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How Often Do Cruise Ships Sink?

Modern cruise ships are engineered to withstand the toughest conditions and offer the utmost safety and reliability. Nevertheless, people may wonder how often do cruise ships sink.

The short answer: It’s rare. In the last 50 years, a ship has sunk during the course of a cruise less than once per decade.

Nevertheless, while it rarely happens, we can all easily think of terrible disasters where it did happen – such as the century-old disaster of the RMS Titanic or the decade-old capsize of Costa Concordia. So, how often do these modern marvels of the sea meet a similar fate? The best way is to dive into the history of known cruise ship sinkings to understand the probability of it happening to today’s state-of-the-art vessels.

How Often Do Cruise Ships Sink

How Often Do Cruise Ships Sink? It’s Rare!

Cruise ships are some of the largest and most luxurious vessels on the water and are designed to be safe and reliable. However, it is not uncommon for cruise ships to encounter problems at sea; in some cases, these problems can lead to the ship’s sinking. Over the past 100 years since the RMS Titanic sank in 1912, only 18 cruise ships and some ocean liners have been publicly known to have sunk. And, over the past 50 years, only four cruise ships have sunk while navigating on a cruise

To fully understand the rarity of a cruise ship sinking, let’s examine the known causes of these disasters, beginning with the iconic RMS Titanic.

Exploring Past Sunk Cruise Ships – RMS Titanic In 1912 To Orient Queen In 2020

The RMS Titanic was a luxurious passenger liner known for its grandeur and advanced safety features. Even though the Titanic was an ocean liner rather than a cruise ship, it was the largest ship of its time and was thought to be unsinkable due to its watertight compartments. However, on April 15, 1912, the Titanic struck an iceberg, broke in half, and sank in the North Atlantic Ocean, resulting in the loss of over 1,500 lives.

The Titanic disaster profoundly impacted the maritime industry and sparked significant changes in how ships were designed and built. One major factor that contributed to the number of lives lost during the sinking was the lack of enough lifeboats on board. 

The ship was carrying only enough lifeboats for about half of the passengers and crew, which proved to be a tragic oversight when the ship began to sink.

As a result of the Titanic disaster, new regulations were put in place to ensure that all passenger ships, including cruise ships, were required to carry sufficient lifeboats for passengers and crew on board. Additionally, new safety standards were implemented to improve ships’ design and construction, including stronger materials and more watertight compartments. 

Fortunately, since 2020, no confirmed cruise ship capsizing or sinking has occurred. The last one was the Orient Queen suffering no crew or passenger casualties, which sank due to a nearby ammonium nitrate explosion while moored. 

Below is a list of some available records of cruise ship sinkings since the iconic Titanic.

Year SunkType of VesselReason it SankLives lost
RMS Titanic1912Ocean LinerCollision with iceberg1,500+
RMS Empress of Ireland1914Ocean LinerDue to thick fog, the ship collided with the Norwegian SS Storstad1010+
HMHS Britannic1916Ocean Liner (converted to a hospital ship)A naval mine from the Imperial German Navy exploded30+
Principessa Mafalda1927Ocean LinerSank due to a propeller shaft that fractured and damaged the hull310+
MS Georges Philippar1932Ocean LinerDue to a spark of a faulty light switch which had started a fire50+
SS Morro Castle1934Cruise ShipFire due to possible faulty electric circuitry (it was abandoned and floated to shore)137+
SS President Coolidge1942Cruise Ship (converted to troop ship)Sunk by mines during World War II5,000+
MS Wilhelm Gustloff1945Cruise ShipDue to a leak in the engine room’s sea chest9,000+
SS Andrea Doria1956Cruise ShipCollision with another ship50+
MTS Oceanos1991Cruise ShipSS Seabreeze 0
MS Estonia1994Cruise ShipSunk in Baltic Sea due to extreme weather852+
 Sun Vista 1999Cruise ShipThe vessel suffered an engine room fire0
SS SeaBreeze 2000Cruise ShipSank due to damages received from the boiler breaking off0
MS Sea Diamond2007Cruise ShipHit a volcanic rock, made it near the shore, and sank2
MV Explorer2007Cruise Ship (small)Collided with an iceberg0
Costa Concordia2012Cruise ShipSailed too close to the coast, hit a rock, capsized, and sank off the coast of Italy32+
Orient Queen2020Cruise ShipWhile berthed and empty, it sank from damages received from a nearby ammonia nitrate explosion0

Comparing 20th To 21st Century Maritime Disasters

The tale of two disasters – the Titanic and the Costa Concordia – highlights the importance of ship design in terms of safety. When the Titanic collided with the iceberg in 1912, it tore a 300-foot gash in the ship’s hull, sending freezing water flooding into the base of the vessel. 

This caused the back of the ship to tilt upward, leading to a catastrophic breakage that made it harder to evacuate. The lack of lifeboats was also a major factor in the high death toll of over 1,500 people, making it one of the worst peacetime maritime disasters in history.

