The Ghost Ships of the Coronapocalypse

The Ghost Ships of the Caronapocalypse

What has become of the cruise ships and their crew in the wake of the sudden shutdown of the cruise line industry? 

As much as the entire travel industry has ground to a halt since the outbreak of COVID-19, the cruise line industry seems to have been dealt possibly the heaviest blow. After the outbreak on the Diamond Princess ship in Japan where 712 people were infected, followed by a much smaller outbreak on the Grand Princess off the coast of California, all major cruise lines based in the USA (and therefore all major cruise lines) suspended all their cruises with little notice. 

Any cruises scheduled to start on or after 14 March 2020 were cancelled. While some cruise lines tried unsuccessfully to continue with international cruises, to the best of my knowledge, the entire industry is no longer operational.

It has been three weeks since that historic decision. Since then there has been a lot of press over two issues: 

  • The one was the cruise lines’ requests for government bailouts. This sparked a lot of debate as to what degree they deserve such bailouts as the industry is known for its ability to legally evade tax by registering its ships in other countries. 
  • The other issue that got plenty of press attention was the plight of the virus-stricken Zaandam, one of the very few ships still carrying passengers after having been denied multiple requests to dock. 

As an ex-crew member, I kept wondering: What about the rest of the ships? Where are they? And what’s become of the crew? 

Empty luxury cruise ship
Photo credit: Tatiana Leite

Of the three main cruise lines (Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line and Carnival), the average cruise ship employs between 900 and 2000 crew members. That’s roughly 85 000 ship-based crew members in these three cruise lines alone. Each of these companies is a parent company to other cruise lines, and a number of other fleets belong to smaller corporations. That’s literally thousands of people, many from Third World countries, whose lives have been disrupted and whose livelihoods hang in the balance. 

While the three main cruise lines suspended cruises initially for a month, before extending that to two months, as the virus continues to rage out of control, the concern is growing about just how long it really will take for the cruise line industry to resume its cruises.

So what do you do with the crew when you no longer have work for them in the interim? Do you quarantine them on board in the hopes that you will commence cruising again in a month (now, two months)? If you do, are you risking a potential outbreak on a ship that could be a huge liability? As crew members are usually only paid when they are actively on board, do you send them home to cut salary costs? Even if you did decide to send them home, considering the number of countries shutting down their borders faster than you can google cheap flights, could you even send them home if you tried? And do they even want to risk the trip?

Secondly, considering the nature of the industry and the consistency of cruise ship itineraries, these colossal ships are constantly in motion, docking only for a few hours at a time, rarely longer than 24 hours (at most) in port. So, when the industry is suspended, are there enough docks for all these ships, can you afford the port fees and where else can you put them?

As a former crew member who worked for two major cruise lines, I started seeing a number of crew members posting pictures of themselves enjoying guestless guest areas, lounging by the pool, doing ropes courses and generally enjoying the ships. One of my Facebook friends has even been moved into her own guest balcony cabin for the purposes of precautionary ‘social distancing’. I started to feel jealous. As so much of the world is currently on lockdown, wouldn’t a paid vacation on a luxury ship be the best possible place to ‘isolate’? At the same time, I started seeing rants from other crew members who were frustrated with the situations they found themselves in and uncertain about the future. My mind was filled with questions, so I started asking them.

crew member enjoying cruise ship
A crew member enjoying her 'social distancing' and free Wi-Fi

I spoke to crew members from four different cruise lines and one river cruise line. Most of them asked me to protect their identities (except the ones who did not want to continue working on ships). My intention is not to expose any cruise line for the mistreatment of its crew, it’s just to try and understand where the industry is right now, so I have decided to conceal the names of the cruise lines too. 

This is what they told me:

Are you at home or on board? If you are on board, how long have you been without guests?

Cruise Line A - Production Manager:  
We are at sea with no guests. We found out about the layup on the 13th and our debark day was 3/14, so the guests went home on their scheduled day and we did not get any new guests.

