Hurricane Havoc On Voyager Persists

August 9, 2005
Even as tropical storms and hurricanes continue to breed at a record-setting pace this season, in most cases they're all but gone and forgotten shortly after they strike -- save for passengers who had planned to sail on Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas' July 24 trip to Bermuda.

The five-night cruise was slated to head south that Sunday from Royal Caribbean's Cape Liberty Cruise Port in Bayonne, New Jersey. Instead, it sailed north -- to Nova Scotia -- in what was an unusual reversal not just of itinerary but of an entire cruise region.

And folks who boarded Voyager of the Seas for that trip are still spitting mad.

Long story short: A day prior to boarding, Tropical Storm Franklin looked like it was going to speed up -- quite possibly reaching hurricane status -- and target Bermuda. So Royal Caribbean weather staffers weighed the options. "We held conference calls that day (Saturday, July 23) to discuss the issue," says company spokesman Michael Sheehan. "If in fact this forecast remained into Sunday we would not be able to sail Voyager to Bermuda. You can not sail 3,500 people and 1,500 crew members into a tropical storm or hurricane."

The challenge, in rerouting the ship, was twofold. First, the cruise was just five days long. Second: Bermuda literally sits alone by itself in the Atlantic. Unlike the Caribbean islands, which are relatively close to one another (or at least within a day's sail), for this ship, limited as it was to a shorter-than-a-week itinerary, there was no logical southbound possibility.

Sheehan says a call at Nassau was contemplated briefly but that it was simply too far away to make sense. "Plus," he says, "to sail south you go into rough seas because of Tropical Storm Franklin."

"This was the 'perfect storm' of a bad situation."

Some passengers would unhesitatingly agree, beginning with the fact that aside from posting the dramatic change in itinerary on Royal Caribbean's Web site late Saturday, there was no other effort made to contact folks in advance. As such, travelers were handed a letter, on arrival at the pier, that informed them their trip to Bermuda would now be a trip to Halifax and Saint John, New Brunswick. No option to cancel was offered (though folks who had purchased Royal Caribbean insurance could opt out and receive a 75 percent refund).

The weather didn't help, either.

"When we docked in New Brunswick, Canada, there was fog and misty rain, and the temp never went over 55 degrees at it's highest," writes Cruise Critic member Carolp in a review of the cruise. "I saw passengers getting off the ship and it looked as though they had never seen a sweatshirt or jacket, me included. We were freezing!"

Indeed, wrote Charlotte Klecan, another passenger onboard, "We now found ourselves packed for a trip to Bermuda which would not be conducive to Canada's cold weather."

Responds Sheehan, "From the get go we fully understand and appreciate the fact that some of our guests were not pleased by this modified itinerary. Our objective is to provide them with exactly the sailing they are seeking. However, when we're faced with circumstances beyond our control, such as extreme weather, we were left with no option but to go somewhere else."

Beyond the passengers' understandable disappointment that a sun-and-surf itinerary was replaced with a crisp- weather, historic wonders' voyage, there was quite a bit of displeasure in other areas. Specifically, in interviews with Cruise Critic and in reviews posted on the site, complaints centered on three issues:

Why weren't people contacted beforehand?
Official answer: The Royal Caribbean spokesman explained that because the decision was made late on Saturday there wasn't the chance to contact travel agents.

Why was there no option to cancel?
Official answer: "Normal cancellations policies were in effect."

Why was there no compensation offered, beyond the refund of port charges of $45 which Klecan says had to be requested?
Official answer: "Our ticket contract is fundamentally identical to other lines in the cruise industry and it states that we have the right to alter an itinerary when impacted by Acts of God" (and Tropical Storm Franklin was indeed attributed as such).

Even two meetings onboard with disgruntled passengers failed to calm these roiling waters. Writes Toma1 in his review, "The meetings got quite unruly and the tone of the passengers from that point on became loud and very negative. Everywhere we went on the ship the growing discontent was the main topic of conversation ... and it put a strain on the entire cruise. The ship had turned into a hostile environment and there was nowhere to go to escape it, except to your room."

Ultimately, says Charlotte Klecan, the issue wasn't really about being reimbursed for the changes (which Royal Caribbean was not obligated by contract to do). "I felt like a number, not like a passenger," she told Cruise Critic. "Yeah, there's a contract, but there's also a gray area of good customer relations."

At this point, Royal Caribbean's spokesman says no further compensation will be granted to unhappy passengers.

Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas is certainly not the first ship this year to deal with weather issues, but it does seem that the trip has concluded with a bit of a hangover. For instance, in past months Carnival padded passengers' onboard accounts when weather impacted arrivals, departures and itineraries on sailings out of New Orleans. After the famous rogue wave battered NCL's Norwegian Dawn, passengers were given major refunds plus discounts on future sailings. In neither case were cruise lines contractually obligated to provide compensation.

Even Royal Caribbean, in the past, has shown itself capable of rising nobly to an acts-of-God situation. In a classic case of making lemonade from lemons was an incident that occurred in November 2002, while Majesty of the Seas was anchored at CocoCay, its private island. Midway through the afternoon a fierce wind unexpectedly kicked up and it was deemed too dangerous to transport 1,500 passengers back to the ship via tenders. Stranded, passengers spent the night on the island -- and Royal Caribbean ferried blankets and food, and even "liquidated" the onboard gift shop of all sweatshirts and other warm wear. Folks had so much fun that they petitioned the cruise line to repeat the experience on a future cruise.

Ultimately, the strangest and saddest irony for travelers on this recent Voyager trip was that NCL's Norwegian Crown, which departed from New York virtually right behind the mega-ship, actually did head for Bermuda, encountering no problems at all.