Royal Caribbean's Quantum of the Seas cruise ship is moored at Marina Bay Cruise Center after a passenger tested positive for coronavirus disease. Picture: Edgar Su/Reuters
Royal Caribbean's Quantum of the Seas cruise ship is moored at Marina Bay Cruise Center after a passenger tested positive for coronavirus disease. Picture: Edgar Su/Reuters

Eerily quiet Christmas aboard world’s passenger ships

By Opinion Time of article published Dec 23, 2020

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Brian Ingpen

Cape Town - IN MY kortbroek years, a stamp album was a most agreeable Christmas gift. At the time, I was immersed in philately, fascinated by beautiful stamps from countries across the world, but especially from many Commonwealth countries.

Many of the countries were unknown to me until the stamps arrived and, through that hobby, I learnt much about geography.

An exciting Christmas present another year was a realistic fire engine, with a long extension ladder and a siren. I began doubting the Father Christmas bit as I had seen a “similar” fire engine in a toy shop – and it had disappeared!

But in a later year, the bearded gent clambered down our chimney with a cricket bat, signed by John Waite, the South African wicketkeeper at the time. If it was good enough for Waite who, besides his prowess behind the stumps, was a good batsman, it was good enough for me.

With it, I powered my way to my highest score – 28 not out, batting at number11! (My batting partner was out, denying me the opportunity for my first century!) Cricket followers would have guessed I was a bowler, gaining several five-fors and one seven-for, but the opposition’s identity will remain secret!

Also in my cricketing memoirs is the match when one of my demon deliveries hit the Royal Navy’s Flag Officer of the South Atlantic Station, dead amidships, immobilising him, and indirectly causing the run-out of his batting partner, an RN PO who – sotto voce and in nautical parlance – expressed his thoughts about his dismissal.

I spent Christmas at sea – without presents – aboard Royal Interocean Line’s Boissevain, celebrating Christmas Eve with a magnificent

Dutch-style dinner while passing East London, and I awoke the following morning to church bells heralding Christmas across Algoa Bay.

The ship embarked the Port Elizabeth pilot from the tug William Weller, and, with the harbour tugs CF Keyser and John Dock in attendance, we berthed to load a handful of cargo. We left Port Elizabeth shortly after Christmas lunch, arriving in Cape Town’s Duncan Dock late the following afternoon.

Christmas 2020 in the maritime world is different. In many anchorages and harbours, the world’s passenger ships remain idle. Those aboard – skeleton crews or guards – will do their rounds through eerie, empty alleyways and public rooms that, at this time of the year, are usually thronging with passengers on Christmas holidays at sea.

Open decks, normally soaked in Caribbean sunshine or caressed by South Pacific breezes and crowded with sun-worshippers, escaping the harsh European or North American winter, will be empty, while the usually packed bars and snack counters are closed now and silent. The glitzy bands are at home now wondering when their next gig will be.

As mentioned a few weeks ago, the extremely tragic, costly and protracted lay-up for these ships will not end soon, given the second wave now sweeping across most countries.

No end is in sight as countries batten down to ride out yet another Covid storm. When that storm passes and if Covid-20 doesn’t materialise, there will be much to do to get those ships back to sea, including hurried drydockings, testing of the plumbing, electrical, electronic and alarm systems – indeed, the list of tasks is endless and will take much time per ship to complete.

Although passenger ships are out of service, the shipping world continues as bulkers, tankers, containerships and others plod their way across the seas. Some will transit canals on Christmas Day, and others will be in port.

Out east or in the Gulf where Christmas is not celebrated, work will continue apace to get the ships in and out of port as quickly as possible. Umpteen ships will be battling through wild seas on Christmas Day, or passing through narrow, crowded straits with fishing vessels at every turn, keeping the officers on watch on their toes.

More fortunate will be those on bluewater voyages, surrounded by calm seas and balmy air, ideal for the Christmas evening braai – often spitroasted sucking pig that is popular among Filipino seafarers, the majority nationality on many crewlists.

Sadly, some seafarers have been away from home for months beyond their contract closure, marooned on their ships by draconian Covid regulations in some ports that forbid crew changes or even shore leave for ships’ crews. (Are airline crews treated this way?)

The good news is that many seafarers at least can enjoy frequent contact with their families, thanks to prudent shipowners who provide easy electronic communication for their crewmembers.

If, from a coastal vantage point on Christmas Day, you sight a passing ship, remember that aboard are those who bring our grain, our electronic equipment, our car parts, our fuel, and more. Other ships carry our exports to distant ports, and those at sea are away from home at this time.

My best wishes to readers for a Blessed and Happy Christmas.

Brian Ingpen is the author of eight books on maritime matters.

[email protected]

Cape Times

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