To paraphrase Joe Friday of Dragnet fame, here are just the facts, ma’am: Since 2012 marked our 30th anniversary, my wife and I booked a Christmas Cruise. This being our first cruise, we were lucky to be accompanied by some family members, several of which are veteran cruisers. The salient fact about this cruise is that it embarked from Baltimore, MD USA and included a stop in Port Canaveral, FL USA before sailing on to the Bahamas. As Charles Dickens writes in A Christmas Carol, this must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.
Shortly after we sailed I started feeling ill. By dinner I was very sick, but everyone including the ship’s doctor assured me that it was just sea-sickness and that a nice lie down in the stateroom would have me ready to eat and drink my way to cruise nirvana soon. By the time the ship docked in Port Canaveral it was apparent that my affliction was not motion sickness but something more serious and probably contagious. So at this point my wife and I decided to leave the cruise since luckily we were still in the USA. Turns out that was not so lucky after all.
The guest services people on the ship, while quite solicitous and sympathetic, were nonetheless flummoxed by this situation. First they told us that we were not allowed to disembark until we reached Nassau, in the Bahamas. When pressed further they decided that while we could technically disembark in Florida, there would be a $300 per person fee to do so. We decided that it would be worth the $600 to avoid sailing on and then risking having to fly home to Colorado from Nassau. So we made the appropriate arrangements with a local hotel and rescheduled our flights accordingly. When we arrived back at the guest services desk, luggage in hand, the attendant informed us that they just needed to contact Customs and Border Protection (CBP) so we could be escorted off the ship. A few moments later, the seriously flustered crew member returned with news that CBP would not be able to send anyone until long after the ship was scheduled to sail for the Bahamas. At this point we got a bit testy and pointed out that we could simply walk off the ship, it being docked and we being American citizens to which the amazingly understanding, but frustrated guest services guy replied while that was a possibility they would be required to inform local authorities that we had disembarked and we would then in essence be fugitives, albeit very easy to find fugitives.
So feeling defeated, we decided that the best course of action would be to make another visit to the ship’s doctor and stick it out until we reached Nassau and decide then what course of action to take. The doctor concurred with our amateur diagnosis of some kind of virus infection, medicated me heavily and quarantined me to our stateroom for 24 hours which would be about the time we would arrive in Nassau. Fortunately the treatment was effective and I was more or less healthy when we reached Nassau and decided to continue the cruise. Unfortunately between the hotel we booked on short notice and never used and the changes in airline flights we made, the cost was substantial.
So how does a snarky security blogger having a bad vacation affect you and how is this a “cautionary tale”? I’m glad you asked.
The real story involves antiquated laws, security theater and the nature of the passenger maritime industry. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The story begins in 1886 with a bit of legislation intended to protect the then in it’s infancy American passenger vessel industry, called the Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886.
The Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886 (sometimes abbreviated to PVSA, Passenger Services Act, or PSA) is a piece of United States legislation which came into force in 1886 relating to cabotage. Essentially, it says:
No foreign vessels shall transport passengers between ports or places in the United States, either directly or by way of a foreign port, under a penalty of $200 (now $300) for each passenger so transported and landed.
This was further bolstered by the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, better known as the “Jones Act”.
The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (P.L. 66-261) is a United States federal statute that regulates maritime commerce in U.S. waters and between U.S. ports. Section 27, better known as the Jones Act, deals with cabotage (i.e., coastal shipping) and requires that all goods transported by water between U.S. ports be carried in U.S.-flag ships, constructed in the United States, owned by U.S. citizens, and crewed by U.S. citizens and U.S. permanent residents. The purpose of the law is to support the U.S. maritime industry.
So putting this together we get the following (presumably unintended) consequences.
