The skeleton crews aboard the offshore cruise ships, Celebrity’s Eclipse and Millennium, may be in a holding pattern, but are still doing their duties with pay and are able to access most ship amenities.
Following orders from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the quarantined crews stay on board when pulling into the Port of San Diego for supplies, shared Celebrity parent company Royal Caribbean.
“The repatriation process was not an easy one; but we finally got through that,” said Royal Caribbean representative Jonathan Fishman about safely getting crew members back to their home countries after the pandemic shutdown mid-March.
Fishman reported the company had a team working 24/7 trying to get people home and follow each country’s rules. Royal Caribbean also issued goodwill payment to crew members who weren’t working but waiting — an amount which may not go far in some countries but very far in others, Fishman said.
“We were the only cruise corporation to do that,” he said of the payments and that how long the repatriation limbo lasted depended on the country.
He said the majority of crew members were home by around early July.
Fishman explained that to run a ship with a lightly-manned, skeleton crew takes the high-level experts in each aspect of the cruise liner including engineers and captains. The ships are considered bare-bones at 80-100 employees on each, the high-ranking people able and willing to keep the vessels safely anchored and operating.
“If you dock the ship without anyone on it, you run the risk of damaging the ship,” he said. “There are a lot of problems that can happen if you don’t have it manned … No one’s being held against their will or anything. It’s people who are doing their jobs and being compensated for it.”
Fishman said no person works around the clock but relies on shifts, and the companies follow employment law.
He also described the Healthy Sail Panel, which involves Royal Caribbean partnering with competitor Norwegian Cruise Line to “basically put our best minds together to give us the right protocols on what to do,” Fishman said of returning to sailing and healthy processes which could assist other companies, institutions and industries as well.
The panel consists of 11 globally-recognized experts with extensive knowledge in science, medical practice and research, public health, infectious disease, biosecurity and maritime operations.
In a military town, ships are not an uncommon sight or deployments unfamiliar. From the beginning, Fishman said, the crew members have had access to WiFi and been able to communicate with loved ones as well as connect with embassies when needed. He said many amenities are present for the crew just like guests, from television to gym access with COVID-19 precautions.
With a cruise ship for 5,000 people and 100 people aboard, Fishman said, “yeah, they pretty much have free range of the ship.” He noted how two weeks isn’t enough time to travel the whole ship while on a cruise, so “you can imagine with 100 people on there — there’s plenty of room and you have access to plenty of amenities and whatever they need.”
Fishman shared how the ships try to stock up on specific provisions “X” amount of days or weeks in advance, and medications or prescriptions are available via the ship doctor on board.
“We check in on them all the time,” Fishman said of the crew, and added that there’s an employee assistance program which offers anonymous reporting in case issues arise.
He said there hasn’t been any complaints and “our hearts are with them, and we wish they were back with a full ship or at home or wherever they want to be, but this is the situation in the world right now.”
“The Port of San Diego has been just amazing with us,” he said, “and we really appreciate all the efforts and everything they’ve done for us. We look forward to continuing the relationship in the future.”
Fishman touched on how in 2015, Celebrity’s Captain Kate McCue became the first American woman to captain a cruise ship. She went on to lead the first ever all-female bridge and officer team including three British female crew members and Celebrity’s president and CEO Lisa Lutoff-Perlo in March of this year.
“We’re all about changing the stereotypes,” Fishman said. “If you look back in time it was like sailors and an old boys’ club, and we’re trying to break that stereotype.”
The corporation is essentially burning $250 million a month keeping their fleets out and ready, Fishman said.
“We’re eager to return to service. We’re ready whenever we get the green light. We want the ships to be ready.”
Fishman echoed what the company’s chairman has said, that they’ll sail when it’s safe to sail, and they won’t do anything to put someone’s life at risk. With the CDC’s no sail order through September, the company doesn’t have sail dates but reiterated they’ll be ready to go regardless of season or location.
“We’re still planning ahead for years, we’re just adjusting to the fluidity of the situation.”
Royal Caribbean Cruise Line purchased Celebrity Cruises in 1997.