Adrian Vasquez - Click on photo to go to BBC report

I know most have heard by now about the cruise ship STAR PRINCESS ignoring three fishermen in distress, two of whom subsequently died. Princess Cruises has apologized for the incident, calling it a "breakdown in communication." (Click the photo for a report from the BBC) 

Apparently on 10 March, several of STAR PRINCESS' passengers saw three fishermen in a small boat trying to attract attention. They reported this to an officer, even giving him their glasses to look at the boat. The officer in turn reported this to someone via walkie-talkie - it's not clear to whom - but no action was taken, and the ship sailed on. The fishermen had been adrift since 24 February at that time. One of the three fishermen died that night.

Princess Cruises maintains that the bridge was never informed. (Another source I read indicated that the officer to whom the passengers reported the boat in distress might have been a junior purser, not a navigating officer.)  The passengers, seeing that no action was taken, also reported the boat's position via email to a Coast Guard website. But the boat continued to drift for another two weeks, by which time two of the men were dead of exposure and thirst.

According to the Guardian, on the night of March 10 one of the men, Oropeces Betancourt, 24, died of dehydration. The second, Fernando Osorio, 16, died on March 15 from dehydration, sunburn and heat stroke. The lone survivor, Adrian Vasquez, was picked up by the Ecuadorian Coast Guard after 28 days adrift, near the Galapagos Islands - 1000km from the mainland - kept alive, he said, by a fortunate rainstorm and by eating raw fish. 

Vasquez reportedly told the Associated Press:  "I said 'God will not forgive them'. Today, I still feel rage when I remember."

There are several points here that I see.

First, I've never worked in the cruise industry, so maybe I'm way off base. But I think it's possible that in large, internally-focussed institutions like this cruise ship (and that's one description of what they are, necessarily, as a floating entertainment business) that the traditional seamanship you and I grew up with may get pushed aside. 

COSTA CONCORDIA (see related stories in the Categories listing on the right side of the page) is an example of this: Capt. Schettino, apparently a highly qualified officer, can't have been that poor a seaman. Maybe he was carried away trying to entertain the passengers; and it was said that he and other company Captains had performed that dangerous stunt before, so maybe the company had a safety culture problem - not that that lets Schettino off the hook. But whatever he was thinking, good seamanship was not uppermost in his mind at that moment. Does the high-pressure cruise ship environment make traditional seamanship more difficult?

Second, there is this prescient comment on another blog post from Stanislas Oriot (see "Fatigue Video" in the Categories column to the right of the page). He says, "I think we can link what it seems to be more of a modern problem on ships with our modern life, which is more and more virtual, quick and - maybe I exagerate - inhuman." 

Stanislas, a student in the French merchant marine, was commenting on the problem of fatigue and alertness aboard ships, but I think he's describing a more general issue, as well. In our intensely online-oriented culture, some blurring begins to take place between electronic reality and real life. I've several times had new men on board who got so wrapped up in the screens that they forgot to look out the window! I'm sure this has happened to many other captains. 

The modern electronic bridge (even on tugs these days) can threaten take up a watchstander's attention to the exclusion of physical reality. "If it ain't on my screen, it ain't really real," might sum up the problem. Were the watchstanders on STAR PRINCESS as aware as they might have been of the nature of the traffic around their ship?

Finally, there is a trend I seem to see developing lately: can the greater oversight of the Master made possible by constant satellite communications tend toward reducing his autonomy and authority? One of the reports about the COSTA CONCORDIA emergency response said that Schettino had ten phone calls to and from his office in the hour after the accident. What effect might that have had on his actions - such as the controversial delay in calling Abandon Ship? 

I think that the advent of rapid, continuous communications at sea has already begin to alter the Master's authority. Like many other cultural paradigms, this one is undergoing change in this age of burgeoning, ubiquitous communication. But we might wisely examine these subtle changes before just accepting them! 

The mistake in the STAR PRINCESS case may not directly involve the Captain. But it's his ship, his authority, and his responsibility. Dilute that concept and you've begun to undermine the whole structure of authority and control at sea. 

Many of you out there work on cruise ships, and may be able to speak to these issues out of direct experience. Please let us know what you think!

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