By STEVE YAHN, who has been a reporter and editor for national publications.
The sinking of the Titanic is the still one of the most recognizable failures in shipping history -- even as the 100th anniversary of its sinking passes. The April, 15 1912 tragedy in which more than 1,500 people were killed has become the thing of legend, with a major motion picture about it, as well as countless books, maritime museum exhibits and documentaries.
But in the 100 years that have passed, maritime risks have evolved, especially in the leisure market.
Murder on the high seas has always been near the top of the list. In the summer of 2009, for example, Robert and Shirley McGill left port in San Diego on board Carnival Cruise Lines' Elation cruise ship a seemingly happy couple. They were sharing joint birthday celebrations on a trip to Mexico.
But on the return to San Diego Shirley McGill, 55, was found dead of strangulation in the couple's cabin. Robert McGill said he had been away from the cabin at the time of his wife's murder.
The coroner reported that Shirley McGill was beaten and strangled to death, noting it was a murder of intense rage. "Defendant Robert McGill strangled his wife in the bathroom with his bare hands," said a criminal complaint.
At first Robert McGill denied the murder charges, but later recanted and confessed to the brutal crime.
In another incident of foul play on the high seas, Royal Caribbean was involved in a controversy involving the disappearance of one of its passengers, George Allen Smith, in July 2005. Blood was found in Smith's cabin after he allegedly fell overboard and drowned. The cruise line claimed that Smith's death was the result of an accident, but evidence suggested that foul play might have been involved.
In June 2006, Royal Caribbean International agreed to pay compensation to Smith's estate, a sum later revealed to be more than $1 million. But the investigation of the death continues in 2012. The New York Post reported that the matter has been referred to the mafia division of the FBI.
Sex crimes aboard cruise ships are another high-profile subject, though many of them often go unreported. Despite passage of the Cruise Vessel and Safety Act of July 2010 which mandated electronic surveillance and rape kits on cruise ships to collect evidence in cases of sexual assaults, and required cruise ships to report allegations of crimes to the Coast Guard and the FBI, veteran Miami-based maritime attorney Charles R. Lipcon said he thinks instances of sexual assault on cruise ships are getting worse all the time.
"I think the word is out among sexual predators, or college kids, or whatever, that you can go rape someone on the high seas and basically there are no consequences. There's also a lot of date-rape drug use on cruise ships these days," said Lipcon, who has handled cruise ship sexual assault and wrongful death claims for 40 years.
In one case handled by Lipcon, a then 14-year-old Oklahoma girl was on a cruise with her parents. When the girl went on the deck of her Carnival cruise liner to make entries in her diary, she was approached by 30-year-old Heri Krispiyanto, an Indonesian waiter. He pulled her into an employee room.
"He raped me," she said later. "I kept saying, 'No' but he didn't care. He told me not to tell my parents and unlocked the door and let me go."
With Lipcon as her attorney, she eventually pressed charges against Carnival and Krispiyanto. The girl and her parents settled out of court with Carnival, but they refused to sign a gag order. Krispiyanto later pled guilty to lesser charges of abuse of a minor and is currently serving a three-year prison term.
Mark Gaoutte, a former head of security for Princess Cruise Lines and author of the book Cruising for Trouble, noted that cruise ship passengers often have a false sense of security when on board.
"There's a party atmosphere on a cruise ship," he said. "The passengers don't believe there's any real issues or dangers to their safety until a serious crime occurs."
Another headline-maker involving cruise ships is "man overboard" news. In the past eight years there have been 100 man and woman overboard accounts, with 11 occurring in 2011 and five so far in 2012, according to industry records.
Earlier this year, Royal Caribbean Cruises said its Allure of the Sea cruise ship, the world's largest, reported that a 30-year-old British man disappeared over the balcony railing of its 11th-deck stateroom. Despite extensive searching by the cruise line and Mexican government authorities, the man's body never turned up.
Raising the ever-present specter of mass sickness on a cruise ship, early this February passengers on board two different Florida-bound cruise ships were beset by a fast-spreading stomach flu. The gastroenteritial sickness struck two Princess Cruise Lines Ships, the Ruby Princess and the Crown Princess.
Aboard Crown Princess, a total of 140 passengers and 18 crew members were affected by the illness. On the Ruby Princess, a total of 81 passengers and nine crew members fell ill.
Of the incidents, the cruise liner said, "It will be necessary for the ship to undergo a prolonged and additional disinfection."
So-called "rogue waves" -- giant-sized waves -- are a rare concern for cruise ships, but they can cause death and injury. Off the coast of Spain, one rogue wave splashed onboard and killed two people and caused severe injuries to others. In another incident, in New Zealand, 42 people were hurt when a rogue wave crashed over the sixth deck of a cruise ship.
Speaking of rogues, cruise ships do run the risk of attack by pirates.
In 2005, after sailing for more than a day without another ship in sight, suddenly two boats started firing at the Seabourn Spirits cruise liner off the coast of Somalia. It was pirates attacking the ship. The 302 passengers on the ship were brought together in the main ballroom, as the ship's crew tried to create a wake in the path of the pirates' boat to deter it. Finally, the Seabourn's crew used a loud acoustic banging machine to fool the pirates into thinking those on board the cruise ship were firing back and the pirates went away.
Is it worth the risk to plan a cruise to the Caribbean, Bahamas, Bermuda, the Mexican Riviera or even Canada/New England during hurricane season? Statistically speaking, the chances that you will run into trouble are slim to none, observed experts. These days, solid engineering and satellite equipment allow cruise lines to follow the paths of storms and quickly send ships elsewhere.
Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises are two lines that have established situation rooms which enable staffers to monitor storms and respond to changing circumstances.
But despite technological advances, human error remains the greatest risk for the maritime industry, according to a new study by marine insurer Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty.
More than 75 percent of marine losses can be attributed to a wide range of "human error" factors, including fatigue, inadequate risk management and competitive pressures, as well as potential deficiencies in training and crewing levels, according to the study.
Dr. Sven Gerhard, AGCS's global product leader hull and marine liabilities said: "As technological improvements reduce risk, so does the weakest link in the system?the human error?become more important. This is where the industry should focus most closely, so that best practice risk management and a culture of safety become second nature across the world fleet."
April 10, 2012
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