Sydney Harbour: Speçtrum of the Seas, Carnival Splendor and Silversea WhiperIn the history of seismic maritime events, the past week will be remembered as one of the biggest. Even the Spanish Armada pales beside these numbers. Yet it was handled with hardly any fuss and few complaints. You may be forgiven for hardly noticing…

When the order went out to “pause” cruising last weekend, some 40 ships and over 90,000 passengers were at sea. That meant they needed to be brought back to port immediately.  And 90,000 people sent home from locations across the planet.

In Australia, 37 vessels were in our region’s waters at the time of the government’s ban on international cruise ships on Sunday.  Some 50,000 passengers had to be returned to Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Fremantle and Darwin.

Seven ships berthed on Thursday alone, leaving four that will berth in the next few days. Many – including Carnival’s local fleet – will call in at Port Kembla, anchored with the coal ships, their crews practising routines and awaiting the return of guests.

Carnival Spirit, Carnival Splendour, Radiance of the Seas, and Voyager of the Seas are Port Kembla’s guests. It is thought NSW Ports is talking to lines about some port fee relief.

Some lines adopted innovative measures. Cruise & Maritime Voyages, which has championed traditional cruising and been highly popular among Australians and UK passengers, conducted a swop at sea.

The line gave passengers the option: spend the next four weeks at sea while Columbus made her way back north, or join the Vasco da Gama off the coast of Phuket, which is bound from her point of origin in Fremantle, Western Australia.

Some 176 Australian passengers were transferred from Columbus to Vasco da Gama, while 63 were transferred from Vasco da Gama to Columbus.

Countries didn’t help. Fear of COVID-19 meant many turned away vessels, even though they had no cases on board. Irrational? Certainly. Understandable. Maybe.

Despite President Trump’s apparent reluctance, U.S. ports remained open. But many didn’t. Port of San Juan, Puerto Rico, closed over the weekend forcing the Carnival Fascination, Celebrity Summit, Freedom of the Seas and Norwegian Epic, to extend their voyages.

Voyager of the seas
Voyager of the Seas in Sydney Harbour

In Australia, the Radiance of the Seas was boarding for Milford Sound on Saturday when the New Zealand government announced its ban on cruise ships.

Royal Caribbean had to move quickly. The vessel moved to Athol Bay for the night – and, in a tribute to what the line managed to achieve, passengers who disembarked next morning were full of praise for the crew and their treatment.

  • Trish Squillari: can’t fault the staff, they were so helpful loading baggage on and off tenders so there was no stress at all, they couldn’t do enough.
  • Jarrod McCloughan: Most were in jovial spirits this morning getting off the tenders at Man O War steps next to the Opera House. They were thanking the crew as they were leaving the jetty and wishing them the best. I spoke to a lady and she said it was a great night last night onboard

Just press pause and think about those comments. These passengers had travelled to Sydney, their luggage was loaded and gone to their suites ready for a lovely cruise to Milford Sound. Instead, they ended up having dinner off Taronga Zoo.

Yet, they were full of praise.

Perhaps to illustrate the huge challenges faced by local resources, MSC Magnifica disembarked her passengers in Sydney, Golden Princess ended up in Melbourne, and the Holland America vessel Amsterdam in Fremantle.

MSC Magnifica
MSC Magnifica in Sydney

The Queen Mary 2, one of the world’s most famous transatlantic ships, disembarked the majority of her passengers in Fremantle.

Families at the dockside held their breadth as the Golden Princess waited for a test on one guest before she disembarked passengers in Melbourne after lifting anchor in New Zealand just in time to beat the Australian ban.

As we write, some ships are still seeking sanctuary. The South Pacific has proved to be a particular problem. It’s a sorry testament to the state of panic this situation has produced.

The Norwegian Jewel had sailed from Sydney on a South Pacific cruise. Fiji closed its port.

“We are actively working to find an alternative port and are communicating with guests regularly as we have further information,” said a line statement to an American website. Today, Hawaii turned the Jewel and Holland America’s Maarsdam away. Both have Australians on board.

South America remains a problem, with several ships trying to disembark in Chile.

Roald Amundsen is currently holding offshore at Punta Arenas with 100 Australian doctors and dentists on board as part of a conference.  All are reported in good spirits.

Holland America’s Zaandam has 101 Australians on board, and was turned away from Punta Arenas, Chile on March 16. She will be refuelled at San Antonio, Chile, and take on provisions.

It’s been an amazing week, in which the cruise industry has acquitted itself well. Few have noticed what has been achieved both internationally and locally.

CLIA said in a statement that they were confident that all current cruises would be concluded by March 30. It’s a dramatic understatement of a Herculean effort.

Everyone involved should be proud.