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Can Cruise Ships Sink? Vital Information on Vessel Safety

Can cruise ships sink? Here's a look at cruise ship safety.

Cruise ships are designed to be as safe as possible, but it is still possible for them to sink. However, in order for this to happen there would need to be a number of different circumstances that come together at the same time. For example, if there was a major storm and the ship's captain didn't steer into it properly then they may have trouble staying afloat. In addition, if the boat has taken on too much water through holes or cracks in its hull then it will eventually capsize and sink. While this seems unlikely given how well these boats are constructed and maintained, there are some instances of cruise ships sinking throughout history that serve as evidence that it can happen!



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Any Ship Can Sink - But For Unlikely For Cruise Ships

Ultimately the answer to a question like this that new cruisers ask us is, "it's possible". That is clearly not the answer that someone planning their vacation on a cruise ship wants to hear but it is the honest truth. Any vessel made of heavy materials like steel can sink if there is a catastrophic failure. Some famous examples of cruise ship sinking include the Titanic and the Lusitania. Luckily, your Alaska cruise won't encounter rouge icebergs, and there aren't many submarines firing torpedos at cruise ships these days! Plus, technology such as radar, sonar, satellite weather tracking, etc., nearly guarantees that your ship will steer clear of any dangerous situations that could cause it to sink.

When looking at the sinking of Titanic and Lusitania for instance, their demise was a result of many different factors. The Titanic, for example, collided with an iceberg in 1912 and sunk after taking on too much water through holes or cracks in its hull. A famous event that might not be as widely known is when the RMS Lusitania sank off the coast of Ireland during World War I because it had been struck by two torpedoes fired from German U-boats.

In addition to major accidents like this one, smaller incidents happen all the time without making headlines since the cruise ships didn't sink. Unfortunately, these smaller incidents aren't uncommon. Cruise ships can spring leaks caused by old age or have other damage caused by human error, such as running across a sand bar, or a reef or misjudging the wind and colliding with the dock!

An example of human error is what happened to Costa Concordia. This Italian cruise ship sank off the coast of Tuscany in 2012 after its captain refused to slow down despite warnings that there was a risk of grounding.

Cruise Ships Are So Big, How Does It Even Float?

Many people on their first cruise look at the massive size and towering height of these modern vessels and wonder just how does a cruise ship float. While this is a complex discussion, the basic answer is that they are more stable than you might expect. The reason for this is that despite the fact that cruise ships have as many as 18 decks on the Royal Caribbean ship, Wonder of The Seas (compared to "only" 16 on Norwegian Encore, which sails out of Los Angeles), the center of gravity stays very low due to the heavy engines, cargo, and fuel stores being located at the very bottom of the vessel.

The solid metal part of the ship - the hull - is designed so that it can displace water without the ocean rising over the edge and flooding it.

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Additionally, water-tight compartments can be used to protect the vessel in case one of multiple of them is compromised due to impact with another vessel, ice, or coral reef. 

Can Cruise Ships Capsize?

Yes, cruise ships can capsize. In 2012, the Costa Concordia capsized after its captain refused to reduce speed in order to avoid grounding.

While it did not completely roll over with its keel in the air like shown in the movie Poseidon Adventure, Costa Concordia was lucky in that the captain was able to bring it closer to shore so that the ship did not roll over completely.

Cruise ships, however, are inherently top-heavy due to the height of the ship. Cruise ships are quite literally skyscrapers at sea with sometimes as many as 14 or more decks stacked on top of each other.

Cruise ships are designed with ballast tanks to help compensate for this extra weight so they can stay stable in the water. Large cruise ships will have multiple ballast tanks that can be adjusted to maintain proper balance as well as passenger comfort during rough weather.

Despite the appearance of being unstable, cruise ships can actually roll as much as 60 degrees before being at risk of tipping over and capsizing. They are also designed to withstand waves as high as 50 feet and some - especially those designed for Arctic and Antarctic voyages have re-enforced hulls to avoid breaches due to ice.

While sailing ships have very deep keels, often with a heavy weight on the end to keep it stable, cruise ships are generally rounded bottoms with usually no more than 30 feet of the vessel below the surface of the water. For instance, the Norwegian Bliss, has a 28.5' draught but with 20 decks, the portion above water is far greater than that below the waterline.

Additionally, by design, many of the cruise ship's heaviest portions, such as the engines, fuel tanks, cargo, and ballast tanks, will be found below the waterline.

