CharterWave Special Report:
Cruise Ship vs. Charter Yacht Safety
We talk a lot here on CharterWave about how a cruise vacation onboard a charter yacht is much different from a vacation onboard a cruise ship. The privacy, the personalization, the ability to control what you do and when you do it—these are all things you can find only onboard a private yacht, whether you pay $1,000 a week or $100,000 a week.
Personal safety and health are two additional things that we’ve always thought private yachts do a better job of ensuring than cruise ships, but this special report, written in March 2007, is the first time we’ve compiled hard data to make that point clear.
First Things First
To be fair, we want to start by explaining the differences of scale between the cruise ship and charter yacht industries. Cruise ships are much more organized in terms of the data they keep, with collected numbers that show some 10 million weeks or so each year of bookings worldwide.
By contrast, the best estimate we here at CharterWave have been able to compile for the number of annual charter yacht weeks booked each year is about 350,000, including bareboats and crewed yachts.
So even if our in-house charter numbers are off a little, the cruise ship industry is clearly dealing with a heck of a lot more people. And any time you are moving massive amounts of people around, you are bound to have more problems than when you have a single family or a group of friends alone on a yacht. That’s just plain common sense, and it does explain why there are so many instances of reported safety and health problems onboard cruise ships as compared with the virtual absence of reported problems onboard charter yachts.
A floating city, plain and simple, is going to have more problems than a boat carrying just you and your family.
The Hard Data
You also need to know, though, that some of these problems onboard cruise ships are quite serious. And they are recurring, if not increasing, in frequency, much as the cruise ship industry continues to call them isolated incidents in regional news reports.
Let’s let the numbers speak for themselves. We here at CharterWave started keeping track six months ago of every reported disease outbreak, sexual assault, and missing-person case onboard cruise ships. The Internet is an amazing tool for a job like this, giving us instant access to reports in newspapers all over the world.
We’d expected to read maybe one or two articles each month, at the most. After all, that’s about the rate we see such stories in our local media outlet of New York City.
What we found, though, was several articles each week—a number that surprised us. It quickly became apparent that these problems are long-term trends, not isolated incidents.
Take, for instance, the past two weeks: February 15 through February 28, 2007. Here are a half-dozen of the problems reported about cruise ships in just that short time span:
* Additional reports surfaced about a January gastrointestinal outbreak that left more than 300 passengers and crew ill onboard Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth II.
* Three men with at least one .38-caliber revolver attacked several passengers in Costa Rica after they disembarked from Carnival’s Liberty for a tour in Limon. A 70-year-old passenger killed the gun-holding 20-year-old man by choking him and breaking his collarbone. The other two assailants fled.
* The MS Europa, part of the Hapag Lloyd fleet, unloaded some 300 passengers and crew onto a beach on the Caribbean island Cayman Brac that did not have any restroom facilities. Local authorities said they warned the cruise company in advance that tourists would have no place to relieve themselves, and the cruise company opted to shuttle guests to the beach anyway.
* The Norwegian Coastal Voyage ship Nordkapp rammed into some rocks while cruising near the Antarctic peninsula. No people were injured, but the ship’s hull was breached enough to spill oil, which is a threat to the local wildlife. Passengers were forced onto a second ship and taken back to Argentina before the extent of the environmental damage could be determined.
* Norwegian Cruise Line’s Pride of America left several hundred passengers stranded for several hours in gale-force, 50-mph winds after the ship broke its bow lines and dragged a passenger-loading ramp off the pier in Kahului, on the Hawaiian island Maui. When the bow was re-tied to the pier so passengers could re-board, it was again with lightweight lines, according to The Maui News.
* P&O Cruises, a division of the Carnival Corporation, settled a lawsuit for an undisclosed sum in the case of an Australian woman who died onboard its Pacific Sky in 2002. The cause of death, according to court testimony, was a combination of alcohol and a date-rape drug. The woman’s body was found naked in a cabin registered to four male passengers.
It’s important to note again that all six of these cruise ship incidents were reported in a typical two-week time span. During the same period, we didn’t receive a single alert about a problem onboard a charter yacht.
In fact, during the entire six months of our research, we could find no reports of illness outbreaks, sexual or other assaults, environmental dangers, or personal safety problems onboard charter yachts. Every single week, by comparison, we received at least one alert about cruise ship problems being reported around the world.
The Standard Response
We also saw cruise ship representatives using similar language when responding to these problems. The protocol seems to be telling the public that an isolated incident has occurred, and that the cruise line is doing all that it can to correct the situation.
Certainly, the claim that such incidents are isolated is a clear-cut falsehood. Gastrointestinal outbreaks occur so often onboard cruise ships that there’s an entire section devoted to them on the website of the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Oil spills—or intentional dumpings—happen with enough frequency that marine authorities have protocols for dealing with them. And passengers are by definition put into situations where the weather is less than optimal every week, as cruise ships have scheduled itineraries from which they rarely deviate.
