Stuck at Sea

A strike at Spanish ports prevents a ship from docking in Barcelona.

By: Maryann Hammers

On the night of Oct. 24, we were scheduled to disembark before dawn in Barcelona, the last stop of our 11-day Mediterranean cruise aboard the Crystal Serenity. I had already thanked my waiters and room stewards and exchanged business cards and phone numbers with new friends. My bulging suitcase had been picked up from outside my stateroom. And now, as the ship’s television offered disembarking instruction and flashed images of smiling crewmembers and staff waving goodbye, I found myself wishing the nearly perfect cruise didn’t have to end.

Be careful what you wish for. The next morning, I found a note under my stateroom door.

“Dear Guest: We have been informed that a sudden fishermen’s strike in Spain is blocking all ships from entering all ports along the Spanish mainland. Unfortunately, this is preventing Crystal Serenity from making her scheduled turnaround call in Barcelona (or any nearby Spanish port) . .

Please understand this situation is beyond our control . . .”

And so the cruise wasn’t coming to an immediate end, after all.

October 25

The next day another note explained that we were now headed to Port Vendres, France, where we would be tendered to shore and transported by motorcoach to Barcelona. But it turned out we couldn’t get clearance to dock there, either. And so we sailed back to Barcelona in hopes of waiting out the fishermen protesting rising fuel prices. We spent the day anchored off shore close enough to see the twinkling city lights.

Of course, the Serenity was not the only ship affected by the strike. From our veranda, we saw dozens of boats, big and small, all around us. According to the online news reports, other stuck vessels included Costa Magica, Eurostar Barcelona and the ferry Murillo and a tanker carrying sulphuric acids and nitrogen. Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas and Carnival’s Liberty were also disrupted.

As prospects for disembarkation dimmed, our luggage was returned to our staterooms. The Serenity’s staff and crew quickly rose to the occasion, offering an impressive list of activities, including an impromptu “2nd Farewell Variety Show.”

Room service and housekeeping were restored; wine and cocktails flowed freely thanks to a now-open bar, the spa began offering a 20 percent discount, and Internet access was now free, although phones were not available.

October 26

Passengers took the unexpected extra sea days in stride and mostly in good humor. We began greeting each other in mock-surprise: “Are you still here?”

A woman cracked that she heard the dining room was down to its last 20,000 bottles of wine. Another person said worriedly, “Well, they did run out of chicken sausage at breakfast. And have you noticed that ice-cream scoops are getting smaller?”

But behind the joking, the stress was palpable. Passengers crowded into the computer room clamoring to contact employers, family and travel agents. Some folks frantically booked new flights and made new hotel reservations even though we didn’t yet know when or where we would finally disembark. We were truly a “ship without a home.”

October 27

Finally, two days after our cruise was scheduled to end, we docked in Gibraltar and walked across the border into Spain. Once we stepped off the ship and out from under the comforting wing of the Serenity and her crew the disorganization was breathtaking. No one knew which bus to board or when and our luggage was nowhere to be seen. (We later found out that Spanish officials held it up at the border it followed in a separate truck many hours behind us.)

After a two-hour bus ride, we reached the Malaga airport. Crystal had chartered several planes to Barcelona and arranged for overnight accommodations, but many people spent the night without their luggage. Crystal secured new flights home for those who booked through the company’s Air/Sea Program. But independents those who booked their own travel had to sort things out with their travel agents or air carriers. Not surprisingly, many passengers regretted that they hadn’t purchased their flights through Crystal or at the very least purchased travel insurance to cover this sort of event. But, who could have imagined not being able to disembark? I certainly learned a lesson about expecting the unexpected, even on a luxury cruise line.

Finally, as we were about to fly home, we heard the news: The fishermen’s strike was over.

Looking Back

I’m not sure if the fishermen accomplished their goals by striking. But, news reports claimed the port of Barcelona lost a few million euros in revenue. The strike also cost Crystal at least $2 million, and that figure is likely to rise. Passengers on my cruise were offered a $200 credit for a future vacation, and the passengers waiting to board in Barcelona were refunded for the two cruise days they missed.

“We make such an effort to provide our guests a seamless, wonderful experience, so I cringe when I think of the inconvenience they went though,” said Crystal spokeswoman, Mimi Weisband. “Never, in all our years in the cruise industry, have any of us experienced a situation as complex as this one, with so many unknowns. When would the strike end? Where would the ship disembark? Where would we find hotels and transportation? And everything we were told changed along the way.”

As for me, do I regret missing Barcelona? Of course. Will I be back? Absolutely. On a Crystal ship? If I’m lucky! But next time, you can bet I will buy trip insurance.