Five Cruise Ship Horror Stories

As thousands of Carnival passengers languish in the Gulf of Mexico, we revisit more tales of deprivation on the high seas, from an epic David Foster Wallace exposé to pirates and viruses.

The 3,143 passengers aboard the Carnival Triumph, which is currently drifting in the Gulf of Mexico after an engine fire left the ship without propulsion, are in a pretty miserable state. There have been reports of “sewage running down the walls and floors,” nonfunctioning toilets, water shortages, scarce electricity, and a depleting food supply.

But they aren’t the only ones whose cruise-ship vacations turned into disasters. From pirate attacks to vomit and diarrhea epidemics, more horror stories from the high seas.

1. Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise

David Foster Wallace, Harper’s magazine, January 1996

David Foster Wallace’s famous treatise on cruise ships, where “they’ll micro-manage every iota of pleasure-option so that not even the dreadful corrosive action of your adult consciousness and agency and dread can fuck up your fun” makes cruise ships start to seem like surreal nightmare vessels. Stuck in the ship’s maddeningly endless cycle of karaoke, casinos, and other pre-determined fun, Wallace despairs at the shallow, synthetic happiness that cruise ships offer.

2. Somali Pirates Attack Cruise Ship

BBC, November 2005

It sounds like a Jack Sparrow tall tale, but in 2005, two boats containing pirates wielding guns and rocket-propelled grenades closed in on the Seabourn Spirit, a Bahamian-registered cruise liner carrying 302 passengers off the coast of Somalia. Luckily, some ingenious crew members used “an on-board loud acoustic bang” to make the pirates believe they were under fire, effectively deterring them.

3. Vomiting, Diarrhea Hit Celebrity Mercury

Scott Mayerowitz, ABC News, February 2010

We’re not sure which is worse: the Carnival Triumph’s “sewage running down the walls” or the virus that spread to 400 people aboard the Celebrity Mercury, causing them to experience vomiting and diarrhea. The culprit? Norovirus, which Mayerowitz writes, causes stomach problems and “can often” hit cruise ships or other confined spaces.

4. Cruise-Ship Crime: ‘He Raped Me’

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Vicki Mabrey, Lauren Effron, Glenn Silber, and Sally Hawkins, ABC News, February 2011

It’s the last thing parents are likely thinking about as they bring their kids on board for a week of high-seas fun, but in 2009, a 14-year-old girl aboard an eight-day Carnival Caribbean cruise was raped by one of the ship’s employees after she left her parents’ cabin at night because she was having trouble sleeping and went to write in her journal on the top deck of the ship. Prosecuting crimes committed aboard cruise ships can be difficult, since ships are often registered in foreign countries and are not necessarily subject to the same laws as the United States, but in this case, the offender was sentenced to 37 months in prison—which does not seem like enough to the victim and her family.

5. ‘Get on Board, Damn It!’

Barbie Latza Nadeau, The Daily Beast, January 2012

Around this time last year, news of the Costa Concordia’s crash off the coast of Italy, killing 32 passengers and crew members, brought outrage at the ship’s captain, who veered from the authorized route without consulting anyone, to do a maritime “fly by” for the island of Giglio. Matters turned worse when a recording emerged of the port authority commanding the captain to return to his ship and determine how many passengers were still aboard—and the captain refusing out of concern for his own safety.