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JANE FRYER goes on a ghost ship tour – a new tourist attraction off the south coast


As we chug away from the quayside in bright sunshine and skipper Paul Derham runs through the wonders we will experience, everyone on board the Mudeford ferry is ready and prepared.

Gloria and Andrew Wilkie wield shiny binoculars. Others have expensive digital cameras. The Andover Huggett family shut down cell phones.

"Are we all super excited?" shouts Paul, 62. "Yes, yes, yes!" Come on the answers. Some drove three hours to take this excursion.

Not by chance to see seals, dolphins or a pod of killer whales.

Jane drives past the Aurora. Jane Fryer joins Paul Derham on his new sightseeing tour around the ghost cruise ships anchored in the English Channel during the coronavirus pandemic

This general view shows the interior of one of the banquet rooms on the Queen Mary 2 luxury cruise ship while it is docked

A view of the "Queens Room" in the world's largest cruise ship, Queen Mary 2, which is docked at the Marina Bay Cruise Center in Singapore

Cruise ships around the world run with skeleton crews but are otherwise deserted like these pictures of the luxury cruise ship Queen Mary 2 while it is docked during the pandemic

No . . These maritime tourists are on a different type of safari. You are here to discover "Ghost Ships" – the nickname for the ever-increasing number of luxury cruise lines that include the three flagships "Queens" of the Cunard fleet – currently moored off the south coast between Portsmouth and Plymouth.

For months, these ocean-going Leviathans have no longer been moving stately through the Mediterranean or the Caribbean, but overloading the English Channel.

Their massive generators are turned on – to power on-board systems for the skeleton crews – and their engines are idling. But the kitchens are closed, the sommeliers and waiters posted, the bars and restaurants empty, the decks and swimming pools largely deserted, and the whirlpools dry and dusty.

Captain Marcin Banach is currently supposed to be carrying 3,000 passengers in the Mediterranean, but – along with a few dozen employees aboard P & O's Azura – he won't be stuck in Babbacombe Bay in Torquay until November at the earliest.

His daily Twitter feed – sharing snaps of endless ocean views, abandoned restaurants, a workout in the ship's abandoned gym, and a lonely stroll around the deck in an old duster – is already pretty repetitive.

The Azura and the other ships have been here so long that they changed the view from the coast.

Seen from the shore, the horizon is littered with huge icebergs in the haze. At night they shine like huge floating casinos.

Binoculars sales in local stores are booming and I've been told the bar in a Harry Ramsden branch is the best place to go to local shipping.

Others want to get up close and personal, however, and the fact that they have become a tourist attraction off the Dorset coast is largely thanks to Captain Paul Derham. He owns the Mudeford ferry and runs the two hour tour.

He also happens to be an expert who worked on cruise lines for 27 years and was once deputy captain of P & O's 78,000-ton Aurora.

While the entire travel industry worldwide has suffered a terrible blow from the coronavirus, perhaps no sector has been hit harder and longer than cruises.

This week's announcement that the cruise industry will be on an extended hiatus through at least October and some companies through January 2021 is another bitter blow.

The transatlantic ocean liner RMS Queen Mary 2, the flagship of the Cunard Line, comes to the P&O ships Aurora and its sister ship Ventura in the bay off Weymouth and Portland

The transatlantic ocean liner RMS Queen Mary 2, the flagship of the Cunard Line, comes to the P&O ships Aurora and its sister ship Ventura in the bay off Weymouth and Portland

Not only for individual companies, their staff on leave and the crews still on board who are working desperately to maintain the shape of the ships. But also for millions of disappointed customers – a very enthusiastic selection of whom is with me on the ferry – and for our economy in general.

Because cruises – once primarily intended for folk at a certain stage of life – have become fantastically popular in recent years for all age groups and population groups.

In the UK, the company makes £ 10 billion a year and employs more than 88,000 people. We make more than two million cruises a year – a number that has more than doubled and is increasing in the past decade.

At least it was.

Cruising hit early in the pandemic and made headlines around the world. The virus first swept through the UK-registered Diamond Princess in Japan and then through the Grand Princess off the California coast.

Hundreds of passengers fell ill with the infection and had to be quarantined at sea.

In a matter of weeks, most major cruise lines, including P&O and Cunard, had canceled all trips, taken vacations or laid off thousands of employees and put everything on hold.

Last month, UK cruise line Cruise & Maritime Voyages (CMV) became the first to take over, leaving a huge void in the small ship cruising market.

And more recently, three smaller non-UK ocean cruise lines that started sailing again in July have been linked to new coronavirus outbreaks.

Of course, once the ships were out of action, they had to go somewhere – and they're really massive.

P & O's Aurora may be "just a medium-sized ship," as Kate Dingley, 64, a veteran cruiser with nearly 40 voyages, tells me breezy, but it's still 270 meters long, 32.2 meters wide and, according to Paul, can just just push your way through the Panama Canal and there will be inches available on each side.

