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Why your Russian river ship shouldn't sink

By Michelle Baran
October 3, 2012
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Courtesy Viking River Cruises

The tragic sinking of a Russian riverboat on Sunday that killed at least 113 people, many of them children, brings to question the safety standards of river cruise ships, especially those operating on Russia's Volga River.

But the ships that U.S. river cruise operators deploy between St. Petersburg and Moscow are much larger and safer than the ship that sank much further east on the Volga, those operators say.

The twin-deck Bulgaria sank at 1:58 p.m. local time on Sunday in the Tatarstan region of Russia en route from Bolgar to the port city of Kazan, which is 450 miles east of Moscow. The 56-year old riverboat had a maximum capacity of 120 passengers, but was carrying 207 people aboard, Russian news agency Ria Novosti reported.

"Ours are much larger ships" than the Bulgaria, noted Richard Marnell, SVP of marketing in North America for Viking River Cruises, which owns and operates four river cruise ships in Russia.

Ria Novosti reported that the ship had passed a regular technical inspection on June 15 this year, bringing into question oversight of Russia's river cruise industry.

In response, Viking's Marnell assured that Viking's ships are "operating at the highest standard."

In Russia, the 210-passenger Viking Pakhomov was just relaunched this year after undergoing a bow-to-stern renovation like those of its sister ships, the Viking Surkov and Viking Kirov, which relaunched in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Next year, the Viking Peterfof will be relaunched after being renovated.

"Our partner in Russia is a large, established shipping company," noted Guy Young, president of Uniworld River Cruises, which this year launched a newly renovated ship on the Volga, the 206-passenger River Victoria.

"They have over 150 years of experience in navigation, employ thousands of people and have their own ship yards. The ships are extremely well maintained and they comply with all safety regulations. This is a very different company than the small operator that was sailing the Bulgaria."

Ama Waterways also this year started sailing the revamped 212-passenger Amakatarina.

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