Crystal Serenity Abandons Barcelona, Heads to Gibraltar

October 26, 2005
Crystal Cruises' Crystal Serenity has been sailing around the Mediterranean for the past 24 hours in search of a port -- any port (and fortunately the weather's been anything but stormy) -- that will take it in. That's because the ship is in the unlucky middle of a port strike in Barcelona; that facility, along with most if not all others in Spain, has been closed for several days now as a result of a strike by fishermen protesting rising fuel prices.

Creating the biggest logistical headaches for Crystal and its passengers is the fact that this stop in Barcelona is to disembark one voyage and embark another. As a result, the situation is not as easy as if the ship was simply calling for a day of sun and fun and could spend the day at sea instead.

Onboard veterans, from officers to entertainers, all are amazed at the experience, saying it has been a first-in-a-career one for them (not to mention er, an unusual one for impacted passengers). At the same time -- and from this vantage point -- it must be said: There's absolutely a wonderfully strong sense that Crystal staffers both onboard and at headquarters are working full out to find solutions to this no-way-a-textbook scenario.

The latest developments for those passengers whose cruise is now extending two days beyond the scheduled disembarkation date came from the Captain early this morning (Wednesday) at 1 a.m. (European time). He noted that negotiations to reopen the port seem to be at such a stalemate that Crystal Serenity, the only cruise ship here, will have to sail to Gibraltar in order to disembark the 700-plus passengers from this cruise and send them home.

Cruise Critic's editor Carolyn Spencer Brown, who is onboard the ship, has heard from various sources at Crystal that negotiations to disembark in Barcelona in a timely manner (i.e. no later than Wednesday) have been ongoing between Crystal headquarters in Los Angeles, the ship's Captain, port agents and even officials from the European community. Crystal's president Gregg Michel spoke with the port of Barcelona's president ... all to no avail.

As such, here's an up-to-the-minute update:

The ship has departed from Barcelona for Gibraltar, its new turnaround port. Its distance (just to give you an idea -- and this has nothing to do with actual nautical miles to travel -- the United Kingdom's Gibraltar is about a 12 hour drive from Barcelona; France's Marseilles, another option, is a 7 hour drive). Because of the distance, passengers will be onboard for another day at sea on Wednesday; the ship is expected to dock at about 8 a.m. on Thursday.

Crystal chose the port of Gibraltar over that of Marseilles, which is quite a bit closer to Barcelona because, responds Spokeswoman Mimi Weisband, "Gibraltar was the closest port to the Spanish mainland that assured us entry." She adds, "We had to plan to leave right away and at 1 a.m. (your time) we could not get the assurance of admittance to Marseilles."

One of the biggest challenges of debarking in Gibraltar is its relative lack of frequent air service to get folks to mainland Europe airports and then on to home. Weisband says the cruise line is hoping to line up charter aircraft if that proves necessary. If that's the case, there would be space to transport both passengers who'd booked their flights through Crystal's air/sea program and those who had traveled independently. Weisband notes that the line is communicating with independents' travel agents.

Indeed, as of 11 a.m. today (Central European time), it's been announced that folks will disembark in Gibraltar and take charter flights to Barcelona. Crystal is making arrangements for hotel rooms for all passengers.

The 1,000 or so folks who've been marooned in Barcelona for a day or more, waiting to board the ship for their cruise to Lisbon, have been hosted by Crystal in 15 different hotels. "Nobody has (outright) canceled yet," Weisband reports, "and I doubt they will but I'm sure we will be generous as usual. We haven't finalized anything for them until we know the new itinerary."

Which leads to the obvious question: How will the former 12-night Barcelona to Lisbon voyage morph as a result of the situation? Weisband says that "we literally just got off the phone with the captain to make the decision to go to Gibraltar. A new itinerary is being developed and we have to apply for port clearance. We have contingencies for itineraries with and without Spain."

As a recap, Cruise Critic reported the ship's most unusual problem earlier today:

Crystal Serenity, slated to wrap-up an 11-night Mediterranean cruise in Barcelona this morning, is still at sea looking for a port at which to dock.

In a strange early morning development, fisherman at many of Spain's ports -- including Barcelona, where Crystal Serenity was planning to both disembark passengers from the past cruise and embark travelers for the next -- have staged a blockade that prohibits all ships from entering (or exiting). Costa's CostaMagica is also impacted.

This means that some 700 passengers who'd planned to depart Crystal Serenity and head today for either the airport or a post-cruise stay in Barcelona are stuck onboard for an unexpected day at sea. Conversely, those Crystal travelers who'd anticipated boarding the ship today for its next voyage will have to stay on land. At last count we've heard that 650 of the 1,000 embarking travelers were in Barcelona on independent pre-cruise trips ... at least for now.

Ship officers, led by Captain Glenn Edvardsen, learned shortly after midnight that fishermen, protesting rising oil prices, would block the port at Barcelona. After what was apparently quite a tortured evening, Captain Edvardsen made an announcement at 7 a.m. -- when many passengers were dressed and ready to disembark -- that he was looking for an alternative place to dock. For a time, it appeared that France's Port Vendres, just over the Spanish/French border, would fit the bill. Once the ship had arrived there, however, it was learned that the tiny port (which does not attract cruise ships at all) did not fulfill international security requirements; Crystal Serenity was forbidden to disembark.

Cruise Critic Editor Carolyn Spencer Brown, who is onboard the ship, reports that many folks (not to mention crew members) were actually relieved as the Port Vendres option would require the ship to anchor. That would have meant that passengers as well as luggage would have to be tendered to shore -- where a three hour bus ride to Barcelona awaited. All passengers would have missed flights out (or time to tour Barcelona) regardless.

While the strike continues, Captain Edvardsen has decided to make the roughly eight-hour sailing to Barcelona in hopes that the strike will end this evening. However, according to Spencer Brown's sources in Barcelona, fisherman and government authorities are not even scheduled to meet again until tomorrow at this point. This could mean delay beyond today.

In the meantime, Crystal's most impressive staff and crew have been galvanized into action, creating a whole raft of activities for this otherwise unplanned sea day that range from flicks and bingo to guest speakers who've been called on to give fresh new lectures -- literally off the cuff. The library has reopened for book check-out, the golf pro was on hand to provide tutoring, and alternative dining arrangements are in place. The Internet center is free to all guests and bars are "open."

The only oddity, Brown reports, is that concessionaires -- which include the ship's casino, shops and spa -- were unable to reopen until the purser's office was able to re-establish passenger credit accounts. Ultimately, the ship's shops and casino did open their doors and the spa was offering a 20 percent discount on treatments across the board.

And those folks who packed everything but the travel clothes they are now wearing (the luggage collected last night was still stored below decks) had to miss out on pool games and paddle tennis tournaments this morning -- ultimately, luggage was delivered back to cabins this afternoon.

Beyond that, there's no possibility that anyone will make flights today -- and the ship's cyber cafe was full with folks trying to reschedule air travel (for the second time in some cases!).

This is the second major strike that has affected Mediterranean cruise travelers this fall. Spencer Brown notes that occurrences like these, though rare and certainly not limited to the Mediterranean, are considered "acts of God." And that means? Crystal is not required to offer travel assistance to those independent of its air/sea program, or even onboard credit for the disruption, as opposed to a situation in which a ship is late arriving at the fault of the cruise line (a mechanical problem, for instance).