What happens when cruise ships collide

The cruise ship MSC Opera loses control and crashes against a smaller tourist boat at the San Basilio dock in Venice, Italy
In 2019, cruise ship MSC Opera crashed against a smaller tourist boat in Venice, Italy - Reuters

Log into YouTube and you’ll find any number of videos depicting graphic scenes of cruise ships colliding with each other, or crunching into the unforgiving walls of concrete docks. Some collisions occasionally hit the headlines too, such as when MSC Opera crashed into a much smaller riverboat in Venice in 2019 – fuelling passionate calls for the city to clamp down on such unwieldy visitors.

Last month, it was the turn of P&O Britannia to make the news when, during a violent storm, it broke free from its moorings in Majorca’s capital, Palma, and collided with an oil tanker.

No one was seriously hurt and Britannia only suffered minor damage. However, as one of the lifeboats needed structural repairs, which could not be carried out onboard, the ship was required by maritime regulations to return to Southampton with a reduced number of passengers.

This meant around 230 guests and crew had to disembark in Palma, where P&O Cruises organised overnight accommodation before flying them back to the UK the following day.

Adverse weather conditions, and particularly strong winds, are one of the biggest enemies of ships and frequently the cause or aggravating factor in such incidents, which typically occur as ships are manoeuvring in ports.

Just a few weeks before, Cunard’s ocean liner Queen Mary 2 had a narrow escape after breaking free from its moorings in the Italian port of Civitavecchia amid high winds.

As the ship drifted away from the quayside, its forward and aft gangways dropped into the water, and an eyewitness who filmed the incident said the ship came close to hitting a nearby mega-yacht. Tugboats were able to bring the vessel under control.

With so many craft traversing the world’s waterways, it’s not surprising that occasional incidents like this occur. Cruise information website CruiseMapper details these, and they make interesting reading.

According to its listing, there have been five such collisions or allisions (the formal term for when only one of the objects is moving) involving cruise ships this year. Last year the total was nine, including three river ships – so the trend appears to be downwards.

Cruise ship collisions since 2020
Cruise ship collisions since 2020

That’s particularly true when compared with the last full year of cruising pre-Covid in 2019, when CruiseMapper logged 15 incidents, involving 12 ocean ships and seven river vessels – including four instances where cruise ships collided with each other.

The most notorious was the aforementioned accident involving MSC Opera and Uniworld’s riverboat River Countess (which has since been refurbished and renamed La Venezia).

The footage of the giant ship bearing down on the much-smaller craft with its horn blaring as bystanders flee for cover flashed across the world.

The ensuing crash, when MSC Opera rammed into River Countess and the dock, resulted in five passengers being injured. The ship’s captain and bridge team were found to be at fault and given jail sentences at the subsequent trial, but these were commuted to fines.

The three similar incidents in 2019 weren’t quite as dramatic. Two MSC ships, MSC Orchestra and MSC Poesia sustained minor hull damage after colliding during port manoeuvres in Buenos Aires, while Holland America Line ships Nieuw Amsterdam and Oosterdam “rubbed against each other” while docking in Vancouver, causing a scratch and some damage to balconies.

In December 2019, Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Legend and Carnival Glory had a bump while docking in Cozumel, with sudden wind gusts and strong water currents blamed.

Whenever collisions occur, it is down to the captain to contact the flag state authority of the ship (most commonly the Bahamas, Panama, Bermuda or Malta), which decides whether the vessel can continue to sail.

The authority is then responsible for leading investigations into the incident under its own regulations and in accordance with International Maritime Organisation recommended practices.

In the case of P&O’s Britannia, which is UK flagged, it falls under the jurisdiction of Britain’s Marine Accident Investigation branch, which is currently carrying out a preliminary assessment to determine the circumstances and consequences of the accident.

If, upon considering the evidence, it feels further examination is necessary, a full investigation will be launched, normally taking 12 months, though in this particular case no decision has yet been taken.

Every ship also requires a classification certificate which confirms that it meets quality and safety requirements and this enables the owner to register the vessel and obtain marine insurance.

The certificates are issued by a classification society such as Lloyd’s Register, which is one of the oldest, having been founded in 1760, while others include the American Bureau of Shipping and the Norwegian Det Norske Veritas, which is the largest.

After an accident, the ship’s classification society is also notified and along with the flag state, will be involved in ascertaining the extent of damage, safety implications and requirements to continue safe operations.

Any decision on whether to evacuate passengers comes down to the captain, who decides on a case-by-case basis.

As the global cruise fleet continues to grow, bolstered by ever-larger cruising leviathans carrying up to 7,000 passengers, it begs the question of whether such prangs could become more commonplace, especially as the most popular ports become busier.

Not according to the UK Chamber of Shipping which cites such accidents as “incredibly rare”.

“We don’t expect to see an increase in these sorts of incidents,” said a spokesman.

It’s a view shared by cruise expert Gene Sloan, from The Points Guy, one of America’s fastest-growing travel websites.

“There are hundreds of cruise ships docking at ports around the world every day and, for the most part, it is uneventful,” he said.

“For sure, cruise ship moorings occasionally break loose during intense storms with high winds – that’s what happened with Britannia – but it’s not all that often and it’s not something that keeps me up at night.”