Docking costs at cruise terminals across the country have ruled out this option for many companies, which is why it can be spotted on watch from the Firth of Forth – where the Fred Olsen cruise ships Balmoral, Braemar, Boudicca and Black do not glide through the waters of the Baltic and Scandinavia – up to the English Channel, so that many ships are anchored at sea.

Last month, UK cruise line Cruise & Maritime Voyages (CMV) became the first to take over and left a huge void in the small ship cruising market

Last month, UK cruise line Cruise & Maritime Voyages (CMV) became the first to take over, leaving a huge void in the small ship cruising market

When Paul heard that his beloved Aurora was one of them, he chugged over to take a look, thinking others might like to see it too, and, as he puts it, "hit it up on Facebook for a laugh" .

Within a few hours, tickets for his first tour (£ 20 for adults, £ 10 for children) were sold out.

"We are here because we love cruises and this is the best we can achieve this year," says Denise Bullen, 79, who has participated in 15 cruises.

The first ship we spy on is Royal Caribbean & # 39; s Allure of the Seas.

At 362 meters long and 47 meters wide – way too big to fit through the Panama Canal – the Allure makes the Aurora look like something you would play with in the bathroom.

Even from two miles away the scale is breathtaking. Up close – Paul can get us within 50 yards – it's downright fantastic. It can travel at only 35 mph, but with a two-deck dance hall, 1,380-seat theater, ice rink, 25 restaurants, seven different neighborhoods, a climbing wall, and capacity for 6,000 guests, this is a floating city. Unfortunately a city that almost everyone has left.

Apparently there are around 100 crew members (out of the usual 2,000) on board: they occupy the bridge and engine rooms and include kitchen and maintenance staff.

We look at one of the more than 800 balconies on the port side and recognize a crazy, lonely figure and wave madly. He waves back, not quite so carefree.

Presumably he's still adjusting to the news that he won't stay out here until October at the earliest.

We also spot a lonely-looking officer on watch (Paul tells us) on the bridge. But nobody else. Perhaps the others will cool off in one of the pools – while most ships have a staff pool, many have some of the passenger pools open to staff.

Or they are preparing for one of the occasional forays back to the port to dispose of waste, collect supplies and water, urgently operate the engine and occasionally change crew.

But mostly the boats just float – idle and sad.

Fortunately, the ghosts seem more joyful as we approach the aurora.

The Crow & # 39; s Nest cocktail bar can be mothballed along with the theater, cinema, and restaurants, but Captain Simon Love waves and another member of the crew keeps blowing the ship's horn.

While most of my fellow travelers cheer for joy on the ferry wave, not everyone is so enthusiastic.

"It's a little sad," says Dave Huggett, 55. "The ships look like old donkeys going to pasture." No boat should stop at sea. & # 39;

Cunard's ocean liner Queen Mary 2 (left) and the cruise ships Carnival Valor and Marella Explorer 2 (right) in Portland, Dorset, as the cruise industry is closed until at least October due to the coronavirus pandemic and experts estimate a loss of at least £ 2.4 billion .

Cunard's Queen Mary 2 (left) ocean liner and the Carnival Valor and Marella Explorer 2 (right) cruise ships in Portland, Dorset, as the cruise industry is locked up until at least October due to the coronavirus pandemic and experts estimate a loss of at least £ 2.4 billion .

Locals, meanwhile, are concerned about the pollution from the diesel engines and have written strongly worded letters to their local newspapers and MPs.

A spokesman for Cunard and P&O was quick to highlight the use of advanced air quality systems and gas cleaning systems that remove sulfur compounds and particulates from ships' exhaust gases.

For now, however, her main concern is to get the industry moving again.

The Cruise Lines International Association estimates the economic loss of a 90-day cruise suspension – and likely far longer – will be £ 2.37 billion and 13,788 jobs.

No wonder the cruise lines worked with Public Health England 24/7 to keep logs for cruises to Covid.

Measures are likely to mean shorter cruises, fewer ports of call and fewer passengers, and a ban on buffets. Access to gyms, pools, and hot tubs is also regulated.

As a result, the immediate future will look very different. But maybe it doesn't matter. Because cruisers are incredibly loyal to their chosen company and to cruises in general.

Almost everyone on the Mudeford Ferry says they'll book a vacation as soon as ships are allowed to set sail again.

& # 39; We're not worried. We'll leave as soon as they run, ”says Denise Bullen. "It's part of our life."

"Just seeing the ships out here is a beacon of hope," says Kate Dingley. “We can see that they are being looked after and cared for. As soon as they are able, they are ready to sail again. & # 39;

In the meantime, the crew, passengers, and the entire travel industry will be ready to somehow keep the cruise lines afloat.

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