The cruise that wasn’t

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In mid-December ’03, 759 people — most from the U.S., Canada and Europe — gathered in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to board a ship going 1,000 miles down the mightiest river in the world, the exotic Amazon. They looked forward to stopping en route at several Caribbean islands, including Devil’s Island.

As required, each had obtained a yellow fever inoculation and a Brazilian visa. Most had also purchased antimalaria pills. Many had done extensive research on the Amazon and its indigenous people as well as the various ports of call.

The ship was the award-winning Olympia Voyager, which was launched in 2000 and belonged to a subsidiary of Royal Olympia Cruises. It had been booked to capacity.

Assembling in the waiting room at the dock for the anticipated embarking at 1 p.m., passengers waited until boarding finally started at 4 p.m., which had been the proposed sailing time. The ship did not sail until close to midnight. This gave some people a feeling that something was wrong, as ships’ sailings are usually on time.

The excuse for the late boarding was that the Coast Guard were checking the ship, and the reason given for the delayed departure was that some luggage was arriving late. Both excuses were suspect.

The first day was at sea, and passengers soon were busily booking shore excursions for the 10 stops to be made by the ship. At an orientation meeting, the ship’s captain and officers were introduced.

The first stop was to be St. Barts, but in the evening the captain announced over the P.A. system that due to some court action in Honolulu, the ship would stop first at St. Thomas, which was to have been the last stop before returning to Fort Lauderdale. He said St. Barts would be visited on the way back.

Whilst in St. Thomas, the captain apologetically came out with the news that the ship, according to court order, would have to stay in U.S. waters, as the German bank consortium that held the mortgage on the ship had imposed restraints on its movement (March ’04, pg. 82). It could not continue on its original cruise.

Later the captain was told that, despite attempts to change the ruling, the ship could not proceed farther than St. Thomas and could not return to Fort Lauderdale until the date it was originally scheduled to return. It would remain docked at sea off of St. Thomas, with tenders making trips to shore every half hour.

There was great shock and disappointment by all on board, and while in jest the possibility of mutiny was discussed, there were no public demonstrations. Some passengers made their own arrangements to fly home from St. Thomas.

According to the Virgin Islands newspaper and other sources, the owners had filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11 in Honolulu on the day of sailing and the captain had been served with papers at about 1 p.m. The owners had borrowed $250 million to buy the Olympia Voyager and Olympia Explorer but had been losing big money. Three of the board members subsequently resigned so they could sell their shares, which were becoming almost worthless.

The captain sent letters to all passengers stating that there would be a complete refund of monies paid, as according to U.S. federal maritime law it had been held in escrow. This was confirmed by the Federal Maritime Commission. However, monies paid for air travel or other expenses not constituting ocean transportation would not be refunded. Such expenses also often are not covered by cancellation insurance policies, many of which exempt bankruptcy from their coverage.

Though the possibility of its being a free cruise sounded appealing, this was not what had been wanted.

On the ship, food, entertainment and activities were provided as if nothing unusual had happened. Of great concern to the crew was the question of what would happen to them after the ship returned, as the next cruise had been canceled.

A camaraderie developed amongst the passengers, who used the term “hostage” to describe their plight. After somewhat getting used to the disappointment, most felt there was no use being depressed over the turn of events and made the best of a bad situation. They took trips to nearby islands and took part in activities on board. The crew did give their best service, though toward the end some did seem to be losing it.

The merchants in St. Thomas had never had it so good, as usually cruise ships dock for only a few daylight hours yet here was a ship staying even overnight for nearly two weeks.

The local paper described the passengers as being “stranded in paradise,” though most would not have used that description of their plight as they were certainly not a happy bunch. But it could have been much worse. When another cruise line went bankrupt a few years ago, the passengers were dumped on shore in a distant country and had to make their own way back.

The experience shows that before making a booking, one should check the financial condition of a cruise line and take the advice of travel agents, some of whom had warned against taking this cruise.

