COVID-19 ‘I Really Need to Go Home’
Cruise Ship Employees Still Stuck at Sea
The situation has become especially untenable for people aboard ships where crew members have tested positive for COVID-19.
Justin can’t remember exactly when the fresh fruits and vegetables ran out, just that they did. It was sometime after the cruise ship he worked on had started to search for somewhere to offload the passengers. By that point, the coronavirus pandemic was well on its way to becoming the biggest story in the world, and the last place that anyone wanted to be was on a large ship, where the virus was proving its ability to infect and kill people onboard ships everywhere.
All around the world, cruise ships were racing to the nearest port to unload passengers. But it felt like wherever Justin’s ship tried, they were rejected. India. Vietnam. Even Justin’s home country, the Philippines. Although no one on board was showing COVID-19 symptoms, the countries couldn’t take the risk. It was March. And just weeks before, more than 700 passengers and crew members tested positive for COVID-19 on the Diamond Princess, contributing to the spread of the virus in Japan and causing something of a justifiable fear of cruise ships everywhere.
The days of searching turned to weeks. The search went on so long that Justin nicknamed his ship Cruising to Nowhere. In all, 10 countries rejected the ship before the passengers were able to disembark in Australia—a welcome moment of relief for the customers on board. Slowly, other ships found receptive ports of their own until late last month, when The Cruise Lines International Association, an umbrella organization that represents 95 percent of cruise ships, announced that the last remaining major cruise ship with passengers had been given permission to dock in an Italian port.
It felt like the end of the most turbulent period in the industry’s history—one in which thousands of passengers were left sick and stranded. Some had died. True scandals unfolded on cruise ships like Princess Cruises’ Grand Princess, and the entire industry had ground to a halt as a result.
Left behind were the crew members like Justin, a multinational and often economically insecure workforce that have largely not been allowed to disembark alongside the passengers. As of May 14, there were 58,800 cruise ship crew stuck at sea in U.S. waters, the US Coast Guard told VICE. Around the world, that number jumps to north of 100,000, according to an April investigation in The Guardian.
“I’m hoping we don’t get forgotten about, to be honest,” MaShawn Morton, an employee for Princess Cruises, recently told CNN. “It seems like nobody cares what’s happening to us out here.” As someone who has worked on cruise ships in the past, I myself have felt helpless as the weeks pass on shore, while my colleagues and friends are still stuck at sea.
For some, the time at sea is a welcome respite. For many others, it has turned into a physical, emotional and economic catastrophe. On May 10, a 39-year-old crew member jumped overboard on the Princess-owned Regal Princess—the third reported suicide by a crew member on a ship since the COVID-19 outbreak began, according to Crew Center, an online community for cruise ship crew. Other crew members have gone public about the stresses they are facing on board. “I really need to go home because my emotional state is really bad,” singer Julia Whitcomb, who was stuck onboard the Celebrity Infinity, said in a video she posted to Facebook at the end of April.
“For those of you thinking that the crew on ships right now have a great life, you’re very much mistaken,” Tessa Hull, a crew member for Carnival Cruise Line, recently wrote on Facebook. “When these articles report of ‘boredom and monotony,’ they don’t report of the patchy internet that doesn’t allow proper streaming of videos, FaceTime calls with family that are interrupted regularly with ‘reconnecting’ and watching the same content on television (in English regardless of your native language).”
The situation has become especially untenable for people aboard ships where crew members have tested positive for COVID-19. One such ship is the Costa Atlantica, on which nearly 150 crew members have contracted the virus since it was first docked in Japan in January. Crew members on cruise ships are often stuck in windowless rooms with two or three roommates, a situation that makes some fear for their health. Those who have been allowed to use passenger rooms still struggle with being stuck in small spaces without fresh air or room to exercise.
Companies like Royal Caribbean and Carnival have said they are planning to repatriate tens of thousands of their crew through a combination of charter flights and repatriation voyages to multiple nations around the world. Without passengers, and with no symptoms of COVID-19 onboard, the ships are transferring crew based on their nationality to other ships that then plan to sail the crew to their home country. They’re expected to arrive later in May and in early June.
One of the primary roadblocks in the U.S. has been the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In order to repatriate American crew and other crew through U.S. airports, cruise lines are required to sign a document stating that the ship has complied with CDC procedures. Specifically, that means that cruise lines must ensure crew will not stay in a hotel before they reach their final destination, will not use public transportation, and will not enter public airport terminals, among other stipulations. The strictness of the requirements has made many cruise lines hesitant to sign off on them, fearful of legal repercussions if something goes wrong and knowing that they would then be responsible for the expensive cost of private repatriation for all crew. The Coast Guard told VICE that 44 cruise ships with 22,800 crew were currently moored or anchored at U.S. ports, as of May 14.
