Cruise lines have returned home, but the crews who treated them are still stranded at sea

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(CNN) – Most cruise lines have returned home, and the large ships that once transported them from port to port are moored or released, moving for the next leg of their journey.

But what about the crews who kept these gigantic vessels running and cared for the guests as the coronavirus panic swept the oceans?

For many who work in the cruise industry, the nightmare of being on a ship that had transported people with coronavirus has continued – sometimes endless.

Isolated, deprived of the rapid repatriation offered to passengers and, in some cases, forced to endure difficult conditions without remuneration, some of those sequestered at sea describe the bureaucratic tangle that trapped them, often a few meters from the shore.

“I hope we are not forgotten, to be honest,” said MaShawn Morton, who works for Princess Cruises. “No one seems to care what happens to us here. “

As of May 5, there were more than 57,000 crew members aboard 74 cruise ships in and around American ports and the Bahamas and the Caribbean, according to the US Coast Guard. Many more than hundreds of people have been stranded on ships elsewhere in the world’s oceans.

With no passengers to take care of and their quarantines completed, the employees wonder why they were not allowed to go home.

In American waters, cruise ships are mired in regulations imposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United States agency for health protection.

The official line of the CDC is that crew members can only be allowed to disembark for repatriation or transfer between ships if they are transported by specially chartered aircraft or personal vehicles.

“The information literally changes hour by hour, day by day. Not knowing what was going on was very stressful. »MaShawn Morton

Until last weekend, the legal consequences of violating these regulations have, according to some crews, delayed cruise lines from accepting them.

On Sunday, Royal Caribbean and its brands, including the Celebrity Cruise Line, reached an agreement with the CDC to disembark the crew, writing to employees to tell them that they would adhere to the strict guidelines and respect their implications.

“The CDC asked me and other cruise lines to sign a letter limiting our options to take you home and take responsibility for your actions to get their approval to land you,” writes Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, CEO of Celebrity Cruises, in a letter seen by CNN.

“In the spirit of doing everything we can to get you home, I decided to sign this letter. “

Other cruise lines may follow suit, but a combination of distrust around cruise ships, the details and implications of CDC policies, a lack of commercial flights, widespread travel bans and continued uncertainty means that many crews remain stranded.

Close but far

Drew Fairley 3

For many cruise ship crew members, the ocean views have become very familiar.

Courtesy of @drooyah

America’s top technician Alex Adkins on Freedom of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean ship, has been at sea since mid-March, when the ship’s guests were disembarked in Miami.

“Since then we have had no guests and have been floating off the coast of Barbados,” he said.

For the first week, the crew took advantage of the Freedom of the Seas’ swimming pool and gym, taking advantage of guest-only facilities. Then they went into mandatory two-week self-isolation, says Adkins.

Adkins told CNN that the crew members have since been informed that they are no longer considered active employees and that they were paid until the end of April.

He said efforts to charter flights to bring the crew to neutral repeatedly because Royal Caribbean had not yet subscribed to CDC procedures, but he admits that the cruise line was in a difficult position before finally accept the conditions.

“Our leaders signed it in the hopes of bringing us home quickly and safely, and I hope everyone returning home understands the enormous sacrifice they have made,” said Adkins.

For Adkins, and many of those on board, the new development has been “an incredible morale boost” and describes “tangible electricity penetrating the fleet”.

Having said that, he does know that many workers on other vessels remain in floating purgatory.

Cruise Lines International Association, the organization that oversees the majority of cruise lines worldwide, told CNN that it “is working with the CDC to address these unprecedented challenges and to repatriate crew members as soon as possible.”

According to a representative of CLIA, the situation is “very complex” and “is changing from day to day”.

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American cruise worker MaShawn Morton is currently on board a Princess Cruises cruise ship

Courtesy of MaShawn Morton

Another crew member still waiting to return is Morton. He says he worked with Princess Cruises for about five years and started his fourth Princess contract earlier this year on the Sky Princess, a gigantic, brilliant ship that can accommodate 3,660 passengers and 1,346 crew members.

Morton’s work was scheduled to last until mid-October, as the ship crossed the Caribbean, the Atlantic and the Baltics and crossed Europe. As the pandemic spread around the world and cruises were canceled or recalled, the Sky Princess unloaded its passengers in Miami on March 14.

