The most important amenity on your cruise ship isn’t the signature restaurant or the spa. It’s the flag on the stern.
That flag represents the country in which the ship is registered. It determines how many sailors the ship should have and their qualifications, whether or not they bother to enforce the existing marine safety regulation — and, most importantly, what happens if you run into trouble.
Cruise ship flagging doesn’t become an issue until one of our media colleagues brings it up or until it’s your problem.
No one likes to think of anything unpleasant happening on vacation, and even if it does, surely it will happen to someone else — right?
Besides, you tell yourself, if you do have an accident or criminal incident, you can call the police.
Not on a cruise ship.
Yes, there are cruise company security officers, but they work for the company, not you. What kind of training do they have in examination of a crime or accident scene, preservation of evidence, or questioning witnesses? Who knows?
No point going to the captain or his officers, either, since they have no formal training whatsoever in law enforcement. Most don’t even carry the common law books of the flag state, which they are supposed to.
About 60 percent of cruise ships are now registered in Panama, Liberia or the Bahamas, and fully 90 percent of all cruise ships fly a foreign flag.
But are these countries equipped to handle these registrations? For example, about 80 cruise ships are registered in the Bahamas. Yet its small police force struggles to handle law enforcement on land, never mind handling crimes at sea.
“The Bahamian Maritime Authority has a deplorable record responding to serious injuries, deaths or crimes involving passengers and crew members on cruise ships flying the Bahamian flag,” says maritime attorney Jim Walker. “Often, no real investigation is performed.
Bahamian authorities are beholden to the large cruise lines. If foul play is involved, “it will do nothing.”
How do we know? It admits it on its site.
Reports and documents may not be used as evidence in the event of any subsequent criminal proceedings. If a criminal investigation proves necessary, the entire incident should be investigated by a body independent of the original investigating authority.
Says it all, doesn’t it?
Think of it like buying a new car. If a dealer has a gleaming white car for sale at a bargain price, but a sign beside it says ‘Made in the Bahamas, No Warranty,’ wouldn’t you think twice before parting with your cash?
Then think about the flag when shopping for a cruise. There are still good flag states out there where responsible cruise lines register their ships. The United States, U.K. and the Netherlands come to mind.
But make sure you do your research so that you and your family are protected. Because your ship’s flag of convenience may not be the most convenient — or safe — flag for you.