Thousands of passengers queued for several hours in the heat and humidity as they waited to reboard Quantum of the Seas moored off Cairns.

Quantum of the Seas is too big to berth in Cairns, so an estimated 27 return trips would have been needed for the four catamarans to return them to the ship moored off Cairns.

Angry passengers took to social media including Cruise Passenger’s Facebook page asking why so few tenders were being used. Royal Caribbean said yesterday it was investigating the incident and would respond as soon as possible.

At a time when more large vessels are servicing a record cruise season, the incident points up the need for more investment in port infrastructure.

Ports North, which runs Cairns, told Cruise Passenger: “The Cairns Shipping Development project completed in 2020 deepened and widened the channel into Cairns to accommodate ships up to 300m.  The Quantum of the Seas is 348m and therefore too long to enter the port of Cairns and utilise the Cruise Terminal facilities.

“Ports North are not involved in cruise ship tendering operations from anchor into Yorkeys Knob.”

How the story unfolded

Quantum of the Seas left Brisbane on November 4 via the Whitsundays and Airlie Beach before mooring off Cairns. Passengers said it took nearly two hours to exit the ship to board tenders for the half-hour trip to a bus. The buses then took them to Cairns for their shore excursion. 

“Just been on the ship and the tenders were a problem,” one Cruise Passenger reader commented. “Over 4000 passengers and only 4 boats in use was not good. By the time we got our tender tickets and then waited and waited, it was almost 2 hours before we got off the ship. This needs to be improved or more tenders in the water.”

As another passenger posted: “4000 passengers, coaches hold 50 people, 2 buses for 100 people, 80 bus trips to carry 4000 passengers into Cairns. Catamarans hold 150 so just under 27 catamarans to shuttle everyone off the ship. Then this has to be done in reverse to get back to the ship. We’ve been queuing since 3.45 and it’s almost 6 pm now.”

It is believed the ship left after 7 pm, more than two hours after its scheduled departure. 

One of the catamaran tenders servicing Quantum of the Seas moored off Cairns. Picture: Facebook

Size matters

While big ships pose an economic boost for regional ports, the long wait poses the question of whether vessels the size of Quantum (348m long and a capacity of 4819 passengers) can manage smaller ports.

The popularity of destinations such as Sydney means the Overseas Passenger Terminal is hitting peak capacity. The search continues for other regional ports that may be able to provide ports of call, despite a reluctance by lines to use them over Sydney.

Disney Cruise Line and Virgin Voyages have had to look elsewhere. The new Disney Wonder and Resilient Lady will homeport in Melbourne.

The Port of Eden on the NSW Far South Coast can welcome larger ships such as Brilliance of the Seas (2150-2580 passengers) as it has a dock. But many other ships would struggle.

“The capacity of berths across Port Authority of NSW ports is different in every port as each has its own specifications,” a Port Authority of NSW spokesperson said. “Port Authority takes appropriate measures to ensure all visiting cruise ships can safely access the port and berth.”

Even the largest of ships, such as Icon of the Seas with 5610 to 7600 passengers, are now sticking to the northern hemisphere. There are bigger ports are better suited to the larger ships now being launched.

Lines liberated by private islands

Some solutions are being found in the private island resorts of the Caribbean and the Bahamas which have the space to accommodate ever-larger ships. But even some of these islands use tender vessels to get passengers to shore, and not disembark on docks.

Islands include: Virgin Voyage’s Castaway Cay; Half Moon Cay (tender) for Carnival Cruise Line and Holland America Line; Royal Caribbean’ s Perfect Day at CocoCay; Norwegian Cruise Line and Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ Great Stirrup Cay (tender), Princess Cays for Princess Cruises and Carnival Cruise Line (tender); Labadee island in Haiti for Royal Caribbean and Azamara Club Cruises; Harvest Caye in Belize for Norwegian Cruise Line, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Oceania Cruises; Ocean Cay for MSC Cruises; and Virgin Voyages’ Beach Club at Bimini in the Bahamas.

And unlike the northern hemisphere, cruise lines that travel to the southern hemisphere have no private islands – all except one. Royal Caribbean operates “Perfect Day at Lelepa”, an island in the southwestern Pacific island nation of Vanuatu.

Royal Caribbean reveals five-stage plan for region's first ever private resort for cruise passengers
Royal Caribbean runs Perfect Day at Lelepa, the Pacific’s first-ever private resort for cruise passengers.