How to Survive a Busted Cruise Ship

The Carnival cruise ship Triumph makes its way up Mobile Bay assisted by tug boats in Mobile, Alabama on Feb. 14. Photograph by Dan Anderson/AFP via Getty Images

It’s been a bad stretch for the cruise industry, particularly Carnival Cruise Lines, in Doral, Fla. Just a month ago, more than 4,000 passengers on the Carnival Triumph spent five days in the Gulf of Mexico without electricity and working toilets following an engine-room fire. Last Thursday the Carnival Dream was disabled in St. Maarten because of a faulty backup generator. And on Friday—because bad luck, like comedy, comes in threes—the Carnival Legend, on a seven-day Caribbean cruise, cancelled a trip to Grand Cayman because of propulsion problems.

If you remain determined to vacation on the high seas any time soon, we’ve made sure to answer all your pressing questions.

If you’re on a cruise ship that loses power, should you worry about food?

Not really. “Food should be on the bottom list of priorities,” says Creek Stewart, the founder of Willow Haven Outdoor, a survival and preparedness training facility in central Indiana. In extreme survival situations, he says, you can live for three hours without shelter, three days without water, and three weeks without food. “We’re so wired in this country to eat regularly,” he says. “But once you get over the initial hunger pangs and mental trauma of not eating, you’ll be fine.” A more pressing concern is fresh drinking water. Stewart suggests hoarding any receptacle that could be used to collect rain water, including bottle, buckets, and even trash cans.

The Carnival Triumph was dubbed “the poop cruise” because of its lack of functioning toilets. Is raw sewage dangerous?

Yes, after prolonged exposure. “Human waste, particularly the mixing of human waste and water, is the cause of a staggering number of deaths in so many parts of the world where they don’t have proper sanitation,” says Stewart. The bigger problem may be enduring the unpleasant odor of all that feces. Marybeth Bond, a National Geographic travel writer and founder of the Gutsy Traveler blog, suggests breaking open a bag of unbrewed coffee grounds. “It’s a great odor eliminator,” she says. “It’s why they use coffee grounds in airplane bathrooms.”

How can I best plan in advance for a cruise disaster?

Pack a few hundred dollars in cash, a working flashlight, and a fully charged cellphone, says Terry Riley, author of the book Travel Can Be Murder: The Business Traveler’s Guide to Personal Safety. And don’t use that cellphone until you absolutely have to. “Wait till you get to a port,” he says. “There’s not much point to calling your friends or family when you’re still on the boat. What are they going to do, other than feel sorry for you?”

Can I at least use my phone to sign on to Twitter?

Absolutely, which may prove to be more useful than you think.”Tweeting is power,” says Bond. “Critical mass could make a big difference on how quickly your ordeal ends.” The travel industry is especially sensitive to public complaints—bad press can cost them millions in future customers—so a few hundred negative tweets will get their attention faster than anything. “With social media, you have more power than you ever had before,” Bond says.

Should you worry about pirates?

Maybe. An Italian cruise ship thwarted an attack by Somalian pirates in 2009. Last November, Azamara Journey—a cruise ship owned and operated by Azamara Club Cruises, a subsidiary of Royal Caribbean Cruises—evaded Somali pirates off the coast of Oman. But there’s no reason for concern, at least according to the executive director of piracy policy for the U.S. Coast Guard (who asked that his name not be used). There have been no successful hijackings of cruise ships for one very important reason. “They’re too fast and high,” he says. “Pirates go after low and slow vessels, anything that doesn’t move faster than about 15 knots. Cruise ships typically do between 20 and 25 knots, or more.” You should worry more about your fellow passengers.

Are you saying a stranded cruise ship can get apocalyptic?

It may not come to murder, but tensions will be high. “The biggest challenge with being on a cruise ship that’s not moving isn’t surviving Mother Nature,” says Stewart. “It’s surviving being packed on a boat with 4,000 people who are hungry and angry.” He suggests staying isolated from your fellow passengers, if only to avoid the cooped-up hostility and battles for limited supplies.

Can you trust the staff?

Maybe, or maybe not. Bond thinks it’s worth remembering the Costa Concordia, a cruise ship that ran aground in Tuscany last year. “They kept announcing to the passengers that everything was fine,” she says. “But everything most definitely wasn’t fine. The captain wouldn’t even send an SOS to the nearby harbor.” The ship capsized, killing 32 passengers.

Who should I believe then?

Well, trust your instincts. “I remember being in a hotel where a fire alarm went off,” says Riley. “And then a voice came on the speaker system that said, ‘Don’t worry, there’s no fire.’ My first thought was, ‘Bullshit. I’m not going to have some guy who makes minimum wage tell me there’s no fire.’ And I was right.” Hotels, as with cruises, want to contain panic. So they’re not necessarily going to tell you the truth 100 percent of the time. “My advice is, be proactive,” Riley says. “If you think there’s trouble, go check it out. We have a tendency to think, ‘Well, they said it’s OK; I’m sure it’s OK.’ The only one truly looking out for your safety is you.”

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