'Ghost fleet' of empty cruise ships anchored off UK: Thousands flock for ferry trips out to ships

Even when people can't get on board cruise ships, they're still in demand.

Ships anchored off the UK have become a major tourist attraction during the northern summer, with several local ferry companies taking guests out to see the empty ships up close.

Nicknamed "the ghost fleet", the ships belong to a variety of cruise companies and include famous vessels such as the Queen Mary 2, the Queen Elizabeth and the Allure of the Seas, a 225,282-tonne monster that's the world's fourth-largest cruise ship.

Paul Derham, 62, who runs Mudeford Ferry, kicked off the trend after asking ferry passengers if they'd be interested in going for a look at some of the anchored behemoths.

"When we came out of lockdown here, we started the ferry again and I couldn't believe how few passengers we were carrying," he told Traveller. "But when we'd drive down to get the boat ready you could see the ships in the distance, about five kilometres away. So I thought 'Cor blimey, why can't we do trips there?'"

"I just made an announcement to the passengers: 'Anyone want to go and see the cruise ships close up?'" he says. "I couldn't believe the interest on board, so we put it up on Facebook expecting to do a couple of trips and within four hours we'd filled four trips out to see them."

In a happy coincidence, Mr Derham is a former ship's captain himself and served as the number two captain on board the Aurora, one of the ships anchored nearby. With 27 years' experience on board cruise ships, he has been able to add plenty of colour to his commentary, while taking passengers for a closer look.

Mr Derham says his guests are coming from all over the country, including people who had cruised on the anchored ships previously and those that were supposed to be on board this year before cruises were cancelled.

He says he has been overwhelmed by the demand and interest from all over the world.


"Our phone has not stopped ringing," he says. "It's absolutely amazing. We have thousands of people waiting to go."

Those people might be waiting a while - due to current social distancing requirements in the UK, the ferry is only allowed to carry 30 passengers, compared to its normal capacity of 80. Mr Derham also won't take the ferry out of the harbour to the cruise ships if seas are rough, as they have been this week.

The trips are announced on the ferry's Facebook page the day before, based on weather, and are normally fully booked within 30 minutes, Mr Derham says.

He says further delays in restarting cruising mean many of the ships will be sticking around for a while yet. In the meantime, he's one of the few people in the maritime industry happy that the ships aren't able to operate cruises.

"It's almost been a lifesaver for us, it really has," he says.

Cruise ships are anchored off the popular cruising port of Southampton, but are regularly moving to other spots off the British coast.

A spokesperson for Cunard, owner of the Queen Mary 2 and Queen Elizabeth, explained:

"During this pause in our operations our Cunard ships are berthed in Southampton but also periodically sail to and anchor in other locations including off the south coast.

"Much in the same way as a car needs to be driven, our ships need to sail to ensure full working operation and then return to the berths for storing. We have essential manning on board which is approximately 100 crew members per ship. The crew can, of course, use guest facilities providing they adhere to social distancing and other health protocols."

Cruising is largely becalmed around the world since the COVID-19 pandemic began and in the face of several high-profile outbreaks on board cruise ships, including the Ruby Princess in Australia.

While the vast majority of ships are currently sitting idle off various ports around the world, a handful of cruise companies have tentatively restarted operations; last week marked the first Mediterranean cruise since the outbreak began.

Elsewhere, some older ships have been sent to the scrapheap - beached at scrapyards to be broken up.

On Thursday, the main Australian cruise lines all announced a further suspension of operations beyond the lifting of the federal government's ban on September 17, with the cancellation of 50 scheduled cruises as a result.

According to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the cruise industry generates more than $200 billion in economic activity worldwide and supports more than 1 million jobs. In Australia, CLIA estimates if suspension of cruising continues into the summer peak, it could cost the economy $1.4 billion and put 4800 jobs at risk.

See also: Fifty Australian cruises cancelled as major lines suspend operations

See also: Giant cruise ships beached at scrapyard to be broken up