Carnival Triumph – Another Blacked-out Drifting Cruise Ship – Why Again?

Nightmare CruiseThere is a fire in one of two engine rooms on a cruise ship.  The fire is extinguished but the damage has been done. The cruise ship blacks out – losing power and most electricity. The ship is adrift in the ocean.  There is so hot food, hot water, or air conditioning for the several thousand passengers and crew aboard the ship.  Conditions aboard become extremely uncomfortable as sewage systems back up, food in refrigerators rot, and the temperatures below decks become sweltering.  Finally, tugs are hired to tow the ship into the nearest port.

This could be a description of what is currently happening on the Carnival Triumph, which is now being towed to Mobile, Alabama.  It could also equally be an account of what happened on the Carnival Spendor in the Pacific in late 2010, or the Ocean Star Pacific off Mexico in April 2011, or the MSC Opera in the Baltic in June of 2011 or the Costa Allure off the Seychelles in February of 2012.  The same thing almost happened on the Azamara Quest off the Philipines in March of 2012.  After drifting for 24 hours, the crew was able to restore partial power and electricity and  the Azamara Quest was able to make it to port on its own.

The design of each of these cruise ships should make the complete loss of propulsion and main generators due to a single engine fire impossible, yet with six ships disabled in just over two years, the failures are not only possible but apparently chronic.

All these ships have similar machinery layouts. They are, as are most modern cruise ships, all diesel electric powered.  Instead of having one or more large engines connected to propellers, these ships use several smaller engines connected to generators which supply electricity to motors which turn the propellers. The generators also keep the air conditioning running, the food hot and the drinks cold. Typically, these ships have two independent engine rooms with three diesel engines in each.

Having two separate engine rooms and six diesel engines driving generators should provide complete redundancy.  Even if one engine room is completely out of service, the diesel engines in the other engine room should be able to provide enough power to bring the ship home as well as generating enough electricity to keep the passengers comfortable. That is obviously not what is happening.

What is starting these fires in the first place?  The most likely culprit is a crankcase explosion. That is what started the fire on the Carnival Splendor.  Crankcase explosions have always been a problem on large diesel engines.  If a crankcase bearing overheats it can cause an explosion in the oil rich air in the crankcase.  In the Carnival Splendor there was a crankcase explosion in engine #5 in the after engine room, which caused the fire.

How could a fire in one engine crippled the entire ship? For months there was no clear answer. The Carnival Spendor flies the Panamanian flag and does not generally publish accident reports, unlike the US Coast Guard or the NTSB.  The first explanation for what went wrong came in a statement made by Carnival president, Gary Cahill in February  2011, as reported in Travel Weekly.  Apparently, the heat from the fire damaged local electrical distribution cables but also crippled  the ship’s switchboards. While the three engines in the forward engine were completely undamaged, they could not send electricity to the rest of the ship because the switchboards had been taken out by the fire in the other engine room.

As reported by Travel Weekly:

“Having two engine rooms like we do is pretty much the norm in the cruise industry,” explained Cahill. “What we have decided to do, and this will go across the Carnival group I’m sure, is we’ve determined there are certain things that we can do to increase the effectiveness of that redundancy.” 

Cahill said these measures include additional suppression systems to put out fires more quickly and additional insulation over the cabling and under the switchboard areas. 

Two years later, as the Carnival Triumph is being towed slowly to Mobile, it is clear that there is more to be done.  We cannot know for sure that all six instances of ships crippled by an engine room fire were similar to that encountered on the Carnival Spendor. Nevertheless, it seems likely that heat damage to switchboards and cabling is the culprit in most cases. Given the number and frequency of these disabling fires, it is also likely that most modern cruise ships share the same design vulnerability.

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26 Responses to Carnival Triumph – Another Blacked-out Drifting Cruise Ship – Why Again?

  1. Since the latest Carnival Corporation cruise lines group accident one has read the accounts which are a repeat of the previous incidents. Loss of all electric power and emergency generators not being able to handle the basic needs of crew and passengers. Allowance was made for an poorly informed Media but the Miami waterfront gossip coupled with private remarks by USCG Officers who inspect these ships leads one to believe that this was a main switchboard fire or mistakes made their during a ER fire such as closing a switch improperly. The cause could well be lack of knowledge by ER crewmembers, confused communication with a multi-national multi-lingual crew or something more serious. The vessel is due in Mobile, Alabama on Thursday morning and is now under tow by three (3) tugs.