Cruise Line B - Store Assistant:
I was working at [cruise line B] but got sent home. Our ship is in Dubai. We actually didn't know and everything happened all of a sudden. We were about to start the crossing to Greece. It would be a 16-day cruise. Guests embarked as if the cruise was going to happen. And all of a sudden the cruise was cancelled and there were rumours we were going to be sent home. We were sent home the next day. And they only kept essential crew.

Cruise Line A - Youth Staff: 
On the 13 of March the Guests were on board already. It was embarkation day. Then at the moment of sail away the captain spoke. He told everyone the cruise was cancelled. We did not know. We had NO IDEA WHATSOEVER. Then we had to tell guest to disembark immediately. I was on the [ship] until the 21 March... I bought my ticket and came back home. The airport at home was closing in the 23rd. And they [the company] were "looking" for tickets to send people home... from a whole bunch of people from my country, like 10, just 4 were sent home on time and I chose to buy my own ticket.

River Cruise - Program Director:  
We all have been sent home. My ship was stopped from moving 2 hours prior of starting the season, so we were about to head to our embarkation port for the first guests. We dock our ships over winter.

empty cruise ship
Photo credit: Tatiana Leite

Are they disembarking the crew or keeping them on board?

Cruise Line A - Youth Staff  
They started sending people home on the 19th. There are a lot of people on board... all the Europeans as their home airports and borders were closed, some people from Central American countries and Peru as they were some of the first ones to close their borders and airports.

Cruise Line C - Sound Technician 
They have been disembarking crew gradually based on the end of their contracts but we have had a case of the virus so we are in lockdown and nobody can leave for another 12 days. The crew member that was confirmed was taken to shore. After our lockdown time ends in 13 days they will begin to send everyone home that they can and feed and shelter those who cannot go home. 

Cruise Line D - Guest Relations: 
Now [the cruise line] asked the crew members to decide if they want to stay on board or go back home (as long as it is permitted, according to the nationalities). The company of course will cover all the travel expenses for all crew members in order to go home and they are actually checking for connecting flights that won't cause any problem. But to be honest, airports and countries shut down within hours, you cannot really predict how things are gonna end.

Cruise Line A - Bar Staff
All the crew is onboard. We are in quarantine right now and the authorities don't let us get off the ship until further notice. Just precaution. We are safe and healthy here.

River Cruise - Program Director   
All ship have min legal nautical onboard 1 captain, 1 engineer and 1 or 2 sailors. All hotel staff is sent home

Are you still working and getting paid?

Cruise Line C - Sound Technician:
As of now our contracts have been ended and we are essentially passengers on board waiting to leave when it is safe to do so. [The cruise line] has given crew the option of staying on board unpaid if they cannot get into their country or don't feel safe doing so. The company has paid us until today (25 March) and will pay everyone for a full month beyond today.

Cruise Line D - Guest Relations: 
We’re all gonna get paid until the 25th of April. It won't matter if we're gonna be on board or home, everybody is gonna get paid until then. Most of the crew is still working. Even entertainment is working by doing shows for the crew only. Everybody has a purpose still on board. Everybody has to complete 6 hours of duty. We are also doing lots of trainings. Safety trainings, departmental trainings and so on.

Cruise Line A - Youth Staff:
Day 1 people were shocked and glad to have some time off... day 2 was a different story. We sanitised all day. That stupid ship was cleaner than any hospital in this moment. I was paid the full month. I have no idea for the people on board just now

Cruise Line A - Musician 
Nope. They aren’t [paying us]. A lot of crew already can’t go home anyway... but there’s plenty of work to be done back home and I’m missing out on opportunity every day I’m here.

Cruise Line A - Bar Staff (different ship):
Most of us are working and for sure everyone will get paid. 

