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Dread in the water

June was unkind to the cruise industry. Not cruel, but offering enough significant mishaps to remind company executives _ and their potential passengers _ that fun-afloat vacations also come with potential hazards. The problems that occurred:

The Royal Majesty, with 989 passengers on board, ran aground 10 miles east of Nantucket Island on June 10. That happened the last night of a seven-day cruise from Boston to Bermuda. Repairs forced two sailings to be canceled, affecting about 2,000 booked passengers.

Majesty Cruise Lines offered those passengers full refunds and, if they re-booked for later this year, a 25 percent discount. About 220 people who had tickets for the June 18 cruise that had to be canceled were booked aboard other ships so they could cruise on their original dates.

On June 18, the much larger Celebration had a fire in a control-room panel that cut all but emergency electricity to the ship. That meant the 1,760 passengers were without air conditioning, cooked food and even running water, because the water pumps were without electricity. The ship, in the Bahamas island chain, also lost its propulsion.

Ship owner Carnival Cruise Lines canceled a sailing of the Ecstasy, sending it from Miami to return the Celebration passengers. That, in turn, meant about 2,400 Ecstasy passengers had to be offered refunds or other cruise dates.

Later, inspection of and repairs to the Celebration forced the cancellation of one of its departures, with about 1,800 reservations; refunds or other sailing dates were offered. Passengers scheduled to sail this weekend on the Celebration were switched to the new and much larger Imagination, which leaves on its first revenue cruise next Saturday.

Also on June 18, a fancy new steamboat was run aground against the bank of the Ohio River to allow publicity photos to be taken _ but the 418-foot-long ship wound up stuck in the mud for four days.

Aboard were about 280 travel agents and a few writers, most all of them taking a free ride on the American Queen's shakedown trip to Pittsburgh. The passengers, ballast and fuel had to be unloaded to make the vessel lighter. But in order to free the American Queen, it took a dredge to clear a channel in the mud to the ship, the Army Corps of Engineers releasing enough water from dams upstream to raise the river about a foot and the effort of two huge towboats yanking on the ship.

The four-day delay in dislodging the riverboat canceled the final leg of its publicity cruise, with about 400 more travel agents and a few writers being bounced.

On June 23, the 806-foot Star Princess struck a rock about 14 miles from Juneau, Alaska, and suffered two long, narrow gashes in its hull. The ship began taking on water, but the flooding was contained and no injuries were reported among the 2,226 passengers and crew. The vessel leaked a patch of oil, but it quickly dissipated.

The 1,550 passengers had to be taken off the ship and were flown out of Juneau's airport. Princess Tours of Seattle canceled the rest of the seven-day cruise about two days before it was to end in Vancouver, British Columbia. Damage to the ship has forced cancellation of four, fully booked, sailings, affecting more than 6,000 passengers. They will all be offered full refunds, 50-percent discounts on future sailings and onboard credits of $250 when they do sail again on Princess.

Passing grades

The Coast Guard, which conducts regular fire-safety and ship-evacuation drills of the 120 or so cruise ships calling on U.S. ports, acknowledged the unusual coincidence of the various mishaps. "But we don't want to say they're unsafe," Cmdr. William Uberti told the Associated Press.

Uberti, who is program director for passenger ship safety, added, "The problems are not related to each other."

Technically, of course, he's correct. But each of the events raises the specter of a calamity on the water. I've written before of the worst-case scenario: Fire at sea, at night, on a cruise liner carrying 2,400 passengers, many of whom are too drunk or too disoriented to save themselves.

That would require the passengers not only staying calm but also remembering the brief lifeboat drill required on all ships within 24 hours of leaving port. The routine calls for passengers to go to their cabins, put on the bulky lifejackets and make their way through corridors and up or down stairways to their particular lifeboat stations.

Ships' officers _ I've even seen the entertainers used _ are supposed to check that the jackets are on and secured correctly. My experience has shown a wide variance in the inspection, from a cursory glance among laughing passengers to calling the names and cabin numbers of each person assigned to that lifeboat station.

When I questioned the board chairman and the president of Carnival Cruise Lines on the safety factor last fall, Mickey Arison and Bob Dickinson gave assurances that ships' officers are trained for such emergencies. Carnival president Dickinson, noted for his caustic comments, insisted that during an emergency such as a fire, even the throngs dancing in the discos would suddenly sober up and move responsibly through several decks to reach their lifeboat stations.

As Cmdr. Uberti told the AP, "The (ships') crews responded properly" in all the June incidents. "The crews (are) living up to their training standards."

There have been no fatalities in a maritime incident on a cruise ship calling on American ports in the past 25 years, according to a trade official, while passenger totals have increased annually about 9 percent since 1980. More than 3.6-million passengers cruised last year.

Responding to that popularity, the industry has added dozens of new vessels with tens of thousands more berths. Carnival alone, with its four brand lines, carries about 1-million passengers a year.

Sending spin doctors ashore

But the industry estimate is that 90 percent of the adults in North America have never taken a cruise. And the spate of bad news last month that might discourage potential passengers is far more worrisome to the cruise lines than the inconvenience to the thousands on board the four ships involved.

That may not have been as much a problem for the Delta Queen Steamboat Co., owners of the fanciful new riverboat American Queen. The company did find itself stuck, literally and figuratively, but action by company supervisors offered a lesson in damage control.

The steel-hulled ship, which is driven by its stern paddlewheel turned by two huge steam engines, was supposed to pull into Cincinnati for the final leg of a trip from New Orleans to Pittsburgh. During that promotional voyage, more than 1,000 travel agents and a few writers were aboard at various times to see the vessel.

The American Queen finally floated free of its mudbank one hour and 51 minutes after the last 400 or so travel agents and writers, including me, were to have boarded the ship in Cincinnati for a four-night trip to Pittsburgh.

As recently as the night before it was freed, Delta Queen workers were encouraging us to gather in the Ohio city for an abbreviated version of that cruise.

But having gathered about 200 of us, officials made contradictory statements about the trip. First, at the hastily arranged buffet dinner, we would-be passengers were given a letter from the company president announcing the trip was canceled. Then, minutes later, we were told by the senior vice president for sales that the ship was almost free of the mud and that we'd likely be cruising the next day.

In fact, the next morning our trip indeed was canceled to guarantee the ship was ready for its first revenue-producing cruise back to New Orleans. Delta Queen sales managers, apparently all veterans of the Up With People troupe, scurried around a desk in the hotel lobby, amiably handing out return-flight information and sales kits.

It all served as a first-person reminder to travel industry professionals that everyone's plans are interrupted sometimes, with no one to catch the blame. No paying passengers were discomforted, in this case, though it added to the spate of news stories that might turn off potential passengers.

For the American Queen, which planned an inaugural cruise with a full 436-passenger complement, this was unlikely to be a problem. Fully 90 percent of those passengers, according to sales manager Russ Varvel, were repeat customers for the Delta Queen line.