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Cruise TipsWhat Laws Do Cruise Ships Follow at Sea?

What Laws Do Cruise Ships Follow at Sea?

Have you ever wondered if cruise ships abide by different laws and how those laws are enforced when you’re on a cruise vacation?

While we aren’t lawyers and don’t give legal advice, this article will detail a few tidbits about maritime law and international waters.

Holland America Nieuw Amsterdam cruise ship
Photo Credit: Cruise Fever

One of the many reasons people go on vacation is to get away from the restrictions of their everyday life – be it at home, in the workplace, or otherwise. It is easy to adopt the mindset that there are no rules, or social norms while on vacation, but quite the opposite is true.

Specific laws, rules, and regulations have been developed and enforced across popular vacation destinations, such as cruise lines, as these jurisdictions happen to be some of the most challenging and complex.

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Once a cruise ship sets sail, they are then governed by maritime law, which is responsible for regulating all vessels in both domestic, and international waters. The exact jurisdiction of a specific crime depends on how far it should occur from land, and the territory it occurs within.

There are also additional factors which must be considered, such as the fine print within clauses on the cruise ticket that passengers ultimately sign when booking their cruise.

Before you set out on your next cruise vacation, it is important to understand what rules and regulations apply to passengers. Despite the risk of encountering a situation on board which would require legal action being slim, having a basic understanding of this knowledge can help you to enjoy your next voyage.

 

The Basics of Maritime Law

Maritime law is notoriously difficult to clarify and understand because every country has its own version of it, and therefore, most cases of crimes committed on board are decided upon a case-by-case basis.

Each individual cruise ship flies the flag of the country where it is registered and will assume the laws of that country when onboard the vessel.

However, when a ship is sailing in international waters, or docked in a foreign country, that territory must be taken into consideration when deciding which laws and regulations apply to the vessel, and any incidents that may occur onboard.

Norwegian cruise ships in port at Nassau
Photo Credit: Cruise Fever

Legal jurisdiction regarding maritime law is divided into four separate categories: Internal Waters, Territorial Waters, Contiguous Zone, and International Waters (or High Seas). These categories look something like this:

  • Internal Waters assume areas such as the port. When a ship is docked, the laws of that port apply to the ship, its passengers, and all crew members.
  • Territorial Waters begin at the coastline and extend up to 12 miles – regardless of the country the ship is sailing from. For context: this is why a ship departing from a U.S. port cannot open gambling activities until it is 12 miles from the coastline, as gambling is illegal in most parts of the United States.
  • The Contiguous Zone assumes the area that is between the 12 miles to 24 miles from a country’s coastline. Every country has certain rights within this zone, which includes patrolling its borders. In the U.S., the United States Coast Guard is legally permitted to board any ship within this zone that is suspected of drug smuggling.
  • Once a ship exceeds the 24-mile marker, it is then in International Waters, and must follow the law of the country whose flag it’s flying. So, if a cruise ship is registered in the Bahamas, and is 30 miles off the coast of Florida, it is subject to Bahamian law, not U.S. law.

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Ship Owners Duty of Care

Maritime law states that all cruise lines owe a duty of care to passengers, which includes:

  • Providing a safe and secure environment for all guests.
  • Ensuring all crew members have undergone a full and complete background check, and thorough training as it pertains to their specific role.
  • Ensuring the vessel is in good condition, and well maintained.

A duty of care essentially means each passenger on board is entitled to receive all manners of care as per the duty of care owed by the owner of the ship. The owner of the ship in reference to a cruise sailing would be the cruise line itself.

The cruise line is required to ensure all passengers arrive at each destination safely and assumes full responsibility that no injury, or harm would come to a passenger aboard, including accidents, unforeseen events, and intentional harm.

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Any passenger who may be harmed aboard a cruise ship may file a civil lawsuit against several entities, including the owner of the vessel, and its operator.

Although cruise ships are generally safe, and the likelihood of being involved in criminal activity onboard is slim, they are not immune to potential dangers. For these reasons, there are policies in place for how to handle such situations should they arise.

