MIAMI — A byzantine maze of maritime rules and regulations and fragmented oversight make it tough for consumers to assess the health and safety record of the cruise ships they're about to board in what for many is the vacation of a lifetime.
Want to know about a ship's track record for being clean? Want to assess how sanitary the food is? It's not that easy to find, in part because there's no one entity or country that oversees or regulates the industry.
In the case of Carnival Cruise Lines, the owner of the Carnival Triumph that spent days in the Gulf of Mexico disabled after an engine fire, the company is incorporated in Panama, its offices are based in Miami and its ships fly under the Bahamian flag — a matrix that is not unusual in the cruise line industry.
For potential passengers seeking ship information, there's no central database that can be viewed to determine a track record of safety or health inspections. No one agency regulates everything from the cruise line's mechanical worthiness to the sanitation of its kitchens.
The U.S. Coast Guard inspects each cruise ship that docks in the United States every year for a range of issues, from operation of backup generators to the lifeboats. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains a database of recent disease outbreaks and other health inspection information for cruise ships. Had Triumph vacationers looked up information about the cruise ship through those two agencies before boarding, they would have found mostly clean marks and few red flags.
And when something goes wrong, as it did on Triumph, there are limits to how much the Coast Guard can investigate.
These are not new issues — they had been raised by members of Congress before the Triumph incident.
"This horrible situation involving the Carnival Triumph is just the latest example in a long string of serious and troubling incidents involving cruise ships," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who led a committee hearing on cruise safety last year.
The Triumph left Galveston, Texas, on Feb. 7 for a four-day cruise to Cozumel, Mexico. An engine-room fire paralyzed the ship early Sunday, leaving it adrift in the Gulf of Mexico. Passengers described nightmarish conditions on board: overflowing toilets, long lines for a short supply of food, foul odors, and tent cities where vacationers slept on deck. Tugboats slowly towed the 14-story vessel to Mobile, Ala. It arrived there late Thursday.
The cause of the fire that crippled the Triumph is under investigation. Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen said Saturday that he could not comment on damage, time line or estimated costs. In the meantime, the ship is expected to remain docked in Mobile to be cleaned and sanitized before it's back on open waters.
The U.S. Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board will lend their expertise to the investigation, but in a support role. The inquiry will be led by the Bahamas Maritime Authority, where Carnival registers or "flags" some of its ships. The arrangement is commonplace under international maritime law, and it puts U.S. agencies and investigators in a secondary position even though the Triumph and other Carnival ships sail out of U.S. ports with primarily American customers.
Inquiries to Carnival about inspections and foreign flags were met by a response from the Cruise Lines International Association, which represents the major cruise lines. Bud Darr, the group's senior vice president for technical and regulatory affairs, said the industry is "very heavily regulated," from the way ships are designed to how crews train for emergencies. He said standards are set by the United Nations' International Maritime Organization.
But Jim Walker, a Miami maritime attorney and author of the cruiselaw.com blog, said, "The IMO guidelines are not law and there is no consequence if the cruise lines ignore the guidelines and recommendations."