For the cruise liner industry, the COVID-19 pandemic officially began on March 14. That’s when the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a “no sail” order on all cruise ships operating in US waters. At that point thousands of people were falling ill on various ships around the world, pitching the industry into damage control. From there, individual companies suspended cruises one by one, putting the industry on hold.
Now, six months later, and despite staging a few unsuccessful comebacks, the cruise industry remains in deep freeze. In practical terms, that means hundreds of ships parked throughout the world’s ports, crewed by a handful of people to keep them clean and seaworthy.
One such ship is the Ovation of the Seas, which is the largest cruise ship based in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s currently moored in Singapore, along with dozens of others. And it’s here that VICE News spoke to a member of the ship’s skeleton crew, employed to maintain the vessel’s extensive audio visual system.
We spoke to a man named Jeff Birmingham about what it’s like being one of 99 people onboard a stationary cruise ship designed for 6,000. Jeff describes being alone for most of the day and how the industry is faring from an insider perspective.
VICE: Can you tell us about your role?
Jeff: Right now, I’m the permanent head video technician on Ovation of the Seas. It’s a Quantum-class ship owned by Royal Caribbean International. When the ship is in service, we have about 4,500 guests and 1,500 crew members but at the moment, we have just 99 crew members. During normal service I manage and produce video content, but now I’m working as the entire cruise/entertainment division.
Tell us about where you are at the moment.
I’m offshore of Singapore in what I can only describe as the biggest ship parking lot I’ve ever seen. My contract is through February of next year and I’m not sure if I’ll touch dry land before then. As of now, we’ve been told not to expect that.
How does it feel to be on an almost empty cruise liner?
It’s surreal. This ship was built to host thousands of people and I’ve spent years on this ship experiencing it as it was designed. But walking around now, the ship feels lifeless and empty. It’s in stasis waiting for the world to sort itself out so it can go back to what it’s designed to do. Everything is shut down, lights are off, furniture is covered up. It’s a ghost ship.
Is it kind of like being in “The Shining”?
That’s actually funny because I’m the onboard broadcast technician and we have a steadicam in my studio. So, I’ve been walking around with it every day getting archival footage of the ship and it feels like I’m in a horror movie or like I’ve been abandoned on a spaceship. I actually showed the movie “Passengers” to the crew up by the pool a few weeks ago and we all caught the irony of showing something like that on here. Like Chris Pratt, I’m getting pretty good at basketball, shooting hoops every day in the empty gymnasium. I’ve gone from sinking 1 out of 10 free throws to about 7 out of 10. Still haven’t gotten a 10 out of 10 streak yet. I’m confident it’ll happen eventually.
What do you do everyday? Is there enough work to keep you busy or do you get bored?
I’m not really ever bored. My department usually has about 150 people but now it’s just me to deal with all the paperwork and inspections. It’s an overwhelming amount of work keeping the ship in the kind of condition it needs to stay in so it can go back into service. Plus, since there is very little to do socially the work basically takes all my time. I’ve been here over a month and it feels like I just got here.
Do you ever get nervous working alone?
No. We’re all trained in our safety/emergency duties and they’ve been pretty smart about who’s stayed behind—every person is here for a reason. But it is strange seeing public spaces that are used to hosting thousands of people all empty. It’s also led to some funny moments. Yesterday, I did my laundry and I walked through the guest areas in my regular clothes, with my laundry bag. It felt pretty strange to be walking through such fancy areas with my washing.
Do you interact with other people or is everyone pretty isolated?
My job is typically pretty solitary, so I usually don’t see a lot of people even when things are normal. Right now though I only see people at breakfast, lunch and dinner; I rarely see anyone outside of those times. It’s absolutely a ghost ship. It’s definitely a new way of living.
Being on a ship kinda amplifies the sense of isolation. I’ve been programming movies up by the pool and recording video segments for crew as much as I can. I DJ for fun and every weekend I record a two hour live set from the broadcast room and broadcast it on a TV channel for the crew in their cabins. People phone in and request songs and talk to me there, so that’s kind of fun.
The world in general is experiencing a pretty big mental health fallout from the pandemic. What are you doing to look after yourself on an empty ship?
We’re all lucky here because we all still have our jobs. We have that to keep us focused and distracted from depression. Travel for crew is opening up and anyone who wants to go home pretty much can. As far as keeping healthy, I go to the gym, run laps on the track, and play basketball. I also talk to my girlfriend online every day. We have free internet and that’s a luxury we usually don’t have. I really hope that’s something that stays after this is all over. It really helps the crew to be able to stay in touch with people back home. The company has also provided resources for crew members who need to talk about mental health issues and, honestly, the onboard family we have right now is extremely supportive. When ships are in service the hierarchy can be pretty rigid, but everyone is now in this together. Everyone is an equal.
COVID-19 has had a pretty drastic impact on the cruise industry. Tell me how that’s played out for you.
Yeah, it’s changed the world. Whenever I talk to my grandfather, who was born in 1925, he constantly says that it’s the worst thing that’s happened in his lifetime. It’s affected everyone. The cruise industry has been massively affected by this but my company is really strong financially and our guests are loyal. They’ve been booking cruises years in advance and they’re all expecting us to come back.
Is there a sense of worry among your colleagues about job stability?
Yes, and especially my colleagues in the entertainment department. The company will inevitably have to make cuts somewhere and the cruising demographic will also change because of what’s happened. Older people won’t cruise as much until there’s a level of safety that can guarantee their health, so the entertainment will shift to match the younger demographic. This means different styles of shows, less big bands and smaller, more dynamic forms of entertainment. This was already taking place, but COVID-19 will accelerate that shift to a more modern product.
Do you expect the cruise industry to recover?
Yes. The people who cruise love it. It’s a community, a lifestyle and a passion. I do think this will change the face of cruising and of travel and tourism in general, but I think some good will come out of it. Things will be different, but life always goes on.
Has anybody on your ship or anyone you know contracted COVID?
When the virus was first spreading there was a group of guests who got it. The day I got off the ship 74 guests onboard tested positive for it. No crew onboard ever contracted it and we’ve been a clean ship ever since. We’re very careful when receiving supplies, we wear masks onboard and we practice physical distancing. Cancelling karaoke was pretty unpopular with our Filipino crew members, but we’re doing everything we can to stay safe.
Interview by Dylan Raffaele. Follow him on Instagram