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Icon of the Seas Doesn't Have Enough Lifeboats—on Purpose | Frommer's Royal Caribbean Cruise Line

Icon of the Seas Doesn't Have Enough Lifeboats—on Purpose

Royal Caribbean's mighty new cruise ship reserves lifeboats for paying customers. So how would the remainder of its 7,960 passengers escape?

Megaship cruise line Royal Caribbean is getting a lot of hype this month as it begins sailings on its gargantuan new Icon of the Seas, the largest cruise ship ever built.

And this ship is big. According to the cruise line's numbers, when Icon is fully loaded with double occupancy (and as the hottest new ship in the cruise market in 2024, it often will be), the vessel can fit 5,610 guests plus another 2,350 people comprising the crew. That's a grand total of 7,960 souls that could be on board, but if guests squeeze additional kids into their cabins, the number would go higher.

Yet despite the Icon's never-before-attempted size, it has only 17 lifeboats, each of which can contain a maximum of 450 people. That falls short of the total number of possible passengers who will require evacuation in the event of an emergency.

What the hey?

Icon of the Seas may be getting a lot of comparisons to the Titanic (which was five times smaller), but is the new ship sailing into a similar danger zone because of a shortage of lifeboats?

Rest easy, me swabbies. Icon of the Seas has not excused itself from full safety compliance. International maritime rules agreed upon in 1974 by the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) require the safe evacuation of everyone within 30 minutes, regardless of a ship's size. 

So how would Icon manage to get every individual off the ship in an emergency without handing out swimsuits?

This way: Not everyone on board would use traditional lifeboats, which would take up too much deck space.  

Icon of the Seas, like an increasing number of vessels, is also equipped with what the maritime industry terms a Marine Evacuation System (MES). When a signal to abandon ship is issued by the bridge, MES systems deploy escape tubes over a ship's sides. Escaping passengers make their way down the tubes using an internal ladder system and descend into rafts that are capable of fully inflating within 90 seconds.

Here's a video from 2018 that shows such a deployment in action.

"Captain Corey," who covers the mainstream cruising industry on YouTube, reports that only crew members of the Icon of the Seas will be assigned to the MES escape tubes, which can be physically difficult to navigate without prior training.

All customers of the cruise line, including children, seniors, and travelers with mobility concerns, are always assigned spaces on the traditional, familiar, hard-sided lifeboats (Icon's were made in China and installed in Finland in May 2023). So as long as all paying passengers stick to their assigned lifeboats amid the chaos of catastrophe, Icon guests should be able to flee the most traumatic moment of their lives in relative comfort.

Captain Corey calls the evacuation situation the ship's "dark secret," but we wouldn't agree that the info has been kept from the public. In fact, Icon's MES system has been previously discussed in the press. YouTube tends to reward clickbait language, though. But if you can peer past the mirage of scandal, the video is worth checking out to watch actual footage of an MES system like the one aboard Icon of the Seas.

MES systems have been around since the 1970s, and have been improving ever since. Now they even pass muster, if that's the phrase, with the lawyers of Royal Caribbean.

Would the system work as intended if nearly 8,000 humans needed to scramble off a ship during a disaster? We hope we'll never have to find out.