Fast forward to 2012, and the Costa Concordia disaster (now more than ten years ago) off the coast of Italy provides a modern-day equivalent. When the cruise ship struck a rock reef, it tore a 16-foot gash in the hull around 25 feet below sea level. The ship began flooding, the engines and generators went offline, and it began to sink. 

However, the ship’s design allowed it to lean heavily to its side and sink much more slowly, allowing the crew to initiate a hasty evacuation. Thanks to a sufficient supply of lifeboats, they evacuated the passengers over six hours, ultimately resulting in a death toll of 34 people. Most of these deaths were caused by the ship tilting and passengers falling into the water. 

Three people were even rescued from the ship over 24 hours after the incident, thanks to the slow sinking of the vessel. While the Costa Concordia disaster was one of the worst maritime disasters of the 21st century, it was nowhere near as catastrophic in terms of loss of life as the disasters of the 20th century.

When you compare modern cruise ships to Titanic-era ships, you can readily see that safety has improved considerably. As demonstrated in the table shown above by the low number of cruise ships to sink in recent history, modern vessels are generally better equipped to survive a disaster than their predecessors. And as you saw, the number of lives lost had decreased to nearly zero.

Why Don’t Modern Cruise Ships Sink As Often?

When people buy tickets for a cruise, they’re not just looking for a vacation – they’re also buying safety and peace of mind. They want to know that their needs will be taken care of and that they will be safe for the duration of the trip. And cruise ships are designed with this in mind. These floating resorts are built to withstand all sorts of rough conditions that would have sunk ships of the past.

But it hasn’t always been this way. During the heyday of sea travel, it was fairly common for ships to be lost at sea due to rough weather, enemy attacks, or collisions with icebergs. However, the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and the RMS Empress of Ireland in 1914 made it clear that something needed to change. 

These were both sturdy ships and were ocean liners built for long-distance travel. But to achieve this reliability, they sacrificed maneuverability. They would be rock-solid if everything went according to plan, but there was little hope of saving the voyage if something went wrong.

Today, however, cruise ships are a different story. These vessels are typically made of lighter materials and are much more agile, allowing them to navigate rough seas easily. 

Cruise Ship Stability: What Keeps Them Afloat?

Have you ever wondered how cruise ships manage to stay afloat despite their massive size and seemingly top-heavy design? This is often a big topic of discussion, and the answer lies in the careful balance of weight distribution and stability.

When you board a large cruise ship, you are stepping onto a floating resort with thousands of staterooms, dozens of restaurants, and endless recreation opportunities. Yet, despite all these amenities, cruise ships remain stable and steady on the water despite their weight. 

This is thanks to a combination of factors, including the ships:

  • Machinery’s placement
  • Stabilizer fins use
  • Modern navigation systems

So how does it all work? First, it’s important to understand that only a small portion of the ship is actually below the waterline. This means that most of the weight is concentrated above the water, making the ship appear top-heavy. But the ship’s design actually works in its favor, pulling down on the water to provide balance and stability.

The key to this balance is the ship’s center of gravity. While the goal is to keep the center of gravity as close to the ship’s middle as possible, this is not always possible due to the weight of the ship’s engines and other machinery. As a result, ships usually have a heavier bottom half than a lighter top half to compensate for this.

What Happens If An Obstacle Is Unavoidable?

Cruise ships will do their best to take detours to avoid rough weather in the event of a storm at sea. But sometimes, a storm comes on fast and hard, and the ship must rely on more than just its center of gravity to stay afloat. That’s where the design of the ship’s hull comes into play.

  • Cruise ships have rounded edges on the bottom of the hull, which makes it easier for the ship to roll with the waves and then return to its original position. They also have several ballast tanks, which are water-filled tanks that provide additional stability and distribute the load evenly. These features help the ship handle rough seas in a way that older ships could not.

Of course, no system is perfect, and cruise ships are not invincible. They typically have less hull strength than ocean liners but are equipped with better radars to avoid obstacles like icebergs. If a cruise ship were to hit an iceberg, it could potentially cause serious damage to the hull. 

Are Cruise Ships Failsafe?

There is no possible closer answer than the word “almost.” While the Costa Concordia disaster in 2012 was a shocking reminder that no vessel is invincible, modern cruise ships are designed with safety in mind. From advanced navigation systems to sturdy hulls and ballast tanks, these ships are built to weather even the roughest of storms. 

And in the rare event of a catastrophic disaster, cruise ships have enough safety features in place to allow for a safe evacuation.

As to the ship’s safety, you can rest assured that cruise ship designers have done everything in their power to keep you and your fellow passengers safe.

Closing Thoughts

While cruise ships have sunk or encountered a disaster in the past, the likelihood of your ship sinking is close to minuscule. Modern ship design and protocols are in place to prevent things like weather and obstacles from ruining your cruise or endangering passengers onboard.

David Chapman


David is a seasoned international traveler with a diverse hospitality background. He loves cruising in Asia and the Mediterranean.

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