Hurtigruten is among the first lines to see a coronavirus outbreak after resuming cruises in July. (Ole Martin Wold/NTB Scanpix/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

The bruising season for cruising

Drastic changes needed before passengers can safely return to the sea

More of an off-the-beaten path and adventure traveler, I was never a fan of cruising. Until that is I went on one in 2004.

After trying several different sized ships and brands and writing about them, the sweet spot for me was a ship carrying about 500 passengers: large enough to have enough guests and crew to keep things interesting with a sufficient variety of on-board activities and restaurants, yet small enough to not to feel like a floating city. Plus, these smaller ships are able to dock at ports inaccessible to large ones and also permit heading ashore without tendering.

Expedition cruises – Amazon, Galapagos, Greenland, Iceland and Arctic Canada – and visiting off-the-beaten track locales otherwise inaccessible while only unpacking once – became my perennial favorites.

Prior to the U.S. lockdown, I was aboard the Ruby Princess, a 3,000-passenger ship making several stops in New Zealand, just as its sister ship, the Diamond Princess, was being quarantined off the coast of Japan in Yokohama due to an onboard COVID-19 outbreak.

Not until we arrived back to Sydney mid-February were we certain we’d be permitted to disembark. The mere idea of being quarantined in such small quarters was enough to make me sick.

No-sail order

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a no-sail order on March 14 that applied to all commercial ships anticipating overnight stays carrying over 250 passengers in waters subject to U.S. jurisdiction. On July 16, the CDC order was extended to Sept. 30 and may be extended further.

Cruise companies were fairly generous with cancellations, re-bookings and cruise credits. Interestingly, many cruise fans have been tapping their collective feet, hoping to resume ocean sailing from U.S. ports in the fall. Given what has transpired abroad, this now seems highly unlikely.

With the no-sail order in effect, no large cruises are operating in North America. However, small cruise line UnCruise Adventures – with whom I have sailed and very much enjoyed – was exempt from the order due to the size of its ships. Its first voyage out of Juneau set sail on Aug. 1 with a 29-member crew and a reduced capacity of 38 passengers for the seven-night trip. On Aug. 4, one passenger tested positive for COVID, the ship returned to Juneau and the rest of the season was canceled.

Although I really like the UnCruise concept, which avoids port stops and functions as a way to deeply and actively engage with Mother Nature, and I truly love Alaska, would I have gone on that sailing? No. Because while Alaska has had a low confirmed COVID-19 count – just under 3,500 confirmed cases, UnCruise ships are small, and, perhaps more importantly, one would have still needed to fly to Alaska to embark the ship in Juneau.

Cruising with COVID

One of the first large ocean cruises to resume, on July 17, Norwegian cruise line Hurtigruten had completed a seven-night sailing from Tromsø, Norway, to the polar bear mecca of Svalbard on its 535-passenger MS Roald Amundsen. Following the second sailing on the same itinerary from July 25-31, four crew members tested positive for COVID-19. As of Aug. 4, 42 passengers and crew have tested positive.

This was so despite Hurtigruten’s enhanced health and safety measures and reduced passenger load to support social distancing. In light of the outbreak, Hurtigruten has suspended all expedition sailings until further notice.

Meanwhile, this past weekend French Polynesia-based Paul Gauguin Cruises resumed operations. Its 332-passenger Paul Gauguin had to terminate its first voyage just a few days in when an American tested positive for COVID-19. Passengers were confined to their cabins and the cruise was canceled.

This was particularly important, as it was the world’s first ocean cruise opened to North Americans. It was hoped that this would boost further cruising re-starts. Sadly, no such luck.

The next stage

All travelers, whether by land, sea or air, wish things were as they were in the pre-COVID era. However the reality is, they are not. Few are waiting more impatiently than I am — not just because I love traveling and miss my overseas family, but also because my livelihood depends on it.

However, the painful truth is that until we as a society get a real grip on COVID-19 on land, by listening to and implementing plans put forth by public health experts based on science and not relying on those with political agendas having zero to do with public health, travels in the air and at sea must be paused. And, of course, an effective vaccine following Food and Drug Administration-approved clinical trials will play an enormous role in getting us all back on the road, in the skies and out to sea.

Julie L. Kessler is a journalist, attorney and legal columnist and the author of the award-winning travel memoir “Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at www.vagabondlawyer.com.

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