Maritime Law: Cruise Ships and Assistance for Distressed Boaters

Stories of distressed boaters getting much needed assistance from cruise ships are fairly commonplace, especially in South Florida. It’s only when a cruise ship refuses or fails to provide any help that the incident is considered out of the ordinary.  

When a Princess Cruise ship reportedly failed to help three Panamanian boaters, it shocked many cruise ship industry insiders and maritime law professionals. According to maritime law and tradition, ships have a legal and moral obligation to help distressed seafarers.

Ship crew have a legal and moral obligation to help distressed seafarers.

The duty to respond to persons in need of assistance at sea is based on the moral obligation to save human life,” stated South Miami maritime lawyer James Walker. He also noted that the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which regulates the shipping industry, requires mariners to help boaters in trouble.

The IMO explicitly states this requirement in its International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea: “A master of a ship at sea, which is in a position to be able to provide assistance on receiving a signal from any source that persons are in distress at sea, is bound to proceed with all speed to their assistance.

To comply with this law, cruise ship officers can receive essential training at the STAR Center in Dania Beach. The program includes information on how to assist distressed vessels; how to establish and maintain effective communication; how to handle ship emergencies; and how to enhance team and crew cohesion.

Every ship’s crew should have established protocol for helping distressed boaters

It should be standard operating procedure for every ship to have a set of “standing orders”, which is an established protocol for dealing with distressed boaters. The ship’s watch keeping officers should be well trained in recognizing distress signals out at sea, such as flares, hands waving, or urgent radio messages.

The International Code of Signals manual contains all recognized distress signals, which must be available on the bridge of every active vessel. If the watch officer spots a distressed vessel, it is his or her responsibility to inform the captain. Afterwards, steps must be taken to offer help to the distressed ship, as well as its crew and passengers.

It is still unclear as to why the captain of the Princess Cruise failed to help the troubled Panamanian fishermen. After all, the ship’s deck officers received the required bridge, emergency response, and vessel assistance training at the Center for Simulator Maritime Training in The Netherlands.

Three American passengers on the Princess claimed that the ship’s captain did nothing to help the fishermen after a crew member was informed of their plight. Two of the fishermen died as a result, leaving only one survivor who was rescued after 28 days at sea. The three men were seen waving frantically for help as the cruise ship sailed from Ecuador to Costa Rica on March 10.

The Princess, which is owned by Miami-based Carnival Corp., released an official statement saying it was “very sorry for the tragic loss of life.” The company conducted its own internal review, claiming that it could be a “case of unfortunate miscommunication,” since the ship’s captain was never notified of the fishermen’s signals for help. This conflicts with recorded passenger accounts of the incident, who claim that the crew knew about the distressed fishermen and did nothing.

Since the ship is registered in Bermuda, it is the responsibility of Bermudan authorities to investigate the incident. It is still unclear if the results of the investigation will be revealed to the public.

The failure to help is especially surprising, since other Princess cruise ships have assisted in more than 30 at-sea rescues in the last ten years. “The cruise industry has an incredibly good record overall of rendering assistance at sea,” declared Brad Schoenwald, an official at the U.S. Coast Guard Cruise Ship National Center of Expertise in Fort Lauderdale.

Possible penalties for the incident under Bermuda law include imprisonment for the ship’s captain, and a fine levied against him and his employer. The fishermen’s families will also most likely file a civil suit against the cruise company and the captain in the U.S. or in Panama.

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