It may surprise people to learn that during the whole COVID cruise ship shut down, or more eloquently put by many a cruise line PR person “voluntary pause of global ship operations”, there have still been crew onboard the ships. Now, not all the crew by any stretch, but enough to fulfill what is known as “Minimum Non-Operational Manning”, or MNOM. The number of crew required for MNOM is usually between 80-120 depending on the size of the ship. This group is comprised of Deck and Engine Officers, medical staff, chefs, housekeepers, Safety Officers and the support staff for those departments, such as, garbage room attendants, laundry attendants, a bartender (very important), Purser/Crew Officer, and Human Resource Manager.
During this pause, since March, the ships weren’t always at this MNOM number. After getting passengers safely home (which was a challenge in itself), and once we all realized we weren’t going to be sailing anytime soon, before we could get to that MNOM number we had to get the crew home. At times this felt like an impossible feat, but after many months, extended contracts, heartbreak, and uncertainty and using the cruise ships like ferries to literally sail the crew home (all around the world) the ships got down to MNOM. You can read more about the challenges of crew repatriation in my post, Just Let Them Go Home. At this point in time, over 7 months after passengers went home, there are still that small but mighty group of seafarers left onboard to keep things going.
The biggest question that I’ve heard in regards to there still being crew onboard is, why? There seems to be the assumption that the ship can be docked somewhere, shut the key off, lock her up, and send everyone home. That is unfortunately (and also a little bit fortunately for us) not the case. I am going to do my best to explain some of the massive complexities as to why: maintenance, expense, safety, insurance, and as we hopefully get closer to returning to sea – preparations to adjust to COVID protocols.
First, an analogy:
Think about the ship like when you leave your home to go on vacation. There’s always the smallest chance that a pipe might burst and ruin all your stuff. The water sits there and mold starts to grow and the walls rot. The electricity went out so your security system was down, someone broke in, and the little bit of stuff you had that wasn’t trashed by the burst pipe is now gone. Now, pretend your house that you left alone while you were on vacation is actually a form of transportation, pretend it’s on a truck. You leave the truck sitting for two long, in the wrong environment (maybe it’s wet and salty) and the brakes seize up, a wheel bearing is gone, the bottom of the truck starts to rust from all of the salt, and the engine got flooded from the aforementioned burst pipe. Okay, now think of your house/truck that flooded and all rusted out in the middle of a parking lot. You had the brake on when you left, but you didn’t factor in the random hurricane that was coming through, and now your flooded/rusted out truck house has tipped over in the middle of that parking lot and also ran into another vehicle in the process. Oh, and you’ve just caused an environmental disaster which you are now quite liable for in court because there is no chance your insurance company is going to pay for any of the chaos that just happened. And, a quick reminder that the destroyed truck/house combo is likely worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and you need to get it running for friends coming over next week.
Basically, a lot could go wrong and it’s usually less expensive and easier to work to prevent problems and to be able to quickly respond to problems rather than letting them sit and coming back to them later. (That also might be good life advice?)
On the ship there is a lot to keep running smoothly. From the engines and propulsion system, to the electrical and plumbing systems, add in the challenges of being on salt water (like rust) and there is a lot to keep up with. Cruise ships try to have an excellent preventative maintenance strategy. This saves money both in terms of the emergency expenses of getting parts and materials all around the world – but, also for those unexpected costs that would come up if something broke bad enough the ship couldn’t sail. Think of it like getting the oil changed on your car – it’s preventative maintenance to help keep the engine from entirely breaking.
Now, it would be nice to think that if you just shut the ship off, none of those things would need maintenance. But, just like if you leave your car sitting for too long, things can start to rust, break, and seize and at that point it could be more expensive to get the car started again than it would have been to keep performing maintenance and running the car all along.
While it’s easy to be romantic about cruising – out on the water, watching sunsets dance along the waves – cruising is a business. Right now the cruise lines are going through a lot of money without a lot coming in. I guarantee that some very high level discussions were done about just how few people you could have onboard, about what maintenance could be deferred until passengers were coming back, about how you could reduce expenses while still having inventory (in this case an inventory of cruise ships) that could get ready to go back to sea when cruising starts to resume again. The crew that are still onboard are the crew that are needed to make that equation work.
Insurance and Inspections:
It also has to do with the insurance on the ships as well as the inspections and audits that the ships have to pass to be able to get that insurance/sail. Ships have to go through inspections at various points throughout the year(s). During normal times those also include United States Public Health (USPH) and Canadian Public Health (CPH) while sailing in their respective jurisdictions. There are also inspectors and auditors for the condition of the ship (like for whether or not it is sea worthy). A ship could not re-enter service and would likely be against some of the contracts of the crew onboard if it didn’t meet the requirements of these various inspections. You need to have a certain amount of crew onboard to make sure that the maintenance is being done to pass the inspections. And, the insurance for the vessel is at risk if either you fail the inspection or if you didn’t have enough crew onboard to properly respond to an emergency. The answer for this is: keep enough crew onboard.
Fun side note: There are still being inspections and audits carried out onboard ships during this layup. Some of these audits are currently being held over video chat to keep the crew onboard safe.
Not only do you need to have enough crew onboard to respond to an emergency (a fire, for instance) to make sure that you can keep your insurance, but you need them onboard to be able to deal with the emergency.
Also, the majority of cruise ships are sitting out at anchor (it’s cheaper than docked in port). A ship at anchor can still move from side to side, and around in circles throughout the day. If it was unmanned it would do this uncontrollably and quite dangerously as the ship is still susceptible to wind and the movement of the ocean. To combat this there needs to be officers in the engine room and on the bridge to work the engines and propulsion systems. This ensures that if a ship is at anchor that it only moves in a way that is safe for it and for the ships around it.
Lastly, theft! Ships are worth tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. While it might be hard to steal an entire ship, it would be a great time for pirates to hop aboard and loot what they could.
Preparations to Return To Cruising:
When a cruise line decides on a ship to return to cruising right now, there is not just a scramble to get passengers to come onboard, there will need to have been the preparation and installation of COVID protocols onboard. And, installing and setting up these COVID protocols is not going to happen overnight.
Various cruise lines have released what they are doing to help fight the spread of COVID onboard and what their protocols will be like. Based on the Healthy Sail Panel Recommendations, as well as documents released by MSC Cruises and Costa Cruises show that some steps that cruise ships will need to implement are:
- Testing and temperature check protocols
- Social distancing
- Improved air filtration and HVAC systems / possible addition of UV sterilization lights to high traffic areas of the ship
It may sound simple but installing these measures onboard will take time, as will training the crew on the new protocols. Updating the HVAC systems themselves to accomplish the 100% outdoor air and the suggested air changes per hour might involve the adding of higher capacity air conditioners or heating units (or quieter ones) which as space on a ship is limited would be quite the cumbersome and challenging job.
During this post I’ve talked about the crew that are at sea, but that number is small compared to the number of crew that are at home, have lost their jobs, or are uncertain about whether they will have a job again. Getting cruises going again with the suggested restrictions and based on the success of the lines already sailing will get so many people back to work, both shoreside in ports, at the head offices, remotely from home, and onboard.
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