Whether you’re someone interested in maritime history, or you’re a little worried about taking a cruise for the first time, you might want to learn more about the handful of times that cruise ships have sunk.
It’s a very rare occurrence and even when it does happen, modern safety protocols mean that most if not all passengers and crew will be perfectly safe.
So, let’s sate that interest (or quell those fears) with a guide on the cruise ships that have sunk in recent times.
Has a cruise ship ever sunk?
Cruise ships have sunk in the past, but the instances are very rare. In the last 100 years, only 9 cruise ships have sunk, and some of those sinking were either while berthed or while being towed. Generally, when the modern safety features on cruise ships mean that very few lives are lost if ships ever sink.
Sadly, there were some larger tragedies that occurred slightly over 100 years ago, including the Titanic and the slightly less well-known Empress of Ireland. Lessons learned from these disasters have helped to keep people much safer in more recent times.
How many cruise ships have sunk?
Within the last 100 years, only 9 cruise ships have sunk, if you include river cruises. Almost 900 people have died in these incidents but around half of those can be attributed to one river cruise ship sinking. Many of the incidents involved no loss of life at all.
Arguably the most famous cruise ship sinking in the last 100 years is that of the Costa Concordia. She sank in 2012 and is the only modern major ocean cruise ship serving passengers from around the world to have sunk during a cruise.
The cause of the sinking was the ship hitting a rock underwater, resulting from the human error of the ship’s captain who has since been found guilty of manslaughter.
How often do cruise ships sink?
Cruise ships very rarely sink, and when they do it is often when they don’t have passengers on board. Fewer than one cruise ship every 10 years has sunk in the last 100 years. Regarding sinking with casualties, that’s only one every 20 years.
In the last 50 years, there have been 6 cruise ships that have sunk. Of these, half occurred when no passengers were on board, and in another, there was an engine fire during a cruise but all passengers and crew were safely evacuated.
Only twice since 1956 have passengers lost their life during a cruise, one due to human error and one on a river cruise that hit a freak storm.
When was the last time a cruise ship sank?
The last cruise ship to sink was the Orient Queen. This ship was berthed in Beirut during the massive ammonium nitrate explosion of 2020 at the port. The ship suffered damage due to the explosion and sank that night. Two crew members were killed.
The last time a cruise ship sank with passengers on board was a Chinese river cruise ship in 2015, which hit an unexpected and severe storm that capsized the boat.
List of Sunken Cruise Ships
For the sake of this list I’ve looked back just over 100 years, so that we cover everything from possibly the most famous cruise ship sinking ever.
1. Titanic – 1912
Arguably the most famous cruise ship sinking in history and also one of the worst in terms of deaths, the Titanic sunk on her maiden voyage after colliding with an iceberg.
The ship was not equipped with enough lifeboats to be able to hold everyone on board, which is one of the main reasons why it’s one of the deadliest maritime incidents in history too. The fact that the ship sunk in such cold waters also played a part, as those not in lifeboats had almost no chance of survival.
The Titanic sinking has since become a major point of maritime history, with dedicated museums to the tragedy and, of course, the 1997 blockbuster movie.
2. Empress of Ireland – 1914
Often referred to as Canada’s Titanic – unsurprising considering how recent this was after the Titanic sank – the Empress of Ireland was a large passenger liner carrying almost 1,500 people. She sank after colliding with the Storstad, a Norwegian collier ship, during foggy conditions.
Both ships were aware of each other’s presence, having been sighted during clear conditions, but with fog rapidly surrounding the ships, they could only rely on whistles to communicate.
It wasn’t enough and the Empress of Ireland sank when struck, causing the deaths of 1,012 people, a mix of passengers and crew. This was the worst maritime disaster in Canada’s history.
3. Britannic – 1916
Sister ship of the Titanic, HMHS Britannic was the third of White Star Line’s Olympic Class of ocean liners and she was originally intended to serve as a passenger ship. However, just as she was due to launch, the First World War broke out.
In 1915, she began service as a hospital ship – the largest in the world. In 1916 she struck a German naval mine off the coast of a Greek island which caused her to sink just 55 minutes later. Of the 1,066 people on board, 1,036 made it into lifeboats or the water and were rescued. 30 people sadly lost their lives.
4. Principessa Mafalda – 1927
The SS Principessa Mafalda was an Italian cruise ship built in 1909, regularly making sailings between Genoa and Buenos Aires in Argentina.
She sank in 1927 off the coast of Brazil when a propeller shaft broke and damaged the hull of the ship. She sank slowly, but there was some confusion on board which meant that 314 people died of the 1,252 passengers and crew on the ship.
Her sister ship, Principessa Jolanda, actually sank earlier and would be on this list if I’d gone back slightly further, but she capsized and sank as she was launched in 1907. There were no causalities but, despite being brand new, the ship couldn’t be retrieved.
5. Georges Philippar – 1932
A French ocean liner, the Georges Philippar sank on her maiden voyage due to an electrical fault. She had sailed successfully to Yokohama, but on the return leg sank near Italian Somaliland.
The high voltage wiring used throughout the ship sparked from a malfunctioning light switch in one of the luxury cabins, setting the wood panel alight. 54 lives were lost.
There had been concerns about the quality of the ship before she sailed, but these were ignored due to worries about delay penalties to the build. Changes were made due to the sinking of the ship to make electrical wiring onboard much safer, including using an AC current and more modern circuit breakers.
6. Andrea Doria – 1956
While still a tragic event in which 46 passengers and crew lost their lives, the sinking of the Andrea Doria demonstrated the impact that safety improvements had made to ships since the sinking of the Titanic.