    Currently the EMSA has two formal inspections of the Philippines training facilities planned for this year 2013. The RP qualifications are now so suspect that in 2014 the Republic of the Philippines STCW training and certificates may no longer be accepted. One of the reasons NAUTICAL LOG was republished was that requests were received asking us to publish on this and other issues as the subjects are highly taboo. After much thought we decided in the interests of maritime safety to do so.

    If you do not wish to publish this comment we at NAUTICAL LOG will quite understand and we will continue to work as effectively as possible to get the word out. Once again we have 40000+ persons in dire conditions and with the same group of cruise lines.

    Good Watch

  2. Rick Spilman says:

    Given that the Carnival management is now saying that the Carnival Splendor went dark after heat damage to the switchboard and power distribution system, I would not be surprised if that was the same sort of problem on the Carnival Triumph, as well as on the other ships who suffered similar casualties in the last few years.

    That being said because my background is in ship design and construction, that is where I first look. It could indeed be a problem related to the crew training but that seems less likely based on the number of similar cases. From my vantage point, it looks like the structural fire protection standards for power distribution should be looked at closely.

  3. Phil says:

    The news stated that “the passengers and crew are in no danger”.

    What, are they nuts?
    That ship is now full of viruses and bacteria that may sicken many and maybe even kill a few people.

    Also: I did a bit, a small bit of looking this morning and wondering who or what unfortunate crew would be tasked with the clean-up of the Carnival Triumph?
    That is going to be one nasty assignment!

  4. Todd says:

    I would surmise a similar but different problem on the Triumph. As I recall reading that one of the addressments to the prior incidents was to replace the Co2 on those ships with an auto deployed misting system. If there was a fire caused by the usual suspects, the misting system may produce enough water to cause a complete short in the bus. Though the fire does not do the damage, the water will. I take this guess as they did have power to sections of the ship for hotel power, and that would usually mean a very damaged main bus.

    As far as clean up, the onboard crew will handle the bulk of it as it probably is not nearly as bad as it is portrayed in the media.

    Seperate and redundant engine rooms was a UN mandate of 2010 as I recall and designed into all new ships, not feasible to retrofit the older ones and the mandate was grandfathered. The biggest problem with the prior fires was the fire itself. Just a guess, but I would guess the new supression system quenched the fire, but did it’s own damage in the process – again, just a guess.

  5. Rick Spilman says:

    Interesting idea. Certainly possible. I cannot imagine installing a misting system close enough to damage the bus, but then I certainly could be wrong.

  6. Kurt Wilk says:

    The word is Buss. These ships have a single buss, when it goes- no more electricity. The backup generators provide emergency functions only and could never power the ships main circuits. Given the enormous size of the buss they are not a shelf item, the new sections haven’t even been made yet.
    The Navy has ships with built in redundancy but not Cruise Ships which are also not built to withstand combat. Everyone seems to be confusing engine power and electricity. Having a single Buss saves millions during the construction of the ship, frees up a lot of space and saves weight.

  7. Rick Spilman says:

    Kurt, thanks for the comment. What is unclear to me is why the buss cannot be suitably isolated from the effects from a fire in one of the two engine rooms. Otherwise, from the point of view of fire protection. you might as well have a common engine room with the switchboard sitting next to the diesel engines.

  8. Todd says:


    If you lookup the definition of electrical bus, you will see that it is used either way as bus or buss and neither is incorect terminology. As of July 1, 2010, all crusise ships built have completely independant systems including a seperate bus and propolusion that is similar to what is on warships. This is the current law as it stands right now, but was grandfathered as it would be impossible to retrofit ships like Triumph and other period ships with single engineering spaces aft. Engine power and electrical hotel power are one of the same and derived from the same power units and the electricity is distributed via the same electrical bus. The Triumph is equiped with 6 independant diesel engines each turning a generator, which produces electricty to run everything from propulsion to hotel. Splendor had a fire which burned too long and burned into the electrical bus of the ship making it incapable of distributing ANY electricity. The auto Co2 system did not work as designed (fire was extinguished by the crew) and other ships were retrofited with a auto misting system that will not kill the crew in the process of extinguishing the fire. The thought was that the fire must be extinguished quicky and the redundancy (multiple engines) would allow the ship to continue. I can’t speak of the details of that system, but would assume it uses the fresh water stores on the ship in creating the mist, which is much more conductive than salt water, but obviously far less corrosive.