Cruise Line B - Store Assistant (at home): 
What I've heard from a friend today is that now they are offering crew extended stay. Which means you have to decide if you go or stay. But if you decide to stay, you get no salary, you will not be working either. Food, accommodation, and Wi-Fi is free. This is happening on ships where they couldn't disembark most of the crew.

River Cruise - Program Director (home):
Yes, correct, full pay. As we have seasonal contracts and season starts mid-march to mid-April, depending on the route and ship. So some of us have contracts that have started. [cruise line] is taking care of all of us and that's great!

Are you allowed to enjoy the guest areas of the ship? What is being done to boost morale?

Cruise Line C - Sound Technician: 
We were allowed to enjoy all guest activities and areas until our ship had a confirmed corona case, at which point we went to OPP level 3 and that was all halted. There are light activities but we have social distancing in play so no big groups, no more than 4 at a table and we keep our distance. 

Cruise Line D - Guest Relations:  
There are still plenty of activities for crew, they are doing their best to keep us positive and busy. Of course within limits, we are not taking advantage of the ship by destroying guest areas, we're very cautious and the activities are limited to certain guest areas that can be maintained easily.

Cruise Line A - Youth Staff (at home): 
No. People were the ones trying to cheer each other up.

Cruise Line A - Bar Staff (different ship):
Yes. Lots of activities. Music, movies, games, laser tag.  I think everyone here is happy because we know that nobody is sick.

Crew members enjoy empty cruise ship
Photo credit: Tatiana Leite

Are you able to get home? Do you want to go home or would you rather stay on board?

Cruise Line C - Sound Technician: 
I'm easy either way. I'd like to stick around but I'd also like to go make sure my family is well. As of today, I can get off when the time comes [after quarantine] but things change every hour these days.

Cruise Line D - Guest Relations: 
If I get home I risk to be infected or get my family infected. [My ship] is a ship that had been cleared by the CDC. We have 0 cases of coronavirus so far. I choose to stay as long as I can to protect myself and my family from myself. The option of going home is only putting them at risk in case I get infected. Which is the most probable, consider how things are in the outside world right now. 

Cruise Line A - Musician: 
Nobody knows, all we get onboard are rumours. The company is not keeping the crew members informed. We hear the port might be extending its lockdown.

Cruise Line A - Production Manager: 
Yeah, we are definitely lucky here, everyone is healthy and the management is being really great. Of course, everyone is concerned for their families and there are people that want to be there, but also we are worried we would pick it up and take it home if they send us through an airport.

Do you know when you’ll be offered another contract? Or do you know when you're scheduled to begin cruising again? 

Cruise Line D - Guest Relations:  
So far the cruises are suspended until May. But things change dramatically within hours so nothing can be really confirmed at this moment

Cruise Line A - Youth Staff: 
They told crew members an estimate maybe June. They already told us the operation was going to begin “gradually”. Meaning... we don't have a job until God only knows when. “We are not calling everyone at the same time”. 

Cruise Line D - Dancer:
Supposedly May 12th, but obviously all still very fluid.

Cruise Line A - Bar Staff: 
No... no idea

Cruise Line B - Store Assistant:
Well, the company says operations will return on May 2. But I don't believe we will be back so soon.

River Cruise - Program Director: (which only operate in the summer):  
Today I had a talk to one of my colleague and looks like they will not restart this year again… Yes as it will take longer to start up again. So if by August/September we have not started yet we are looking at March 2021 again to start work.

The only corona on this ship
Photo credit: Tatiana Leite

Where is your ship docked?

Cruise Line D - Guest Relations: 
Right now, we were anchored with 2 other [cruise line D] ships and 2 [cruise line C] ships. We're heading now to Miami for provision, we need to offload garbage and load supplies.

