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Safety at sea — bigger ships, bigger stakes

Titanic and modern cruise ship

As cruise ships grow ever larger and more complex, safety becomes even more paramount. Don’t take yours for granted.

If you’ve ever taken a cruise, you know “the drill.”

It used to be known as a lifeboat drill, later a safety drill. These days, cruise lines often call it a “safety briefing.”

And if you’ve ever been through one, you probably don’t have much love for it.

When the ship’s signal sounds, you have to stop whatever you’re doing and walk, wander or blunder your way to your assigned muster station.

There, after waiting for everyone to file in, you watch to a shipwide demonstration on how to don a life vest, what to do and not do, where to go and not go, what to listen for.

You then follow the herd of fellow passengers out on deck to your assigned lifeboat, where crewmembers take a head count or even call roll to make sure that everyone who’s supposed to be present is accounted for.

Finally, another ship’s signal means you’re free to go back to the reason you paid all that money to come aboard this vessel in the first place, namely have a good time.

In more than 30 years of cruise travel, I’ve never met a cruise traveler who wouldn’t love to duck out of a safety briefing — and on every cruise, someone tries.

Especially if they’ve already hit the ship’s bars.

The reason why you shouldn’t is best illustrated by the image above. Take a good, hard look at it — and everything it implies.

The ship in the foreground is the RMS Titanic, the largest cruise ship of her day, with a capacity that was almost unthinkable at the time — nearly 2,500 passengers.

Behind her is a modern-day Royal Caribbean cruise ship of the Oasis-class. And if she looks big enough to swallow Titanic whole and ask for seconds, it’s because she is.

An Oasis-class cruiser can carry 5,400 passengers. Her 2,700 cabins outnumber Titanic’s whole passenger manifest.

I said Titanic was the biggest liner of her day. Her day lasted barely a year before an iceberg did her in.

That sinking, and the huge loss of life that went with it, is why cruise ships hold safety briefings.

When you go through one of these, you might think the whole thing is a joke. It isn’t. If you missed the ship’s safety briefing, whether innocently or on purpose, the crew can put you off the ship.

The law that governs all this is called SOLAS, short for Safety of Life at Sea.

By now, you may be thinking, “But that was more than a hundred years ago. Ships are better designed and built than Titanic was, and their crews are better, too.”

All of which is true. But none of that renders ships invulnerable to mishap. Mother Nature still calls the shots at sea, and things can still go wrong, no matter how impressive the vessel.

Remember the Costa Concordia? That wasn’t a hundred years ago, or even five years ago. And when she struck a rock and capsized, she had more passengers on board than Titanic had passengers and crew combined.

Those numbers, and the possible consequences of a major emergency at sea, are only going to grow as cruise ships continue to get larger and become more complex.

All of which is why you need to take safety seriously when you cruise.

And that shouldn’t end when the safety briefing does:

  1. Make sure that you and everyone traveling with you knows:
    • A. How to put that life vest on in a hurry, even in the dark.
    • B. Always knows where to quickly grab a life vest anywhere on the ship — especially on the newer mega-ships, which may not stash life vests in your cabin anymore.
    • C. Where your assigned muster station is and how to get there from any point on the ship.
  2. If you’re traveling with multiple family members or friends who might be scattered about the ship when an emergency hits, have a plan and make sure everyone knows it. Everybody meet at the muster station.
  3. Don’t worry about packing or gathering up anything except family and friends. What doesn’t breathe is replaceable. You and your loved ones aren’t.

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