    It is disheartening to hear the media stating that the industry is not doing enough. It honestly takes disasters to make things better. We would not have seatbelts in cars if there were no car accidents. Ships are built for purpose and like airplanes have a very finite lifespan with the first carrier. It is also disheartening to hear them say the industry is not regulated. Ships are not flagged in the U.S. because the costs mean that to make money you would have to pay 4 times current passage to make money. The International Maritime Organization is a United Nations governing body that makes the rules and they are stringent.

    I am not in the cruise ship industry, but I have spent a lot of time in the Keppel Fels yard in Singapore and have seen first hand engineering based upon past disasters. It is sad that there has to be a disaster to make things safer, but that has been the case for everything.

    And it has far less to do with weight than it does cost, but now those costs are regulated into the industy. It is a fine balance between cost and lifetime revenue. People don’t work or build things to lose money – at least that is not the goal for any of us.

  9. Rick Spilman says:


    If I am not mistaken the Carnival Triumph has a forward and aft engine room typical of most diesel electrical cruise ships. She appears to have the typical six engines split between two engine rooms. The arrangement makes sense for a number of reasons other than fire-fighting. I haven’t been able locate a deck plan but I would expect the switchboards and control room to be located remotely. If anyone has access to more information on the Triumph’s arrangement I would be most pleased to see it.

    Given the frequency of disabling fires on diesel-electric cruise ships I have no problem concluding that the industry is not doing enough to address the problem. A single crank case explosion should not take out an entire six engine ship as it did on the Carnival Splendor. Likewise, having at least six ships suffering from disabling engine room fires within about two years makes no operational or even economic sense for the cruise industry.

  10. MMC says:

    Humnnn.. My understanding is that the “modern” cruise liners have 2 engine rooms and one remote located main electrical switchboard. For this system to work the electrical “buss” should not be a straight line but should instead be a loop or as it was called on the US Aircraft Carrier (about the same size and carrying around 7000+ people) I served on, a “ring buss”.
    The ring allowed any generator that was still operational and could be connectted to the ring anyplace on the ship to send power to anything on the ship that could be connected to the ring.

    If Cruise Ships aren’t set up this way, they need to be and if they already have the seperated ER and SB’s they could be retrofitted to the ring system.. All that would require is running the cabling down both side of the ship, Installing some large remote controlled breakers and running the control cables to the Switchboard room. It would be expensive, but probably less than the cost of lost business
    Even this won’t get me on a cruise ship. Not until they solve the problem of contaminating the drinking water system with sewage that is causing the novovirus outbreaks.

  11. Todd says:

    I believe that to be correct as far as the placement of the engines in the hull, but most of the ships laid up prior to 2010 have a non-redundant single bus system, which is why a catastrophic loss of one of the mains will leave most systems dark.

    Easily explained like the power coming to your home. There are redundant power stations that switch on and off based upon demand and maintainence. Take a plant offline, the redundant work harder, but the demand is met. Take the distribution offline – ie the power pole behind your house, then you go dark regardless of how many power plants are online.

    The new regulations will mitigate this issue on hulls laid up following 2010 are required to have redundant bus and propulsion.

    A guess that the problems are based more on the fact that the opperators are stressing the plants a lot harder than they were designed. Capacity and maintainence. Bringing capacity online later in the curve and having capacity offilne for maintainence at sea as opposed to a more controlled enviornment at dock.

    They will have to determine the root cause and what they can do to mitigate that, and I have a feeling it is more time at dock to perform intrusive maintainence and/or change the capacity curve as to when to bring more online.

    A jet with two engines can easily fly on one, but the probablility of a
    catastrophic failure is much higher running close to WOT for greater lengths of time, even though technically you are achieving better fuel economy on the single engine than running both.

    The problem is probably some pencil pusher has figured it is cheaper to run them harder with the higher costs of fuel and requirements and accept the risk of the failure. The cost of failure can be transfered to Insurance. So, it is cheaper to accept and transfer then mitigate, UNTIL the Insurance companies force them to mitigate or accept the risk themselves. Just opinions, though….

  12. the Sub guy says:

    correction Todd, as a navy sub outboard electrical designer, i can assure you that fresh water is signifcantly LESS CONDUCTIVE than seawater. Seawater conducts electricty pretty darn well. frsh water not so much, maybe, if its very hard water, lots of minerls.

  13. Todd says:


    These ships are not built like that, they are built like mobile homes and modular peices all put together like a puzzle. They are not designed to be refit like that.

