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Minor’s Death Raises Issues of Drinking on Cruise Ships : Law: The age limit drops to 18 at sea. A spokesman reminds parents that a cruise is a resort vacation, not baby-sitting.

TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Early on the morning of Friday, July 22, the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s ship Majesty of the Seas made its way from Jamaica to the Bahamas, sailing as usual under Norwegian registry. On an upper deck, a small group of young people gathered and got to drinking. One of those young people was Hayman Ronald Lucas, a 14-year-old boy from Elmont, N.Y., whose father and stepmother were apparently asleep in their cabin.

Hayman was a big boy--5-foot-4 and 195 pounds--but he drank a lot more tequila and rum than his body could handle. Over the course of the early morning hours, authorities say, he pushed his blood-alcohol level to at least 0.29, more than three times the California legal threshold for intoxication, and apparently drank himself to death. An investigation found that the alcohol the boy drank was supplied by a 24-year-old ship passenger who acquired it ashore during a previous port call.

Whose fault is the death? Whose law applies? And as an isolated occurrence in a generally placid corner of the travel industry, should this incident send any particular message to the traveling public?

The first two questions may never be sorted out to the satisfaction of all concerned. But many authorities agree that among travelers and cruise lines, the interaction of young people, alcohol and ships merits close attention.

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Most notably, many travelers may not realize that although the minimum legal drinking age in all 50 states is 21, the rules of most cruise lines, including Royal Caribbean, allow 18-year-olds to order alcohol once their ships are in international waters.

Beyond that, cruise officials and others say, adult passengers need to remember that while they may be leaving American laws and their workaday lives behind, they’re placing themselves under new laws and retaining plenty of responsibilities, including the welfare of children.

“The best advice that you can give,” said Jim Lida, manager of corporate communications for Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, “is that a cruise is a resort vacation. It’s not a baby-sitting service.”

Cruise industry officials say they don’t see any missteps on the part of Royal Caribbean. But they do acknowledge that the ship staffs need to be sure that their enforcement of shipboard rules keeps up with their marketing efforts to bring younger cruisers and more families aboard.

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“This incident has made a lot of cruise lines take a close look at their policies regarding alcohol and minors,” said Julie Benson, spokeswoman for Los Angeles-based Princess Cruises.

From the Florida State Attorney’s office come the following details from the probe of last month’s death: The group of drinkers, which apparently included half a dozen teens under 18, one 18-year-old and the 24-year-old who supplied some or all of the alcohol, was apparently gathered on an upper pool deck from roughly 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. A crew member found the boy staggering on deck at about 5 a.m., and escorted him to his family’s cabin, and his father and stepmother were awakened. It was several hours later, about 11 a.m., that the boy’s stepmother called the ship’s medical office and reported that the boy had stopped breathing.

After doctors’ resuscitation efforts failed, the boy was pronounced dead at 12:05 p.m. Preliminary reports named alcohol poisoning as cause of death; at press time, the Dade County Medical Examiner’s Office was still awaiting results of toxicology tests.

Based on that information, “I would find it very difficult to hold the cruise line responsible,” said Ed Perkins, editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter. “Are you going to sue a city park because some 24-year-old buys booze and feeds it to a 14-year-old?”

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In the immediate aftermath of the death, many accounts noted that because the Majesty of the Seas was in international waters, there was essentially no minimum legal drinking age aboard the ship. Not so, say several authorities.

After a preliminary investigation by officers from the Miami-based Metro Dade Homicide unit, officials from the Florida State Attorney’s office said they could claim jurisdiction because a majority of the ship’s passengers embarked in Miami. Michael R. Band, chief assistant state attorney in that office, said last week that a decision had not been made about whether to file criminal charges in the incident.

But jurisdiction questions can be murky. Attorney Larry Kaye, whose firm, Kaye, Rose, Tamulski & Maltzman, has represented more than a dozen cruise lines (including Royal Caribbean) points out that travelers on ships in international waters (more than three miles from land, generally) are often considered subject to the laws in the ships’ nation of registry. Cruising on a foreign-flagged ship, Kaye said, can be “basically no different than entering a foreign country.”

For various business reasons, including tax rates and crewing requirements, most cruise ships serving American passengers are registered in Liberia, Italy, Greece, Norway, Great Britain, Holland, the Bahamas or Panama. But Kaye said he has never encountered a nation of registry with a minimum drinking age of less than 18.

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The daunting problem for a cruise line, Kaye said, is that if there’s a minor drinking, “how do you become aware of it, especially if it’s late at night, or it’s being concealed, or it’s in a cabin, or it’s alcohol that was obtained ashore?”

When docked, cruise ships follow liquor laws of local jurisdictions. Here’s a sampling of policies at sea:

* Policy on Royal Caribbean ships, as on most lines, is to issue every passenger a boarding card. Most passengers have one hole punched in their cards to indicate that they have accounts open to pay for shipboard purchases. The boarding cards of passengers under 18, spokesman Lida said, are punched with three holes, to indicate that the bearer shouldn’t be served alcohol.

* On the nine ships of Princess Cruise Line, passengers under 18 have the letter “M” imprinted on their boarding cards. In “questionable” cases a spokeswoman said, servers can ask for photo identification.

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* At Norwegian Cruise Line, which operates six ships, spokeswoman Fran Sevcik said crews in international waters will sell beer and wine to passengers age 18 or older, but hard liquor only to passengers 21 or older. Servers rely on photo identification, not boarding cards, to confirm passengers’ ages, Sevcik said.

* On the three ships of Royal Cruise Line, the drinking age at sea is 18 for beer and wine, 21 for more potent drinks.

* On the two U.S.-based ships of Costa Cruise Lines, a spokeswoman said, servers ask for photo identification whenever they’re unsure that a passenger is over 18.

* On Carnival Cruise Line’s nine ships, servers enforce their minimum age of 18 by asking for photo identification from passengers whose appearance suggests that they may be under age. If a passenger under 18 is caught trying to order a drink, a spokeswoman said, servers are instructed to punch a hole in the boarding card.

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