Dream cruise 'hell on the high seas'

By Carolyne Meng-Yee

A dream cruise turned into a life-threatening ordeal for more than 2000 people, with an official report revealing a combination of events led to mayhem and carnage aboard the New Zealand-bound ship.

Seventy-seven passengers and crew were injured when the P&O cruise ship Pacific Sun rolled up to 31 degrees during a severe storm north of New Zealand last winter. Many of the injured were Kiwis.

An official report into the accident, obtained by the Herald on Sunday but not yet shown to passengers, reveals full details and causes of the ordeal, which some fearful passengers said resembled the Titanic movie.

The report said it was "pure good fortune" that some passengers and crew were not more seriously injured or killed by unsecured furnishings including casino gaming machines, tables, a grand piano and heavy office equipment such as photocopiers.

It says procedures for securing furnishings following an earlier accident - in which another cruise ship's equipment injured people - were not "sufficiently robust".

The report, by British maritime officials, reveals a litany of other events and problems on board the ill-fated cruise, including:

The Pacific Sun was on a tight schedule and this placed the captain in a "difficult situation" to return to Auckland to ensure the following cruise left on time. By not heaving-to earlier, the report said, he "inadvertently placed" the ship in the worst sea conditions, 322km northeast of North Cape;

The crew were essentially flying blind, unable to see or monitor abnormal swells of up to 7m in darkness;

The ship's stablisers were inoperative - one was worn out and the other was rendered useless in the slow speeds that the ship was reduced to;

Two of the four muster stations - areas where passengers are meant to congregate in an emergency - were also rendered useless because of the damage and mess caused by unsecured furnishings;

The accident damaged the ship's main satellite system, reducing officers' abilities to communicate with shore;

Many passengers were concerned to see crew wearing lifejackets, while they were not. This was attributed to a crew alert signal being sounded before a general emergency. The report said this was appropriate, but that the common situation needed a better solution in the cruise industry.

Passengers' injuries ranged in severity from broken bones, to cuts and bruises. Seven were seriously hurt, and three were greeted by ambulances when the ship berthed in Auckland two days later. One passenger had part of a finger amputated. The report said other passengers suffered anxiety attacks.

"If we get out of this it will be a miracle," one passenger said at the time. "Please give [my daughter] an extra big hug and kiss from me. Make sure her life is fun. I am so scared."

The report said many of the injuries were caused by falls, and unsecured furnishings toppling on to people.

"Had Pacific Sun's furnishings and fittings been sufficiently secured so as to resist moving when she heeled, the number of injuries would have been greatly reduced," the Marine Accident Investigation Branch report says.

It said this very issue was addressed in an earlier accident report, featuring another ship managed by P&O sister company Princess Cruises.

"Attempts to identify and secure items, and especially heavy objects, on Princess Cruises' vessels following the Crown Princess accident in July 2006 were not successful in preventing similar items from breaking free on Pacific Sun," said the report.

"In the absence of an industry standard, Princess Cruises should develop a company standard for securing fixed items on board its vessels and apply it across its fleet as soon as practicable."

Last night, a P&O spokeswoman said the heavy objects on Pacific Sun had now been secured and the company was conducting a fleet-wide review on other ships. She said the experience had provided a "valuable insight" for the company.

The spokeswoman said officers and crew members onboard, many with 20-30 years' experience at sea, had never experienced rolling of the magnitude that occurred during the trip. It was "unpredictable and rare wave behaviour".

The ship rolled so badly that two spa pools were emptied of water, causing further hazards. Because muster stations were damaged, passengers were told to return to their cabins.

"The master was advised that several passengers continued to arrive at their allocated muster stations, that some were uncomfortable in their cabins and some were concerned at the sight of the crew wearing lifejackets," said the report.

It said P&O had now supplied bridge crew with night-vision goggles, improved officers' training in the risks associated with heavy weather and reviewed securing arrangements for its satellite communications equipment.

But the company had also been advised to review furnishings and "develop suitable means of securing such items for heavy weather" and to develop an overall standard for such as issue. The report also recommended the company review its stabilisers and planned maintenance.

The P&O spokeswoman said the company was committed to continually reviewing and improving safety measures.

- Herald on Sunday

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