Cruise Ship Break-Downs At Sea


Cruise ships are sophisticated machines with literally millions of moving parts. Should any of these parts stop working, the consequences can vary greatly, and the impact on our guests and crew too!

From plumbing and electrical issues like you might have at home, to significant engineering breakdowns unique to a floating city, I want to share how we fix everything on board – and what happens if we can’t!

Day-To-Day Cruise Ship Issues

Operating a hotel that moves around the world, we encounter many of the same issues that any hotel might experience – and you might recognise from your own home. Ships use a work-order system to issue and assign each problem to the correct person and then allow us to follow up on them. It also allows us to see where issues keep happening so we can target further maintenance. One common problem encountered by our guests is with their toilets.

The vacuum toilet system used on board, designed to reduce the amount of water used for each flush, uses narrower pipes than plumbing networks on land. This, combined with the bends and twists to carry waste from cabins to the processing plant, can lead to blockages. When guests or stateroom attendants report this problem, usually a plumber can attend to it within the hour – often even faster! Because this is a common issue, we carry plenty of spare parts on board if they’re needed.

When the plumber confirms everything is back to normal, the work-order system will let guest services know. They can make sure our guests are happy with the fix, and the job is complete.

Bigger Cruise Ship Break-Downs

Each cruise line has a robust planned- and preventative-maintenance system that helps make sure everything runs as designed 24/7. However, as with any machinery, sometimes unexpected breakdowns happen.

Ships today operate using a diesel-electric configuration where huge engines drive generators, providing power for both the hotel and the propulsion. The flexibility of this arrangement allows us to keep running, even if one or more engines are out of service. Smaller problems like blocked fuel filters can be fixed quickly, while larger things may take an engine out for days, or even weeks if parts need to be sourced. What this may affect is the speed we can travel at – to sail at 8 knots may only require 2 Megawatts, where sailing at 18 knots may need 20!

Other significant breakdowns might include the propulsion. Whether the ship uses conventional propulsion or podded propulsion, the general idea is the same – connect a big electric motor to a big propeller! While the hardware to push a ship through the water is enormous, it’s also pretty well-tested technology. It doesn’t go wrong often – in fact, in my time on ships, I’ve only seen a propulsion problem affect our itinerary once. This repair required flying parts and a technician to the ship, but we managed to leave the next day!

The Biggest Cruise Ship Break-Downs

There have been significant incidents where cruise ships have been completely disabled. They can’t sail, they don’t have air conditioning or water – it becomes a nightmare for both guests and crew, and could put their safety or health at risk. This is often the result of a major emergency such as a fire, where large sections of the ship have been affected.

A disabled ship such as this must be towed to a safe port. An ocean-going tugboat first needs to reach the vessel, and then connect and start pulling it slowly to the nearest suitable harbour. In the past military ships have been close by for this process to assist if required; however, it may be dangerous to transfer all the guests to another vessel.

Cruise Ship Reliability

For a long time ships have been built with redundant systems, so that one failure won’t disable the entire ship. These include systems for steering and propulsion, for delivering fuel and distributing electricity. While we have been able to cope with a lot, clearly we can’t make anything 100% fail-proof.

In recent years, the industry has been making changes to ensure ships are more resilient to these incidents.

One of these changes was to introduce an auxiliary generator. While ships have been required to have an emergency generator on board, this would only power vital systems that keep the ship safe. However, it won’t supply air conditioning, galleys or waste treatment. This can lead to an uncomfortable and unsanitary environment on board. By installing an additional generator, these older ships can now power primary systems that keep people healthy and happy(er) as well as making sure they’re safe.

A much more significant change has taken place, with new regulations in the International Maritime Organisations regulations that form SOLAS – Safety Of Life At Sea. Large passenger ships built after 2010 now have new designs and procedures in place. These won’t just allow their guests and crew to stay safe and healthy but will also let the ship sail to a safe port. The engineering to accomplish this is phenomenal, yet even now there will be limits to what it can overcome.

The maritime industry is continually working to improve safety on board every ship. Sometimes changes are slow, and sometimes they’re swift. However, with every change, an industry that already has remarkably few casualties becomes safer, and more cruise vacations are completed without incident.

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