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Shocked, afraid and 'blessed': Cruise line workers remained on board for months to keep ships operational

While some workers were happy to be safe and healthy, others said "just floating around" made people "crazy."
Image: Passengers disembark from the Princess Cruises Grand Princess as it sits docked in the Port of Oakland
When the pandemic hit, some cruise workers were able to disembark and return to their home countries within weeks. Others spent months at sea, waiting until they could dock at a port and return home.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

As vaccination efforts ramp up in many parts of the world, the cruise industry is making preparations to resume voyages. Current plans involve many of the major cruise lines resuming most of their operations this summer, though some routes are not expected to return until late 2021.

NBC News spoke with nine current and former cruise ship workers from around the world about their experiences and what it’s been like to work in an industry that has been severely affected by the pandemic. The workers we spoke with declined to be named for fear of retribution from the cruise line companies that employ them.

Most of the workers are back on land but still in limbo, working odd jobs until cruising resumes. They’re also waiting to get their Covid-19 vaccinations, which they said some companies have expressed will likely be a requirement for returning to work. The industry attracts workers from many different countries, so access to vaccines varies greatly, which will impact when they can re-board ships.

Of the workers with plans to return to cruising, each had a different account of what it was like to be on board when the pandemic first began. Some were able to disembark and return to their home country within a matter of weeks, while others spent months at sea, waiting until they could dock at a port and return home.

For essential cruise ship workers, such as engineers, the wait was particularly long as they had to maintain the ships and keep them operational, since cruise ships can’t be left unattended for months on end. One engineer told NBC News he remained on board a Norwegian Cruise Line ship from the start of the pandemic until September.

“I lived the complete process from the beginning when everything was normal and then suddenly we were only 100 left on board,” said the engineer, who chose to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job. “It was an experience never done before in my life.”

He said once the pandemic put an end to operations and passengers disembarked, the contracts of most nonessential crew members were terminated.

“But the company could not arrange flights for them because of the pandemic, and hence they remained on board for a long time without salary,” he said. “We all felt shocked for how things changed so rapidly and how uncertain it was.”

Norwegian did not respond to these claims or multiple requests for comment.

However, he said people still felt “blessed” during this early stage, as they were safe and healthy. But things changed when people were forced to isolate and Covid-19 spread on board.

“Hundreds of people were isolated in the cabins, and from time to time an ambulance was coming to pick up some crew members with the worst symptoms,” he said. “The situation began to become harder. Months passed and people were really missing their families.”

The engineer said that eventually, all but about 100 essential workers were repatriated. Those who remained were not allowed to leave the ship, to prevent the potential spread of infection.

“Ports may set any condition of entry that they like, and often they will bar certain persons from going ashore,” said James Kraska, a professor of international maritime law at Harvard Law School. “During the pandemic, they have protocols in place to prevent people from going ashore. If the ship does not want to comply, then it is free to not visit the port.”

The engineer told NBC News that after four months at home, he is again back on the ship, working to keep it ready for the resumption of cruises. He hasn’t received his Covid-19 vaccine yet but will soon be required to have it.

“I work 10 hours a day,” he said. “We’re salaried but we never get days off, because we are in charge of all the machineries on board. Hence, it is not possible to be off.”

While it’s been difficult, he said he feels fortunate to be able to have the steady work since he loves working in the industry and so many have been forced to leave it to make ends meet. Others have been able to cobble together temporary work in other areas as they anxiously await the day they can return to working on board.

A Royal Caribbean cruise line worker, based in South America, was able to return home at the end of May and has been spending the time on land working at her family’s farm while she waits to be hired again.

She’s eager to get back to sea but said it was challenging being on board last year, especially once the Covid-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic. She said the ship she was on was denied entry at its original destination port and was forced to find an alternative.

“We were just floating around,” said the spa worker, who chose to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. “People got crazy. Crew and guests were scared, many were ready to go home but everything changed last minute.”

Then a guest tested positive for Covid-19 and the ship went into lockdown for weeks, according to the worker. Most of the guests disembarked, but some were waiting to be repatriated along with crew members.

"Due to governmental restrictions, many of our crew had to wait longer than anyone wanted for repatriation," said Royal Caribbean spokesperson Jonathon Fishman. "We used everything in our power to get our crew home safely and our No. 1 priority is the health and safety of our crew."

The worker said that in late April, those on board were able to leave their rooms for an hour and a half each day. Finally, in May, she said she left the ship only to embark on another in Barbados where she waited until she was able to return home.

The worker, who said she has worked in the cruise line industry for five years, most recently worked in the spa of a ship. However, given Covid-19 protocols, she thinks returning to that role will be too difficult, so she’s training to be an onboard sales associate.

She said she received an email from Royal Caribbean that said she would need to be vaccinated before she could return to work, but she does not expect to be able to get the vaccine in her home country until September. Fishman said Royal Caribbean's "intent is to vaccinate our crew."

Another Norwegian Cruise Line worker based in Europe said she was fortunate to disembark early on in March. She said she was on a ship sailing in Asia that was one of the first to have its cruise canceled. She stayed on board for about a month.

Since being home, it has been hard, since both she and her partner work in the industry and went from two steady paychecks to none. She said she has been helping out at a charity and working part time in a store to stay busy and pay some bills but is eager to return to sea and resume her role as a cruise consultant.

“I did have [other] job opportunities, but the job I have on board is my absolute dream position and I am not ready to give that up,” said the worker, who chose to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.

She’s optimistic that the excitement she sees in various Facebook groups dedicated to cruise ships will bode well for the industry once cruises do resume.

While some of the major cruise lines had initially planned to welcome back travelers in January, that timeline had to be pushed back because of the pandemic.

In a statement provided to NBC News, Carnival Corporation, the world's largest cruise line, said it has been working with scientists, medical experts and health authorities to develop safety protocols that will allow it to resume operations, which include required regular testing of crew members. None of the workers NBC News spoke with worked for Carnival.

“We have also implemented [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] protocol and begun to reposition our ships in U.S. waters in preparation to begin sailings again later this year,” Carnival spokesperson Roger Frizzell said. “Our strategy at first is to stagger our initial return with specific ships in selected markets. Ultimately, we hope to be sailing again in markets around the world with a majority of our ships, representing all of our brands, by the end of the year.”

Royal Caribbean said it has also been working with experts to develop a safe plan for resuming service.

”The new Covid-19 vaccines present a new opportunity to do just that, and are a way to build protection for everyone involved,” the company said in a statement. “We continue to look into all options available to us for the destinations we visit.“