By Wendy Perrin, Condé Nast Traveler magazine
I'm booked on a cruise next month for my kids' Presidents Week school holiday, and no, I am not canceling because of the Costa Concordia shipwreck. A few days ago my mom phoned to ask, "Are you really still taking the kids on that cruise?" I told her that the risk of a traveler dying in a cruise ship maritime accident is roughly 1 in 6 million. I didn't say that her grandchildren are more likely to get killed in a car crash en route to the pier. (The odds of that are 1 in 7,000.) But I did say that a spectacular new travel hazard such as a cruise ship captain going rogue and smashing his ship into rocks is far less likely to damn my vacation than a boring old has-been hazard such as gastrointestinal illness or overexposure to the sun.
After watching the story of the Costa Concordia tragedy unfold -- and learning how the captain and senior officers apparently fled in the first lifeboats, leaving passengers to fend for themselves amid shipboard chaos -- what I fear most in the event of a cruise ship emergency is panic itself. The risk to my family's safety, as I see it, is not a captain running our ship aground -- that's a rare occurrence that will likely grow even rarer as cruise ship captains worldwide strive to be on their best behavior under greater scrutiny -- but, rather, an incompetent or missing crew. If I'd never been on a cruise before, I'd be wondering just how small or large my risk is of getting stuck with a crew that doesn't follow emergency protocol.
Fortunately for me, I've been on 18 cruises and have witnessed enough crew safety drills to feel pretty certain that the risk of an untrained crew on my next cruise is tiny. I have faith that, in the event of an emergency, even if a few officers went AWOL, there'd be enough competent crewmen left to get people to safety.
Nonetheless, there are a few things I will do to feel safer when I board my cruise ship next month:
I'll memorize the location of my assigned lifeboat.
In the mandatory pre-departure safety drill on the ships I've sailed on, passengers are instructed to walk from their cabins to their muster station, the spot that they are supposed to report to in a maritime emergency and that is assigned according to cabin location. During the drill, you're told how to proceed in the event of an emergency (the shipboard equivalent of a flight attendant's pre-flight safety instructions). Usually muster stations are outdoors on deck near the lifeboats, but sometimes the safety drill happens in a lounge or theater or other indoor area. From now on, if the drill happens indoors, I'll find out precisely where on deck my lifeboat resides, so that in an emergency I can go straight there if the route to my muster station is blocked.
I'll make sure my kids know how to get to our muster station from multiple spots on the ship.
I'll emphasize the importance of paying attention to the safety announcements and familiarize my children with the path to our lifeboat not only from our cabin but also from the pool deck, the kids' club and other places where they're likely to be. (Cruise lines always give kids wristbands marked with their muster stations.)
I'll check my stateroom closet for the right number and size of life preservers.
On most ships, lifejackets are stored in your cabin's closet. I've always found at least the correct number there, although a couple of times there have been four adult ones when what I needed was two adult and two child-size.
I'll have the kids practice putting on their life vests.
It used to be that you had to wear your life preserver to the muster drill. Nowadays, on the ships I've sailed on recently, you don't even have to carry it with you. (Apparently they got rid of that rule because too many passengers were tripping and falling over the long straps that hang from the life preservers.) Next month, after the safety drill, I'll have my kids practice putting on and fastening their lifejackets properly, so that in an emergency they'll know how.
I'll ask where I'm supposed to get a life vest if the path back to my cabin is blocked.
Presumably there are lifejackets on deck, in locked cabinets and in lifeboats. I'll try to find out where.
I'll look for those large white containers on deck that hold auto-inflatable life rafts.
Sometimes near the lifeboats you'll see white fiberglass containers, about the size and shape of 55-gallon drums, resting or stacked horizontally. They contain life rafts that pop out and inflate when an attached rope is pulled. Usually these containers also hold basic survival items such as lifejackets, rations and signaling devices. I've never memorized the locations of these containers before -- nor has it ever dawned on me to read instructions on the container that explain how to launch it -- but on my next cruise I will look for such instructions. Given that apparently so few Costa Concordia crew members showed up to help passengers evacuate the ship, I'd like to know how I -- with help from a few other passengers with muscle -- could conceivably launch one of those life rafts myself if need be.
I'll continue to keep a small flashlight on my nightstand.
I never travel without my Mini Maglite flashlight. It's not just ships that can lose power in emergencies; so can hotels, trains, you name it. Small flashlights are cheap, light, portable and can save your life. It's one of the first things I'd grab if I had to evacuate in a rush.
I won't focus on extraordinary risks to the point where I ignore the ordinary ones.
I won't worry about a shipboard emergency to the extent that I forget to reapply my kids' sunscreen regularly or keep them from sneaking too many cheeseburgers and chocolate desserts at the buffet. Skin cancer (which kills roughly 1 in 38,000 Americans) and heart disease (which kills roughly 1 in 300) may not get as much publicity as a capsized cruise ship, but in the end they're the bigger risks.
Is there anything you'll do differently on your next cruise? If you've never cruised before, are you spooked? If you're booked on a cruise, are you canceling or not? I'd love to hear.Conde Nast Traveler: