Cruise Ships – Notes On Return To Operation

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Following the long lay-up of cruise ships due to Coronavirus, Solis Marine’s expertise across the fields of marine, engineering and hotel operations is available to support cruise operators to get their ships back into service.

By Captain Richard Meikle

Cruise Shipping is champing at the bit to return to service.

The industry is, rightly, focused on their ships being resilient to Coronavirus and ensuring that their loyal passengers return to cruising. While the priority will be to make sure that cruise ships are ready to deal with the impact of Covid-19, the other aspects of ship operations should not be overlooked.

The cruise lines, along with the industry body CLIA, are all working hard to ensure their Covid-19 protocols are suitably resilient and that should an outbreak occur it does not stop the ship in port and that the intended cruise continues as scheduled.

The vast majority of the world’s ocean-going cruise fleet has been in either warm or cold lay-up for many months and, by the time they return into service, this could be for over a year.

In the usual refit cycles, even a long drydocking, a cruise ship is rarely out of operation for more than a month or two. The return to service of a cruise ship, even after a routine refit, is a challenging operation; the return after a much longer lay-up will have significantly more, and some unforeseen, challenges particularly when combined with the Coronavirus protocols now in place.

While ships’ skeleton crews will have been maintaining their ships to the best of their abilities, running main engines and generators in turn and routinely operating hotel systems, only when the ship returns into service will the people and systems be fully tested.

The ships will be manned, to a greater or lesser extent, with unfamiliar personnel, many of whom will not have been at sea for well over a year. Some crew may well be on a particular vessel for the first time, and once closely knit teams will be building new relationships on unfamiliar systems.

Shakedown Cruises

The time for shakedown cruises, while time consuming and expensive, particularly following the losses racked up since March, should not be neglected; with returning crews already subjected to long quarantine before they can join their colleagues.

The shakedown cruise will be an essential part of the return to service and a chance to test all systems. It would be assumed that itinerary planners will be removing the anchor ports to reduce – or remove – tender operations which will be difficult to carry out with effective social distancing.

The following ships’ systems are among those that will need to be considered:
  • Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems will come in for particular attention in the coronavirus era, new ways of maximizing fresh air, while still providing the volumes of heated or cooled air to each cabin and public areas will need to be found.
  • Lifeboats, lowered only occasionally, will need to be properly tested.
  • Fresh water will have been consumed in much reduced quantities. It would be usual to leave a period of lay-up with recently super chlorinated tanks, refilled with fresh water; however, this is a time-consuming task.
  • Fuel, water ballast and garbage systems will not have been used for long periods and will need to be re-commissioned.
  • Anchor cables will be rusting in chain lockers ready to cover the enclosed mooring deck in rust the first time they are let go in anger.
  • Hotel operations including numerous galleys and storerooms requiring fridges to be brought back to temperature, following major storing operations, will need to be carefully managed. Swimming pools and spa bath systems will also need to be brought back into operation.
  • Medical operations will have had particular attention recently with new, as yet untested, isolation areas provided as part of the new protocols
  • Even lamping up (replacing all the blown lights throughout the ship) will fully engage a team of electricians for some time, particularly when lights get switched on for the first time in passenger areas, entertainment systems and dressing lights.
  • Software and satellite communication systems will need to be brought back online; hopefully just a matter of a warm reboot and updating of systems, but who knows what system changes that may have been introduced, that may have been missed.
On board procedures for passengers and crew will have been reconsidered in recent months, including:
  • Emergency training, fire-fighting response with close- working teams will bring with it new challenges, as will training crew in lifeboats.
  • Emergency Mustering on a crowded deck or muster station will need to be considered with new procedures in place. What would happen in a real emergency?
  • Multiple-berth crew cabin occupancy will need to be carefully considered.
  • Stateroom cleaning routines with house-keeping staff and supervisors moving between numerous cabins will need to be managed in a new way.
  • There is a traditional requirement for the master and senior officers to inspect all areas of the ship; this will need to be re-thought to prevent unnecessary movement around the ship.

A New Way of Cruising

The significant benefits, expensive as they are, of running a shake-down cruise prior to going back into service will help to ensure the return to service is as smooth as possible. However, with the need to keep numbers of people on board to a minimum this will create its own challenges.

One benefit (albeit to the understandable frustration of the finance department) is that operators will start their return to service with reduced passenger capacities, of around 80%, which will allow for some flexibility with cabins and not stretch the on-board service.

The time taken to return a large cruise ship back into service, with all its on board systems, should not be underestimated, and it should be expected that some equipment will unexpectedly fail, and spares needed to be ordered and delivered at short notice.

Cruise ships are adaptable and with the hard work of the dedicated crew they will be back in business, with a couple of (agreeably seismic) changes to the way they operate. Management’s focus on Covid-19 protocols will need to be considered alongside and combined with the traditional cruise operations.

The safety-first mantra will take on a new meaning and importance as eager passengers are welcomed back on board into a new way of cruising.

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