Cruise Line D - Dancer: 
We are anchored just outside of Freeport. We went back to Fort Lauderdale yesterday to drop crew off. But mainly to pick up provisions

Cruise Line A - Production Manager:  
We are in Panama getting provisions and then scheduled to head to Europe for an already planned dry dock. We were in South America, and we were meant to repositioning cruise to Florida and then do a transatlantic. We still need to get to Europe for when cruises resume.

Cruise Line A - Musician 
Still stuck onboard [cruise ship] awaiting the port to open so flights can leave the island. Thankfully no one on this ship has gotten sick. The port is closed so they won’t let anyone through to the airport.

Cruise Line C - Sound Technician: 
We are anchored east of Miami with 6 other ships. There are two groups of ships here in clustered anchorage in the Bahamas. Not enough parking in Miami and I believe the port is full. So we are just floating circles around our anchor. And I would assume it'll stay that way. With one open spot or rotating spots in port for ships to get fresh water and food once a week or month depending on how big the skeleton crews are. This is all above my pay grade so it's speculative. They come and go depending on their situations. And yea they park us fairly close together to keep morale up and help us not feel so alone. 


What is a Clustered Ancorage?

I did some research into these “anchored clusters” or “clustered anchorages”. (I am not sure if there is an official term for these things, or if there has ever been the need for a term like this in the entire history of the cruise line industry.) I found three different anchorages located between Miami and the Bahamas:
(Moving ships are represented by an arrow, stationary ships by a dot.)

One off the coast of Miami:

One off Freeport in the Bahamas:

And one off St. Isaacs in the Bahamas:

I notice in the last one, the presence of the Scarlet Lady. The entire cruise line industry has been abuzz for years about the launch of Richard Branson’s new cruise line Virgin Voyages. Years of planning has gone into the launch of the cruise line’s first ship which was very unfortunately scheduled to begin its maiden voyage this week on 1 April. With the outbreak, they have postponed the launch until July with the maiden voyage now scheduled for August. The ship’s construction had been completed, delivered to the company and fully equipped, the crew had also arrived on board, and when the virus hit, the timing could not have been worse. The only people getting to explore this brand new innovative adults-only vessel is the ship’s crew. 

Clustered anchorage / anchored cluster of ships
A picture of a 'clustered anchorage' taken from one of the anchored ships

UPDATED: After sharing this post, another crew member sent me an aerial view of one of the anchorages:

cruise ships drifting at sea in the wake of COVID-19 - Aerial view


When I started writing this post, I had a lot of questions. Now that I have asked them, there generally seems to be no consistent answers even from different crew members working for the same companies. It seems that thousands of crew members are stuck adrift at sea. While some are being sent home, others are staying on board. While some are happy to be there, others are not. And while some are confident of their futures, others are definitely not.

The Musician on Cruise Line A said:
The cruise lines are doing as much in their power to lay off workers, and save their already overextended butts. Treating their own employees like unwanted refugees and still asking for a government bailout? At this point I've been moved from one ship to another, told I was going to receive pay for my time onboard. As soon as the ship hits international waters, all bets are off. I'm sure they wish they could just dump us in the ocean to save a dime. I understand the world is in crisis right now, and airports have been closing so it's hard to fly people home. I get that. Cruise lines should get that too. If you're planning to lay off all your workers and don't want to tell them, but are too incompetent to purchase flights before their home airports close, what makes you think you're in any position to ask for a government bailout, or even run a company? 

While the Dancer on Cruise Line D said:
I genuinely feel so safe and so well looked after by [cruise line D]. We are definitely incredibly lucky here. We have passenger area access and all meals are in the passenger buffet. They also pick a different speciality restaurant to open every night, with a million and one crew activities. Including two daily exercise classes,  a film put on at different times of the day in different venues, themed crew parties, game shows... it’s great.

With the entire industry having been turned upside down within the last three weeks, it’s hard to predict what’s in store for these ships and their crew. If you are wondering where they are though, with the entire ocean at their disposal, they are likely to be in one of three huddles, floating around aimlessly, literally waiting for better days. 


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