Crew members, including Morton, remained on board, moored at the town’s harbor. The house seems so close, but so far away.

Morton says the mood was positive at first. Morton said the crew entered about 20 days of self-isolation largely confined to the cabins, but understanding that they could then disembark and return home.

“After the passengers disembarked, we felt safe,” says Morton. “We had no signs of illness. We were happy to always be paid and employed. “

Towards the end of this period, Morton stated that he and his colleagues had been informed that their contract would officially end. He said they had been informed that they would no longer be paid from June.

“We were actually quite surprised how long they were still able to pay us,” says Morton.

Morton still has no idea how things will turn out on Princess Cruises ships.

When the Sky Princess quarantine ended in April, Princess began transhipping crew members – moving the crew between ships to group workers by nationality so that they could then be brought directly home or to an appropriate airport.

This is a solution to the lack of commercial flights – and the difficulties of getting charter approved by the CDC.

“Stressful” time

The Coral Princess, where some of the crew are displaced, saw the deadly Covid-19 earlier in the pandemic.

The Coral Princess, where some of the crew are displaced, saw the deadly Covid-19 earlier in the pandemic.

Joe Raedle / Getty Images

However, not everyone is satisfied with this solution. Coming home can take weeks, while flights take hours. In addition, there is a constant threat of cross-infection.

” [When trans-shipping began] it’s really when tensions and stress levels started to rise, “says Morton.

In addition, for American crew members, the transhipment seemed illogical. They were moored in Miami, why couldn’t they just disembark?

The Sky Princess was a “healthy” ship, no cases of Covid-19 have been reported and Morton was concerned that it might move to a ship where passengers or crew had previously tested positive.

“People wanted to go home instead of going to another ship,” he said. “The information literally changes hour by hour, day by day. Not knowing what was going on was very stressful. “

On April 25, Morton said he was transferred from the Sky Princess to the Emerald Princess, along with other American employees of Princess Cruises, a transfer that took place in rough seas.

“The swell was very high, I took videos to send my mom how much the tender ship swayed, and then I ended up losing internet service,” said Morton.

It took 24 full hours before Morton could reconnect with his panicked mother and assure her that he was fine.

Morton says he recently heard that the American crew of Princess Cruises was likely to be moved again as part of the repatriation efforts, this time to the Coral Princess, which saw Covid-19 deadly earlier in the pandemic .

“For the time being, we hope that before that, the CDC will release the ban and allow the Americans to enter the country,” he said.

Princess Cruises did not specifically respond to questions about why it took so long to disembark the crew, or why American crew members docked in American ports were involved in the transshipment process rather than allowed to stay put until they can leave.

A spokesperson told CNN that the company is “deeply committed to bringing our team members on board with their families safely and to continuing to make progress in organizing trips to their countries of origin.”

The cruise line said hundreds of crew members disembarked daily, and 4,000 have returned home so far.

Princess Cruises told CNN that the company is actively preparing and providing crew landing certificates in accordance with CDC policies, which emphasize that crew members should not stay overnight in a hotel, use public transport or entering the airport terminals.

Approval must also be sought from federal, state and local public health authorities.

Hard situation

Caio Saldanha, a Brazilian DJ currently aboard the Celebrity Infinity, told CNN that Celebrity, owned by Royal Caribbean, was seeking to transship the crew trapped on ships across the Bahamas as part of the repatriation efforts.

Saldanha and her fiancée Jessica Furlan, a host of on-board activities, say that their long wait at sea was made all the more frustrating by the fact that they were allowed to board the ship on March 14 in Miami, one day after the US government has issued a non – sailing order suspending all cruise travel.

On March 23, the management of the Celebrity Infinity vessel informed the crew that those on board from March 9 to 14 could have been exposed to Covid-19. A crew member who had been on board the vessel during this period had tested positive for the virus.

On March 28, the crew was confined to their cabins while the vessel was locked.

Saldanha says there were problems from day one.

“We were assigned to a cabin with very poor sanitary conditions,” he says.

He says that he and his fiance have moved from a cabin he describes as moldy, dusty and in “very poor condition” to a better cabin, even if it had no windows.

Almost all of the crew’s cabins are inside the cabins, with no fresh air or natural light, “said a British crew member who works in the entertainment department of a Royal Caribbean ship. He spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity, concerned about the impact on his job.

