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In nautical limbo: Where the clusters of cruise ships sit idle with crew still on board

In nautical limbo: Where the clusters of cruise ships sit idle with crew still on board
May 13, 2020

In the past few weeks, Manila Bay in the Philippines has been transformed into the world’s biggest parking lot for cruise ships, none of which have any guests.

Around the world, cruise ship operators are finding places to anchor their enormous vessels with hundreds of crew on board.

More than 20 vessels collectively weighing about 2 million tonnes are clustered off the coast of the capital, awaiting coronavirus clearance for more than 5,300 Philippine staff to return home from abandoned cruises, with no guarantee of a job at sea again.

Reduced flights and travel bans due to the coronavirus, as well as outbreaks on several ships, have brought the cruise industry to a virtual standstill.

More ships are set to join the flotilla, says the coast guard, which has been shuttling between ships to administer close to 5,000 virus tests for crew quarantined for the 14 days mandatory for repatriates. No suspected cases have been reported.

Jose Albar Kato, who heads the Philippines’ International Maritime Association and its federation for seafarers’ employers, was not surprised to see the giant huddle off Manila of cruise ships, each the length of two to three soccer fields.

Philippine staffers formed the largest contingent on most cruise ships, he said, so it made sense to park in Manila Bay.

“On average 30% to 40% of crew are Filipinos,” Kato told Reuters. “It’s a big saving for the owner to just wait it out here.”

Crew told Reuters they were bored, lonely or frustrated being so close to home, but felt fortunate to be confined to their cabins in comfort, knowing that thousands of Philippine returnees are in tougher quarantine conditions elsewhere.

“Each person is staying in a suite room - We feel like the guests now,” joked Michael Torralba Martinez, speaking from one of the cabins that he normally cleans.

“We feel safer here ... Standards are strict in ships when it comes to cleanliness and sanitation,” he said in an online chat.
The global fleet

Data from ship tracking website MarineTraffic showed 378 cruise ships globally on May 8. Some of the ships were underway at sea but many were moored in clusters across the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, Atlantic Ocean and the South China Sea.

As a result of the “No Sail Order” issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cruises in the United States are banned until July 24, leaving some vessels moored off the U.S. coast with crew members on board.

According to data from MarineTraffic, many of the vessels are anchored relatively close to each other off the Bahamas, including a large group of ships moored west of Great Harbour Cay.

Cruise line companies own some small islands in the Bahamas, which they use as day trip destinations for passengers.

Another group of ships can be seen off the coast of Port Canaveral, one of the world’s busiest cruise terminals located on the east coast of Florida.

The reluctance to let crews disembark isn’t unfounded. Among the 3,711 passengers on the Carnival Corp-owned Diamond Princess cruise ship that was quarantined in Yokahama, Japan in February, 712 tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the CDC. Of the passengers who tested positive, 47% were asymptomatic at the time of testing; nine ultimately died.

The CDC permits cruise ships to disembark asymptomatic crew members if the cruise line company signs a written document stating that it has complied with the CDC’s requirements, which include delivering those crew members directly to private transportation home or to their next assignment.

Sources: MarineTraffic; Maps4News; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

By Anand Katakam and Marco Hernandez
Additional reporting by Helen Coster, Neil Jerome Morales and Karen Lema
Editing by Simon Scarr