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Cruise line’s Arctic gamble could leave mariners holding the bag

Mar 27, 2017 11:18 AM

Last August, the 820-foot Bahamas-registered cruise ship Crystal Serenity began its trip through the Arctic’s famed Northwest Passage above the United States and Canada, the melting ice and continued warming temperatures freeing up open water for much of the voyage. The ship carried about 650 crewmembers and 1,050 passengers, each of whom paid from $20,000 to more than $120,000 for the opportunity to make the 32-day trip from Seward, Alaska, to New York City. After that inaugural journey, Crystal Cruise Lines is now advertising for the 2017 Northwest Passage cruise — only $45,000 for a basic, single-occupancy fare.

Even though Crystal Serenity carried two Canadian ice navigators and was escorted by the 262-foot British light-duty icebreaking research ship RRS Ernest Shackleton, many in and outside of the maritime industry still questioned the wisdom of the journey through the Northwest Passage. The region is plagued by a lack of reliable nautical charts and aids to navigation, and communication is spotty. In addition, shoreside support such as hospitals, shipyards, search and rescue personnel, and oil spill response vessels manned by cleanup specialists are essentially non-existent along the 900-mile route. “You just can’t send a sick crewmember to the doctor, pick up the phone and call for tug assistance, or arrange for an emergency repair at a shipyard,” said my friend Mike, a 1,600-ton master (oceans)/master of towing who has been the captain on an oceanographic ship working up in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas for the past two years. “You are basically on your own up there dodging growlers.”

The mixing of ships and ice has, for over a century, evoked images of Titanic going down to her watery grave with over 1,500 souls — fewer than the number on Crystal Serenity. An older, conventional cruise vessel with open lifeboats, Crystal Serenity does not have a special ice-strengthened hull for use in the Arctic. In case of a need to evacuate the ship in the icy waters of the Northwest Passage, nearly 2,000 passengers and crew would ostensibly either have to be dropped off on some freezing, desolate Arctic shore, or transferred over to the support ship RRS Ernest Shackleton. I am curious how nearly 2,000 people, including those with limited mobility or in wheelchairs, would fit on a 262-foot ship made to carry 72 passengers and crew. Having worked as an officer on passenger vessels myself, I question whether everyone on board would be able to transfer safely off the stricken vessel on a calm day, much less in the middle of a cold, dark night or in severe weather.

To help address the expected increase in polar shipping, the International Maritime Organization’s International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (commonly known as the Polar Code) has been created. The Polar Code applies to applicable commercial vessels transiting in polar waters, defined in the Northern Hemisphere as above 60 degrees north latitude and in the Southern Hemisphere as below 60 degrees south latitude, and encompasses three regulatory areas: marine pollution, ship construction/safety and vessel operations. Some provisions came into force on Jan. 1, with others due to be phased in starting on Jan. 1, 2018. Maritime officials from around the world spent 25 years talking about and debating the need for establishing the Polar Code for the shipping industry, and it is generally agreed that it was a good first step. Critics both in and outside of the maritime industry, however, have denounced it for being too weak, with a number of compliance loopholes and delayed enforcement of the provisions written into the law.

Operationally, the Polar Code prohibits the use or transport of heavy fuel oil (HFO), a particularly noxious marine pollutant, in the pristine waters of Antarctica but inexplicably permits its use along the Arctic routes. The convention’s tenets do not even apply to domestic vessels or to cargo ships less than 500 gross tons, despite the fact that they, too, can be lost or cause environmental harm to pristine polar waters. The Polar Code also authorizes delays in meeting the established construction standards, specifically the requirement for ice-strengthened hulls. Depending upon the vessel’s survey/inspection schedule, shipowners can avoid meeting the regulations until the first intermediate or renewal survey after Jan. 1, 2018 — perhaps as long as four years from now in 2021 — all the while still operating in frigid, fragile polar environments.

I am in favor of the thoughtful, sustainable development of our Arctic resources, but in my opinion Crystal Cruise Lines needlessly gambles with lives and the environment when it sends Crystal Serenity through the Northwest Passage without meeting the directives of the Polar Code — including an ice-strengthened hull. The chance that it could strike an uncharted rock, have an iceberg rip a hole in its hull or be hit with some other shipboard emergency is a very real one. As every gambler will tell you, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, and over the years I have observed that when maritime disasters occur, the first reaction is to point the finger at the mariners on board.

After Exxon Valdez spilled nearly 11 million gallons of North Slope crude in Prince William Sound, blame for the incident was quickly leveled upon the captain, officers and crew. Last year, a few weeks after the tragic loss of El Faro and the lives of everyone on board, attorneys for the corporate owner of the ship made a legal claim that the company was in no way responsible for the tragedy, essentially attempting to shift all of the blame to the dead captain. If this latest maritime gamble in the Arctic goes awry and things “hit the fan,” will history once again repeat itself?

Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin.’

Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at captsweeney@professionalmariner.com.

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