Business

'We just want to go home': More than 300 Canadian crew members still stranded at sea aboard cruise ships

While cruise lines ceased operations in mid-March due to the global spread of COVID-19, thousands of crew members remain on board, stranded at sea or stuck in ports.

Crew member on ship off Miami hopeful Canada will help him return home amid coronavirus pandemic

Will Lees of North Vancouver is stuck on a cruise ship in Miami. The cruise worker blames the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for his situation. (Submitted by Will Lees)

After spending more than a month stranded on a cruise ship at sea, Will Lees of North Vancouver finally made it to Miami last week. But the cruise ship art director still doesn't know when he'll get home. 

Lees said he and about 2,300 shipmates don't have permission to disembark, so they remain trapped aboard the Norwegian Cruise Line ship, Norwegian Epic, in the Port of Miami.

"We just feel so helpless," said Lees, who has spent the past week in a windowless cruise cabin on the idle ship.

He said its pools, gyms and most common areas are closed, the TVs aren't working and the Wi-Fi is intermittent. 

"The closest thing I compare it to is prison," said the 31-year-old. "We're just getting very, very frustrated."

80,000 crew members in U.S. waters

After COVID-19 started spreading on cruise ships, cruise companies suspended operations in mid-March. 

Cruise lines eventually returned passengers home but many crew members had to stay on board, and are now stranded at sea or stuck in ports. Due to fears of ships spreading the virus, it has become increasingly difficult for cruise companies to secure permission to dock and disembark their remaining crew.

The Norwegian Epic is operated by Norwegian Cruise Line. (Norwegian Cruise Line)

There are 122 cruise ships in U.S. waters with more than 80,000 crew members on board, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

Global Affairs Canada told CBC News it's currently tracking 98 cruise ships still at sea carrying an estimated 318 Canadian crew members.

Who's to blame?

Lees was hired by an art gallery in October to run art auctions and seminars on Norwegian cruises. He said his employer stopped paying him in mid-March when Norwegian suspended operations. 

He said there are no COVID-19 cases on the Norwegian Epic and blames the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for his fate. Following COVID-19 outbreaks on dozens of cruise ships, the CDC mandated last month that cruise lines must meet strict health and safety requirements before they can disembark crew members at U.S. ports. 

Lees said it seems as though the CDC has raised the bar so high that no one can disembark. 

"They're just being spiteful," he said. "The cruise industry put a lot of stress on them — the U.S.A. Now they're trying to take it out on the cruise industry, but instead they're taking it out on us, the cruise crew.

"We just want to go home."

Crew member Will Lees shot this photo, which he said shows crew members waiting for their room assignment on the Norwegian Epic. Lees said crew from several stranded ships were transferred to the Epic, which sits in port in Miami. (Submitted by Will Lees)

The CDC told CBC News it will allow crew members to disembark — once their ship's operator complies with CDC requirements, such as arranging for private transport to the airport and chartered flights home.

"Given ... the high risk of COVID-19 spread on cruise ships, it is critical for cruise lines to attest that they have taken the necessary steps to safeguard America's health and safety," CDC spokesperson Scott Pauley said in an email. 

Norwegian Cruise Line didn't respond to a request for comment. 

But Lees may have a way out.

On Friday, Global Affairs Canada informed him in an email that it was trying to co-ordinate a charter flight from an airport in the Caribbean for stranded Canadian crew members.

"[That's] the only positive information we have received in over a month," said a hopeful Lees. 

Turned away in Australia

Cruise ship security worker Laura Bandula was also stuck for more than a month on a cruise ship, the Pacific Explorer, operated by P&O Cruises Australia. She finally returned to her home in Whitby, Ont., on Wednesday. 

"We didn't know what was happening, we weren't getting news, so everyone was stressed," the 28-year-old said.

Crew members wave as the cruise ship Ruby Princess departs from Port Kembla, Australia, on April 23. (Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images)

Following the suspension of operations in mid-March, the Pacific Explorer docked in Sydney Harbour with more than 800 crew members still on board, said Bandula.

Although she terminated her work contract in late March and booked a flight home, Bandula said she couldn't leave the ship because Australia wouldn't allow the crew to disembark — even though no one on board was sick with COVID-19. 

Then, in early April, the Australian Border Force ordered cruise ships to leave its waters due to ongoing fears of ships spreading COVID-19. 

"The morale of the ship was going down," Bandula said. "I didn't want to speak to anyone. I didn't want to hang out with anyone. It was like trying to recuperate my whole mental state."

She said the Pacific Explorer sailed north to the Philippines where crew members were finally allowed to disembark. Bandula got off the ship on Wednesday and the cruise line flew her back to Canada, she said. 

'[I'm] very relieved."

Meanwhile, Lees said he's anxiously waiting to hear if Global Affairs will rescue him from his ship so he too can return home.

"Hoping and praying the Canadian government comes through," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Sophia Harris covers business and consumer news. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca

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