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Your guide to accidents at sea

Container ship

Sea travel remains hugely popular, even in the age of budget air travel. The number of passengers who enjoy a more leisurely boat journey has risen in the last year for both long and short voyages as well as for cruising holidays.

In 2014, more than 23 million passengers travelled to or from the UK by sea, an increase of 3% on the previous year according to the latest figures available from the Department of Transport. In addition, many holidaymakers prefer to board their cruise ship in a foreign port and so enjoy more time in their chosen destinations.

The increase in sea-going traffic can also increase the risk of accidents occurring to a range of passenger vessels, including:

  • Cruise ships
  • Ocean liners
  • Ferries
  • Yachts  and pleasure craft

Many of the on-board incidents can involve:

  • Slips, trips and falls  - even while embarking or disembarking
  • Near drowning accidents – either in the swimming pool or due to falling overboard

However, an accident on the open sea can also occur as a result of:

  • Navigation failures by the ship’s crew
  • Technical and equipment failures
  • Physical damage to the ship
  • Collisions and fires
  • Extreme weather conditions

The rules about making a claim for an accident at sea are different to those that apply to accidents that occur at a hotel or resort abroad.

Your Legal Friend has over 30 years’ experience and a specialist knowledge of all aspects of international personal injury law. We can provide you with all the expert guidance you will need to help you help you succeed in making your claim against a UK tour operator, cruise line or ferry company.


  • 262 cruise and ferry passengers and crew fell overboard from 16 cruise ships or ferries between 1995 and 2015          (Cruise Junkie, 2015) 
  • 49 vessels foundered, were sunk, or submerged
  • 13 vessels were wrecked or stranded
  • 4 incidents involving fire or explosion
  • 3 vessels with machinery damage or failure
  • 3 vessels with hull damage
  • 2 vessels involved in collisions          (Causes of Ship Losses Worldwide – Statista, 2014)
  • 43.3 million passengers on UK domestic sea crossings (including river ferries and inter-island journeys)  in 2013 – up 3% on 2012.

22.4 million sea passengers travelling to and from a UK port ( including short sea or ferry routes, pleasure cruises and long sea journeys) in 2013 - up by 5% on 2012.          (Sea Passenger Statistics -  Department of Transport, 2014)

What are the most common accidents at sea?

  • Collisions, sinkings or running aground
  • Weather-related

-      heavy fogs, squalls, storms, hurricanes

-      rogue waves - up to 100 ft ( 30m) high

  • Fires
  • Mechanical problems  - causing fire, smoke, propulsion issues, power loss
  • Passengers or crew  falling from overboard or from the dockside
  • Drowning in swimming pool

Ship grounding accidents

Ship grounding is defined as an accident in which a vessel “ runs aground”, making contact and becoming stranded on the seabed. 

In less severe incidents, running aground can cause minor hull damage. In serious accidents there can be breaches of the hull, oil spills, even the total loss of a vessel which has capsized, resulting in many casualties. Extreme loads can also affect a ship’s entire structure when the grounding is severe.

Bad weather

When bad weather is forecast, a bad decision over whether it is safe to set sail can have devastating consequences. It may not even be safe for high-sided vessels to remain in some exposed harbours.

Each vessel and port will have its own particular characteristics, and ship masters should consult with harbourmasters and pilots, and agree weather limits and safety plans.


Around 35 fires on vessels at sea within UK territorial waters are reported each year to the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB).

Most fires are small and are usually contained by trained crew.  However, fire is one of the main causes of the loss of vessels worldwide.  It is a major risk for ferries because of their open decks, and for cruise ships due to the rise in their passenger numbers. 

Falling objects

Ship movements or sea conditions can sometimes put passengers at risk from falling objects, which are not adequately secured on main decks, in dining areas and cabins. A sudden change in speed or course can cause passengers to lose their footing or create hazardous waves in the ship’s swimming pools. 

Drowning or near drowning accidents

Falling overboard is always a potential risk. Between January and September 2015, there were 20 reported incidents.

Barriers surrounding decks should be properly maintained and checked, and life jackets and floats should be readily available. 

