Cut off from flights, cruise lines turn to their own ships to get stranded crew home

Apr 30, 2020

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It’s been more than a month since cruise lines around the world began shutting down operations due to the coronavirus outbreak, and — with one small exception — there no longer are passengers aboard cruise vessels crossing the world’s oceans.

But that doesn’t mean cruise ships are now sitting empty. Tens of thousands of crew members have been stuck on vessels for weeks as cruise lines try to figure out how to get them home.

In some cases, cruise lines have been able to charter flights to repatriate crew. But due to coronavirus-related travel restrictions, that isn’t always possible. Some countries are barring crew from disembarking ships for even a short drive to an airport for a flight home. And the flights themselves often are not allowed.

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The result is that cruise lines have begun to do something drastic — and unprecedented — to get their crew to their homelands: They’re using their own ships.

Princess Cruises, Holland America, Carnival Cruise Line, Seabourn and Windstar Cruises are among lines that, in recent days, have begun the process of using their own vessels as long-distance crew transport. A few of their ships already have set off on epic repatriation journeys.

It’s a process that’s a lot more complex than it might initially seem. Crew members on ships must first be sorted by their nationalities and then transferred between vessels that are being assigned to travel to various parts of the world. Due to coronavirus-related restrictions on crew movements at docks, the transfers are happening on the open ocean via small tender boats.

Earlier this week, in an ambitious open-ocean manoeuvre, for instance, Princess transferred thousands of crew of various non-U.S. nationalities between six vessels idling at the Great Isaac Anchorage in the Bahamas. The ships now will sail to various destinations in Europe, Africa and Asia to drop off crew near their homes.

“We did something incredible, something no one ever could think of, something you have never been trained for, but we did!” Princess tweeted this week, quoting a safety officer on the line’s 3,660-passenger Sky Princess. The message included a picture of the dramatic scene.

The tweet later was taken down, but the photo remains on Princess’s Facebook page, with a different caption: “Due to air travel restrictions, we (along with Holland America Line and Seabourn) have actioned a repatriation plan to sail our team members home …”

The repatriation sailings are unprecedented in the history of cruising. In some cases, the ships will sail thousands of miles and many weeks to complete the task of getting crew to their origin countries.

Some of the repatriation sailings will take ships all the way from U.S. waters to Asia. Cruise giant Carnival’s Los Angeles-based Carnival Panorama, for instance, recently left California on a multiweek journey to the Philippines to repatriate Filipino crew members. In recent days, it’s been sailing nearby Princess Cruises’ Royal Princess and Holland America’s Eurodam, which also are heading to Asia to repatriate crew.

It’s a first-of-its-kind sailing for Carnival Panorama, which had been scheduled to remain year-round in the Los Angeles-area through at least early 2022. The ship arrived in the Los Angeles area last year after being constructed at a shipyard in Italy.

In a statement, Carnival told TPG that 18 more of its 27 vessels will rendezvous in the Bahamas over the next several days to swap crew as final plans are put in place to use nine of the ships to take staffers back to their home countries. The line says the nine ships will transport more than 10,000 crew in all to their homelands in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America.

Carnival said it already had repatriated more than 10,000 crew to their home countries via flights in recent weeks. Another 6,000 crew are on their way home via additional air charters, the Carnival Panorama and on two other vessels that already have departed from Australia.

Carnival had about 29,000 crew on its ships before the coronavirus hit. By the time all these movements are completed, the staffing level of its ships will be down to about 3,000 people, all but a few hundred are necessary for the maintenance of the vessels, the line said.

Related: 9 ways cruising will be different when it starts up again 

Lines such as Princess and Carnival operate large ships that often have more than 1,000 crew on board. But even small-ship cruise specialists that have ships with just a few dozen to a few hundred crew members are exploring the ship-as-a-transport-vehicle option for getting crew home.

Small-ship specialist Windstar on Tuesday tweeted it was transferring European crew from three of its vessels in the Caribbean to a single ship, Star Pride, in advance of sailing them across the Atlantic to their homes. Most Windstar vessels operate with fewer than 200 crew members.

In perhaps the most unusual crew repatriation effort currently underway, a German cruise ship, Artania, is bringing crew home to Indonesia and the Philippines despite the fact that eight passengers remain on the vessel. After dropping off the bulk of the ship’s crew in the two countries, the ship will sail to Germany with the eight passengers and a skeleton crew of around 75 people. The ship is designed to hold around 1,700 passengers and crew.

Related: The bizarre story of the last 8 cruise ship passengers at sea 

Cruise ships often are the ultimate melting pots when it comes to the origins of their workers. It’s not uncommon for a single cruise ship to have crew from several dozen different countries from across Asia, Europe and the Americas. That has made the process of getting crew home difficult.

“Now that we have paused guest operations, the entire company remains committed and focused in our efforts to return all our teammates safely home to their family and friends”, Princess said last week in a statement. “However, due to international air travel and government restrictions, along with cruise ports that are essentially closed, our repatriation planning continues to be an extremely challenging and complex operation”.

Princess noted it already had repatriated thousands of crew from ships on chartered flights in recent weeks. But thousands more remain on board vessels.

In a “no-sail” order issued earlier this month for cruise ships operating in U.S. waters, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated there were 47,800 crew still on cruise ships off the East Coast of the U.S. and in the Bahamas alone. The agency estimated there were another 32,000 crew aboard cruise vessels off the West Coast and Gulf Coast of the country.

The no-sail order does not prohibit cruise lines from using their ships to take crew home. It applies to passenger sailings that involve U.S. ports.

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A number of idling cruise ships have been experiencing coronavirus outbreaks. But many more currently are coronavirus-free. In its statement, Carnival said its crew repatriation voyages would be for healthy crew members.

Carnival Dream
Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Dream and two other Carnival ships await other Carnival vessels in the Bahamas in advance of a crew repatriation mission. (Photo courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line).

For crew still on cruise ships, life has changed markedly in the weeks since passengers departed. On Princess ships, for instance, all remaining crew have moved “upstairs” from crew quarters into passenger cabins with outdoor balconies — something most crew normally would never experience. Crew also are allowed at deck-top public areas that normally are off limits.

The repatriation of crew via multiweek sailings is a sign that cruise lines don’t expect to be returning to service anytime soon. Most cruise lines already have cancelled all sailings through June. Some lines have cancelled sailings on select vessels through the fall.

Related: When will cruising resume? Here’s our best guess 

The lines say a small complement of crew will remain on each ship after most crew departs to maintain essential operations of the vessels.

Featured image courtesy of Princess Cruises.

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