One year later: Where are the cruise ships and their crew now?

by - March 14, 2021

Title screen: Where are the cruise ships and their crew now? An update

It was 13 March last year that the CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association) officially announced the suspension of all cruise ship operations in US ports in the wake of the COVID 19 outbreak, coming into effect on 14 March. From that point all cruises on Princess, Viking, Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Norwegian, Costa, Disney, Virgin and MSC cruise lines were suspended. This was followed by the CDC’s (Centre of Disease Control's) no sail order. 

Shortly after the official suspension of the cruise line industry, I shared a post: The Ghost Ships of the Coronapocalypse, covering the perspectives and experiences of the crew members of different cruise lines most of which were still stuck on board. The post also provided some insight into the conditions and locations of the guest-free cruise ships. 

One year on, we take a look at where the cruise ships and their crew are now: 

Where are the Cruise Ships Docked or Anchored During COVID-19?

While interviewing crew members for the post I shared almost a year ago, I discovered that in order to avoid unnecessary port fees, the cruise ships where anchored at sea in clusters. There had never been a need for the ‘clustered anchorage’ or ‘anchored cluster’ before, but last year it became a thing. The ships would dock only for provisions and to offload crew members for repatriation if border restrictions allowed. 

Last year, by looking at websites like Vessel Finder and Marine Traffic I discovered about three clustered anchorages: one off the coast of Miami,  one off the coast of Freeport in the Bahamas and one off the coast of St. Isaacs in the Bahamas.  

An aerial view of cruise ships anchored at sea during the COVID-19 lockdown
An aerial view of an anchored cluster of cruise ships

After my blog, I heard that many of the cruise ships transferred their crew to different ships based on their nationalities and then sailed them home or to countries from where they could fly them home. 

I looked online to see if the clustered anchorages were still there.  While there are still clustered anchorages, they seem to have moved. There seems to be a large one off the coast of the Berry Islands in the Bahamas made up of Royal Caribbean and Carnival ships:

Map showing Carnival and Royal Caribbean cruise ships anchored at sea during the COVID-19 lockdown

There also seems to be a small one off the coast of Civitavecchia, with a number of big cruise ships docked in port: 

Map showing cruise ships anchored and docked off the coast of Italy during the COVID-19 lockdown

What Has Become of the Crew?

A year ago many of the crew members I spoke to were still stuck on board. While it took many months for some of them to be repatriated, now only vital crew remain on board, usually in guest cabins. Instead of waiting to return home, many crew members are now waiting in anticipation for the return of their jobs. Others have moved on. 

I spoke to three different crew members working for three different cruise lines to find out how their lives have changed, and when or if they will be returning to sea. This is what they said:

How long did it take for you to get home after we last spoke? And how did you get home?

Cruise Line A - Musician (USA)
It was for sure a blow, but I was able to buy my own plane ticket and return home after a month. The [ship] has left U.S. waters and docked in Nassau, so I didn’t have the option to fly home as they had closed their sea port, so I kept in communication with the hr director and the moment the ship went back to the USA I debarked and flew home. 

Cruise Line C - Sound Technician (Canada)
I was on a few different ships, they transferred us around and tried to sail everyone home or to a country that could fly us home. I ended up getting a charter flight for Canadians from Barbados on May 24th.

Cruise Line D - Guest Relations (Greece)
So I ended up spending from March 13 to May 29 on board. I was on my ship for 2 months and then they started moving people to different ships according to nationality. I was supposed to go with all the Europeans to one ship and sail from Miami to Southampton but at the very last minute they managed to put all the Greeks together in a different ship that was sailing to India. We were around 40 Greeks and 1400 Indians all together and the reason was that the ship would make a stop at the port of Piraeus (Greece) for provisions. This is where all the Greeks disembarked after successfully passing the COVID-19 test done from the Greek authorities on board. So we spent another 18 days at sea where of course we were in relaxed quarantine protocol. Still spending most of the time in guest cabins but we were going out for meals (at a certain timeframe) and drinks. Masks and social distancing was still mandatory and daily temperature checks as well. So we all fell protected.

What have you been doing to make a living since March last year? 

