Carnival Cruise Lines will partially reimburse the U.S. Government

Maritime Articles

In the face of an escalating public relations nightmare, Carnival Cruise Lines has announced that it will reimburse the U.S. Government for a portion of the costs incurred for rescuing its disabled cruise ships. The Triumph and Splendor experienced problems at sea, which left thousands of passengers adrift in international waters without power or plumbing for days. The disasters triggered a spate of lawsuits, as well as negative news coverage that may affect the cruise company’s ability to attract future customers.

It doesn’t help that cruise companies are known for evading U.S. taxes and regulations by registering ships in foreign countries. According to Democratic U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, Carnival Cruise Lines has used regulatory loopholes to avoid paying tax on millions in profit while abusing the generosity and goodwill of American taxpayers.

Though the cruise companies are often headquartered in the United States, its ships often sail under "flags of convenience", which allows cruise companies to claim that their ships are under the jurisdiction of another sovereign state. That way, the cruise lines do not have to pay U.S. taxes or adhere to national regulations unless the ship is docked at an American port or is still sailing within national waters. Today, the majority of ships sail under the flag of Bermuda, the Bahamas, Panama, or Liberia.

Senator Rockefeller wrote a strongly worded letter to Carnival Corp. CEO Micky Arison, pointing out that the U.S. Coast Guard has provided invaluable assistance to Carnival ships for the last 5 years, which amounted to 90 recorded events. The Triumph and Splendor incidents already cost the taxpayers $4.2 million—which is just a drop in the bucket when the rescue costs for the other incidents are taken into account.

"These costs must ultimately be borne by federal taxpayers. Given that you reportedly pay little or nothing in federal taxes, do you intend to reimburse the Coast Guard and Navy for the cost of responding to either the Carnival Splendor marine casualty or the Carnival Triumph marine casualty", the senator demanded.

Carnival Cruise Lines’s senior VP of corporate maritime policy James Hunn responded in tone deaf fashion, declaring: "Carnival’s policy is to honor maritime tradition that holds that the duty to render assistance at sea to those in need is a universal obligation of the entire maritime community." He insinuated that since the cruise industry already made significant contributions to the American economy, federal assistance should be provided without hesitation. He also added that Carnival ships already adhere to international maritime tradition by helping other ships in distress at their own expense.

The angry public did not buy the cruise company’s line of reasoning, however. Memories over the latest cruise ship disasters are still fresh in people’s minds, as many lawsuits have yet to be settled.

In a bid to turn around its public image, Carnival reversed its position, stating: "Although no agencies have requested remuneration, the company has made the decision to voluntarily provide reimbursement to the federal government." The company also clarified that they never resisted the request for reimbursement, stating: "It should be clearly noted that at no point in time has Carnival stated it would refuse to reimburse federal agencies if they sought remuneration."

This means that Carnival Cruise Lines will pay an unspecified amount to help defray the costs "related to the Carnival Triumph and Splendor incidents".

The most recent incident involved the Triumph, which floated aimlessly in the Gulf of Mexico for 5 days without power or plumbing. More than 4,000 passengers were stranded, who had to endure food shortages, sleep in tents, and endure unsanitary conditions. The Splendor broke down in international waters in January 2010, subjecting thousands of vacationers to a similar nightmare. Both times, the U.S. Coast Guard came to the cruise liners’ rescue.

Some critics point out that cruise ship safety may be compromised when ship owners prefer to hire less expensive international marine officers rather than credentialed American officers and mariners to cut costs. Said Tom Bethel, president of the American Maritime Officers (AMO) union: "None of these recent [cruise ship accidents] involved an American-flagged ship and none of these incidents involved an American officer. American passengers taking cruises today, I believe, would feel a lot more comfortable and a hell of a lot safer if they knew they had American officers manning the bridge and engine rooms of these vessels".

However, this charge was dismissed as political nativism by Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) CEO Christine Duffy, who wrote: "all crew members, regardless of nationality, undergo rigorous training before serving on a cruise ship and participate in continuous drills and exercises to hone their skills".

In the end, the problem isn’t a matter of skill or training as much as it is about accountability. The practice of sailing under "flags of convenience" has undermined maritime safety because passengers have no idea that American laws do not apply when accidents or crime occurs in international waters. When something bad happens, unlucky passengers have no choice but to hope that the flag state is serious about investigating the incident, which is usually not the case.  

