhere along our way. That’s why more and more of us are equipping ourselves with EDC gear and/or Get Home Bags before venturing out even on relatively short trips, like our daily commutes to work and home again. It’s a jungle out there, and the farther from home we venture, the greater the chance that we will expose ourselves to greater risks. But wouldn’t you agree that risk is what makes travel interesting and exciting?

We are fortunate to live in a time when air travel can reduce a voyage of thousands of miles to mere hours. But the present-day version of airline travel — complete with TSA security screening processes, airline baggage fees, and restrictions — succeeds in discouraging us from taking along many of the tools, gadgets, and supplies we would really like to have with us at our destinations. In contrast, traveling by auto, bus, rail, and ship all afford us the freedom to take along pretty much whatever we want. (The image of The Beverly Hillbillies comes to mind.) When our travel involves multiple modes of transport, then the most restrictive mode — usually the airlines — becomes the template we must observe while packing our bags. If first you must fly to reach the cruise port where you’ll board a ship, for example, you’ll need to measure what you pack for the cruise, or pay the price at the airport.

If you’ve ever taken a cruise on any of the magnificent, state-of-the-art cruise ships, large or small, you may share my opinion that cruising can be a terrific way to spend your vacation while sampling exotic destinations. Great cruise deals appear from time to time and can translate into significant “bang for your travel buck”. Recently my wife and I enjoyed a “very low season” 7-day cruise aboard one of the newer, large-ish cruise ships, for not many dollars. I’m happy to report that ours was a pleasant and positive experience in every way, and that we are still basking in the afterglow of our week at sea. We’d love to take another cruise soon.

Before this cruise it hadn’t occurred to me to do anything in particular to better prepare us for the possibility of a SHTF situation at sea. What changed? On the second day of our cruise I met a nice couple from north Texas, and after exchanging “howdy-do’s” I asked them whether they had been on any other cruises. They said they had, and proceeded to tell me the tale of a cruise the wife took with some of her co-workers a couple of years ago, during which a fire broke out in the engine room. They recounted how in a matter of minutes, with no warning whatsoever, the quality of life aboard their cruise ship deteriorated from a fun, comfortable, carefree, luxurious vacation to a decidedly uncomfortable, frightening, frustrating survival challenge. Since hearing their story, I have been giving considerable thought to being better prepared for a disaster at sea.

Can cruise ship passengers reasonably prepare themselves for unexpected conditions such as those that befell the nice lady from north Texas? We should try. How? The flippant answer might be, “Bring your well-stocked bug-out-bag!” But thanks to common sense and the airlines, doing so is neither necessary nor practical. Still, there may be certain items in your well-stocked bug-out-bag that would be good to bring along…they could come in very handy, provided you have them with you when disaster strikes. (Isn’t that always the case?)

Which items? These are the ones I settled on:

All familiar items; nothing fancy here. Collectively, this gear probably won’t add more than 5 or 6 pounds to the weight of your checked baggage (baggage weight possibly being a limiting factor if you’re traveling by air to/from your port of embarkation.) What’s more, you may have already included in your packed baggage certain items like the umbrella, the binoculars, and sunscreen, further reducing that figure.

Finally, once you arrive in your port city, give serious consideration picking up a flat of 16.9 oz. bottles of drinking water. Upon arrival at the dock for our check-in my wife and I observed several passengers in the line who had brought with them full cases (40 count) of bottled water…that puzzled us at first, but after hearing our Texas friends’ story we came to appreciate what their reasoning might have been. Just stop at a store and pick up water and other items on your way to the cruise port.

“Seriously? Is all this stuff really necessary??” you ask. My answer is, “I sure hope not!” But these items could have significantly improved this lady’s experience. You can decide for yourself…

Some passengers spelled out H.E.L.P on the deck.
Some passengers spelled out H.E.L.P on the deck.

As I mentioned, the Lady from north Texas and her several co-workers were passengers aboard a popular cruise ship that experienced an engine-room fire while at sea in the Gulf of Mexico early one morning in February, 2013. Her husband did not accompany her on the cruise. Fortunately, the fire was extinguished quickly and there were no fatalities; but the fire resulted in a total loss of propulsion, and triggered failures of most of the ship’s major systems. The ship, its passengers, and its crew spent several unscheduled days adrift at sea awaiting relief, rescue, and relocation to dry land. Scheduled as a four-day cruise, it turned into a seven-day ordeal. The ship was without normal power and function for the last five days before reaching port.

In the aftermath, as part of her compensation from the cruise company, she was given a free future cruise; and the cruise my wife and I were on happened to be the one they booked for themselves. Happily for us all, on our cruise we enjoyed the “cruise line brochure experience” which in no way resembled the nightmare of her previous cruise.