Incidents of assaults and murders are less-frequent—or less-frequently reported—but more of them occur than you might imagine. Enough victims have been frustrated by uncertainties of legal jurisdiction and cruise company responses that they formed a nonprofit group called International Cruise Victims in 2005. On the group’s website, people post their stories under the categories “illness and injury,” “missing passengers and deaths,” “sexual assaults” and “other crimes.”
If the names of those categories doesn’t give you pause, then the number of stories on the website will. They tell not just of horrible ordeals during what should have been wonderful vacations, but also of “small print” contract clauses and legal tactics that they feel deny compensation and justice to aggrieved passengers.
The group’s goal is to work in a class-action fashion against cruise ships for the first time. Much as we here at CharterWave found with media reports about cruise ship problems, this group—all of them unpaid volunteers—has found that victims are treated as “isolated incidents” that need to be compiled to gain attention.
Yacht Charter is Just Plain Safer
We don’t want to leave the impression that there is never a problem onboard a charter yacht. Do we think charter is safer? Yes, we do, for all the reasons outlined so far.
But of course charter has its problems, too. Any industry dealing with 350,000 customers a year is going to have problems. This special report would be misleading if we said everything in charter was perfect.
What is true, though, is that with yacht charter, the problems we hear about are almost always of a different nature than the ones being reported onboard cruise ships. With charter, for instance, any problem is far more likely to involve money than personal safety. And in many cases, a reputable charter broker keeps at least part of your vacation money in an escrow account just in case a problem arises. You end up with leverage against the yacht’s owner, as opposed to scrambling to get a refund from a non-responsive global conglomerate.
You’re also less likely to become a victim in the first place onboard a charter yacht. Simply removing yourself and your family from a floating city full of bars and casinos is a commonsense step toward avoiding trouble. If you and your loved ones are the only people onboard with the yacht owner’s personal staff, then there is simply nobody onboard who wishes you ill will.
Environmental damage is also unlikely to be a factor, as even the biggest of charter yachts are far smaller than cruise ships. Most harbors and the living coral within them don’t have to be dredged to allow access for yachts. And even if a yacht were to have an oil spill, it would be far less than the thousands upon thousands of gallons that cruise ships carry.
Quite frankly, the most environmental damage most yachts do is at the fuel dock. Drips of gasoline or diesel sometimes find their way into the water when a yacht is refueling. Compare that to oil-soaked shorelines following cruise ship spills, and you see a clear difference.
Last, charter yachts simply do not put their guests in harm’s way onshore the way cruise ships do. Cruise ships follow regular itineraries. From shopkeepers to criminals, everyone on an island knows what day and time the tourists are arriving with pocketbooks full of money. By contrast, charter yachts organize their itineraries to the guest’s personal desires each week.
There’s simply no chance for people of ill intent to know your schedule when you book a charter yacht, and if you sense a problem, you can simply get back on your boat and cruise away.
You are in control. That’s the bottom line when comparing charter yachts with cruise ships, and it’s an important safety consideration when planning your next cruising vacation.
If you’d like to learn more about safety issues onboard cruise ships, we suggest the following four resources:
Devils on the Deep Blue Sea: The Dreams, Schemes and Showdowns that Built America’s Cruise Ship Empire. Written by Kristoffer Garin, this book is a dramatic, well-reported read that helps to show just how little regulation there is over the few corporations controlling the cruise ship industry, and how that situation came to be. From your perspective as a passenger, this book will give you an overview of exactly the kind of big business you’re up against should anything go wrong during your cruise.
Cruise Ship Blues: The Underside of the Cruise Industry. Written by Ross A. Klein, this book is less of a reported work like Devils and more of one man’s research and opinions. Klein has taken more than 30 cruises worldwide, and he followed his natural curiosities as an associate professor of social work to get into places onboard cruise ships that most other passengers never see. Cruise Ship Blues is not as thorough a work as Devils, but many of its statistics and insights are eye-opening.
We also suggest you take a look at the website of International Cruise Victims. While we cannot vouch for the authenticity of every word it publishes, we have interviewed the site’s creator and editor, and we believe his motives to be honest. He doesn’t earn a dime from the site, which he started after his 40-year-old daughter went missing during a cruise and he became frustrated by the cruise line’s reluctance to help him find her. He has since been featured on CNN and has testified about cruise ship safety issues before the U.S. Congress.
Last, you might read the excellent report published by The Los Angeles Times titled Cruise Industry’s Dark Waters. It originally ran in the award-winning newspaper on January 20, 2007, and it focuses on alleged cruise-ship crime cover-ups going back many years.