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Cruise Ship Preparedness: Staying Safe at Sea

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For most cruise enthusiasts, sailing to an exotic Caribbean island or through Alaska’s Inside Passage is a dream come true. All-you-can-eat buffets, a relaxed atmosphere, and sunny skies. Few people anticipate a cruise where things go horribly awry.

Most recently, the Carnival Sunrise ran into a massive storm off the coast of South Carolina. Photos and video show seawater flowing down hallways and broken windows. As a frequent cruise passenger myself, I can imagine the terror felt by passengers and crew alike.

Back in 2013 many of us were fixated on the story of the Carnival Triumph. This massive cruise ship lost nearly all its power due to fire and for five days became a bobbing cork in the water. And how about more recently–remember the Diamond Princess Quarantine? While these incidents are rare, they do happen and if you plan on enjoying the high seas, you need to be ready with cruise ship preparedness.

Readers have asked me, “Survival Mom, what would you have done if you had been on that cruise ship? How do you deal with cruise ship crisis?”

Well, very coincidentally, I actually WAS on a cruise ship at the same time as the ill-fated Triumph. We also left from Galveston and had a similar Caribbean itinerary. It was a bit surreal.

Now that summer vacation season is upon us, I’ll share what cruise ship preparedness looks like for me–both what I packed for that cruise and some tips that, I believe, would have helped us survive those days at sea with a smile on our faces. In fact, some of this can help you and your family on any type of vacation, whether the seas are smooth or rough.

Alright, let’s get you cruise ship ready!

image: cruise ship preparedness on cruise ship anchored offshore of island

Remember that these ships are floating cities!

They even have their own crime reports. In 2020, the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act mandated, among other things, that crime be reported to the FBI. The U.S. Department of Transportation maintains these quarterly reports.

It’s disturbing to note that by far the most frequent alleged crime is sexual assault by both passengers and crew. Women especially need to be take precautions.

  • The United States has more than 15,000 towns with populations smaller than the capacity of the larger cruise ships.
  • The largest ship of them all, Royal Caribbean International’s Wonder of the Seas, can hold 9,288 passengers and crew at full capacity. She won’t hold that spot for long, though; the 10,405 capacity Icon of the Seas launches in 2024.
  • You need to behave on the ship the same way you would walking around a city on land. That includes your children. If you wouldn’t let them wander around an unfamiliar city on their own, they shouldn’t be left with the run of the ship. However, do drill them on what to do if they are separated from you.
  • Overall being on the ship is very safe, but crimes and accidents do happen. Many of the injuries and deaths that occur onboard are related to alcohol consumption. The same can be said for some of the crimes committed. Too much alcohol leads a person to make poor decisions (going back to the cabin of a crew member or other passenger, allowing others into your cabin, etc). I know you’re on vacation, but be smart about your alcohol intake.
  • Bottom line, you don’t know your fellow passengers. I have met some wonderful people on cruises but I have always maintained a level of safety while onboard, just as I would on a land vacation.

Before You Leave Home Port

Know your cruise ship and the emergency procedures

Cruise ship preparedness goes beyond the kit you pack and bring. And it begins even before the ship leaves port and before you involve yourself in cruise ship life. First, familiarize yourself with the ship. They are HUGE, and some people find it difficult to find their way around a large cruise ship. It’s sometimes easy to get turned around and not know fore from aft. I can get lost in a corn maze, for goodness sake.

Fortunately, each ship has a pocket sized deck plan you can carry with you. Get one and study it so you will know your way in an emergency. Situational awareness is just as relevant and necessary on a cruise ship as anywhere else.

The “Muster Drill”

This element of cruise ship preparedness is non-negotiable. Attendance at a “muster drill” is mandatory onboard a cruise ship. At the designated time (almost always before leading the embarkation port), the ship will sound the alarm and passengers must go to their assigned muster station.

Pay attention and memorize where to go and the instructions of the crew. This information is also printed on a sign on the back of your cabin door. In an emergency, don’t wait! Get your life jacket from your cabin – if it is safe to do so – and go straight to your muster station.

Stay Safe in Ports-of-call

Cruise ship preparedness includes any stops you make doing the cruise also.

