When a major storm approaches, airports close, public transportation systems are shut down, nonemergency vehicles are prohibited from using the roads. The storm may bring flooding, electrical outages, natural gas shutdowns, and other problems. Public officials counsel citizens to be prepared and follow their advice in order to stay safe.
This is as it should be. However, there's a major gap in regard to public safety. Action concerning cruise-ship departures and the danger to cruise passengers seems to be so far down the list as to be nonexistent. Authorities need to address this lacuna before a disaster occurs.
Cruise lines should not be allowed to board passengers and sail into hurricanes. Planes are grounded. Subways and rail lines are shut down. Bridges are closed, and access to public roads is severely restricted. Cruise lines need to be regulated and prevented from leaving port in treacherous conditions. An ounce of prevention will eliminate unimaginable harm to passengers and unnecessary demands on maritime rescuers.
It doesn't make sense to leave matters in the hands of the cruise lines, because I know from experience that cruise lines cannot be counted on to act responsibly. The response I heard as Hurricane Sandy approached was: The ship is sailing; get onboard or lose your money.
The experience my wife and I had prompted me to think long and hard about the issue of public safety and danger at sea. We were paid passengers on Caribbean Princess Voyage B237, which left Red Hook, Brooklyn, bound for Bermuda, on Oct. 27, 2012, and sailed into the center of Sandy. Princess presented passengers with a horrible choice: Lose your money or risk your life.
Unwilling to risk our lives, we did not board. The cruise line kept our fare, and we got nothing in return except the bitter experience of our exchanges with customer-care representatives. Their response: Come if you want. We are sailing. It is your decision and your tough luck. My rejoinder - that it was too dangerous - elicited the ridiculous claim that cruise management held passengers' safety in high regard and would not put passengers in danger.
The Caribbean Princess sailed into an approaching storm with the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded, hurricane force winds, 30 foot waves and a span of 1,000 miles. The ship did not get far and took shelter in Boston, even as the area was under a state of emergency.
The Caribbean Princess could not return to New York City on Oct. 31, as scheduled, because ports in New York were closed. When it finally made it back two days late, passengers were forced to disembark in the dark, yet another perilous with which to contend.
Should maritime authorities have stepped in and prevented the ship from sailing? Which agency? These questions need to be answered and regulations need to be put in place before the next storm. The experience of people like us will not be a total loss if it leads to regulations designed to keep future passengers from extreme danger.
Corporations predictably balk at being regulated. They contend that rules and regulations cost money and hamper their ability to operate. This argument has its limits. The lives and well-being of passengers are more important than cruise industry profits. A legitimate function of government is to insure passenger safety on the seas as well as in the skies and on the roads.
People are loathe to pay for something and get nothing. When confronted with the choice of boarding a ship and sailing into a monster storm or sheltering on land and keeping themselves safe, people are actually tempted to grit their teeth and get what they paid for. Presenting paying customers with this horrible choice shows a lack of decency and ethics.
I know from experience that my rational arguments with cruise personnel were futile. The Caribbean Princess sailed for no other reason than not to issue refunds. There ought to be a law to prevent such egregious misconduct. It is imperative that all-too-likely future tragedies at sea be prevented.
John Flynn is a retired senior citizen who lives in Ocean County.
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