Hundreds of people lined the banks of Glasgow’s River Clyde a few weeks ago for the rare sight of a small, high-end cruise ship sailing upriver—practically into the heart of the city. The Azamara Journey thrilled socially distanced onlookers by blasting its horn, typically a heralding of lively celebration. But this time nobody was there to wave on the deck of the 700-passenger ship, aside from the couple dozen members of its skeleton crew. This was no celebratory arrival, after all: it was a vessel on life support, just like every other ship dealing with the pandemic’s brutal wake.

Since mid-March, only a small handful of the world’s 400-or-so cruise ships have been able to accept passengers—all on hyperlocal itineraries. A few dozen are sailing the world with purpose, repatriating crew members from every corner of the globe. The rest are sitting idle in cruise ship purgatory, unable to sail commercially for the foreseeable future. (In the U.S., the industry has agreed not to resume business at least until Sept. 15.)

The problem for many cruise lines? Idling through the pandemic isn’t just bad for the company’s bottom line, it’s a potential death warrant for their costliest assets: the ships themselves. From mechanical issues to hurricane risks to regulatory hurdles that can constitute criminal offenses, it’s a quagmire that the industry has never faced on this scale before.

The expense is staggering. In a recent SEC filing, Carnival Corp.—whose nine brands comprise the world’s largest cruise company—indicated that its ongoing ship and administrations expenses would amount to $250 million a month once all its ships are on pause. With the company saying it’s unable to predict when cruises resume, that’s a long-term line item on a balance sheet that logged $4.4 billion in losses in the second quarter alone.

Here a Ship, There a Ship
As with airplanes, the first issue with maintaining an idle cruise ship is simply finding a place to park it. As many as 16,000 planes have been grounded in the pandemic, hiding out in dry and rust-proof places that range from hangars and airport tarmacs to desert boneyards. Ships are similarly scrambling to find the right conditions to weather the storm.

There’s not enough port space for every ship to dock at once, especially for huge ships that ordinarily carry up to 8,880 passengers and crew. This explains the celebratory sounds of the Azamara Journey’s “homecoming” in Glasgow (it docked at a cargo port rather than its usual cruise berth further outside the city). Less lucky vessels have had no choice but to drop anchor at sea, occasionally stopping into the nearest port for provisions and fuel.

This week, a cluster of 15 ships from Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, and Celebrity Cruises was hanging out near the Bahamas, according to Cruisemapper.com, a ship-tracking site. The 6,680-passenger Symphony of the Seas, the largest cruise ship in the world, was off the Dominican Republic.

According to Bill Burke, a retired U.S. Navy vice admiral and Carnival’s chief maritime officer, getting the company’s 105 ships to their pause destinations—20 in the Caribbean, 40 in Europe, 35 in Asia, and 10 in the eastern Pacific—is a process that will stretch into the third quarter of the year.

High Maintenance
Parking is just the first pain point. To keep things shipshape and avoid costly repairs (much like how your battery might die if you leave your car sitting too long), the vessels must also be kept operating.

“Modern cruise ships are not designed or built to just be turned off and left at a pier,” says Monty Mathisen, managing editor of Cruise Industry News. “You are talking about massive amounts of machinery, electronics, and even steel that needs maintenance, checking, and preventative work.”

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