    Planes crash and we still get on them. Ships sink, catch fire, and even have outbreaks of novovirus, but we still get on them. It is easy to say make the perfect ship that is 100% redundant and safe. But that would mean for that ship to break even, it would have to be built to satisfy 50 years of service (like a carrier) and passage would be at least twice as much. Our attention span with these ships is a lot less now that so many new keels are being laid and the industry is so competetive.

    You can’t just take the number of incidents and use that. That would be like saying since there is twice as many accidents on the street in front of my house, the street is unsafe. You have to account for the 400% increase in the number of cars on the street. 400% increase in traffic with just a 50% increase in accidents.

  14. Well someone said a “little knowledge is a dangerous thing”. All of you above are partially correct but none are seeing the whole picture. Which is why we have committees of inquiry and multi-discipline investigative teams to get to the right full answers. Nobody has mentioned dealing with a cruise line management. It used to be that one could be promoted ashore as a Superintendent having sailed as Master, Chief Engineer or Chief Purser. Now they are businesspersons who have run retail store chains, hotels, amusement parks or such but with no professional knowledge of seafaring. Having served as Safety Officer one knows how hard it is to explain to such persons the reason for ordering such simple things as double sets of lifejackets, one for the cabins and a second set in boxes at the lifeboats themselves. Imagine what happens when we get into really nautical subjects !! We are seeing the results of all this more and more frequently and the focus of attention needs to be on the lack of nautical qualifications that current cruise line management largely does not have. Research the resumes of those seen giving speeches at the Cruise Terminal in Mobile, AL on CNN last night from the Doral, FL office of Carnival Corp., about 15 minutes drive from NAUTICAL LOG.

    Good Watch.

  15. Todd says:

    I disagree slightly with you comment. After the Transocean accident in the gulf, I don’t see anywhere where any authority wanted to make the process safer than it already is. Everyone just wanted their hand in the pie for the payout in fines and lawsuits went after the deepest pockets first. Just like Costa Concordia, and many others, the accident was a result of decisions made by a few at the bottom. I will agree that the first response of the corporation makes them look bad, but that is a major undertaking that is rarely reported in the news. All large companies have a war room where those with the power to make decisions are processing all available information to them and a mountain of action taking place.

    If you put to sea in even the safest vessel, there is a probability you won’t make your destination. For cargo, that probability is betted on in Vegas style wagers to underwrite the trip through the likes of Lloyds. It is a delicate balance on the three biggest terms of doing a risky business. Mitigate, Transfer, or Accept.

    We have lost the idea that responsibility is shared as we understand there is a risk involved with our decision to do anything. We continue down a path of finding fault and placing all responsibility usually on the deepest pockets of anyone proximate even or at arms-length.

    Though it would be great if leaders of any large company, government, or group would have operational expertise and know the exact detail of every aspect – but it can’t happen. There are too many moving parts and pieces and the executives at the top are great at listening to the needs and making tactical decisions based upon what is filtered to them. Knowing how many lifejackets are on board a ship will not help them navigate millions in losses that result from an accident. They form their own teams to investigate and mitigate and having an accident is bad for business, so they will attempt to do everything possible to not do it again.

  16. Eugene Day says:

    Although these modern ships have separated engine rooms, do they have a single centrally located main switch board or two “split” and isolated switchboards each having some of the gensets and propulsion tied to them? This should allow damage to one switchboard and associated components and still leave some propulsion and hotel power. The issue of wiring being cooked as it passes from space through another “redundant” space seems a little odd. What kind of safety system analysis is typically done on commercial ships? I saw recommendations in 2002 NTSB report addressing need for full separation/redundancy including no shared dependencies (e.g. control power) and improved systematic analysis. These are not new events.
    BTW my experience is limited to a 48′ liveaboard Defever, a fair amount of systems redundancy, but all in one space !

  17. HarryB EM1 SS/SW RET says:

    A fore and aft ,as well as an upper and lower deck, power generation anddistribution system seems to me a standard sea going vessel guideline. Some of these “Updated” systems are piece milled together to meet the minimal requirements for passenger oriented maritime disaster abatement, and usually cost driven. The trouble with using hybrid architecture sometimes is that some of the implemented risk mitigation concerning catastrophic events that was intended in procuring these safe-guards are that they not comprehensively tested in real time and realistic environments. Its pretty much all theoretical in its interfacing capabilities with each system. Again, cost driven. In sure some risk analysis guru, bean counter somewhere has stated that the numbers say “..Theres no reason it wont work..” instead of “I know it will work”, is good enough for the industry. An tried,proven reputable name brand ABT with a documented and accountable program tested reliable AUX power system is worth its weight in gold.