"People don’t fully understand that when they sail out of U.S. territorial waters, they’re essentially in a no man’s land," noted Miami based maritime lawyer Jim Walker. "If there’s anyone overseeing the ship’s operation, it’s a country like Panama or the Bahamas".

Even though most flag states have signed the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), which is a set of principles specified by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), enforceability is still questionable at best. As Walker explained to NBC News: "People talk about international maritime laws, but there’s no such thing as IMO law. There are no consequences when people break them".

The U.S. Coast Guard does its part by inspecting foreign flagged ships twice a year, but that is often not enough when a crime or accident occurs during international waters. The port states have a responsibility to investigate these incidents, but if there is no regulatory body that can hold port states accountable when there is a failure in prosecution or resolution.

The cruise ship industry, according to Nova Southeastern University maritime law professor Bob Jarvis "is a very fractured industry where customers are relying on the tender mercies of the businesses they’re patronizing. Because of the jurisdiction issues – the flag state, the port state, international waters – it’s just a mess".

That said, cruise ships are generally one of the safest vacation options overall. In the end, cruise companies will opt to do the right thing. As expensive as taxes, regulations, and upgrades can be; it’s still far less costly than the consequences of negative publicity.

Maritime Law: Cruise Ships and Assistance for Distressed Boaters

Maritime Articles

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.

Cruise Ship Safety: The Legacy of the Costa Concordia Disaster

Maritime Articles

Cruise ship safety: cruise ship on the rocks It is generally understood that the captain is the ultimate authority of any vessel, and is expected by the general public to put the well-being of his or her passengers first by being the last to leave a sinking ship. What made the Costa Concordia disaster so infamous was the fact that the ship’s captain, Francesco Schettino, chose to abandon ship and leave his passengers to their own devices.

Maritime Law and inadequate cruise ship crew behavior

But despite tradition and common practice, international maritime law has no fixed penalty for the cowardly and selfish act of abandoning ship. However, since the vessel was flying the Italian flag and sailing in Italian waters with an Italian captain, the jurisdiction lies under Italian maritime law—which means Captain Schettino can be prosecuted by the Italian government and sent to prison. Abandoning ship is still considered a maritime crime in Greece, Spain, and Italy, in contrast to other nations that have removed it from their books.

Where are maritime crimes prosecuted?

When incidents occur in international waters, obtaining complete investigations and prosecuting offenders can be difficult, since the efficacy of enforcement depends on the flag state of the ship. Many U.S. Corporation owned cruise ships sail under Panama or the Bahamas, so any incident that involves these ships would be investigated not by the U.S., but by Panama or the Bahamas. In addition, the vessel may be subject to the laws of any country where it docks.

Unfortunately, this left little recourse to American passengers who have gone missing or were victims of crimes at sea. As a result, many victims were forced to hire specialty maritime lawyers in Miami, Florida and file civil suits against cruise lines, which left little impact on international maritime law and enforcement. Finally in 2010, the International Cruise Victims Association lobbied Congress, resulting in the ratification of a new law compelling U.S. based cruise lines to report maritime crimes to the FBI.

Another concern highlighted by the Concordia disaster is the way modern cruise ships are built. Today, all active vessels are built according to the regulations specified by the Solas (Safety of Life at Sea) conventions, which are created and enforced by sovereign member states of the International Maritime Organization (IMO). All ships sailing through ports belonging to member states are subject to regular surveys and inspections, which should ensure widespread international safety compliance. 

Vessel size may compromise cruise ship safety

As they say, hindsight is always 20/20. There are concerns that the large size of the Concordia may have compromised cruise ship safety by making evacuation more prolonged and difficult. However, there were many factors that contributed to the Concordia disaster, such as: Captain Schettino’s questionable decision to sail without first conducting a safety drill; his alleged non-compliance of the established route; his neglect in issuing a mayday signal soon after the accident; his choice to abandon ship without warning the passengers; and his refusal to return to the ship to assist with rescue efforts.

According to Nautilus, the maritime professionals’ union, there needs to be a re-evaluation of current cruise ship safety guidelines. With last year’s sinking of the Concordia still fresh in people’s minds, many would-be cruise ship passengers are finding themselves in agreement with that assessment.

In response, IMO Secretary General Koji Sekimizu pledged to review the current regulations on large passenger ships: "We should seriously consider the lessons to be learnt and, if necessary, re-examine the regulations on the safety of large passenger ships in the light of the findings of the casualty investigation. In the centenary year of the Titanic, we have once again been reminded of the risks involved in maritime activities.”

