Inside the 'ghost' cruise ships laid up around the world

"Sustaining our ships in a hostile marine environment with a reduced number of crew requires detailed preparation"
"Sustaining our ships in a hostile marine environment with a reduced number of crew requires detailed preparation" Credit: CHRIS HACKNEY

Just six short months ago cruise ships were sailing the world and calling at enticing ports. Today these vessels are becalmed in a sea of torpor. Across the globe, safe havens are now filled with over 330 ships either tied up at a quayside or at anchor as a result of ‘no sail’ edicts.

A recent search showed there were no fewer than 33 cruise ships laid up at ports and anchorages around the UK. Ten percent of the world’s cruise roll-call is now a melancholic spectacle around our shores.

Over the past few days an increasing number of cruise lines have announced the cancellations of all sailings until next year, some going even further to suspend operations well into late spring. This once unforeseen scenario is burning cash at an alarming rate. Carnival, the world’s largest cruise company, is haemorrhaging $1 billion a month to maintain its fleet. So can these armadas of dormant ships remain in situ for a prolonged lay-up, and more importantly, what is happening on board the vessels to ensure a safe return to operations whenever that might be? 

The Department for Transport (DfT) notes that vessels have the right, under International Maritime Law, to pass through the territorial waters of another state (known as innocent passage). This includes anchoring in areas they recognise as being safe. 

Ports have only a limited number of berths at any one time, and these must be effectively managed to continue to support cargo operations for import and export to and from the UK. As such, there are not always berths available for cruise ships when required, but use of anchorages provides a viable alternative.

The entire Fred Olsen Cruise Lines’ fleet is being kept near Rosyth

A DfT spokesperson told The Telegraph said: “We understand the impact the pandemic has had on the cruise sector and we are working closely with its leadership on restart plans. We convened a recent international summit, driving agreement on opening up foreign borders for seafarers and increasing the number of commercial flights to expedite repatriation efforts.

“All ships docked in UK waters must be managed in line with UK law. Even if ships are anchored outside of UK territorial waters, under international law the vessels have to have a crew on board to ensure safe operation and maintenance, and the welfare of the crew must be maintained.”

Cruise ship owners are facing a dilemma. There are two types of procedures adopted in mothballing a ship – these are referred to as ‘hot lay-up’ and ‘cold lay-up’. In the former scenario, ships run on their own power and systems are overseen by a technical and engine crew maintaining various on-board systems to protect against static seizure of machinery. 

Hot lay-ups are the preferred options for cruise lines as their ships can be reactivated within approximately two weeks. Somewhat less costly, cold lay-ups are normally only applicable to ships being put into long-term storage. A minimum manning status is adopted and the skeleton crew and watchmen ensure the security of the vessel. It can take several months for a ship in cold lay-up to be returned to service. 

Many ships lie dormant in Weymouth Bay, Dorset

Three ships in the Marella Cruises’ fleet – Marella Explorer, Marella Discovery, and Marella Explorer 2 – have been at anchor in Weymouth Bay since early July, Chris Hackney, managing director of Marella Cruises, gave Telegraph Travel a perspective on what’s involved in a hot lay-up. 

Hackney explains the logistical challenges are complex and include “inspecting, protecting and maintaining the ship’s technical systems as well as accommodation.

“Sustaining our ships in a hostile marine environment with a reduced number of crew requires detailed preparation. We currently have around 90 officers and crew aboard each vessel,” he said.

“The Deck Department manage safety, security and environmental management of our ships. They are responsible for the maintenance of external areas including lifesaving and fire-fighting equipment. Our Hotel Department supports all crew and visitors that are inspecting, protecting and maintaining the accommodation areas of our ships. The Technical Department is responsible for maintaining and servicing all systems ranging from the main engines through to freshwater piping.

“Our cruise ships get underway regularly to carry out refuelling operations and water production. Occasionally our ships proceed alongside for port operations such as storing, crew changes and further maintenance.”

Explaining a cold lay-up scenario, he points out, “Not all ships are suitable for a traditional cold lay-up of shutting down all machinery and having a small team check moorings occasionally. Cruise ships are very complex with many systems which require constant maintenance, so our plans range from hot to warm, but not truly cold. We do have options for locating vessels together, sharing crew and power which does make our warm lay-up options as efficient as possible.”

Around the UK entire fleets are in hot lay-up, but with a return to service possibly many months away, winter chills may foretell a different story for these ghost ships. The entire Azamara fleet docked along the River Clyde will bring little Christmas cheer to Glaswegians; it’s a similar scene in Rosyth where the entire Fred Olsen Cruise Lines’ fleet sits in hushed melancholy. 

Now autumn has arrived, the flotilla of small boats taking sightseers for a close encounter with the majestic leviathans at anchor in Weymouth Bay and Poole Bay will be heading home, leaving the ships forlorn and at the mercy of the elements.

This begs the question as to what will happen to those ships at anchor in the event of ‘named’ storms or heaven forfend, a repeat of the 1987 Great Storm which ravaged the south of England? This is something that Chris Hackney and his team have been considering.

“Our cruise ships have advanced weather routing and forecasting software. Our operations teams are supported by our Head Office staff and can make robust and accurate contingency plans to cope with any adverse weather. These range from relocating to alternative anchorages and harbours, through to putting to sea.”  

Even the most upbeat pundits in the travel industry are predicting the forthcoming winter will linger long. For the cruise business, the next few months will reflect the bleak weather charts as one depression after another results in a seascape of despondency.