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A cruise was once the trip of a lifetime: a byword for refinement, luxury, romance, the millionaire lifestyle but no longer.

Boats are bigger and brasher, and every year more and more people of all ages and walks of life are clambering aboard to join the party. But are they safe? Out at sea, there are no police. Many cruise ships fly flags of convenience, sailing in murky legal waters.

Reports of disappearances, disease, death and debauchery are becoming alarmingly frequent. Can you be sure your dream holiday, or your ship, won't end up on the rocks?

Gwyn Topham, travel editor of Guardian Unlimited, talks to crew and passengers in Australia and around the world to find out what really happens on the high seas. In tales spanning ships from the Fairstar to the QM2, he discovers pirates and pollution, missing persons and mutinies, colourful captains and crew, and passengers whose antics would make your hair curl. You cannot afford to get aboard until you have read Overboard: the stories cruise lines don't want told.

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