I had planned a very busy year. Yeah, a lot of us planned stuff … but things change. So far I’v had five cruises cancel, after having done all the preparation work, and it looks like I’ll have a few more cancelled before things return to normal. I work because I enjoy it, but I also need the money, so the cancellations suck.
A few years ago, when ships were just starting to get larger and larger, I had a Captain tell me that if our ship which was in the North Atlantic with about 8,000 souls on board, were to get into serious trouble, that there weren’t enough resources in the entire European Union to respond if we were forced to abandon ship. So, he pointed out, that’s why our ship was designed so that we could all “shelter in place” until . . . by some miracle we could get home. That was fine until some stupid Captain decided to play chicken with a little island off Italy, gashing a giant hole in the hull of the ship, and causing the ship to role on its side. There was no lifeboat drill for getting off a ship laying on its side!
I’ve had a wonderful time working the big ships of Princess, Holland America and others. For the most part ships have been effectively dealing with the threat of Norovirus for years.
My very first crew job I’d flown all night to get to Ft Lauderdale. The flight got in early, early in the morning and they had a car to pick me up and take me to the pier where I and other “new joiners,” some who had travelled two days to get there, stood and waited. And waited. It seemed the ship had an outbreak of Norovirus and CDC was on board and it was taking longer than expected to clear the ship. Finally, at 11 am our gang of “new joiners” got onboard, were told to stick our luggage in the hall and get to work. The ships crew and a few hundred cleaners from Ft Lauderdale were spaying everything and scrubbing everything. Someone stuck a giant spray container in my hands and told me to head up to the deck with the suites and start spraying. So, I did. Naturally I wanted to see the most expensive suites first and I gently and carefully sprayed. Then someone with stripes on their shoulder came in and said, “No! No! Like this!” and they grabbed my sprayer and started spraying everything: ceiling, sofas, mirrors, drapes, drenching everything.
I guess I was a failure at spraying because over the PA system I heard my name called out saying I was to report to the Hotel Manager’s office. Quick introductions: Hotel Manager, Cruise Director, me. I was in the clothes I’ve flown in all night. My room and most of the rest rooms had been sanitized so and sealed. The Cruise Director and I were supposed to round up the string quartet and head over to the Convention Center. Guests who had expected to to be boarding their cruise by now, had been herded over to the Convention Center, for a lunch buffet and free bar. They had been told that because of the sanitizing of the ship we would not start boarding until 5 pm. We are to tell them we won’t start boarding until 9 pm!
I found my suitcase and the only place to change was in the hall. Then we got everyone together and were riding over in the van when the Cruise Director asks me, “What should we do?”
Dumbfounded, I said, “What should we do? You’re the Cruise Director!”
He replied, “No, I’m the DJ. The Cruise Director got sick and left. I’m just filling in ’til they get a replacement.”
We get up on the stage in this giant convention center with 4,000 people are eating and drinking. And we say, “Hello!” And like a giant ballpark it echoes back ten times! The echo was impossible and you could barely hear the string quartet over the noise. So, my CD/DJ asks, “Now what?”
Getting a little frustrated I respond, “Come on Dude. Work the room! Go table to table, schmooze them. Promise them a fantastic cruise. Captain doesn’t know it yet, but tell them he’ll make up the time so we’ll get to our first port as planned. Tell jokes! Tell them it’s an open bar, so they should drink up – they won’t have another chance for a free drink! Assure them by 10 pm we should be sailing out of Ft Lauderdale.”
We did and it worked. First day on the new job.
It has been a great and consistent fight. Norovirus is highly contagious, spread by droplets and contact with items touched by people with the virus. On a cruise ship you have people flying in from all over the world, who’ve touched everything imaginable en route,
Cruise lines understand Norovirus and, for the most part, have done a great job. In 16 years I’ve never come down with Norovirus. When I walk onboard I have one goal: don’t get sick. If I get sick there is no one else doing my job, so to do my part in giving guests an excellent cruise I need to stay well and out of quarantine. I don’t shake hands with anyone. I used to do the fist bump, but from here on, I won’t even do that. Now, it’s a polite, but sincere nod/bow, with your hands together like in prayer or to put some more heart into it, hand over chest. I never push elevator buttons with my fingers, touch doorknobs (always use a paper towel or something), rarely hold or touch handrails, and wash, wash, wash my hands. Those grand staircases, if I can’t avoid them, I think of the Queen who at 93, gracefully glides down the stairs without tripping. Of course she’s be navigating grand staircases all her life! And if the boat is rocking, I’ve even mastered kind of holding on with my elbow.
Yeah, we’ve had Norovirus outbreaks, probably helped along by the guy who picks up three bananas before finding the one he likes, and then puts the other two back! Or the lady who paws through the bread basket looking for her favorite roll. Or the dude who walks into the rest room, takes a pee, then walks out without washing, thinking that his gold-plated cock is such a gift to the world and is so special that everyone wants to kneel down.
When that kind of passenger selfishness causes enough people to get sick that the ship goes to Code Red everyone suffers. Things people would enjoy are closed. No one touches anything. Lots of extra work for the crew. Lots of inconvenience for guests. And when we get back to port none of the crew have chance to get off because everyone is scrubbing everything. The Entertainment Department used to get the task of Viroxing the covers of every book in the library or, worse yet cleaning every toy and every Lego in the playroom. All of the slot machines are scrubbed down and the cards are just thrown out.
So, the cruise industry has actually done a very good job with the insidious Norovirus. But then along comes this! No one knew anything about Coronavirus which is far more contagious and deadly. By the time symptoms became visible and folks became aware of symptoms they had already infected everything and everyone with whom they had come into contact. Suddenly the cruise industry was dealing with a new and strange plague.
Coronavirus won’t sink the cruise industry, but it will certainly challenge most of the industry assumptions and practice. Things will have to change, change dramatically. The industry will have to change … or die. Last night my wife and I were recalling all the cruise lines we’d sailed on that are no more. Some just failed. Others were swallowed up. Companies like Home Lines, Sitmar, German Atlantic Line, Bermuda Star, Commodore, Royal Viking … just to name a few.
The industry has been built on providing vacations for masses of people. Hence the big ships. Bigger ships cost more to build, but they make more money. These big monsters have become resorts lost at sea. If you want Broadway, go to Broadway! If you want a sea of casinos and cheap buffet lines, go to Vegas! If you want rollercoasters and bumper cars, go to Six Flags. If you want waterslides and wave machines, go to a water park. If you want a grand shopping mall, go to Bloomington.
When the virus dies down, I predict the demand for big-ship cruising is going to shift. The “cruise” name is going to be tarnished by fears of being locked down in an inside cabin, being stuck on a ship with people falling ill and dying, being on a ship to nowhere that no port in the world will receive. The ship is no longer going to be the destination, but we are going to go back to focusing on destinations, with the ship being the vessel that takes you too the destination. Voyages will replace “cruises.” This means smaller, more upscale and all-inclusive vessels. Sit-down dinners with gracious service rather than mass-produced food from buffets or “markets.” Yes, the per diem cost will be higher, but you won’t be nickel and dimed with every crew member tasked to sell-sell-sell! Water will be included, not $3 per little bottle. Wine, beer, liquor included. Life on board will be more like traveling with a few dozen friends on your own yacht, than being herded onto a cattle ship.