Even mammoth cruise ships are vulnerable to winds, rogue waves, icebergs, unseen rocks, mechanical failure and, of course, human error. “It may sound boring, but listen carefully to the safety briefing,” says Steven Gosling, who for a decade navigated large cruise ships as a deck officer. The best way to survive a disaster is to go into it prepared. As soon as you board a boat, familiarize yourself with the exits, the stairways, the signage. Ships lose power; corridors fill with smoke. “Even with your eyes closed, you should know: If I come out of my room and take a left, then a right, then a left, there’s the stairs,” Gosling says. Know where your life jacket is and practice putting it on, but don’t wear it until you’ve reached the deck or have been instructed to do so by a crew member. Bulky foam vests impede movement through narrow, crowded passageways.
Resist turning into what Gosling calls a “have-a-go hero.” Crew members are trained to handle emergencies. Follow their instructions. But don’t go mentally limp. “If something is untoward,” he says, “don’t ignore it.” If you feel the jolt of the ship’s hull ripping open against a reef or you see water rushing in, don’t await instructions, especially if you’re in the boat’s lower regions. Go up toward the deck or to an emergency gathering location called a “muster station.” “The ship is your best lifeboat,” Gosling says. Leaping into the water should be your last resort.
If your boat is going under, you will hear a verbal “abandon ship” command from the captain, assuming the public-address system still works. After that, crew members will begin lowering lifeboats. There are no international maritime laws dictating that women and children board first. Modern ships are equipped with enough lifeboat seats for everyone aboard, unless the ship’s tilt prevents their launching. Wear layers of warm clothing. Take along any necessary prescription drugs and fresh water. “You may be in a lifeboat, under the weather, for hours, days, even weeks,” Gosling says.
If possible, tie all the lifeboats into a connected flotilla. Share resources, water, food, equipment and moral support. “You’ve got a much better chance of survival and being spotted and rescued working together,” Gosling says, “than if you’re one little person floating around by yourself with nothing but water for miles and miles.”
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