(2:03 p.m. EDT) -- Summer is often a disruptive time for Caribbean cruises as Hurricane Season, which typically runs from June until November, kicks into high gear.
Thanks to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, things look very different this year. With cruises themselves on hold, the lines will not face the arduous task of rerouting and possibly cancelling sailings.
Still the risk of tropical storm force winds and heavy precipitation is there for ships that are laid up in Florida and other Atlantic and Caribbean ports (as this writing, Tropical Storm Isias is bringing watches and warnings to Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Turks & Caicos and the Bahamas).
Although the current cruise fleet is scattered around the world, what happens to the numerous cruise ships still left behind in the Caribbean during the 2020 hurricane season?
Cruise Ships Seek Shelter
Cruise ships have the distinct advantage of being able to quickly move out of harm's way when an approaching storm is identified. The safest place for a ship to be during an approaching system is at sea, out of the path of a storm, as opposed to sheltering in a harbor or docked alongside.
Normally, the need to reposition away from the storm is a logistical nightmare for cruise passengers as itineraries are changed and embarkation and disembarkation ports altered at seemingly the last minute.
This year, however, there are no passengers on these ships that have to be satisfied with new itineraries, giving the crew still onboard maximum flexibility in identifying safe harbors from which to ride the storm out.
When Hurricane Douglas threatened Hawaii a few weeks ago, Pride of America simply sailed away from Honolulu to avoid the storm.
Several ships appear to already be moving out of Tropical Storm Isaias' way. Carnival Sunshine is
VesselFinder as being bound for "Shelter in Cuba" and steaming south at 8.1 knots.
"Away from TD9 Tropical Depression 9" and is also heading southerly at 7.2 knots to steer clear of the eastern coast of Florida. Currently, the ship is abeam of Homestead, Florida.
Other ships that were lingering around the eastern seaboard of Florida are also heading south, including Celebrity Summit (
bound for "North of Havana"); Symphony of the Seas (bound for the Yucatan Basin); and MSC Meraviglia, bound for MSC's own Ocean Cay in the Bahamas.
Some cruise ships are also at anchorages out of the storm's path. Carnival Freedom, Carnival Pride and Seabourn Odyssey are further south, near Aruba; away from the danger.
Much of the world's cruise fleet, however, is elsewhere at the moment. A significant number of ships are over in Southeast Asia, while an equally substantial number of vessels are moored in the Mediterranean or are sheltering at anchorages off the coast of England.
An Important Role in Disaster Recovery
Cruise ships play an important role in disaster recovery after tropical storms and hurricanes sweep through the Caribbean and other parts of the world.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian in 2019, cruise lines donated millions of dollars in aid to stricken Caribbean islands where they sail.
Cruise ships also provide critical aid in the aftermath of devastating hurricanes and storms.
In 2019, Royal Caribbean diverted Empress of the Seas from a scheduled sailing to Freeport, Bahamas in order to tender thousands of meals ashore for affected residents following Hurricane Dorian's extreme devastation. The ship was quickly followed by Carnival Pride and Carnival Liberty, which also brought aid to Freeport.
Bahamas Paradise even used one of its ships to evacuate residents of Freeport prior to the arrival of Hurricane Dorian. The line then sent Grand Celebration to Grand Bahama Island carrying first responders, physicians, a salvage crew and a team tasked with evaluating the island's electrical grid.
Last year wasn't an anomaly, either. When Hurricane Irma tore through the Eastern Caribbean in 2017 and damaged Key West, it canceled or altered 136 cruise ship sailings. Cruise ships were then pressed into service delivering much-needed aid to stricken islands, including food, medical supplies, and much-needed personnel. FEMA, the U.S. Federal Management Agency, chartered Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line's Grand Celebration to house first responders from September to December of that year.
What is unclear in the age of coronavirus, however, is what aid ships will be allowed to render -- or even can render.
Strict rules and regulations currently in place, including those established by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), place stringent criteria on where ships can sail to. In its No Sail Order, recently extended to September 30, the CDC bans the embarkation or disembarkation of any passengers, along with the embarkation or disembarkation of any crew, without prior notice to the CDC that must be requested and approved well in advance.
While it is possible that these regulations could be relaxed in the name of providing necessary disaster relief, there are other complicating factors.
Many ships are now transitioning to cold layup and are running with minimal crew onboard that primarily oversee marine operations. Cruise lines no longer have the buoyed balance sheets they did one year ago and may not be able to provide the kind of financial disaster relief that previous years have seen.
What is clear is that cruise lines have rendered aid to those in need in the past and will do so again in the future. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic, however, coupled with increased regulatory red tape, might make that aid harder to render than ever before.