Andrea Doria was struck by another ship, the Stockholm, and immediately began to list heavily which made many of the lifeboats inaccessible.
However, the ship sank slowly, and the crew made use of the improved communications systems and training and were able to successfully get 1,660 passengers and crew to safety. The lost lives were a direct result of the collision and not the sinking, which occurred the day after the initial impact.
7. Sun Vista – 1999
Originally launched as the SS Galileo Galilei for the Lloyd Triestino line, the Sun Vista actually sailed as the Meridian for Celebrity Cruises for 7 years (the first ship for the cruise line) before being transferred to Sun Cruises and being renamed the Sun Vista in 1997.
She sank just two years later due to an engine room fire on 20th May 1999 which cut all power, resulting in the ship going down the following morning at around 1 am. With modern safety procedures in place, the entirety of the ship’s passengers and crew (1,090 total) were evacuated with no casualties.
8. SeaBreeze – 2000
The SeaBreeze was a cruise ship originally owned by Costa Cruises, first launching in 1958. She was then owned by Premier Cruises from 1983 until she sank in 2000, after the cruise line had already gone out of business.
The cause of the sinking was the boiler breaking off, which caused sufficient damage to sink the ship. There was a lot of controversy at the time, as some believed it was an intentional incident (the scrap value of the ship was around $6 million but it was insured for $20 million). Only 34 crew members were on board when she sank, and all were rescued.
9. Britanis – 2000
One of the less dramatic incidents on this list, the Britanis had been a cruise ship for Chandris Lines, under the Fantasy Cruises brand. She was then sold to AG Belofin Investments when Chandris decided to focus on its Celebrity Cruises brand instead.
The ship was renamed Belofin-1 but never cruised. Instead, in 2000, she was towed towards shipbreakers in India where she was to be scrapped, but she began to take on water and list.
As there was nobody on board to correct the list, the only option was for the tugboat to cut the ship free and allow it to capsize and sink off the coast of Cape Town.
10. Costa Concordia – 2012
If the Titanic is the most famous cruise ship sinking in history, then Costa Concordia would take that title for modern history. The Costa Cruises ship sank after striking an underwater rock off the coast of Tuscany, sailing closer to the island than it should have done.
There were 4,252 people on board the ship including over 3,200 passengers. Most were rescued but 34 people did lose their lives including 27 passengers, 5 crew and 2 members of the salvage team. Captain Francesco Schettino was found to be at fault and found to be guilty of manslaughter, and is now serving a 16-year prison sentence.
11. Eastern Star – 2015
Officially named ‘Dongfang zhi Xing’, this Chinese river cruise ship would make regular sailings along the Yangtze River around the Three Gorges. In 2015, while sailing from Nanjing to Chongqing, she was caught in a storm and sank in waters just 15 metres deep.
There were 456 people on board the ship and tragically only 12 people survived – the remaining 442 bodies were all found. Most of the passengers were in their 60s or 70s and the ship capsized and sank very quickly.
Improvements have since been made to the communication of severe weather reports to river cruise ships, and the Chinese government also concluded that negligence played a part, with 43 people punished due to flaws in the management of the company.
12. Orient Queen – 2020
Orient Queen was a cruise ship that was owned by the Abou Merhi Group in Lebanon. Sailing from Beirut it offered cruises to the eastern Med, including ports in Turkey and Greece.
While berthed in port and without any passengers on board, the ship sank in 2020 after a massive ammonium nitrate explosion at the port. There were two crew on the ship that were killed as a result of the ship sinking. There were many other ships also in port at the time that suffered damage, although Orient Queen was the only cruise ship to sink.
What are the odds of a cruise ship sinking?
The odds of a cruise ship sinking are extremely low. Only two ocean cruise ships have sunk while on a cruise in the last 50 years. Assuming an average 100 sailings per ship per year, and an average of 150 cruise ships in that time, that is odds of 1 in 375,000.
That’s not exact, obviously – more ships have been built more recently and there are over 300 cruise ships currently sailing, so an average of 150 for the last 50 years is probably accurate. And some ships sail longer itineraries and some sail regular 3-4 day cruises. But that’s a rough guide to your odds.
And that’s just of the cruise ship sinking. The chances of dying in a cruise ship sinking incident are even lower since most people are saved – around 1 in 6.5 million.
To demonstrate how safe cruising is – the odds of dying from a lightning strike are somewhere between 1 in 84,000 and 1 in 130,000 depending on which stat you believe. There’s apparently a 1 in 2 million chance of dying falling off a chair, and a 1 in 2.3 million chance of being killed by a falling ladder – and not when you’re on it.
How verified these stats are is questionable but the point is that cruise ships are an extremely safe way of travelling. Sinkings are rare, and fatalities even rarer.
Why don’t cruise ships sink?
There are so many reasons why cruise ships don’t sink. Their basic design means that they are engineered to keep them upright, with ballast tanks preventing the ship from tipping over.
Add in state-of-the-art navigation systems and safety mechanisms, the expert crew that are trained in every potential outcome, and of course the threat of insurance companies ensuring that ships are all maintained to the highest standards, and you’ve nothing to fear.
The only ocean cruise ship to sink within the last 20 years was human error, and they’ve been found guilty at a criminal trial. Cruise ship captains were already vetted for their safety standards but now even more so – it’s unthinkable that anything like that could happen again.
The Bottom Line
If you were reading this guide because you were interested in cruise ship history, hopefully, I’ve been able to shed some light.
More importantly, if you’re someone worried about being on a cruise ship then I hope you now feel reassured that you don’t have to be. The stats show that sinkings are exceptionally rare, and even when they do happen there are plenty of safety procedures in place.
So, now nothing’s stopping you from enjoying an amazing cruise holiday.