A boat sank the other day, but that's not the most dangerous thing about a cruise.
A few months ago I wrote a long, serious article about violent crime on cruise ships and how the cruise companies themselves allegedly cover up the crimes. Then the bloody Guardian ran something similar, so I threw it in the trash. Anyway, a massive cruise ship crashed the other day—you probably saw the pictures—so it seems like a smart time to revist an article about the dangers of cruising.
In 2004, when the crew of the Mercury Royal Caribbean cruise liner noticed that 40-year-old mother Merriam Carver was missing from the ship, no one called the police. No announcement was made, no investigation was ordered and Merriam’s family were not notified. Instead, stewards continued to replace the uneaten chocolates on Merriam’s pillow for the rest of the journey.
Eventually, one employee noted her disappearance, but was told by his superiors to “just do your job, and forget it”. Despite protocol, Merriam’s belongings were gathered up from her room and given to charity when the boat docked. The company made a report to the FBI stating that nothing of note had occurred during the voyage. According to Merriam’s father, Kendal Carver, internal documents show that their officials were coordinating a cover up of the disappearance. There was a conspiracy.
“We asked if there was CCTV,” remembers Kendal, “and they told us it was too late, it had already been erased. I don’t know what happened to my daughter, but for someone to disappear off a cruise ship and them to say, ‘Oh, there’s no video,’ something is not right. You know they’re hiding it.” Three years later, it was admitted that this had been a lie. There had been CCTV records, and they had been reviewed by the ship’s personnel.
Carver, a former CEO, spent thousands investigating his daughter’s disappearance, but has never found any satisfactory answers. On the course of this journey, he has become the President of the International Cruise Victims Association, in which capacity he has dedicated himself to helping other victims solve cruise line mysteries. It’s a full-time job. Last year was a busy one, with over 20 crew members and guests going overboard or disappearing on cruise ships.
A cruise ship is a floating city, full of people full of booze. But with populations of up to 6,000, they are unlike most others cities in one way. There are no cops.
The expectation of cruise passengers may be of a self-contained environment, where the dangers of life on land are replaced by intrepid glamour and meal deals; but the truth may be less idyllic. There is a growing list of disappearances and sexual assaults onboard cruise ships. As congressman Christopher Shayes asked in 2005, "Is going on a cruise the perfect way to commit the perfect crime?"
Of course some disappearances at sea are suicides. Some, no doubt, are overboards caused by dim bravado. But not all. Many are alleged to be drug-related, most are without resolution and none of them are helped by the baffling jurisdiction of the high seas.
On March 22nd, 2011, Rebecca Coriam disappeared from the Disney Wonder Cruise liner she worked on. The 24-year-old from Chester had been working on the ship for nearly a year before she disappeared somewhere on the Mexican Riveira. At the time of writing, what happened to Rebecca is still a mystery.
Jim Walker – an American lawyer who used to work for the cruise lines – thinks Rebecca’s case sums up the cryptic politics involved in investigating crime onboard a cruise ship.
“The investigation [was] conducted by the country whose flag is flown. In this case, Disney flies the flag of the Bahamas. So, you have the notion of a single police officer from Nassau, having to get on an airplane, fly all the way to Los Angeles, and then go on to the ship for a few hours when the ship returns to LA to conduct a full-blown forensic investigation, with the responsibility to interview a couple thousand passengers and a few hundred crew members. It’s a ludicrous proposition.”
It’d be natural to assume that recognisable brands such as Royal Caribbean and Disney Cruise Line are organisations operating under the eye and guidelines of European, or American law. But, by flying the flag of countries like Malta, and by basing their boats in Liberian ports, they are able to dance around the legal requirements their western clientele may take for granted. Walker reckons this adoption of foreign flags is symptomatic of an industry with no moral compass.
“They are 100 percent interested in profit,” he says. “Everything that the cruise industry does is designed to avoid responsibility. So, the largest cruise line corporation in the world, Carnival, is based in Miami, but incorporates itself in Panama in order to avoid US responsibility. They avoid US taxes, U.S. labour laws, wage laws, environmental laws, safety regulations, and by doing that gain, quite literally, billions of dollars that would otherwise go to taxes. As a business, they are designed to avoid responsibility. They are very good at it.”
Not only do they avoid tax, but their position on the murky international waters means that there is no legislation in place to ensure that cases of crime and disappearance are investigated at all. With no police on board, authority is privately sponsored.
“The security works for the cruise lines,” says Kendal Carver. “Their security officers are not going to take action that results in liability against the cruise line. And so many of these crimes have occurred where a crew member has raped someone – so, if they were doing their job they would be putting their employer at risk. The security on the cruise ship does not work for the public; it works for the cruise line.”