This helps to ensure that even though the ship may appear to be top heavy due to the towering decks far above the water ... in fact the center of gravity is still far below. This allows the ship to maintain a level of stability that is both comfortable for the guests as well as safe for operation.

How Many Cruise Ships Have Sunk?

In 2013, the New York Times did a study and found that between 1980 and 2012, 16 cruise ships have sunk, with most being in inhospitable waters doing adventure cruises such as visiting Antarctica or smaller vessels that got caught in sudden storms such as the Estona, which sank in 1994 killing more than 800 people in the Baltic Sea.

Despite Cruise Ships Being Able To Capsize, It Is Highly Unlikely

As a first time guest on a cruise ship you might think that capsizing is something that you need to worry about but considering that cruise ships are constantly sailing the ocean, carrying as many as 30 million passengers in 2019, the 16 cruise ship catastrophes mentioned above present only a minuscule chance that you will experience a tragedy on your next cruise.

Cruise ships are designed to withstand large storms and can even withstand most hurricane force winds and waves.

What Are Some Other Cruise Ship Dangers That Could Turn Into Emergencies?

Other cruise ship dangers that could turn into emergencies include: Running Aground, Plumbing Failures, Fires, and Loss Of Power.

Any one of these can result in your cruise ship being adrift at sea (except running aground). However, with the exception of other circumstances such as storms, or when the hull gets punctured due to running aground on rocks, these will generally not be life threatening for most guests.

Rogue Waves Are One Of The Biggest Dangers To Cruise Ships At Sea

For the most part, storms can be easily predicted due to the excellent weather prediction technology we have access to today. However, there are occasionally rogue waves that can cause significant danger to a cruise ship. This happened in December 2022 to Viking Polaris where one guest was killed after a rogue wave crashed into the cruise ship.

These waves, sometimes measuring as high as 100 feet tall, are extremely rare and even if your ship experiences one, it is unlikely to cause your cruise ship to capsize or sink.

With a properly trained cruise using modern technology - which all of the major cruise lines such as Holland America Line, Royal Caribbean, Princess, Norwegian Cruise Lines, and Carnival all have at their disposal, the bridge crew will be able to detect a rogue wave minutes or more before it poses a risk to the cruise ship.

They can detect these monster waves through high-resolution radar or LIDAR that can sense the movement of wave patterns around the ship.

While it doesn't sound like much warning, even a few minutes of advance notice can be enough to steer the ship so it encounters the wave bow first instead of to the side.

No encounter with a rogue wave will be a pleasant experience, most cruise ships will be able to survive an encounter if faced head on, bow first. Despite this, there will still be significant damage to parts of the ship such as windows, furniture, and other loose items that will go flying should this happen.

What You Can Do To Protect Yourself In A Cruise Ship Emergency

To a certain degree, cruise guests are limited in what they can do to protect themselves since they might not even know there is a problem until it is too late.

Despite this, here are some things you can do to keep safe on a cruise ship during an emergency.

  1. Always have an emergency kit with you. This will be valuable to help take care of any cuts and bruises you might have as well as being able to offer basic help to those around you. Don't bring a huge emergency kit with you, a basic emergency kit that you can keep in your backpack for traveling should be just fine.
  2. Stay away from the edge of a deck if possible, and stay up top as much as possible when outside.
  3. Follow all directions given by crew members or other safety personnel onboard should there be a problem such as fire or flooding.
  4. Consider carrying water in case of emergencies like power outages which can happen for instance during storms at sea. Having extra water bottles ready in your cabin can make things much more pleasant if something happens where the plumbing or electrical system is interrupted.
  5. It is worth noting that cruises ships are generally well stocked and will have bottled water available for the passengers should this become an issue.
  6. Look into travel insurance coverage before booking your trip. While this won't help you during the emergency itself, having the peace of mind that you won't have to pay for things like a flight home from an unexpected port, reimbursement for vacation days lost, or unexpected medical bills, can make the emergency less frightening.

Captains are trained to avoid risky areas and cruise ships are designed to avoid sinking even if a disaster at sea happens, but there is always a chance that things can fail. That's why it is essential to sail with a cruise line you can trust and who has hired the best officers and crew available to help protect you in an emergency.

In conclusion, while the chances of your cruise ship encountering a disaster is rare, it is still important to be prepared for the possibility.