  • Don’t carry your passport off the ship. Use the in-cabin safe to store your passport and other valuables and carry the copy of your passport with you. It, along with a drivers’ license, will be sufficient for use as citizen identification if there is a problem. Not carrying your original prevents it from being stolen if you are mugged or pick-pocketed.
  • Just as on board the ship, control your alcohol intake. Make good decisions and do not take ride offers from strangers, go to a different location with a stranger, or flash around a lot of cash.
  • You will be provided information on how to contact the ship from shore in case of emergency. Be sure to carry it with you.
  • Take a photo of your family and friends as you get off the ship. If anyone gets lost, you have a current photo and description of the clothes they are wearing.
  • Each person in your group should have a sheet of paper in their wallet with their personal information on it. Include name, address, emergency contact at home, the names of those traveling with you, ship name, and important medical information. If you are injured, a quick look through your wallet provides plenty of information for emergency responders.

What should a prepper pack for a cruise?

It is unrealistic, and in most cases impossible, to carry your whole bug out bag with you. Boarding the ship requires a security check similar to TSA at the airport but quicker and less intrusive.

The rule of thumb is that if you can’t carry it on an airplane, you won’t be able to carry it on the cruise ship, so many of your everyday carry items will likely have to be left at home. Be sure to check with your cruise line for a list of prohibited items. With these restrictions in mind, here’s a recommended list of preparedness items to carry on the ship with you.

Cruise Ship Preparedness Kit

Here is what I packed along with bathing suits and sun block:

  • Duct tape. Really.
  • Laundry soap. We didn’t do any laundry by hand but could have.
  • Berkey water bottles. We would have had pure drinking water, no matter what.
  • Protein or meal replacement bars. You may likely eat more food on a cruise ship than at any other time in your life! Cruise ships have a very precise calculation of how much food they need and they get close to running out toward the end of the cruise. If there is an emergency that delays the ship from returning to port, plans are made to stretch the food out. Having extra calories in your cabin just in case is a smart idea.
  • Emergency radio. Depending on where the ship is, you might not pick up any radio, but you could. Also, my radio has a flashlight and electronics charger. I can recharge my devices using solar power or a hand crank. I may not be able to make calls but I can use the camera, play games, read my eBooks, etc.
  • Packets of Clorox wipes.
  • Hand Sanitizer. Most cruise ships have multiple hand sanitizer dispensers available near the dining rooms and buffet lines. There are other times you may want to disinfect. Having your own on you or in your cabin keeps you from having to find a dispenser.
  • Small LED flashlights and whistles. I think we had one for every member of the family. If you take nothing else from this list, bring these two things. You will receive a card that works as your identification, cabin key and charge card while on board. Consider bringing a lanyard to have an easy way to carry that card with you when you don’t have pockets and don’t want to carry a bag. Attach the flashlight and whistle to the lanyard as well to have them with you at all times. Ship interiors are very dark if the lights go out. (Lighted strips similar to on an airplane line the halls and stairs.) A whistle allows you to be found more easily by rescue workers, if needed. It also gets attention if you should find yourself in a dangerous situation with another passenger or a crew member.
    image: lanyard with cruise card, led flashlight, and whistle
  • Small lantern, battery operated candles, or light sticks. Relatedly, without power, interior cabins without windows are darker than the inside of a cow. If the ship loses power, having these items will allow you to be in your cabin safely.
  • N95 masks. If there is an outbreak of some sort on board, a mask may help keep you healthy when in the common areas or when helping to treat a sick travel companion.
  • Medications. Each ship has a medical clinic and one or more doctors onboard. In an emergency or in a large outbreak, the clinic may be quickly overwhelmed. Having the ability to self-treat in your cabin will be beneficial. Also, while you can get cold medications, motion sickness, and other OTC drugs onboard, they are expensive. Carry a minimum of one extra week of any prescription medication you must take daily.
    image: first aid kit for cruise ship preparedness
  • NyQuil. Gosh, I love that stuff! If we really had been stranded at sea for a while I might have opted to sleep through the whole ordeal!
  • A deck of cards and the travel version of Apples to Apples. Without power available there were no movies or TV on the Triumph, and I’ll bet there were a lot of cranky, bored people.
  • Some clothespins. These would have multiple uses for closing a make-shift tent (some people had to sleep on deck when their cabins were too hot) or hanging up wet laundry.
  • A Swiss army knife. Check with cruise line about restrictions BEFORE leaving home.
  • A small, soft-sided cooler. We could have kept our water bottles and snacks in this if we hadn’t been able to stay in our cabin.
  • A power strip. Apparently, electricity was available here and there around the ship, so a power strip would have enabled many people to charge cell phones and other electronics.