For American crew who are stuck on cruise ships anchored within sight of the United States, the experience has become maddening. “[News articles] don’t speak of all the cancelled flights, the crew who packed and unpacked and repacked their bags up to fifteen times while being told they’re leaving, then staying, then leaving, then staying,” said Hull, the Carnival crew member. “They don’t speak of the crew who got as far as the airport in the ship transport only to find out their flights were not happening, and were brought all the way back to the ship again.”
Border closings continue to remain an issue for crew attempting to get home from international waters too. Multiple crew members of one cruise ship told VICE their ship had planned to allow some crew members to disembark with passengers in the port of Cape Town, only to realize South Africa would only allow those who are citizens of the country to disembark, leaving the majority of the crew stuck onboard as the ship sailed north to find an open port in Europe.
Krista Thomas, a former crew member and creator of a Facebook group for crew still stuck at sea, told VICE that crew were not home yet after months of waiting because of a combination of CDC regulations, border closures, and the cost to cruise lines.
“I don’t think there’s anyone person to blame,” said Krista Thomas. “I think that the industry and the governments have failed the people.”
While ships are still feeding crew members stranded onboard ships, they are often no longer providing them with their typical pay. If crew are lucky, the cruise line will pay them part of their expected salary from cancelled contracts. Viking Cruises, for example, is reportedly providing crew members on a ship with 60 percent of their normal pay and more time off.
Others are not receiving any pay at all. Some crew onboard the Mediterrianian Shipping Company’s cruise ships were among them, according to a memo leaked to Business Insider last month. Princess Cruises told VICE that they are offering “various free and low-cost Internet packages” for the crew. But for those who are not receiving a salary, even a small fee for Internet usage proves too much, leaving them in a situation where they are cut off from their families.
For those who have made it home, uncertainty remains. On April 9, the CDC announced that they were extending their No Sail Order for all cruise ships until July 24th, suspending all cruise ship operations within U.S. waters. Until then, more than 200,000 cruise ship crew members around the globe are waiting to see what will happen next. The majority of the crew come from countries with developing economies, such as the Philippines and Indonesia, where employment is either hard to find or does not pay well enough to support a family.
“This is and could be the worst thing that could ever happen to any person working onboard a cruise ship,” said Raymond Crystal, the founder of Crew Life at Sea, a crewing service that helps seafarers find work on ships. “No one in a million years would have thought this would disrupt the cruise industry, and so rapidly.”
Tina Toberd has worked both on ships and in the corporate side of the industry. Two months ago, she launched the Tina Toberd Project, an online support tool for crew and a shop to raise money for laid-off crew. Toberd said it’s difficult to “have no actual indication about how long we have to wait for until we can resume our jobs.”
“It is quite restraining and scary to feel this helpless, knowing that nothing depends on us directly,” Toberd said. “That we just have to wait and wait and wait and see how the world reacts—for as long as it takes.”
Many cruise ship crew in low-level positions live contract to contract to support their families, giving them little in the way of a safety net. “Most of the crew won’t have any funds unless they saved some of their earnings during their contracts,” said Crystal, the founder of Crew Life at Sea. One such person is Elisabeth, a crew member who declined to provide her last name, who is sitting at home in Brazil waiting for her next job. She had been about to board her next cruise when the coronavirus hit.
“I used most of my money to pay old debts, and since I was going to board soon I didn’t really save anything,” Elisabeth said. “I suddenly saw myself stuck at home, with no job and approximately $100 dollars in my account.”
Earlier this month, Carnival Cruise Lines announced plans to resume in August. The majority of other cruise lines are also expected to resume operations in late summer. But after everything that has happened, Elisabeth doubts whether customers will come back. “I don’t think going on a cruise will be a priority of the population,” said Elisabeth. Even if the industry does turn things around, some crew said they’ll likely look for other work opportunities.
“I’m not sure in what direction to go,” said one crew member now back at home. “It’s hard to say what will be after. It will be a different life for sure.”
One big question looms in the minds of crew who feel as if they have been forgotten during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Should we come back to and trust our company once the pandemic is over after we’ve been left on our own with no support?” asked Toberd. “This situation leaves us with thousands of crew members who are quite rapidly spiraling into survival mode.”
Among them is Justin, who is back home in the Philippines. He said he doesn’t know where the next paycheck will come from, or when. “Without a job, it’s really hard for a family to survive,” he said. That’s especially true, he added, for people who make their living aboard a ship.