Cruises resuming after COVID-19 pandemic: How ships are restarted after a long break

Gentlemen, start your engines. Or ladies in the case of Kate McCue, captain of Celebrity Edge, which on June 26 became the first cruise ship in more than a year to sail from a US port with ticketed passengers.

Since then many cruise ships have started sailing around the world again; eight of Celebrity Cruises' 14 ships return to service this year. But getting a cruise ship going isn't as simple as starting the engines. It takes a month of effort, and involves everything from reviving plumbing systems to loading 32,000 potatoes.

"Bringing a large cruise ship back into service isn't as easy as turning the ignition key," says Brian Abel, Celebrity Cruises' senior vice-president of hotel operations. "It's a multi-dimensional process that involves moving and training crew, large-scale procurement, mechanical adjustments, destination outreach, port availability and so much more."

RUNNING ON (ALMOST) EMPTY

Ironically, the one thing cruise companies don't have to do is restart engines, which have run this whole time. Only a very few ships remained berthed during the COVID pandemic, allowing them to turn off their engines and draw onshore power in a procedure known as "cold ironing".

Most ships simply continued ticking over. Some were anchored off ports such as Manila and Southampton, but others sailed in seemingly random loops. A few made long sea voyages, mainly to repatriate crew to countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines.

Not even major ports have the capacity to dock more than a few cruise ships at a time. The random loops were the result of vessels having to make occasional port visits in order to refuel, re-provision and make changes to skeleton crews.

Large ships such as Celebrity Edge were obliged to maintain around 100 staff in order to ensure operational safety. This included navigational, engineering, security and medical officers, as well as housekeepers and kitchen staff.

But it wasn't only a lack of port space that kept cruise ships motoring. Ships, unlike planes, can't be mothballed in the deserts of Arizona or Australia, but less obvious is that they can't be mothballed at all.

SUSPENDED ANIMATION FOR SHIPS

Any ship has to be kept in a semi-operational state, of which there are two types. A warm layup allows the ship to be brought back into service at short notice, usually within a week.

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Information filed to investors during the pandemic by Carnival Corporation, which runs almost half the world's cruises, indicates that warm layups cost $US2-3 million ($A2.67-4 million) per month per ship.

The alternative cold layup costs $US1 million. However, it takes four weeks to reactivate a vessel, and it might have to dry dock so that marine growth can be removed from the hull.

The most cost-effective layup option depends on the ship's location, age, time in layup and operational savings versus reactivation costs. Many cruise ships opted for warm layups on the assumption service would return sooner than it did.

Either way, a surprising number of tasks must be attended to for a ship to remain seaworthy and insured, such as maintenance, record keeping and security. Engines, electricity generators, plumbing and other systems must be kept running.

According to Celebrity Cruises, crew had to manually flush toilets and turn on showers and taps every week in order to keep plumbing active – quite the task for Celebrity Edge, which has 1467 passenger cabins and another 726 for crew.

Other critical layup tasks include the prevention of corrosion and dehumidification of the interior. Cruise ships have a lot of electronic and computer equipment which has to be kept dry and cool. Cabins are stripped of soft furnishings and mattresses are stood on end and constantly turned.

READY TO RUMBLE

Which brings us back to starting the engines. It actually takes upwards of a month to get cold-layup cruise ships ready to run again. Air-conditioning, refrigeration and plumbing systems were fired up to maximum and tested.

Water systems are also returned to full capacity, as most cruise ships make their own fresh water by distilling or desalinating seawater. Even the laundry gets a trial workout. A single machine on Celebrity Edge holds 120 kilograms, about 14 times more than the average home washing machine. Even the irons have to be checked: 1377 crew uniforms need to be crease free.

Planning in these COVID times took far longer than the normal layup process, however. Vessels had to sail back to their working destinations, and crew be given time to get vaccinated, quarantine and – no easy task these days – travel to their ships.

With ships of all sorts re-entering service within the last few months, cruise companies also had to anticipate bottlenecks in servicing and certification. Cruise lines in the US also had to obtain a Conditional Sailing Certificate from the CDC, the national public health body. Test sailings and subsequent reports took at least 60 days.

Cruise lines also had to roll out heightened health measures. Many now conduct daily temperature checks and COVID tests, and interiors undergo more rigorous cleaning and sanitisation. Norwegian Cruise Line (which also operates Oceania and Regent) says it spent $US100 million on health-and-safety protocols.

TAKING STOCK

Finally, there are the recurring tasks every cruise ship faces at the start of cruises. Even under regular circumstances, stocking a vessel is a major logistical exercise. In the COVD era, cruise ships have to plan for disruptions to their international supply systems.

The shopping list is huge. The culinary team in a Celebrity ship's main galley, which includes 160 chefs, prepares around 25,000 meals daily. Every cruise is loaded with 32,000 potatoes, 10,000 bananas and 3850 kilograms of watermelon – and that's just for starters.

Royal Caribbean's Symphony of the Seas, one of the world's largest cruise ships, runs through 60,000 eggs, more than 300 kilos of ice cream and 450 cases of champagne in a week.

When cruises get up and running again in Australia, big orders will have to be filled. In normal times, P&O Cruises Australia orders 600 tonnes of chicken, 500 tonnes of beef and 20 tonnes of coffee annually.

You can bet that cruise lines hoping to operate in Australia next year already have plans under way to emerge from layups. Plumbing will be gurgling, decks swabbed, food orders lined up. The only thing not restarting will be the engines, because they've been running all along.

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