2020 was shaping up to be another banner year for passenger vessels until the coronavirus pandemic and government edicts shut almost every operation down.
The closings that started in mid-March may stretch into summer with some operators giving hoped-for restart dates and others suspending sailings until further notice. Thousands of employees have been laid off or furloughed, vessels sit idle, passengers want refunds, owners try to navigate federal aid programs and communities argue about when to reopen for business.
There’s no sugar-coating the outlook.
“Numerous U.S. small passenger vessel operators who operate seasonally will surely lose their entire operating season for 2020 and most likely will go into their 2021 seasons — should they actually survive — dramatically weakened financially,” the Passenger Vessel Association (PVA), said in a letter urging Congress to expand the Payroll Protection Program (PPP).
PVA, which represents 300 passenger vessel operators with about 2,000 vessels, estimates the economic damage from March 1 to Labor Day could range from $3 billion to $5 billion.
Troy Manthey laid off more than 90% of his 145 employees and is keeping the marine crew busy though at reduced hours. “All owners I know have taken themselves off salary, including me. I’m no longer getting paid,” said the CEO of Yacht StarShip and Pirate Water Taxi in Tampa, Fla. What’s more, they received a COI for a new water taxi built by NewCastle Shipyards, Palatka, Fla., the week they were shut down.
“We’ve been very fortunate in being able to move our group business to the fall,” he said, and if allowed to open, they’ll have good third and fourth quarters.
But even then, there will be questions about how many of their four dinner boats will be in service and what the capacity restrictions will be. Handwashing sinks in all boarding areas, thermometers and masks will be part of the scene.
“I think there’s a ton of people with cabin fever. There will be a lot of folks who want to get out on the water,” Manthey said. “When our customers see the level we’re going through to keep vessels sanitized, they will feel very comfortable.”
Capt. Jonathan Claughton, owner of Savannah Riverboat Cruises, thinks people will want to stay close to home and drive rather than fly anywhere. “People are looking for smaller, less crowded vacations,” he said, and Savannah’s a good place for that.
“It’s probably going to be mid-June before we are back up and running at best. It’s going to be a slow, gradual recovery to the end of the year,” said Claughton, who operates the 1,000-passenger Georgia Queen and the 600-passenger Savannah River Queen. About 20 of a total staff of 120 remain. Groups that were booked in the spring have rescheduled for the fall. “We’re going to weather the storm.”
Still operating in late April — because they are considered critical transportation infrastructure — was Washington Island Ferry Line. The Wisconsin company is doing four rather than six daily trips to Washington Island in Lake Michigan, carrying only two or three cars each, a fraction of the 18 to 21 their four vessels can hold.
“Hopefully, what we’re seeing now s the lowest of the low,” said Hoyt Purinton, president and captain of the community’s year-round lifeline. “Typically, we’re very conservative. There’s a short time to put enough hay in the barn. The options currently available are not great.”
Operators defer, cancel and cut what they can. Federal help “puts some sand in the upper part of the hourglass.”
In the last five or six years, demand has steadily increased. Purinton was expecting to take delivery in June of a 124'×40' vessel with an icebreaking hull built by Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding, Sturgeon Bay, Wis., that will be the longest and widest in his fleet. But, “at this point, it will be parked.”
“It’s daunting to look further than a year,” he said. “PPP helps buy more time for planning, hopefully more time for options. There is no choice other than to fight and push on.”
The virus also has hurt domestic overnight cruising. U.S.-flag operators that had been steadily expanding to meet demand stopped sailing or postponed start dates.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) no-sail order potentially cancels cruises until early July for all overnight vessels with passenger and crew totals of 250 or more.
Though drafted for the huge foreign-flag ships which had highly publicized virus outbreaks, the CDC directive hit some U.S.-flag vessels as well, and they are adjusting.
“We’ll voluntarily make a nominal temporary modification to the certificated passenger and crew allowances on the American Empress which typically accommodates 221 guests and 88 crew,” said John Waggoner, founder and CEO of American Queen Steamboat Co. “We believe we can adequately meet our anticipated ridership, enhance social distancing on board and remain below the CDC’s 250 person on board guideline.” With 166 passengers and a crew of 70, the company’s American Duchess is below the threshold.
The New Albany, Ind.-based cruise line also has updated its operations manual to deal with CDC’s concerns, and they’re optimistic federal authorities will accept it, “and then, we will be able to commence operations on the American Queen and the American Countess,” he said. The 245-passenger American Countess was originally set to start sailing in April from New Orleans.
“We anticipate restarting operations with a phased-in approach beginning in late June,” Waggoner said. “This will depend on when states and local authorities relax their policy on social distancing and stay-at home policies.” As ridership increases on the first two vessels, they’ll launch the other two.
American Cruise Lines (ACL), the largest U.S.-flag overnight operator with 12 ships on inland and coastal waters, also has suspended cruises “for the safety of our guests and crew,” said Charles Robertson, president and CEO of the Guilford, Conn., company. All vessels are under 190 passengers. “Despite this year’s unprecedented disruption, American is still building for the future and looks forward to cruising close to home with our guests again soon.”
ACL is on schedule to debut the third in its modern riverboat series, the 194-passenger American Jazz, later this year in New Orleans.