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Cruise lines hustle to tack around ill winds

There was no rest, no long weekend, for cruise line executives over the Labor Day holiday. There hasn't been much downtime since then, either.

They have had to plot course changes for more than a dozen ships to avoid the recent succession of hurricanes, then had to deal with thousands of passengers whose trips were shortened, prolonged or canceled. The executives are now donating millions of dollars in cash, food, supplies and even labor to the hard-hit island destinations.

While modern ships can move much faster than hurricanes can advance, threats posed in the past six weeks by Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne have tested the companies' contingency plans, especially for finding safe ports in the United States and the Caribbean.

"I've been in the business since 1976," said Terry Thornton, Carnival Cruise Line's vice president of marketing and planning, "and I've never seen anything like this."

For Thornton, the toughest time came with six ships at sea and Hurricane Frances simultaneously threatening all three of the Florida ports Carnival uses.

In the end, the problem was solved by busing thousands of passengers the 125 miles between the world's busiest cruise port, in downtown Miami, and the much smaller one near Cape Canaveral.

Royal Caribbean International had 10 of its own ships and two vessels of its Celebrity subsidiary in the gulf, the Caribbean and the Atlantic. Only three were significantly affected when they had to get out of the way of Frances' approach.

Those ships returned a day early to Miami and Port Canaveral while canceling their next-scheduled trips. This let them head back out to sea before the storm's wind and waves could catch the ships in port and smash them against the docks.

But aboard those Royal Caribbean ships heading out for the unplanned trips were nearly 1,200 passengers. They had been aboard the shortened cruises and had accepted the offer of going back out for two more nights, for free.

Disney Cruise Line provided a similar bonus for the passengers on its two ships when Frances approached. Rather than return to Port Canaveral, the Disney Magic and Disney Wonder stayed at sea. Consequently, "the seven-night trip on the Magic was extended to nine, and then to 10," said spokeswoman Rena Langley, "and the Wonder's three-night itinerary became five."

Sailing, sailing ...

These diverted ships simply sailed the Atlantic _ in cruise brochure language, these are "days at sea," which are highly favored by passengers. Disney's passengers "were thrilled for the extra time," added Langley, "and we worked with them on changing their plane reservations."

Sherry Grantham, a passenger aboard Carnival's Sensation, didn't have to worry about a flight but she did wonder about the condition of her St. Petersburg home when her ship delayed its return to Tampa for three days because of Hurricane Frances. Then again, she appreciated the unplanned vacation.

"We stayed in Cozumel an extra day and a half, then took our time sailing back through the gulf," said Ms. Grantham, who sailed with co-workers from a dentist's office. "The captain and crew were very good about letting us know what we were doing, what was happening _ they pulled rabbits out of the hat to keep us entertained. . . . I commend them."

A variation on the changed itinerary was offered by Holland America Line, which had a single ship operating in the Caribbean.

The 1,848-passenger Zuiderdam "was supposed to sail from Fort Lauderdale on Saturday, Sept. 4," said Holland America's Rick Meadows, "but we knew Frances was coming. We decided to craft a five-day trip from the original seven days.

"We spoke either directly with all the passengers (the ship was soldout) or to their travel agents, alerting them to the likely change in plans," added Meadows, the line's senior vice president of sales and marketing. "But we didn't actually pull the plug until early Saturday."

By then, the booked passengers had been given the option of receiving a full refund or sailing a five-day trip (the ship canceled one-day calls at Key West and the company's private island in the Bahamas).

About half the booked passengers decided to cancel. Those who did come were given a future-booking discount of 25 percent and onboard credits _ for the shops, bars and shore excursions _ ranging from $200 to $600 per person, depending on their cabin category.

Putting it back together

In addition to avoiding the storms, the cruise lines had another concern: Where to send their ships.

Charley, Frances and Ivan damaged such popular Caribbean ports of call as Grand Cayman Island, Freeport and the various privately owned Bahamian islands used by the cruise ships, and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

While San Juan's port was reopened by mid September, Grand Cayman and Freeport are still closed to cruise ships.

"Grand Cayman is still a work in progress," Carnival's Thornton said. "They will need to get their shopping back up, get buses available again" to carry tourists to inland attractions.

That's the general order of business for each of the less-damaged destinations. The situation is far worse on other islands seldom visited by the cruise ships on their typical four- or seven-night itineraries from Florida:

The port of St. George's, Grenada, is closed to cruise vessels for the foreseeable future. While much of the immediate area has water and electricity, Hurricane Ivan left tens of thousands homeless.

Jeanne's force killed more than 1,000 on Haiti, with more than 1,000 still missing. However, about the only regular cruise calls to Haiti are made by Royal Caribbean ships, which dock at the company's private island, Labadee.

In efforts that are both humanitarian and make business sense, cruise companies are donating millions in cash and truckloads of food and nonperishable goods to several destinations.

"It's the right thing to do," said John Fox, Royal Caribbean's vice president for global government and community affairs.

"If you have cash, in the United States you can go buy the stuff you need. That's not the case in these Caribbean destinations."

So while his company has made donations of $250,000 to the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas, Jamaica and Haiti, and $100,000 to Grenada, "We are taking rice, beans, pasta, canned peaches, clothing, other items on our ships. . . . We delegated crew members to cleanup duties _ in Jamaica they helped clean up a clinic that was overwhelmed by sand and water."

Royal Caribbean and Carnival also have contributed $1-million each to the fund established by the Volunteer Florida Foundation to aid the state's victims of Hurricane Charley.

Carnival has sent two truckloads of goods to Grenada and another to Jamaica. The company and other members of the trade organization Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association also are transporting supplies to the Bahamas, including food, water, other drinks, baby food and formula, diapers, clothing, toys and household supplies.

Disney is sending similar items and something else: mattresses.

"We are in the process of refurbishing one of the ships," said Langley, "so we had mattresses to send."

Robert N. Jenkins can be reached at (727) 893-8496 or jenkinssptimes.com.

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