Cruise Line A - Musician (USA)
Luckily for me I kept my other seasonal jobs back in the states, so I landed on my feet back home. Just in time to plant the marijuana fields in Washington state. 

Cruise Line C - Sound Technician (Canada)
Well, my entire industry has been shut down and still is so I haven't been able to find work. I've started a business doing voice over work from home.  I’ve also been relying on odd cash jobs and government support.

Cruise Line D - Guest Relations (Greece)
Obviously my life has changed drastically after the experience and the suspension. Uncertainty of what's gonna happen next has given me with anxiety and heavy symptoms of stress. Making a living in Greece is impossible since we have been out of lock down for only 3 months and then back again. Greece was already dealing with economic crisis and COVID was the cherry on top. Businesses are closing, there are no job vacancies, only more and more unemployed people. And while the chances of getting a job are low, if something came up (in other countries), having in mind that the cruise line was in constant communication with us and telling us "just one more month" really made the decision of building a new career on land impossible.

Vacant cruise ship interior during  COVID-19 lockdown
Photo credit: Tatiana Leite

Do you have any idea when your cruise line will commence operating again? Has your cruise line communicated with you at all in the interim?

Cruise Line A - Musician (USA)
The cruise line has contacted me a few times via email, stating that the ships should begin sailing again in October 2020, then the voyage have been suspended until March 2021, then again to inform that the voyages are again suspended until May 2021. They are trying to keep experienced officers and crew on the line, but themselves don’t know when operations will begin again. So, I have a feeling starting again for the industry will be interesting. 

Cruise Line C - Sound Technician (Canada)
No idea.  They have been keeping us up to date and checking in with us yes. They also send surveys and questions and such. Just about how we feel and what we think about operation changes. 

Cruise Line D - Guest Relations (Greece)
Now I'm just hoping that cruises will restart by June, my line says April but I doubt. After all, even if they start soon, it will take time for everyone to get a contact, so I don't expect to be called before November. 

How do you think the cruise line industry will be different when it resumes again?

Cruise Line A - Musician (USA)
The employees of the company who go back will be refreshed, and there will be a lot of vacancies in management to fill.  So, I feel anyone who decides to return to the industry will be in line for promotions and pay raises, but the companies will not be able to resume at normal capacity for some time, and there will be more corporate take overs and rebrand that are sure to drive everybody crazy. 

Cruise Line C - Sound Technician (Canada)
It's really hard to say.

Cruise Line D - Guest Relations (Greece)
When it starts again it will be so different. 50% guest capacity will mean 50% crew capacity but the work will be double. Temperature checks, crowd control in order to maintain social distance and so many more measures and protocols that will require extra time. It's not gonna be easy and it might not be fun anymore if not going out at ports is an extra standard for crew. I believe that mental health issues will start rising for crew and if a psychotherapist is not put onboard for mandatory weekly checks, the situation will get really ugly.

Do you intend to go back when you can or is your career at sea behind you now?

Cruise Line A - Musician (USA)
Personally, I won’t be returning. The recreational cannabis has been an exciting startup opportunity, and has kept me insanely busy. I don’t play as much trumpet as before, which is regrettable, but I am glad to have been forced to move forward with something else.  

Cruise Line C - Sound Technician (Canada)
As much as I would like to go back I think my career may be over now. It will be a long time before it's back to normal. 

Cruise Line D - Guest Relations (Greece)
Obviously all I want is to go back onboard but at this point I wouldn't have second thoughts if I knew that the company will really take care of us. I'm expecting some actual plans for crew well-being.  And of course having vaccines for COVID-19 ready for all the crew should be a standard in my opinion.

The inside of a vacant cruise ship during the COVID-19 lockdown
Photo credit: Tatiana Leite
The inside of a vacant cruise ship

When will the Cruise Line Industry Resume?

