Everything That Could Go Wrong on a Cruise...and Why You Shouldn't Worry About Any of It

Some of the headlines about cruising have been downright frightening. Whole ships full of people being quarantined to their cabins with serious stomach flu? An unpleasant end to a much-anticipated vacation. Pirates commandeering one of the more luxurious ships on the water? That's the stuff that nightmares are made of. But the reality is that you're much more likely to suffer from a sunburn or a hangover on a cruise than anything more serious. Here are the most worrisome horrors at sea, and why they're just not that likely.

The Fear: Pirates

In December 2008, pirates tried to overtake Oceania Cruises' 1,000-passenger M/S Nautica, just off the coast of Somalia in the Gulf of Aden. The pirates chased and shot at the ship, but the captain increased the speed and was able to escape. Pirates wielding machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades also attacked the 151-passenger Seabourn Spirit in the same area in 2005. Fortunately, the captain and crew acted quickly there, too, and the ship eluded the pirates.

The Real Risk? While frightening, the Nautica situation was over in five-minutes flat, according to Oceania spokesman Tim Rubacky. And while the instances of pirate attacks are most common in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Indonesia, cruise ships are rarely the target. According to the Cruise Line Industry Association (CLIA), there were only three attacks in the last decade and all three failed. "The general opinion is that attacks on passenger vessels are probably made out of ignorance or mistaken identity," agreed Bruce Good, spokesman for Seabourn.

The Fear: Collisions

We've all seen the movie "Titanic" -- some cruise ships even show it onboard. It's easy to watch that liner sinking after hitting an iceberg and wonder what else could take a cruise ship down: Glaciers in Alaska? Ill-fated brushes with other ships? Or, dare we say, land? In a real-world horror, the M/S Explorer, a Canadian-owned ship, hit an ice floe in Antarctica in 2007. Thankfully all of the passengers were rescued from lifeboats. That same month a Norwegian ship hit ice after suffering engine failure. Everyone on board was rescued by another ship as well.

The Real Risk? Cruise ship navigation systems are pretty sophisticated. "They're like GPS on steroids," explains Berry, spokesperson for the CLIA. Aly Bello, a spokesperson for Carnival Cruises, adds, "There are always still officers on watch on the bridge. Coming in and out of port, local harbor pilots that are familiar with the waters, tides and currents, guide the ships." Ross Klein, an industry expert who tracks the data for his website, CruiseJunkie.com, agrees: "I would say that passengers are generally safe from these types of occurrences -- when they occur it is a more a matter of inconvenience than it is of serious injury."

The Fear: Norovirus

You've spent months looking forward to your cruise. So who wants to end up quarantined in their cabin with a stomach bug instead of sunning on the pool deck? The common symptoms of Norovirus are vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramps -- not a fun way to spend one of the two vacation weeks you get in a year.

The Real Risk? According to the CDC, the majority of Norovirus outbreaks happen on land. In fact, the biggest culprits are hospitals, schools, and nursing homes, which account for 9 out of 10 cases. The CLIA confirms that the origins of the mythical relationship between Norovirus and cruise ships is a technicality -- cruise ships are the only entity required to report outbreaks above two percent to the CDC. In reality, only one tenth of 1 percent of cruise ship passengers fell ill in 2008.

The Fear: Seasickness

There's no denying that queasiness can put a damper on anyone's fun. If you've never sailed before you may picture the way a toy boat bounces around on the ocean when you're at the beach -- leaning forward and back dramatically, and threatening to tip over at any moment. That's enough to turn anyone's stomach.

The Real Risk? On most cruises, particularly in the calm waters of the Caribbean, you can hardly tell the ship's moving if you're not on deck or looking out a window. The rougher seas are on the open oceans. If you're worried about seasickness, then a transatlantic crossing is not the right trip for you. According to Neil Cherian, M.D., of the Neurological Center for Pain at Cleveland Clinic, seasickness has some genetic links and a possible correlation to migraines as well. If you think you're at risk for migraines or seasickness, pack stomach-settling ginger candy and the Transderm Scop patch, a prescription-based sticker that combats motion sickness when placed behind your ear. Book a cabin in the middle of the ship near the water line where, according to the Cleveland Clinic, you're least likely to feel motion.

The Fear: Rogue Waves

Yes, it sounds incomprehensible that a freak wave like the one that wreaked havoc in the movie Poseidon could happen. That is, until you read that two passengers were killed and 14 were injured last month on the Cyprus-based Louis Cruise Lines' ship The Majesty when it was struck by a wall of water off the coast of France. Windows were smashed as high up as Deck 5. And this was no tiny sailboat, but a 1,790-passenger ship traveling from Barcelona to Genoa. Back in 2001, the Caledonian Star was hit by a giant wave in Antarctica that was estimated to be 98-feet high.

The Real Risk? They don't call these waves "rogue" for nothing. Waves move in a series, and a rogue wave is one that's out of sync -- and more powerful -- than the others. Also known as "monster waves " and "killer waves," they are considered rare, though many go unreported.

The Fear: Falling Overboard

There were a total of 25 reported cases of passengers going overboard off cruise ships in 2009 and five in the first few months of 2010 alone. Which sounds like a lot, doesn't it? Suffering from flu-like symptoms isn't a great way to spend a trip, but drowning is much more... final.

The Real Risk? There are no official industry statistics on the number of people to go overboard, but by all accounts it is an extremely small percentage of passengers. Sometimes alcohol is involved; in other situations passengers have climbed up on railings or leaned over to snap pictures. Occasionally a suicide note is found. Klein estimates that a mere 136 people have gone overboard on cruise ships in the last decade, though he believes that some cases go unreported. He also cautions that sometimes the reason is foul play: "Passengers need to take the same precautions on a cruise that they would in a major city." When cruise lines talk about people accidentally falling overboard, railing height is always the first concern. "Carnival ships have 42-inch-high railings on all exterior deck areas, making it virtually impossible for someone to accidentally fall over," says Bello.

The Fear: Missing the Ship

You show up at the dock -- late from a delayed flight, rush hour traffic -- only to see your vacation pulling out to sea. No, they're not going to turn an 1000,000-ton ship around for you. You have literally missed the boat.

The Real Risk? We cannot tell a lie -- this one actually happens all the time. But it's preventable. Fly into your embarkation port a couple days early, and enjoy your time exploring the city rather than worrying about whether a cancelled flight will mar your vacation. That said, the CLIA notes that lines do make an effort to delay sailing when there are a sizable number of tardy passengers. But the ship does have a schedule to stick to and has to factor in the cost of the berth, the cost of overtime, port traffic, and the time it takes to get to the next port. If you miss the ship, it is your responsibility to meet it at the next port of call, at your own expense. Rubacky offers up some smart advice that even this frequent cruiser didn't know: "Always take the ship's daily paper with you as it will have the contact information for the port agent." The agent will then notify the ship that you are not onboard and will help you arrange travel to the next port.
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