Any vessel subject to the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 counts as a U.S. vessel. Under the Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886 (46 U.S.C. § 55103), foreign-flagged vessels cannot transport passengers directly between U.S. ports. The handful of U.S.-flagged cruise ships in operation are registered in the U.S. to permit cruises between the Hawaiian Islands, or from the continental U.S. to Hawaii. The Passenger Vessel Services Act, however, does not prohibit foreign-flagged ships departing from and returning to the same U.S. port or foreign-flagged ships departing from a U.S. port, visiting a foreign port, and then continuing to a second U.S. port. However, in order to embark in a U.S. port and disembark in a second U.S. port, the vessel must visit a distant foreign port outside of North America (Central America, Bermuda. the Bahamas, and all of the Caribbean except Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao, count as part of North America).
In accordance with this law, Cruise lines that operate foreign-flagged vessels are fined $300 for each passenger who boarded such a vessel in one U.S. port and left the vessel at another port.
There are legal exceptions in the case of medical emergency, which in spite of how I felt at the time, my 48-hour malady could hardly be considered such. So the bottom line is that the cruise line was prohibited by US law from allowing us to disembark at an intermediate US port.
But wait! This gets better. Since 911 the Customs and Border Protection (CBP), now a part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has had a strict policy that no one embarks to or disembarks from a foreign-flag vessel in a US port without going through CBP (often referred to as “Customs”). And this is where it gets really interesting. Turns out there is no CBP office in Port Canaveral since no foreign-flag vessels embark or disembark passengers there and the nearest CBP office is in Orlando which is 55 miles away. So it’s not too surprising that the CBP folks were not ready to lend assistance immediately. So the bottom line is this: there was no legal way for the cruise line to allow us to disembark at Port Canaveral except if we were taken directly to a hospital or in police custody.
So why didn’t the ship’s guest services crew just tell us this up front? Here’s where the final bit of that foreshadowing of doom comes in: the nature of the passenger maritime industry. You see, the typical crew member on a cruise ship is not American (given that as far as I can find out there is exactly one US-flag cruise ship in operation) so they can hardly be expected to be familiar with US maritime law. Also crew members are not permanently assigned to a ship and ships are not dedicated to a single cruise route. Since very few cruises that embark from US ports have an intermediate stop in another US port before heading out into international waters thereby being subject to the Jones Act, it’s hardly surprising that no one on the guest services crew during the holiday season had ever heard anything about either the Jones Act or CBP policy. So you can hardly fault the crew members for not having good information.
Finally there’s yet another bit that didn’t figure in to this tale that would have had we decided to stop cruising and disembark in the Bahamas per the suggestion of the crew. Since 911 DHS has aggressively discouraged airlines from booking short notice one-way flights into the US. Airlines will not actually refuse to do so, but it will cost a lot. In fact they will suggest that you buy a round-trip ticket which will cost less, although still expensive, and just forget the return trip. In either case this will pretty much guarantee a strip search and several hours of intimate conversation with TSA officials once you get back into the US.
So what should you take from this cautionary tale? Here’s the list:
- If you take a cruise from a US port to anywhere outside the US, be aware that if you get sick or have an emergency that cuts short your cruise it will be a very expensive proposition.
- Do not assume that crew members on the cruise ship have any idea how to handle your emergency situation with respect to getting you off of the ship.
- If you are forced to cut short your cruise be aware that the cruise line is very limited in what they can do to help you as they too are victims of antique protectionist law and modern security theater.
- Since the cruise line is forced into an untenable situation there are no guarantees regarding what they can or will be responsible for. You are on your own to figure this out and know what should happen next.
Fortunately this story does have a happy ending. My vacation wasn’t totally ruined. I got to visit Nassau and bask in the warm Caribbean sun on Coco Cay, so I definitely will be returning to the Bahamas in the future. The cruise line, Royal Caribbean, really made things right. Not only waiving all medical fees and refunding part of the cruise fee for the time I was quarantined they refunded all of the extra expenses incurred with the failed attempt to leave the ship. So kudos to Royal Caribbean (no they didn’t spiff me to write this – they just did the right thing). Since I have no other experience, I have no idea what other cruise lines might do in such a situation but I can definitely recommend Royal Caribbean. Only next time I think I’ll take a cruise not subject to the Jones Law / CBP / DHS perfect storm of cruise hell.