Johanna Jainchill
Johanna Jainchill

Every CLIA-member cruise ship has disembarked its passengers, and the sometimes long and arduous journeys to return to the U.S. amid Covid-19 pandemic panic have finally ended.  

For the passengers, that is.

Thousands of crew remain on ships circling the waters near Miami while cruise operations are paused and various travel restrictions prevent most from flying home.

The Azamara Pursuit is one of them. The ship returned to Miami on March 29 following almost a monthlong journey from Buenos Aires during which it was turned away from ports throughout South and Central America and was barly granted access to a Panama Canal transit.

For about a month, Carl Smith, captain of the Pursuit, has helmed the ship with no passengers but about 80% of its crew still onboard, or 320 people.

He said the ship operates around in a circle between Fort Lauderdale and Miami. While closer to Miami, he can stop the engines and let the Pursuit drift north on the Gulf Stream to Port Everglades, where the crew starts the ship's engines again and drive south.

"And once every two weeks we go alongside to load fresh produce and perhaps some fuel," he said. "We don't need fuel every two weeks, but we top off once a month or so. Fourteen days is about as long as you can last without fresh produce, so that's what most of the ships are doing."

Speaking by phone while in the Port of Miami's anchorage zone, Smith said that once the ship got back to Miami, everyone aboard had to follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention social distance guidelines. Each crewmember is in his or her own cabin, many in guests accommodations, and every dining room table has one chair. Sentries ensure crew wash their hands before entering any dining room. As per CDC guidelines, crewmembers have their temperatures taken twice a day.

"They are getting more sleep than they normally do," Smith said of the crew. But life onboard without guests "is a little sad. We come here to work. We don't come on cruises to have a vacation."

Not that it sounds like much of a vacation, even for the 60% of crewmembers who are not working. Smith said they phone home a lot. Entertainment includes cabin bingo with a live camera beamed into staterooms and free bingo cards to win prizes. They also spend a lot of time walking on the jogging track to get fresh air and exercise, since the fitness center is closed to prevent any possible virus spread, even though the Pursuit is, and always has been, a healthy ship.

Smith talked about the irony of being a healthy ship when cruise ships have been blamed for spreading the virus.

"Every time we go into Miami for fuel or provisions it's an active risk for us," Smith said. "We're healthy and Miami isn't at the moment. The perception in Miami is exactly the opposite. which is a weird feeling. Because the port of Miami assumes we are sick."

Of the crew onboard, 40% are still actively working; roles include cooking and cleaning for the rest of the of crew, performing regular sanitation procedures, as well as keeping the ship safe, testing its equipment, maintaining the engines and other similar duties.

It's not easy for family members back home, who don't' know when they'll be back.

Officers, too, are in limbo. "I've got a wife and four kids waiting for me, and I don't know what to tell them," Smith said.

He praised Azamara's parent company, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., for "going above and beyond" to try and get employees home on charter flights, which are proving difficult to arrange due to CDC approvals and guidelines. Cruise-ship crew are not permitted to take commercial flights home. Carnival Corp. brands, for example, said recently it was sending some crew home on their ships; the Carnival Spirit, Splendor and Panorama are bound for the Philippines and Indonesia, and other ships will sail to South America, Panama, Europe and other points in Asia.

"We haven't disembarked anyone in the last 24 days, and we're a healthy ship," he said, adding that if all goes well most of the crew will be flown home by June, leaving a crew of 50 to maintain the vessel. "I can't leave the ship until there is a captain here to replace me." 

Smith doesn't take any chances, and his fastidiousness may have helped keep the ship virus-free over the last two months. He won't even anchor downwind of any ship that might have been sick.

"For the last three weeks we've been driving around in circles about 10 miles off the coast," he said. "There might be method in my madness, but right now I'm in the most downwind anchorage, so anyone in anchorage will anchor downwind of me. And I'm healthy." 

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