With no power, ventilation was not possible so many passengers took to sleeping on the deck.
With no power, ventilation was not possible so many passengers took to sleeping on the deck.

You may recall seeing television news stories and videos of the event. You may also be aware of the misery she, her co-workers, and a total of some 4200 passengers and crew suffered through during that crisis.  There are numerous narratives and news clips you can access online. Since a picture can speak a thousand words, here’s a link to some of the photos taken during the course of the event:    Images for carnival triumph fire

As awful as this lady’s experience may have been, she emphasized repeatedly that conditions weren’t quite as bad for her as they were for many others aboard, because her cabin had a balcony that afforded her both illumination during daylight and full-time access to fresh air, even though it was not conditioned air.  During the five days between the fire event and her disembarkation in Mobile, LA, she mostly remained in her cabin or on her balcony.  Less fortunate passengers occupying cabins without balconies had no air conditioning, no natural ventilation, and no natural light. You can imagine how quickly such an environment would turn hostile. A lot of passengers took their mattresses and pillows into the hallways or up to the Lido (pool) Deck or other open decks, and hung sheets overhead for shade, as depicted in some of the photos. One day the ship encountered a rainstorm which forced those many deck-dwellers back indoors, while the stuff they left outside in the rain got wet.

Bed sheets were put to use as shelter from the sun.
Bed sheets were put to use as shelter from the sun.

These are some of the detrimental effects of the fire on the quality of life aboard ship and after disembarkation.

1) Soon after the fire started, the ship lost propulsion. It went absolutely “dead in the water”, many miles from land, moved about only by wind and currents. The ship and its occupants were adrift and alone on the ocean.

2) Electricity, air conditioning, refrigeration, telephones, faucets, sinks, drains, and the vacuum toilets all failed, and soon toilets backed up and raw sewage overflowed.

When power was lost so was the ability for the sewage system to work properly. From them on the incident became known as the Poop Cruise.
When power was lost so was the ability for the sewage system to work properly. From then on the incident became known as the Poop Cruise.

3) Food spoilage commenced almost immediately. Before long, the massive quantities of food aboard that required refrigeration were deemed unfit for human consumption and made unavailable.  The sumptuous mountains of delicious fare normally proudly displayed simply vanished, only to be replaced by soggy sandwiches, dry cereal, and bottled water. And for the remainder of the ordeal, the lines to obtain those meager offerings were hours long, even after help arrived and additional provisions were boarded. The dining experience never returned to normal.

4) The ship listed slightly, first to one side where it remained for some time; and later to the other side. Each time it listed, additional sewage spilled out and onto the floors.

5) Many crew-to-passenger communications as well as “official” company public relations statements and press releases provided to the on-shore media were inaccurate or incomplete, and in some cases simply false (whether intentionally or not). With commendable foresight, this lady took notes and used her smart phone to log events and record most of the crew announcements. Back home in Texas, her husband was contacted by the cruise line during the crisis and provided with information that was later determined to be at odds with reality. The discrepancies were borne out by his wife’s notes, the smart-phone recordings she had made, and the accurate history of the event.

The crowded conditions and lack of power quickly turned into a nightmare.
The crowded conditions and lack of power quickly turned into a nightmare.

6) Eventually (but not immediately) the crew distributed plastic biohazard bags to passengers, along with instructions to “go #1 in the shower, and #2 in the bag”; but by then much damage was already done. The powerful stench of raw sewage and urine permeated the ship’s stifling interior spaces, and wafted to the outdoor decks.

7) The early plan consisted of towing the ship to Progreso, a port on the north side of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, and disembarking the passengers there. But since over 900 passengers had no passports (not legally required for their original itinerary), and since all the while the wind and currents were moving the ship many miles north, that plan was scrapped in favor of towing the ship to Mobile, Alabama.  Before and while the ship was being towed from its point of rescue, other ships arrived and transferred supplies to the stricken ship and its needy and grateful occupants — food, water, beverages, tools, emergency supplies, bio-hazard bags, medical supplies, etc. At long last, after many delays, including a tow-line snapping, the stricken ship was finally gently nudged into position at an undersized berth at the Port of Mobile, Alabama, some 500 nautical miles from Progreso, Mexico, and over 350 nautical miles from the ship’s home port of Galveston, Texas. In the end, the ship was three days late making port, during which time it became necessary to execute a medical evacuation of at least one passenger, who was in need of dialysis.

8) Intense sun caused difficulties for those relegated to inhabiting the outside decks. Natural shade needed augmentation, and sunburns were common.

