Inspectors find flawed lifeboats on cruise ships
A cruise ship is unloaded on September 26, 1999, in Quebec City, Canada - by Marcos Townsend
A forum organized in Washington by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) heard about the problems on Tuesday.
Captain Eric Christensen of the US Coast Guard said 140 cruise ships -- the majority of them flagged in other countries -- were inspected in US ports in 2013.
The most commonly deficient parts were fire screen doors that fail to close properly, followed by lifeboats with leaky hulls, engines that didn't start or faulty davits -- the cranes that lower them into the water.
"Means of escape" came third on the list, followed by improper storage areas and inadequate emergency drills and crew training.
The Coast Guard operates a "robust examination program" with semi-annual inspections of cruise ships on stopover in US ports plus, starting this month, unannounced spot checks on vessels with "a worse that average compliance history," Christensen said.
Out of the ships inspected in 2013, one was in bad enough condition to be detained -- the Carnival Triumph, which made headlines earlier that year when an engine fire left it stranded in the Gulf of Mexico for several days.
"It's not like these deficiencies go uncorrected," he told AFP. "They are identified and repaired" before a ship gets a green light to return to sea.
The NTSB is holding two days of hearings in Washington on cruise ship safety in the wake of several highly-publicized incidents, notably the Costa Concordia disaster off Italy in 2012 in which 32 people died.
NTSB chairwoman Deborah Hersman welcomed representatives from the cruise industry and regulatory bodies including the UN International Maritime Organization.
"Worldwide, about 22 million people will take cruises in 2014. That's more than four times as many as just 20 years ago," she said.
"The largest ships can now accommodate more than 6,000 passengers and 2,000 crew."
By comparison, the "unsinkable" Titanic was carrying 2,224 passengers and crew when it hit an iceberg off Newfoundland on its 1912 maiden voyage and sank, in history's most infamous maritime disaster.
More serious accidents and incidents, Hersman said, can only be headed off "by continually seeking safety improvements."
While Americans make up a big chunk of cruise ship passengers, responsibility for safety rests with the country in which a ship is registered -- often a small nation hard-pressed to enforce the rules.
"The US role in cruise ship safety is not as high as many people would think it would be," Hersman told reporters later in the day.
Some 115 cruise ships are registered in the Bahamas, said John Akhurst, deputy director of the Bahamas Maritime Authority.
This includes vessels operated by cruise industry giants Carnival and Royal Caribbean.
International maritime law requires a ship to have a "genuine link" with its country of registry, but Akhurst noted the absence of a clear definition of what that link ought to be.
He defended the Bahama's open-door policy towards registering ships whose owners are in other countries, saying: "Standards are not relaxed to attract tonnage."
Some 350 cruise ships are now sailing, with seven to nine new ones joining them every year, said Thomas Weigend of Germany's Meyer Werft, one of five shipyards worldwide specializing in the increasingly mammoth vessels.
But only "a really small percentage" meet an IMO design standard, set in 2010, whereby a ship is fitted with sufficient safety features to make its way back to port in the event of an emergency, said Daniel Povel of Det Norske Veritas-Germanischer Lloyd, a non-profit maritime inspection service in Norway.
The NTSB forum is delving into operational, design and regulatory issues as well as investigation procedures that in many cases involve several nations.
But it is steering clear of other concerns, such as outbreaks of illness or criminal acts on the high seas, that fall outside the NTSB's remit.