When temperatures plunge below freezing, as they are wont to do this time of year, it is not unreasonable for people to start making plans for a vacation getaway to a warmer clime. The beach is one option. Cruises, increasingly, are another.
But before booking a cruise and researching ports of call, some caution might be in order. It is not a wildly risky prediction to say that we have a maritime disaster somewhere in our future.
Cruise ships are getting ever larger and carrying ever larger numbers of passengers, more than could be comfortably or efficiently removed from the ship in the event of a fire or a sinking.
In January 2012, the U.S. Costa Concordia, with 4,252 people aboard, ran aground on a clearly visible island off the coast of Italy with the loss of 32 lives. Because of delays in implementing safety procedures and language barriers among the crew and passengers, the ship was not abandoned in orderly fashion and the captain, rather than stick with his ship as law and tradition demand, left about an hour before most of his passengers.
Last February, a small fire that should have easily been contained caused the Carnival Triumph to drift helplessly around the Gulf of Mexico for four days without cooked food and in parts of the ship without proper sewage disposal. The ship and its hungry and filthy passengers were eventually towed ashore.
The size of these ships seems to exacerbate the problems once trouble strikes. And the ships keep getting bigger. Currently, the world's largest cruise ship is Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas with 2,706 rooms capable of accommodating 6,300 passengers and 2,394 crew members on 16 decks. There are 22 restaurants, 20 bars, a shopping mall and a casino.
The Allure's size would make it one of the world's 30 largest hotels accommodated in a single structure. There are more cabins on board than there are hotel rooms in downtown Knoxville. Every single person living in the city of Harriman could take a cruise on her.
The Chicago Hyatt Regency, generally accounted as a large hotel, has 2,026 rooms. Unlike land-based hotels, the passengers on a cruise ship cannot go outside and stand on the sidewalk when trouble strikes.
The likelihood is that cruise ships will become bigger and more opulent simply because cruising has become so popular. In figures cited by The New York Times, the trade association of cruise lines said its North American members carried 17 million passengers in 2012, up from 7 million in 2000.
The responsibility for ensuring that the ships are safe, well maintained and manned by adequately trained crews seems scattered across a variety of public and private agencies, the cruise lines themselves and the countries under whose flags of convenience they sail. Meanwhile, the sheer size of the ships demands a greater reliance on automation.
With ever more and ever larger ships headed to a relatively limited number of destinations, it would seem that maritime trouble of some kind is inevitable. But this is the season of hope, and the allure of the seas -- pun intended -- is great. To those who book passage on one of these behemoths, godspeed.