STANLEY BAKER
Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

In mid-December ’03, 759 people — most from the U.S., Canada and Europe — gathered in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to board a ship going 1,000 miles down the mightiest river in the world, the exotic Amazon. They looked forward to stopping en route at several Caribbean islands, including Devil’s Island.

As required, each had obtained a yellow fever inoculation and a Brazilian visa. Most had also purchased antimalaria pills. Many had done extensive research on the Amazon and its indigenous people as well as the various ports of call.

The ship was the award-winning Olympia Voyager, which was launched in 2000 and belonged to a subsidiary of Royal Olympia Cruises. It had been booked to capacity.

Assembling in the waiting room at the dock for the anticipated embarking at 1 p.m., passengers waited until boarding finally started at 4 p.m., which had been the proposed sailing time. The ship did not sail until close to midnight. This gave some people a feeling that something was wrong, as ships’ sailings are usually on time.

The excuse for the late boarding was that the Coast Guard were checking the ship, and the reason given for the delayed departure was that some luggage was arriving late. Both excuses were suspect.

The first day was at sea, and passengers soon were busily booking shore excursions for the 10 stops to be made by the ship. At an orientation meeting, the ship’s captain and officers were introduced.

The first stop was to be St. Barts, but in the evening the captain announced over the P.A. system that due to some court action in Honolulu, the ship would stop first at St. Thomas, which was to have been the last stop before returning to Fort Lauderdale. He said St. Barts would be visited on the way back.

Whilst in St. Thomas, the captain apologetically came out with the news that the ship, according to court order, would have to stay in U.S. waters, as the German bank consortium that held the mortgage on the ship had imposed restraints on its movement (March ’04, pg. 82). It could not continue on its original cruise.

Later the captain was told that, despite attempts to change the ruling, the ship could not proceed farther than St. Thomas and could not return to Fort Lauderdale until the date it was originally scheduled to return. It would remain docked at sea off of St. Thomas, with tenders making trips to shore every half hour.

There was great shock and disappointment by all on board, and while in jest the possibility of mutiny was discussed, there were no public demonstrations. Some passengers made their own arrangements to fly home from St. Thomas.

According to the Virgin Islands newspaper and other sources, the owners had filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11 in Honolulu on the day of sailing and the captain had been served with papers at about 1 p.m. The owners had borrowed $250 million to buy the Olympia Voyager and Olympia Explorer but had been losing big money. Three of the board members subsequently resigned so they could sell their shares, which were becoming almost worthless.

The captain sent letters to all passengers stating that there would be a complete refund of monies paid, as according to U.S. federal maritime law it had been held in escrow. This was confirmed by the Federal Maritime Commission. However, monies paid for air travel or other expenses not constituting ocean transportation would not be refunded. Such expenses also often are not covered by cancellation insurance policies, many of which exempt bankruptcy from their coverage.

Though the possibility of its being a free cruise sounded appealing, this was not what had been wanted.

On the ship, food, entertainment and activities were provided as if nothing unusual had happened. Of great concern to the crew was the question of what would happen to them after the ship returned, as the next cruise had been canceled.

A camaraderie developed amongst the passengers, who used the term “hostage” to describe their plight. After somewhat getting used to the disappointment, most felt there was no use being depressed over the turn of events and made the best of a bad situation. They took trips to nearby islands and took part in activities on board. The crew did give their best service, though toward the end some did seem to be losing it.

The merchants in St. Thomas had never had it so good, as usually cruise ships dock for only a few daylight hours yet here was a ship staying even overnight for nearly two weeks.

The local paper described the passengers as being “stranded in paradise,” though most would not have used that description of their plight as they were certainly not a happy bunch. But it could have been much worse. When another cruise line went bankrupt a few years ago, the passengers were dumped on shore in a distant country and had to make their own way back.

The experience shows that before making a booking, one should check the financial condition of a cruise line and take the advice of travel agents, some of whom had warned against taking this cruise.

STANLEY BAKER
Montreal, Quebec, Canada