Ross Klein is a professor at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, author of four books about the cruise industry and editor of Cruisejunkie.com, an online cruise crime compendium. Klein’s comfortable assumptions about the industry were first shaken in 1992, when he and his wife took a cruise. “We were presented with a fruit basket,” he remembers, “and I offered an orange to a steward. Her response was, ‘Gee, that’s wonderful, we don’t get any fresh fruit at all.’ All she’d eaten for months was pasta.”
Klein believes that another benefit of distancing yourself from Western laws is the freedom it gives you to treat your employees as you like. Most cruise workers come from Indonesia, India, the Caribbean and increasingly, China. While those employees with a gift for language may find themselves waiting tables, where the tip system can be rewarding, those below the decks may not.
“They recruit in places where people are willing to work for nothing, under very long contracts,” he explains. “Most workers believe the advertisements telling them they’ll see the world, but all they see is the bottom of the ship as the world goes drifting by. If you’re from a developing country, often you’re hired through a recruiting agent. You have to pay a fee to the agent to get a job, so you go on the ship in debt.” Klein has documented the story of a woman from Poland who was notified that she was going to be fired when they reached port. She was so intimidatingly indebted to the recruitment agency that she chose to throw herself from the boat."
The treatment of employees goes a long way to poisoning the atmosphere of these floating resorts, according to Klein. “These low-paid menial employees work long hours, and they work very hard and the only time to relax is in the cheap crew bar. There can be a level of alcohol abuse and certainly that’s an element in sexual assaults.”
In January 1st, 2001, Julie Hesse’s family were enjoying the tail-end of a Christmas cruise aboard the Royal Caribbean’s Rhapsody of the Seas. As Julie, her husband and her son watched a belly-flop competition on deck; her 15-year-old daughter retreated to their cabin. While there, a man dressed as a bartender let himself into the room with a key card, and forced the teenage girl to perform oral sex on him.
“It was hard because you don’t know who to go to,” remembers Julie. “It was shocking to hear that story: She’s in bed and this guy comes into the room and starts screaming at her and she’s scared to death and doesn’t know what to do and doesn’t know how to fight back or anything.”
In the face of a sexual assault case, Hesse maintains that Royal Caribbean pursued a campaign of obfuscation, which began with them ignoring the Hesse’s calls, filing erroneous reports and refusing to cooperate, and ended with legal intimidation and the 11-hour deposition of a teenage girl. Did this lead her to the understanding that cruise companies are keen to conceal crime on board?
Cruises are no different from any other type of resort; they have to juggle the family market with a younger, less docile crowd, looking for holiday romance (in its broadest terms). One notorious advert for P&O featured a line of toned women in bikinis, headlined by the phrase: 'Seamen Wanted'. Which is pretty funny, to be honest, but in light of all the alleged rape cases, perhaps misjudged.
Last year, The Spalding Guardian reported one of the most shocking stories of abuse onboard a pleasure cruise. 64-year-old ship captain, Peter Russell, had been imprisoned for using the master key card of his Princess Cruise liner to let himself into the cabin of a 14-year-old girl, where he sexually assaulted her as she slept. Thankfully for Princess Cruises, the story didn’t make much national press. This surprised one of Princess' ship’s officers, who anonymously emailed Cruisebruise.com – a “privately owned, victim's advocate website” – saying: "They managed to keep that one quiet!!... I’m amazed that it never hit the headlines." An attitude the website takes as proof of a culture of secrecy circling any onboard sexual crime.
“We had a case,” Jim Walker says, “where we knew they had images of circumstances around a rape. Then they made a big story of how a thief had broken into their office and stolen the DVD player and therefore all the films were lost. I swear, it’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen.”
“To me,” says Ross Klein, “the greatest threat going on cruise ships isn’t even the disappearances, but the sexual assaults.” Klein claims the rate of sexual assault on a cruise ship is about 50 percent higher than it is on land in Canada. However, in 2006, Terry Dale, president and CEO of Cruise Lines International Association, stated that there was less than a 0.01 percent chance of being sexually assaulted. Those convinced of the cruise industry’s negligence, however, dismiss these as false statistics, as a significant portion of assaults are never registered.
Whatever the statistics, though, the charges of cover-ups and noncompliance are weird. After years of work, Kendal Carver is on the brink of having new laws passed in the US to protect American citizens onboard vessels, no matter what flag the ships fly – though the rest of us won’t be covered by these assurances. He has also managed to highlight the case of his daughter. But, for families with little money, attention is hard to command. If a Westerner disappears on board a ship, there’ll be an initial burst of coverage from their local media outlets, fed by press releases from the cruise lines, which tale off as information dries up – and it dries up quickly. If you’re an employee from the less fashionable side of the planet, you may be even more at the mercy of the company.
“Crew get ignored, because crew are kind of unimportant,” reckons Klein.
Jim Walker agrees: “When we represent families from say, India or Nicaragua, who come from a little village and their loved one has disappeared from a ship, there’ll be no story. The cruise line does not care, the cruise line will not cooperate. And when an employee tries to speak up, they’ll be fired”.
Follow Alex on Twitter - @terriblesoup