One of the most unusual sites of the coronavirus pandemic has been cruise ships drifting in the Channel, apparently abandoned at sea. But why are they there? And how did they become a vacation attraction?
Paul Derham greets passengers on board when he picks up the phone. It’s business as usual for his small passenger ferry in Dorset today. But when the wind calms down, he’ll be back on his latest adventure: sightseeing on cruise ships anchored off the south coast of England.
“It’s a two and a half hour trip,” he says. “We actually had a very good trip. ”
During the coronavirus pandemic, ships that typically spend the summer cruising the Mediterranean and Caribbean islands instead found themselves persistent, almost empty, in the English Channel.
They’ve dropped anchor off Portsmouth in Plymouth, and at night they light up the skyline.
- The ‘Last Cruise Ship on Earth’ Finally Comes Home
- Will we go on a cruise one day?
The arrival of the British “ghost ships”, as one Twitter user called them, transformed the view from the coast and fascinated locals and tourists alike. They have now become a tourist attraction in their own right, with people paying to see them up close.
“I knew people would be impressed,” Paul says of his mini-cruises. The 62-year-old spent around three decades cruising cruise ships around the world before purchasing the Mudeford Ferry near Christchurch. He was even an assistant captain on one of the ships he now takes to see his clients.
“We hit it on Facebook one day,” he says of the idea. “We announced two trips and we refueled in two hours. “
The cruise industry was hit at the start of the pandemic, when the virus first swept through the Diamond Princess in Japan and then the Grand Princess in the United States. Passengers have been quarantined at sea after hundreds of people contracted the virus on board.
The holidays were canceled and the empty boats had to go somewhere. So why have so many people ended up in the English Channel?
Ships have to pay berthing fees, which means that an already crippled industry would lose even more money if it berthed in ports.
The port of Southampton – a departure port for many UK cruises – declined to say how much it charges, citing “business sensitivities” but said it had “remained open during the pandemic”. “At the end of the day, whether the cruise ships anchor offshore or along the harbor is their choice,” a spokeswoman said.
But space could also be an issue. Southampton has four cruise terminals and can accommodate up to six in exceptional circumstances.
P&O has said its ships stay at sea because Southampton, which is also its home port, has no place for all.
Ships must dock from time to time to refuel and stock up on supplies for the reduced crew on board. The International Association of Cruise Lines said the frequency of refueling depends on the ship and the type of fuel used. Although they are designed to be able to function for two weeks, they “can last much longer”.
There are currently around 100 crew members on each of the P&O vessels off the south coast, the company said. This likely includes the crew in the engine rooms, as well as cleaners, electricians, chefs and medics. To put that number in context, P&O’s largest liner – the Britannia – has a capacity of around 5,000 passengers and crew.
Professor Richard Bucknall, Research Director in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at University College London, says that “it is not possible to have a ship at anchor without a crew on board”.
He said it was because of the dangers of “anchor drag”, or ships drifting at sea, due to severe weather.
Although they are anchored, they do not turn off all of their generators.
They have to keep a diesel generator running in order to keep things like security systems and lighting for the crew on board, says Dr Tristan Smith of the Institute of Energy at University College of London, specializing in maritime transport.
“The energy requirements will be significantly lower than for sea flights with passengers, both because they will not use power for propulsion or for passenger comfort and ‘hotel’ services. ”
“If they have full tanks before they get to the mooring, they will be able to run at lower power for many weeks, if not months, without having to refuel.
So, is it bad for the environment?
Dr Smith says it would actually make little difference to greenhouse gas emissions if ships docked in ports rather than anchored at sea, but the impact on air pollution would likely be greater.
Learn more about cruise ships and the coronavirus
He says the best way to reduce the environmental impact of cruise ships in ports is to connect to local power grids, or shore power, when they dock – which should allow them to shut down electric generators on board.
But shore power is not yet available in many ports, including Southampton, which means ships would still have to use their own generators – even in port.
“The emissions of particles and nitrogen oxides, which can have an impact on the health of local populations, would be emitted closer to where people live and work, and therefore more likely to have an impact on quality of the air they breathe, ”he explains.
Back in Christchurch, Paul looks forward to his next outing.
The captain of one of the cruise ships stationed off the Dorset coast even began to greet his visits using what he describes as a six-foot-long plywood hand.
And his tours remain popular. “On all the trips we have taken, we have a round of applause when we arrive at Mudeford Quay. “