The Carnival Sensation was sailing in international waters off the Florida coast on Saturday when crew members discovered an overcrowded 36-foot boat that appeared to be in distress.
The ship maneuvered next to the boat and the crew members handed blankets, life jackets, food and water to the 24 people on board the smaller ship, including two children, according to Carnival Cruise Line.
As it hovered 37 miles off the coast of Palm Beach, the boat began to take in water. Passengers were quickly led through a side hatch on board the cruise ship, which is normally used in port for loading supplies via a gangway. The boat sank after the rescue, said a spokeswoman for the coast guard.
The rescued passengers were the first guests to board the cruise ship in months, Carnival said. They were evaluated by the cruise ship’s medical staff and quarantined by crew members, the cruise company said. They were picked up by the coast guard after about six hours, the spokeswoman said.
The rescued boat came from Freeport, Bahamas, said Coast Guard spokeswoman Nicole J. Groll. It was not clear where the boat was going, nor was it clear what happened to the boat that caused it to sink.
“The disabled ship has sunk and measures are currently being taken to coordinate the transfer of people ashore,” Ms. Groll said in a statement on Monday.
The $ 45 billion global cruise industry serves 20 million passengers in a typical year. But since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, ships have been roaming the seas for months without guests manned by skeleton crews. Operations were suspended until October 31, and some lines have canceled cruises next year.
Carnival operates 23 ships. While inactive, they maintain a “minimal non-operational crew status,” according to a spokesman. This means that they are manned by 75 to 100 crew members, including ship engineers, technicians and officers as well as employees from the household, culinary and other areas.
Occasionally they conduct rescue operations, the spokesman said. In July, the Carnival Legend responded to a call for help from a boat that ran out of fuel off the coast of the Bahamas. Legend gave boaters 25 gallons of gasoline to help them find their way back to Jacksonville, Florida.
Ships are required by maritime law to respond to ships in distress, said Jim Walker, a Miami-based maritime law attorney.
The duty to rescue a derelict ship rests with a ship’s captain who “has both a moral and a legal obligation to help,” he said.
There are usually three or four such bailouts a year, some of which involve migrants, Walker said.
“Often there is no real ‘rescue’ of foreign immigrants at sea because the cruise ship calls the USCG, who picks them up and then brings them back to their home countries,” Walker said in an email, referring to the Coast Guard. “It is not so much a ‘rescue’ as it is ‘interception’ at sea.”
In some cases, he said, a ship’s captain or the captain’s employer could be prosecuted for ignoring a call for help.
In 2012, Princess Cruises was sued after one of its cruise lines, the Star Princess, failed to help a disabled fishing boat that had been spotted by crew members and passengers for days. Two of the people on the fishing boat died.
The cruise industry has come under fire during the coronavirus pandemic, particularly at the beginning of the outbreak when passengers and crew were trapped aboard ships where the virus was rapidly spreading.
In February, more than 700 passengers on the Diamond Princess were infected when the ship idled off the coast of Japan. Nine of the infected passengers died.
In August, the cruise industry voluntarily ceased operations until October 31, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s regulation for cruise ships was extended to September 30. The agency found that from March to July there were nearly 3,000 suspected and confirmed coronavirus cases and 34 deaths on cruise lines in U.S. waters.
Carnival Corporation, which operates Carnival, Princess, and other brands and serves around 50 percent of the global cruise market, has fixed outbreaks on several of its ships, including Holland America’s Zaandam, which tried to unload sick passengers in Florida in April. Last week, Carnival Cruise Line canceled several cruises that were scheduled for November and January.