Currently this is when the major cruise lines are scheduled to relaunch:
(Correct at time of posting: Very likely to change)

  • AIDA: This month from the Canary Islands
  • Carnival: June 2021
  • Celebrity: June 2021
  • Costa Cruises: Has already resumed cruising from Savona & Civitavecchia, Italy 
  • Disney: June 2021
  • Holland America: July
  • MSC: Has already resumed cruising from Genoa & Civitavecchia, Italy
  • NCL: June 2021
  • P&0: September: 2021
  • Princess: July 2021
  • Pullmantur: Filed for reorganisation under Spanish insolvency law
  • Royal Caribbean: June 2021
  • Seabourn: July 2021
  • TUI / Marella Cruises: This month
  • Viking: September 2021 (Although another website says April

Virgin Voyages, Richard Branson’s new cruise line that was scheduled to begin the inaugural season of its first ship in April of last year is now scheduled to begin cruising this year on 4 July.  

A regularly updated feed of cruise line relaunch dates can be found here.

How is MSC Cruising Without COVID-19 Outbreaks?

According to MSC, they seem to be operating successfully by taking the following measures:

  • Antigen swab tests before and during the cruise for guests (Having your brain poked a couple of times is totally worth it, right?) 
  • Daily contactless temperature checks. 
  • COVID-19 tests for crew members every 7 days.
  • Increased medical staff on board
  • Passenger capacity reduced to 70% to enable social distancing
  • The use of masks is mandatory in public areas except when drinking, dining or on the sun deck
  • Enhanced sanitation
  • Hand sanitiser widely available
  • Well-trained staff 
  • ‘Protected’ shore excursions

What are Costa’s COVID-19 Protocols?

While Costa hasn’t been quite as successful as MSC with 8 passengers testing positive on a cruise in September, they have managed to avoid any major outbreaks. 

Costa’s detailed safety protocol can be found here, but they seem to be very similar to those of MSC:

  • Temperature and swab tests prior to boarding
  • Staggered boarding times and social distancing
  • Online check-in
  • Digital services through the Costa app, QR codes, interactive screens and the cabin phone to reduce the need for interacting with staff
  • Reduced occupancy
  • The wearing of face masks is mandatory in public areas
  • Hand sanitiser widely available
  • Extended meal times and extra showtimes to allow for social distancing
  • ‘Costa safe excursions
  • Enhanced sanitation
  • New air filters for cleaner breathing air
  • A well equipped medical centre with qualified staff
As it seems that both these cruise lines seem to be operating out of Italy, this may explain why there are so many cruise ships docked or anchored near the port of Civitavecchia. 

A cluster of anchored cruise ships during the COVID-19 lockdown
A cluster of anchored cruise ships

How will Cruising be Different When the Rest of the Industry Relaunches?

While MSC and Costa’s protocols do seem to be working, they currently only seem to have one ship sailing each. (This is to the best of my knowledge. Please correct me if I’m wrong?) They are both sailing out of Italy and currently non-essential travel to Italy from most non-EU countries (including the USA - the nation that takes the most cruises) is prohibited. The same protocols applied to ships leaving from ports in different countries, or holding guests of different demographics and cultures, may not work or be taken as seriously. 

It’s worth noting that many people enjoy the unlimited alcohol packages and the drinking culture associated with cruising. There is a lot of evidence from events that have occurred this past year that have proven that people tend to forget COVID protocols when excessive alcohol is consumed. While cruise ships are trying to use such packages to coax people into booking ahead, this is probably going to have to be amended if people are to behave themselves. 

As an ex-crew member (from the entertainment department) even we were constantly drilled about sanitising surfaces and incessantly washing our hands. Even with the washy washy song sung at us and dreaded US public health inspections looming, we weren’t always able to prevent outbreaks of the significantly less-lethal Nora Virus.

Personally, I don’t see how the cruise line industry can resume until the vaccine is widely available, more people are vaccinated than not, and waivers can be signed to rid the cruise lines of liability should non-vaccinated guests contract it on board. 

I believe the future of cruising will look less like what Costa and MSC have done in Italy and more like what Royal Caribbean plans to do in Israel. In May they will be launching the inaugural season of their newest ship, The Odyssey of the Seas, out of Israel. All staff and crew over 16 years of age will be required to present evidence of their COVID-19 vaccination to embark. 

I’m also curious to see how travel restrictions may come into play for crew members from third world countries (i.e. the majority of cruise ship crew) trying to cross borders to join ships without access to the vaccine. 

For some more light-hearted reading, while we wait for the cruise line industry to resume, here are some tips on how to recreate the cruise experience at home

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