  18. Rick Spilman says:

    One comment about costs and economics. The Carnival Splendor blacked out when heat melted insulation and fried the switchboard – that is what the company admits to and it seems to fit the other facts we know. Immediately after the Splendor fire, Carnival estimated an impact on earnings of around $56 million. The total costs to company earnings in terms of bad publicity and resulting lost ticket sales probably push the effective cost over $100 million.

    How much will the fire on the Carnival Triumph, which looks remarkably similar to the fire on the Splendor, ultimately cost Carnival? It has to be significantly more than correcting the inadequate fire protection on the ship and the other ships of their fleet.

    Bottom line, unsafe operations is bad business and lousy economics.

  19. Nevada Tom says:

    HarryB EM1: You are from the Navy. They do not care about cost as evidenced by our defense budgets. You cannot build a passenger ship to Navy specs.

    Capt. Boucher: I agree with you wholeheartedly. Company managment in the maritime industry is severely lacking in seagoing expertise. A company I worked for had 3 VLCC’s which were managed by 28 year old finance major who would not know a hawsepipe if it fell on him and three weeks later, he was telling me how to repair one.

    I have worked for a bunch of shipping companies and what drives all of them is profits. Chevron did not think it necessary to put guardrails around
    lightening holes in ballast tanks even after a bosun fell to his death. They would have cost $40,000 to retrofit. They also would ditch crews at the drop of a hat. Fire all the Japanese and replace them with Filipinos. Race to the bottom.

    Fire in Passenger Ship Engine Rooms: Just thinking about this – being that these engine rooms are so enclosed, how long would a fire take to raise the temperatures to extremes? A modern diesel has crankcase relief valves in case of explosion but if they do not seat tight and allow air back in, you will get a bang that will probably take a couple of crankcase doors off and result in a fire. The attendant huge temperature rise at the top of cable ways could severely deteriorate insulation to failure and shorting.

  20. Jesper Arvidsson says:

    Don’t cruise ships have emergency generators in the same way merchant ships have ?
    An emergency generator should have it’s own switchboard etc and provide enough power to run “essentials” – ie at least to get the ship running again ?

  21. Rick Spilman says:

    Jesper, the cruise ships do have emergency generators which supply power just like on merchant ships. Like on merchant ships, the emergency generators are quite small, especially as compared to the huge electrical load on a passenger ship. In theory because ships like the Triumph have two separate engines rooms a complete blackout should never happen. As we saw with the Carnival Triumph, the Carnival Splendor and other ships, that theoretical redundancy does not exist.

  22. Rick Spilman says:


    The point you miss is that the fire on the Carnival Splendor and the Carnival Triumph cost the company far more in terms of direct costs, lost revenues, and lousy publicity than if they had done the right thing and spent the money on proper provide proper insulation and heat protection for the switchboard and electrical distribution on the Triumph and the rest of the ships in their fleet.

  23. Fred says:

    I do not know what has changed since I retired (2005) but at that time, and for a good many years before, in merchant vessels, passenger and cargo, the only circuits that had to be duplicated were those to the steering gears. The supply could come from the same main switchboard but the cables had to be as widely separated as possible. Oddly there was no requirement to isolate the cables at the steering gear starters. This meant that damage to the cables on one side of the vessel, should it cause a ‘short’ in the cables would render the supply from the other side useless as well until the damaged cables could be disconnect at the starter. A few vessels did have a change over switch in the steering gear compartment but not many.
    Shortly prior to my retirement the requirement for a ‘split main bussbar’ came into force, I cannot remember exactly when.
    The navigation lights also had to have an alternate source of power but this did not necessarily mean complete duplicate cables.

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  25. John Roger Ball says:

    Two separate engine rooms–two main switch panels–Two shafts and two propellers–redundant wiring throughout the ship–Alarm-linked smoke and heat sensors on engine bearings–getting engine stopped before fire starts–will prevent much trouble! And make everyone’s cruise much nicer–even if speed is greatly reduced!
    How about requiring standard crew language–instead of diversity–many disasters occur due to language diversity–also standardize system of weights and measures!
    I speak from the perspective of engineer onboard a US Navy ship!

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