Saldanha says he feels disappointed with Celebrity. He says that strict social distancing should have been imposed from the start and believes that the viral threat has not been taken seriously enough by some crew members.

Royal Caribbean spokesperson told CNN he is investigating Saldanha’s claims.

According to the new plan, described in the letter from Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, CEO of Celebrity, Saldanha and Furlan will be transferred to Royal Caribbean’s Rhapsody and returned home by sea.

Life at sea

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Drew Fairley is aboard the Pacific Explorer, a P&O Cruises Australia vessel outside Manila Bay. He took this photo from the view from the ship.

Courtesy of @drooyah

As repatriation efforts continue, aboard the Emerald Princess, Morton says his daily routine is characterized by twice-daily temperature checks, designated meal slots, and social distancing.

“The ship is a ghost town, no one is outside,” he said. “Meal time, we are all separated by our ships. And it’s either one person at a table, or two people at a table, at a distance. “

Despite the difficult circumstances, Morton tries to stay positive and committed.

“I read books, contact state officials and delegates. I communicate with lawyers. I exercise, I do Max 30 Fitness routines. I do a ballet bar or watch movies. “

“It’s a little crazy, huh? I learned to rely on nonsense. “

Drew Fairley, cruise ship interpreter

On the other side of the world, Drew Fairley, an Australian actor on his very first cruise, awaits his repatriation aboard the Pacific Explorer, a P&O Cruises Australia ship currently in the Philippines.

The ship disembarked passengers on March 16 in Sydney but was ordered to depart two weeks later. On May 5, it was docked outside Manila Bay.

“I was still on contract when we were asked to leave Sydney Harbor on April 2,” said Fairley. “I played the rest of my contract while sailing to Manila to try to get back to Sydney.

“It’s a little crazy, huh? I learned to rely on nonsense. “

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Drew Fairley is an artist who has spent time on board creating video content.

Courtesy of @drooyah

To spend time on board, Fairley launched an online discussion show called “Actual Cabin Actual Fever”.

“I was very inspired by the incredible creative production in the world. It was like a response to the sadness and fear created by Covid, “said Fairley. “Songs, concerts, art, comedy, dance and sometimes just spending time online. “

Fairley’s videos, shared on her Instagram, @drooyah, have drawn viewers from around the world. His sardonic humor and enthusiasm – there are costume changes and songs and Fairley plays several characters – were the recipe for a hit.

“They’re very stupid, but as the trip gets weirder, they get darker,” he says.

For Fairley, his videos provided a creative outlet – and helped inspire connections during isolation.

“The answer is electric. So many people send messages. People need to laugh in these stressful times. “

Uncertain future

Fairley is confident that he will soon be repatriated by P&O Australia.

Carnival Corporation, the parent company of P&O Cruises Australia, said it was hampered by logistical problems, but was trying to repatriate its employees.

“The safety and health of our customers and crew, as well as environmental compliance and protection, are our top priorities,” said a spokesperson for Carnival Cruise Line in a statement to CNN.

“We are currently engaged in the effort to repatriate the crew members during our break in their respective countries of origin.

“It has become more difficult in recent days due to port closings and other travel restrictions, but we continue to make great progress. “

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Princess Cruises employee MaShawn Morton took this photo of the cruise ships docked in Miami.

Courtesy of MaShawn Morton

Back from the other side of the world, Morton expresses his frustration at what he considers a double standard in his homeland.

“I feel that the cruise ship industry is being vilified. I feel like I’m a scapegoat, “he says. “In reality, it is more certain that I am in good health and that I have been under stricter conditions on board a ship than anyone in the United States. “

For Morton, a tipping point was to hear that the state of Florida opened beaches and businesses, but would have refused entry to the crew of American cruise ships.

“I have the impression that we are treated like criminals who have committed no crime, and that our country refuses us entry, knowing that we have been monitoring our health for more than a month now, and that we do not are not sick, the east. “..I really have a hard time having that mindset. What makes you ok? ”

Adkins, aboard the Freedom of the Seas near Barbados, said he would continue to “keep fighting” to shed light on those trapped at sea, even after disembarking.

Morton also says that he does not want the crew of the cruise ships to be forgotten.

He says, “I really want to urge all the governments of the world to stop saying that the last cruise ship went home and that the last cruise ship passengers went home, because it is so far from the truth. “

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