By CYRIL TUOHY, managing editor of Risk & Insurance®
INTERNATIONAL WATERS---You've got to hand it to the modern-day cruise line. They've leached all the risk--and even a little of the excitement--out of the journey at sea, as I discovered on a cruise vacation over Thanksgiving.
Big, stable ships are what the industry needs to offer paying passengers as the U.S. cruise line industry broadens its customer base. From 500,000 passengers traveling on U.S. cruise lines in 1970, more than 14 million passengers sailed in 2010, according to the Cruise Lines
All of which helps explain why sailing on today's cruise ships is about as risk-free an experience as strolling through a suburban shopping mall filled with high-end, duty-free stores, a theater, an ice rink, a night club, lounges and even a skating rink.
What about how the Carnival Splendor lost power and found itself drifting aimlessly off Baja California in mid-November? Nary a passenger said a word about the mishap as we queued for customs on Nov. 19 before departing Port Liberty in Bayonne, N.J., for a nine-day jaunt through the Caribbean.
There were no tours of the ship, however, and of the 15 decks, the bottom one housing sick bay and station tenders were off limits to passengers. The captain's bridge, we were told, was sealed off from passengers as well, though it was possible to look down onto the bridge from above but only between sun up and sun down.
From Bayonne to San Juan, P.R., out first port of call, it was a long journey, over open water through the Bermuda Triangle. The ocean was dotted with whitecaps, and swells buffeted the ship's white hull. You could feel the Explorer torque slightly though the water, and the horizon line rose and fell gently with the swells as the Explorer sliced through the water. The brisk wind coming off the water created powerful eddies of air on the pool deck, displacing the aluminum deck chairs.
"Good thing we signed a liability waiver," remarked one passenger, in the midst of the chairs.
PIRATES, POWER FAILURES AND HOT WORK
Royal Caribbean takes its liability waivers seriously. Parents had to sign them for the on-board children's activities, and then again for the on-land excursions--for the snorkeling forays, for the rock-climbing wall on the back of the Explorer's smokestack, and for the in-line skating track on one of the decks on the stern.
The inconvenience of legal formalities aside, can you blame the cruise line? What about the one passenger who didn't quite make it all the way across the zip line during a day-long excursion on Labadee. Briefly stuck above the waves several yards from the beach, he had to swing his legs back and forth to get to the end of the line. It could have turned ugly ... but didn't.
On Nov. 23, the fifth day of our cruise, with the Explorer docked in St. Thomas, the ship's crew lowered yellow lifeboats and motored about the bay for a "fire drill." It was reassuring to see the crew take advantage of the layover to refresh their emergency skills should they be needed.
Later, riding up the elevator back from a little duty-free browsing in the capital of Charlotte Amalie, we heard an announcement from the captain reassuring passengers that, for those who smelled smoke in the forward part of the ship, there was nothing to worry about as there was some "hot work" taking place aboard.
My thoughts drifted to the Carnival Splendor, which ran into trouble the previous week in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mexico. Few passengers gave the captain's address more than a passing thought. Besides, it was an excursion day, and the boat was nearly empty.
There is engineering genius in these ships, floating towns really. At more than 1,000 feet long and 130 feet wide, there's a density aboard that even few skyscrapers in New York City can match. With a capacity of up to 5,020 passengers and crew, mishaps are to be expected. Ships carry their own teams of engineers and mechanics.
At sea, it's all about managing risks on the water. Water is always in motion; points are never fixed. At its worst, the ocean is absolutely unforgiving. Doing 20 knots on the high seas, fall overboard and you're lucky if you get plucked out. Fall overboard at night, and it's all over.
Cruising at 20 knots, the equivalent of 23 miles per hour, is no match for a fast outboard like those used by pirates in dangerous waters. The ship's commanding officers reminded passengers that we're not in dangerous waters, so there's no need to worry. Besides, the Explorer is capable of up to 26 knots, or about 30 mph. Ships also alter course to avoid known piracy lanes and can resort to "other measures," said Capt. Pedercini, without elaborating.
Built in 2000, the Explorer has two independent power systems, one toward the front and one aft, each completely sealed from the other, said the ship's chief engineer. Even with one power plant down, the ship can still run all its systems on the second power plant, the chief engineer said, during an officer meet-and-greet with passengers.
The Explorer is designed to generate almost everything it needs on board, and a desalination system for plumbing and drinking water can store as much as 250,000 gallons of fresh water. Fuel tanks hold nearly 1,000,000 gallons of fuel.
As Royal Caribbean International is based in Miami, the ships abide by U.S. Dept. of Agriculture rules governing food regulations, and that means throwing out food that has been exposed for four hours or more, the officers said.
So, what was there to complain about to the ship's commanding officers? One passenger noted that the lids didn't quite fit the coffee cups. Another insisted the coffee served in the restaurants wasn't as good as that served on previous Explorer voyages.