 

Security Onboard Cruise Ships

You may be wondering if cruise ships are equipped with authority figures such as policemen, or security guards, and how safety is ensured for all passengers, and crew members while at sea.

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While vessels do not have the same appointed policemen as we see on land, there is comprehensive security, including video surveillance, rigorous security checkpoints for not only staff, but for passengers, and baggage, as well as records of every individual on board for that sailing.

Luggage in a cruise ships hallway before debarkation day.

 

Baggage is thoroughly checked to ensure there is no possession of prohibited items, such as weapons, firearms, drugs, or any other belongings suggested on the Sample Prohibited Items List, which was curated specifically by the CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association) for cruise lines.

This list can be found online prior to your sailing and is available to the public to ensure your safety.

Additionally, and arguably most importantly, there are exceptionally trained security personnel on call 24/7 onboard each vessel who are professionally trained to address serious criminal activity.

Each ship beginning or ending its sailing at a U.S. port is legally required to have at least one crew member onboard who is trained in crime prevention, detection, and reporting. These individuals are responsible for diffusing physical altercations, drunkenness, and other misconduct.

Read more:  10 things that will get you banned from a cruise ship

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Jail at Sea

On land, if you commit a crime, jail time is often the consequence. So, you may be wondering if the same practice is executed at sea? The answer is yes.

If criminal behavior is severely out of control, guests may be escorted to a lower-level deck where the ‘Brigs’ are located, which is simply a nautical reference for a jail cell. The term ‘Brigs’ originated from the word ‘brigantine’ which is a two-masted ship that was formerly used to house and transport criminals.

These jail cells are no more than barebones cabins with heightened levels of security, and maximum isolation.

However, this is a last-ditch effort on cruise ships, and guests will typically be locked in their own cabin with security planted outside of their door before they are transported to this level of confinement.

Passengers are typically locked up until the termination of their sailing (disembarkation at the end port), or when the vessel reaches its next port depending on the severity of the crime, and the laws of that country.

What levels of crime might land you behind confined bars in the brigs?

Obnoxious drunkenness wouldn’t be enough, but possession of drugs, violence inflicted upon a crew member, or other guest, and possession of a weapon (i.e., a firearm) certainly would. There is a code of conduct each passenger legally agrees to when booking their sailing, and should these rules be severed, you may be facing maritime jail time.

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Injuries/Illness on Cruise Ships

Although vacation is supposed to be all about fun, relaxation and enjoyment, injuries and illness are sometimes inevitable. It is common to sustain an injury on cruise ships, such as slip and falls, dock accidents, swimming pool or slide injuries, or injuries incurred while on excursions.

Similarly, illness outbreaks, such as norovirus (i.e., GI illness), respiratory illness, or food-borne illnesses, are not unheard of, as these vessels can have tight quarters, and these illnesses are highly contagious.

Unfortunately, maritime laws may limit a passenger’s right to recover any compensation lost due to injury or illness, as it is difficult to prove that a ship’s operator(s) should have known about an unsafe condition onboard a vessel or its subsidiaries (excursion companies).

There are legal regulations in place that a passenger is permitted to take, however, it does require that the passenger prove negligence, or intent to harm to bring any claim against the cruise line.

Additionally, accidents which occur in open waters can only be filed in federal court, and must be done so within a timely manner, and within all clauses specified on the cruise tickets the passenger agreed to upon booking.

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Bottom Line

Cruises are generally considered very safe and carry minimal risks to consider when deciding on your next vacation. However, it is important to educate yourself of any potential incidents that may occur while cruising, such as injuries, or criminal activity onboard.

While there are several different laws that have been put into place to address such incidents should they arise, they often become increasingly complicated, and require further legal investigation.

A good rule of thumb is to avoid engaging in any activity that would have negative repercussions on land, and to treat the vessel as you would any other facility, although some incidents are understandably unavoidable.

As the laws onboard cruise ships are frequently in flux depending specifically on the territory the ship is sailing within, maritime law has ensured the safety of each passenger be maintained by adherence to the ship owner’s duty of care. You can sit back, and relax on your next sailing knowing that your safety is paramount to the cruise industry.

This guest post was written by C. Ingram

Read more:  15 things you should do right after you book your cruise

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