Slips, trips and falls

Passengers can suffer an accident even before they leave port. Gangway injuries may occur as passengers embark and disembark. Slips and trips are common in the restricted space of a passenger cabin or shower / bathroom. Tripping on stairways, in dining areas and near pools is also a frequent hazard onboard a moving ship.

If you have an accident at sea

An estimated 85% of accidents at sea are caused by human error or are associated with human error caused by inappropriate action or response.

The rules about making a claim for an accident at sea are different to those that apply to accidents that occur at a hotel or resort abroad.

The Terms and Conditions contained in your holiday contract, which are supplied by both Tour operators and cruise lines, are bound by regulations set out in the Athens Convention.

The Athens Convention – what you need to know

The Athens Convention applies to EU member states and has been in force in the UK since 1996.

Operators of seagoing vessels owe a “duty of care” in the carriage of passengers and luggage by sea, and to passengers who are either getting on or off the boat.

The Convention operates in favour of the consumer for maritime related accidents i.e. shipwreak, collision, stranding, explosion, fire or defect in the ship. In these cases fault is automatically presumed to be on the part of the carrier unless they can prove otherwise.  This is different to claims under the Package Travel Regulations 1992, which require you to prove the carrier was at fault. Other non-maritime related accidents (i.e. slips and trips onboard the ship or illness claims) also require you to prove fault against the carrier.

A cruise ship accident claim will always be in accordance with the Athens Convention and not under Package Holiday Regulations 1992.

You can still claim compensation for a ‘spoilt holiday’ if your holiday provider has breached the terms of your holiday contract, or if your holiday fulfils the definition of a package holiday.  However this will be a completely separate action under the Package Holiday Regulations 1992.

It is also important to be aware that the Athens Convention does not apply to domestic cruises around the British Isles.

If your cruise departed from a foreign destination

You may be able to proceed with a claim under the Athens Convention providing you have entered into the cruise holiday contract. Most major cruise operators state in their booking conditions that the contract is subject to English Law and that any dispute will be resolved within the courts of England, so this should not be a problem for most holiday makers. 

For holidays which include accommodation i.e. cruise & stay holidays, the Package Travel Regulations 1992 may apply to accidents and illnesses which do not involve the cruise ship i.e. slipping accident at the hotel.

Time Limit

A further important difference is the time you have to make a claim from when the accident occurred:

  • 2 years (from the date of disembarkation) - Athens Convention  
  • 3 years - Package Travel Regulations

Compensation Limit

A limit is imposed on the amount of compensation that can be claimed for personal injury or death.


All sea carriers must have insurance as they have a strict liability for passenger personal injury, fatality or any shipping related incident unless there is evidence to show the incident was caused by:

  • A natural phenomenon of an “exceptional, inevitable and irresistible character”, or
  • wholly caused by a third party.

Making a claim – what you need to know

Building your case and making a claim requires the in-depth knowledge of a specialist personal injury solicitor.

Your Legal Friend has over 30 years’ experience in successfully managing compensation claims and has expert knowledge of all aspects of international personal injury law.

We specialise in helping all those who have suffered from a holiday accident through no fault of their own while onboard a cruise ship or ferry and who wish to claim compensation against a UK tour, cruise or ferry operator.  These claims can cover compensation not only for your injuries but also for spoiling your holiday if your injuries prevented you from taking part in any of your holiday activities.

We can also help you to claim back any additional expenses you have suffered as a result of your accident, such as:

  • Any medical expenses you had to meet whilst on holiday
  • Time taken off work on your return from holiday. 

Throughout your claim, Your Legal Friend will help you every step of the way.

  • No win, no fee – guaranteed
  • Specialist team of accident abroad solicitors
  • A wealth of knowledge and expertise
  • Advice, support and guidance throughout your claim
  • Over 30 years of experience in personal injury compensation 

Talk to us today

For an informal, confidential chat with one of our specialist personal injury solicitors, call us now on 0808 301 7535 (calls free from landlines and mobiles). Or just complete the 'Start a new claim’ option on the right and we'll call you straight back.