According to the IMO’s interpretation of maritime law, all cruise ships must carry enough lifeboats for all passengers on board. But enough lifeboats aren’t much help if they are inaccessible during an emergency, as the doomed Concordia passengers found. Standard cruise ship safety regulations aside, it could be said that the biggest danger to a passenger’s well-being are ship and crew personnel that don’t care enough to follow established rules. Captain Schettino was found to be non-compliant of many standard safety procedures, which helped seal the fates of the unlucky passengers of his ship.

Precautions to take before embarking on an international cruise

Fortunately, maritime disasters like the Concordia are extremely rare. While passengers have no control over the skill and conscientiousness of their captain, there are still some measures they can take to ensure their safety. If you are an American citizen who wants to travel internationally, you can register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) or go through the U.S. Embassy, which will make it easier for the State Department to help you during times of emergency.

Before travelling out of the country, it is a good idea to make a copy of your passport and store it electronically on a cloud drive, so you can access it anywhere with an internet connection. Always bring a bag with essentials, such as your prescription medication and toiletries. And once you board the ship, make sure to locate your life vest and attend the muster drill.

For everything that went wrong with the Concordia evacuation, it’s important to remember that the vast majority of the ship’s passengers were able to leave the ship safe and sound. Overall, cruise ships are still one of the safest vacation options travelers can choose—and as long as the cruise industry stays vigilant, there’s no reason for another Concordia type accident to happen again any time soon.

The IMO Enacts New Policies to Combat Piracy at Sea

Maritime Articles

High tech weaponry and political instability in certain parts of the world can be quite a volatile mix, which is why piracy at sea and armed robbery are still major concerns for all active ships and their crews. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) continues to enact effective measures to prevent and combat piracy at sea, by improving ship and port security regulations, beginning in December 2002.

Piracy is defined by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) article 101 as:

  1. Any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed:
    – On the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft;
    – Against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State;
  2. Any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship or aircraft;
  3. Any act inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described in sub-paragraph (1) or (2)

To minimize and prevent the occurrence of piracy at sea and armed robbery, the IMO launched a long term anti-piracy project in 1998, which is still ongoing because of the ever evolving threats to ship and port security. The first phase of the initiative focused on educational regional seminars and workshops, which was attended by concerned government officials from many of the piracy plagued regions around the world. To properly gauge the risk and create effective policy, several evaluation and assessment missions to varying regions of concern were completed. This way, counter piracy policies can be as specific as they are effective to the regions they are meant to protect.

Armed robbery and piracy at sea can be effectively prevented or minimized if government entities in any given region are focused on cooperation and communication. One such example of effective regional cooperation is the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against ships in Asia (RECAAP), which includes the participation of 16 Asian countries. The RECAAP Information Sharing Centre (ISC) was created to enhance the sharing of piracy related information, to maximize preparedness, avoid danger, and minimize ship and port vulnerabilities. The IMO would like to use RECAAP as a model to combat pirates in other regions, since it has proven so effective for the participating countries.

The particular areas of concern today are the waters off the Somalian coast, the Gulf of Aden, and the Gulf of New Guinea. To address the piracy risks and threats, a regional agreement was accepted by the all the affected States in the region, which was formally legitimized at a high level meeting sponsored by the IMO in Djibouti (a country located in the horn of Africa). Called the “Djibouti Code of Conduct concerning the Repression of Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in the Western Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden”, it requires the signatories to cooperate in the prevention of piracy and prosecution of pirates and armed robbers against all ships while staying true to international law.

This means that the participating states must share and report relevant information through an organized system of information centers; investigate ships and crews suspected of committing piracy; and apprehend and prosecute people who commit or attempt to commit piracy. In addition, proper care, humane treatment, and repatriation must also be provided for seafarers, fishermen, crew members, and passengers victimized by pirates.

To do its part in preventing piracy, the IMO releases reports on piracy and armed robbery against vessels, which are officially submitted by Member States and international organizations. The in-depth reports include the name of the vessels; the descriptions of the attacked ships; position and time of attack; and accurate record of consequences to the crew, the passengers, the ship, or the cargo; and whatever measures (if any) were taken by the ship’s crew or the port authorities. These essential reports are currently being distributed monthly, which also include quarterly and annual summaries.