It was supposed to be the cruise that proved cruising could be done safely even in a pandemic. The boat was more of yacht than a floating city, sailing with just over 100 passengers, compared to the thousands that can board a massive cruise ship. Smaller was presumed to be safer. It had numerous precautions in place, required pre-testing, social distancing, and on-board testing.
And yet the virus crept on board anyway, the most unwelcome stowaway causing the boat to return to port prematurely, the company to cancel all remaining 2020 cruises, and the industry to reconsider whether safety protocols can ever be enough. And yet this gay couple, who was on that very cruise, is ready to get out there again, and they say, thousands of other passengers are too.
The British couple (above), the award-winning travel bloggers behind Cruise with Ben & David had had eight trips cancelled this year due to the global pandemic, so they were excited to be on SeaDream Yacht Club’s SeaDream 1, the first cruise vessel to resume sailing in the Caribbean after the pandemic shut down operations in March. It departed from Barbados on November 7.
“We were very happy to be on the first ship so that we could show our viewers how cruising had changed since the pandemic began,” Ben and David say. “We were fully aware of the risks, even with the hundreds of protocols put in place to protect us.”
The couple, who have been on 37 cruises, were also looking forward to being on a boat that was a change from their usual, “SeaDream 1 was the first yacht and super small ship experience we have tried, with a maximum of 112 passengers she is tiny in comparison to other cruise ships.”
Ben and David may be old hats to cruises now, but they admit at first they were reluctant passengers, attending an on-board wedding of friends. “The cruise was from Barcelona to Puerto Rico with five days at sea and we were dreading it,” they recall. “We thought we would hate it! We had all the stereotypes running through our heads that it was for the newly-wed and nearly-dead! But after spending just a few hours onboard we fell in love with it and even booked another cruise onboard the ship. It was so different to how we imagined it would be, it was a 5-star floating hotel, full of amazing places to eat and entertainment, taking us to brand new places every day without the need to unpack.”
Before boarding SeaDream for this latest cruise, the couple say they were required to have a PCR test at an approved onshore laboratory 72 hours before departure. Then, “on boarding day, we took a rapid test conducted by the ship’s doctor. SeaDream has three rapid Abbot ID testing machines onboard the ship — a first for the industry. It gives them the ability to test all crew and passengers very quickly onboard. Our temperature and oxygen levels were also taken before boarding. As we had completed all paperwork before arriving at the port it was a complete touch free and swift experience (except for the test)! Our baggage and shoes were also sanitized before we boarded the ship. Each day on the ship we had our temperature taken and the crew were constantly cleaning — especially in high traffic areas. They also had the first fogging sanitizing machine at sea, which in 15 minutes would completely sanitize cabins or public areas, killing 99.9 percent of viruses and bacteria on surfaces.”
Only later in the trip were masks required.
One precaution that was not initially required was mandatory masks. “This is because the ship was less than half full and with so much outdoor space,” Ben and David explain. “Most of the time we were outdoors, even for all meals. This policy was changed later in the cruise to offer further protection.”
The couple doesn’t believe the cruiseline was lax in its safety efforts, noting, “So far SeaDream had already conducted over 20 voyages successfully in Europe. We felt very confident with the protocols SeaDream had put in place to protect us but the virus still managed to get onboard the ship even with two tests — double the required of what the CDC will require in the future to allow cruises to operate in the USA.”
SeaDream operates outside of the US and therefore was not impacted by the current ban on cruises here. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued a “Framework for Conditional Sailing Order for Cruise Ships,” a tentative step toward the resumption of cruising. The Cruise Lines International Association, which represents most of the major cruise lines operating in the U.S. previously said in a statement that it would work with the CDC and its members would continue a voluntary suspension of operations through the end of 2020.
Although many in the travel industry have started to rely on testing to reassure travelers that they can remain safe in the pandemic, Ben and David’s experience raises questions of how reliable that approach is.
“The virus will only appear in a very limited time frame and if you are not tested at the right point most tests are not sensitive enough to pick up any trace,” they say. “This was so unlucky for SeaDream but it has raised the question about the effectiveness for testing.”
Still, the couple were satisfied with the company’s response to the situation, saying, “What SeaDream did very well was deal with the outbreak. We were all very quickly confined to cabins after someone had tested positive. We turned around and made our way quickly back to Barbados — the home port for SeaDream in the Caribbean. This swift action stopped the virus spreading outside of more than one family. We have just been retested one week after returning home and our tests have come back negative. That’s a testament to the good work SeaDream did to prevent any spread.”
And the bloggers believe cruising will be safe in the future. In fact, they argue that the impression of cruises as unsafe has been overblow, saying, “Cruise has had a hard time because of a few early outbreaks and the following negative media coverage but the reality is cruise ships are a very safe place to be, even before the pandemic broke out. Cruise is the only tourism sector in the world required to report [virus] cases, so that’s why it has been big news. Cruise lines are working incredibly hard with authorities around the world to be as safe as possible with new health and safety protocols. The latest diagnostic equipment, medical crew and treatments will be a requirement for cruise in the future. No other resort or form of transport can offer that type of protection.”
Ben & David kayaking in front of the SeaDream 1
After dozens of trips its hard for the bloggers to chose a favorite boat, but they agree, “Our favorite destination is the Norwegian Fjords. We sailed during the summer on a smaller ship when you could see the Midnight Sun, the time of year when the sun does not fully set, and it was stunning. The scenery was spectacular and the scenic sailing was fantastic.”
On the other hand, the couple acknowledge, “If we are travelling with our nephews we prefer the bigger ships such as Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line or Disney as there is so much for everyone of all ages to do.”
The SeaDream 1 at sunset.
Ben and David believe cruising will rebound, “Travelers will absolutely return, there is a huge pent up demand for cruising. Just this week Royal Caribbean asked for volunteers to travel on their ships for a series of test cruises to prove their protocols work. They were overwhelmed with over 100,000 applications in just a few hours- this shows there is still a huge appetite for cruising. It will take time for the industry to recover but we are confident that cruise will be back and bigger than ever.”
If you’re thinking of cruising in the future, the couple encourages to book now, saying, “most lines are now offering very flexible cruise with confidence schemes so that you can change or cancel your cruise right up to the last minute. Even if you don’t feel comfortable cruising right now that’s fine — there are some great deals to be found!”
Learn more about Ben and David, and watch their video tours of cruises on Cruise With Ben & David.