9) Passengers characterized the post-cruise support they received — including lodging on shore and transportation arrangements for their homeward travel — as being “confusing,” or “completely unhelpful,” or worse.

Passengers gather around make shift charging stations of emergency generators aboard powerless cruise ship.
Passengers gather around make shift charging stations of emergency generators aboard powerless cruise ship.

This couple’s account of the event and their personal observations during the crisis was an eye-opener for me. It gave me deeper appreciation of what the term “SHTF” could mean (sorry!)I concluded that this accident easily fits my personal parameters of both a “disaster” and a “survival event”: the grid was down. The infrastructure was damaged. Redundancies were unavailable. Normal life and self-sufficiency were impossible, as was immediate resupply or rescue. Sleep was difficult, uncomfortable, and sporadic. Passengers and crew grew physically tired. Medical professionals were few, and medical facilities were rudimentary. The elderly and disabled especially suffered. A full-on rescue effort became necessary; and ahead of that rescue a survival effort was required; even then, survival was uncertain. Food and water immediately became scarce, and for a good while traditional sanitation methods were impossible. Atmospheric conditions were oppressive — often hot, often dark, often too sunny, sometimes rainy, and most always nauseatingly smelly. Unsanitary conditions were inescapable. The ship listed slightly. “Officials” made inaccurate statements and promises they couldn’t keep. Uncertainty, distrust, and mistrust existed toward the cruise line. And owing in no small part to their isolation at sea, heightened feelings of helplessness, anger, and despair affected the passengers.

This event could have been much worse. Fortunately absent from the scenario were riots and looting; but had it taken much longer to effect the rescue, well, who can say? On the positive side, unlike victims of Hurricane Katrina, whose homes and much of a city were destroyed, once the ship arrived in port, the passengers disembarked and literally put their collective misery behind them, returned to their respective homes, and tried get on with their lives. The passengers’ “healing” could begin almost immediately. The mind-boggling job of cleaning and repairing a badly damaged and sorely-abused cruise ship was a task left for others to perform over the next several months, at great expense.

Back on land, some survivors of the ordeal were obviously thankful.
Back on land, some survivors of the ordeal were obviously thankful.

The next time we go on a cruise, we will take with us all the items listed above, even if it means leaving behind other “nice-to-have” items for weight considerations. And we have a kind of “strategy”: as soon as we are allowed to board the ship, we will visit the ship’s buffet, fill our bellies, and relax a bit. We will then gather an additional supply of food from the buffet, put it in our Ziplock bags, and carry it all back to our cabin, where we’ll put as many of the perishable items as possible into our cabin’s refrigerator. Each day after that we will refresh or replenish our supply of fruit, vegetables, cereal, hard boiled eggs, rolls, cold cuts, cheese, condiment packets, etc. And, because we’re both addicted to caffeine, we’ll be sure to bring with us some of our favorite instant coffee from home and devise a way to enjoy at least a cup each morning.

Do I think it’s really necessary to do all this? “I sure hope not!”

I invite and welcome your ideas, comments, and criticism.

Thanks for reading all the way down to here.

 

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usmarinestanker
Guest
usmarinestanker

Good tips. The floating island could very well become a floating prison and any edge will help. I refuse to go on cruises for this reason, though my wife begs me. Being at sea, so far from land, over deep water is not our friend, and being trapped with a bunch of other desperate people does not appeal to me. Just look at those sheeple crowded around a power outlet, consuming generator fuel, for cell phones and ipods. The fuel could be better used to power emergency communication, life support, ship-controlled entertainment/distraction, and any other things that would benefit everyone.… Read more »

NRP
Guest
NRP

I’m with you Tanker, no way in hell would I be caught on a
floating sardine can.
Death at sea is no way to live.

Sideliner1950
Guest
Sideliner1950

usmarinestanker: Thanks. Good comments. You touch on several issues: Perhaps unfortunately for your wife, cruising just isn’t for everyone. Don’t feel like the Lone Ranger…no doubt many people share your aversion to cruises for the reasons you cite and others. I know a few myself. That said, have you considered river cruises? Same general idea but relatively shallow water, and much closer to shore! We haven’t done one, but we’d like to. They have become very popular, so popular that nearly 40 new river cruise ships will be delivered to operators in 2015; and with such a large increase in… Read more »

Pat Henry
Guest

I have heard from a lot of people who have gone on cruises and almost without fail, they have all been glowing reviews. Everyone loves them and I wouldn’t be afraid to go on one, although I would take items that Sideliner listed as a minimum. I guess I would simply prefer to fly somewhere and spend a week there as opposed to spending three days getting somewhere, stay the day and turn around. I know the cruise is about more than the journey, but I haven’t really had any desire to go on one yet. This story and the… Read more »