All of these supplies are quite small, except for the power strip, and should be a part of your emergency kit anyway. Also, everything was quite inexpensive. Having a well-equipped emergency kit needn’t break the bank.

Other than having some handy supplies, what else can you do if a vacation really takes a turn for the worst?

What can we learn about cruise ship preparedness from the Carnival Triumph emergency?

Quite a bit actually. In the case of the Carnival Triumph, the discomfort level of passengers depended greatly on where their cabins were located.

Their attitude also contributed greatly to their experience. This would be true on any vacation, from a camping trip to a stay at a luxury resort.

We had an inside cabin on our cruise, with no window, so we would have been among the passengers camping out on deck. From photos I saw, it seemed that passengers made their own makeshift tents out of bed sheets. Pretty smart. Those clothespins would have come in handy, for sure. We might also have dragged the mattresses from our cabin, unless something else was made available.

The passengers with cabins that had balconies and windows that opened had fresh air. If we would have been in one of those cabins, we would have invited some of the unluckier passengers inside for breaks. The cruise we were on had a high percentage of people over the age of 60 and families with very young children. Both groups would have been in need of creature comforts after just a few hours.

I would expect a high degree of panic and uncertainty during the first few hours of the crisis because that’s just natural, even among the Survival Mom’s family members! However, at some point one of us would have said, “Snap out of it and deal with it!”

What Carnival Triumph passengers did to cope

The ship’s captain and crew had emergency plans in place, but even so, it’s up to the individual to find their own ways of coping. Here are a few steps that some passengers of the Triumph took and a few tips of my own.

  1.  Get acquainted with other passengers, or vacationers, as quickly as possible in a crisis. One older couple on the Triumph who had to stay out on deck said they became friends with a younger couple and the four of them got through the ordeal together. There’s nothing like a crisis for bringing people together, and I would have taken advantage of this. I read of one group of passengers that held regular Bible studies. That was smart on a number of levels. It brought people with a common interest together, their focus was on something positive, and it provided a routine and an activity to look forward to.
  2. Set up a routine as quickly as possible. This could include participating in ship activities, walking the outdoor track, or anything else we could do to take at least some control of our time in order to avoid panic and negativity.
  3. Stay hydrated! If we were spending a lot of time out on the deck, we would need our sunblock and plenty of water. The Berkey water bottles, or any other bottles with a filter, would have been effective, even with gray water, if it came to that.
  4. Eat small, light meals and when possible, set aside food for snacks later on. I don’t mean hoarding food if there was truly a food shortage, but taking some food for a meal and then setting a bit aside for later. This would be especially important if with kids or for family members with health issues.
  5. If sanitation becomes a problem, use hand sanitizer and those Clorox wipes liberally!
  6. Find something to enjoy. Out on the ocean, with no electric lights, the stars must have put on one heck of a show. The show of a lifetime for most people.
  7. Avoid complaining, negative people. What happened on the Triumph, happened, and these passengers were never in mortal danger. It would be hard enough to stay positive in this particular scenario, but with kids along, I would have made sure I checked my own bad attitude or worries at the door, figuratively speaking.
  8. For a time, alcohol played a role in helping some people cope with the stranded at sea trauma. However, I heard that the captain turned off the tap, so to speak, and passengers had to finish the trip fully lucid. Alcohol would not be my recommendation for coping with any vacation crisis!

Just for the record, we were on a Royal Caribbean ship and had a fabulous time. Loved every minute of it.

As news about the Triumph reached us, I asked my daughter, age 13 at the time, how she thought our family would have fared.  I was so proud when she said, “I think we would have done just fine!”

That’s my girl!

Final Thoughts

Cruising is a wonderful vacation option, and I fully intend to travel by ship many more times in my future. But like any other activity, you must be smart, be prepared, and make good choices. With this cruise ship preparedness guide you can have a Bon voyage!

Have you experienced a significant crisis during a family vacation? How did you cope?

Originally published 8/2/2017; updated and revised by Team Survival Mom with contributions from Amy VR.

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I’m the original Survival Mom and for more than 11 years, I’ve been helping moms worry less and enjoy their homes and families more with my commonsense prepping advice.

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