PERSONAL RISK MANAGEMENT
Ahhhh, speaking of food, perhaps us vacationers had one other serious risk to beware: ourselves, and how much we'd eat while on the trip. Sure, passengers make all appearances of staying healthy on-board. It wasn't long after we left port that many of the ship's 3,000-plus passengers came to life the next day, importing their big-city timetables of early-morning gym workouts, mile-long walks around the pool deck and stretching exercises adjacent to the ship's spa.
From the 8:45 a.m. mile-long run, to the 10 a.m. seminar on the benefits of acupuncture, to the 11 a.m. introduction to Botox cosmetics on the Champagne Floor, there was no shortage of impressing upon voyagers the virtues of health management.
The sports activities just kept coming: handball and basketball tournaments, mini-golf, roller-blading, swimming, stretching, ping-pong, and even line dancing led by the activities director who could have subbed as body-double of comedian Ricky Gervais.
Add to that the spas featuring seaweed wraps and hot-stone massages, and you'd have thought yourself in a super-luxury Canyon Ranch retreat.
? and so, you can imagine our surprise at the appearance on Day Four, just hours before docking at San Juan, of "The Boulder."
The Boulder, all 350 or so pounds of him, had decided to enter the belly-flop contest, along with seven other participants. The Boulder came prepared. He had with him an entourage of six friends, all wearing printed T-shirts indicating they belonged to the Boulder's "security" detail.
After eight separate belly flops by the contestants into pool, the Boulder was declared the winner, hands-down, by the hundreds of passengers who'd gathered to watch. Organizers promptly awarded the Boulder a gold medal.
It was the first anyone on the ship had seen of the Boulder, but it wasn't going to be the last.
That night, after disembarking for dinner in Old San Juan, we pushed off for St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. As we eased our way out of the harbor and into the Caribbean's inky blackness, it was time for the long-awaited treat: the midnight buffet.
There again was the Boulder, along with hundreds of other passengers, lining up on Deck 11 to help themselves of crudites, appetizers, tortillas, tacos, beef, chicken finger foods, cake and ice cream. There was not one but two spreads, one on either side of the pool deck.
The next midnight buffet came not 48 hours later, on Day Six, as we left Samana in the Dominican Republic for Labadee, an island off the north coast of Haiti.
For more than an hour, more than 500 people gorged themselves on the pastries, ice cream, cakes and other deserts on Deck 5, the Royal Promenade.
It was a scene out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with kids piling their plates high with bite-size Snickers bars, along with the mandatory two or three scoops of ice cream topped off with hot fudge or vanilla sauce. Adults were in on the action too ... and, of course, the Boulder.
The promise of morning exercises and seminars on mitigating heath risks, which earlier in the day offered some hope that we were serious about battling the rising obesity epidemic, seemed all for naught before this smorgasbord of glutens and sugars.
It was, by the way, Nov. 24, the night before Thanksgiving. Barely 24 hours after the cruise's extravagant promenade of chocolate, cakes, candy and ice cream, the Explorer and her passengers wolfed down more than 6,200 pounds of the bird on Turkey Day alone, according to one of the ship's officers.
Just how much total food was consumed on this cruise comes courtesy of a Royal Caribbean data sheet: 19,000 pounds of beef, 18,000 pounds of chicken, 75,000 pounds of pork, 3,500 pounds of lobster, 11,000 pounds of seafood, 3,800 pounds of salmon, 75,000 eggs, 25,000 pounds of flour, 4,300 pounds of sugar, 1,500 pounds of coffee, 45,000 pounds of fresh fruits, 64,000 pounds of fresh vegetables, 18,000 pounds of potatoes, 85,000 of mixed frozen foods, 1,400 quarts of ice cream, 600 pounds of fresh berries, 1,200 gallons of milk, 4,200 yogurts, 5,800 pounds of cheese and 18,000 slices of pizza.
For all the food consumed on this cruise, Royal Caribbean isn't without some clever--unintended perhaps--risk management strategies. Several years ago, for example, Royal Caribbean found that reducing the size of dinner plates by 20 percent to 30 percent led to passengers eating less, said one of the members of the wait staff.
Over time, that has meant thousands and thousands of smaller meals, and therefore, loading less food on board. For a vessel that gets a paltry 60 feet to the gallon of heavy fuel, ounces add up to pounds, and pounds add up to tons.
Dinner portions were reasonable, even at times unexpectedly small, which was welcome. As we left beautiful Labadee and sailed back north to Bayonne, the little ironies of risk management at sea weren't lost on this passenger.
How can the cruise line industry be so diligent about making us all sign waivers for sporting activities in confined spaces while at the same time offer such a care-free feast? Where were the food-related waivers?
The Boulder offered us a few laughs, to be sure. But at what and at whose expense? How long will it be before he requires insulin injections, if he isn't taking them already? What premium hikes in the long term are the Boulder and the other belly floppers going to cost us, or our children, or their children?
Thoughts of risk management rarely come to mind while cruising the Caribbean. It is worth thinking about the mixed, often contradictory messages, sent to passengers, however, and whether the Boulder and the rest of us can partake in Royal Caribbean's cakes and eat them too.
January 1, 2011
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