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10th April, 2020

Tilbury Docks

Well, what an interesting few weeks have passed for all of us since the middle of March.

Saga Cruises responsibly announced the temporary suspension of cruises due to the Coronavirus pandemic, and secured two berths for our vessels in the commercial port of Tilbury, London. After ending planned cruises, each ship headed to the mouth of the River Thames where they navigated 50 miles or so upstream before entering the lock chamber separating Tilbury Port from the tidal river Thames.

The lock chamber is in fact only just big enough for Spirit of Discovery to fit inside, and as such was my first challenging manoeuvre as Captain of this lovely ship. Even the docking pilot of numerous years’ experience commented that he’d never been on a ship of such tight fit in the lock! But the manoeuvring capabilities of Spirit of Discovery, with her powerful Azipods and bow thrusters, are so impressive that even this challenge seemed a mere breeze…

Once safely alongside, 500m across the harbour basin from Saga Sapphire which had arrived earlier on the same day Captained by Richard Lambert, we prepared to close the ship down for what is known in the industry as a ‘warm layup.’ In layman’s terms, this means that crew numbers are reduced to a minimum required to keep the ship safe, essential systems running, and able to return to sea within relatively short notice.

In such unprecedented times, and with the timespan of the global Coronavirus outbreak unknown, Saga decided it was the right thing to allow the vast majority of ships’ crews to return home to their families. It really was a mammoth logistical effort by teams both ashore and on board the ships to repatriate some 700 crew members within such short notice; especially given limited flight availability and on top of that, various countries starting to shut their borders.

One such setback was the Philippines suddenly announcing their border closure just as the majority of our Filipino crew had arrived at Heathrow airport to check-in for their flights. As such, these flights were immediately cancelled and 480 crew members had to return to Tilbury where we set up accommodation on board Spirit of Discovery for them all overnight, whilst clarification was sought from our agencies and government transport ministers within the country as to whether Filipino nationals could be repatriated or not.

Fortunately, the answer was yes – nationals could return to the Philippines and so "Operation Repatriate: Take Two" resumed the following day and we saw plenty of happy souls heading to the airport and one step closer to their families.

And so it is that we are left with some 40 crew aboard each ship, to keep the ships "alive" and ready to start cruising again whenever it becomes safe to do so. At this stage, I would like to on behalf of Saga, our teams here and at home worldwide, wish all our guests every healthiness and happiness at home – and we very much look forward to seeing you all back aboard once again when it becomes safe to do so.

Routines for the lucky few of us remaining in Tilbury Docks include daily exterior cleaning of the ship – no mean feat given the amount of seabirds flying above us with seemingly very regular bowels, and heaped bulk cargoes on the working quaysides being blown all over the decks – and spot maintenance to stop any rust form forming on steel superstructures. Technical teams maintain the machinery plant and keep everything running/tested on required basis.

Planned maintenance on all equipment continues as if we were still in service, with regular inspections of our essential safety systems completed by on board teams to maintain the ships’ trading certificates in date. We have two chefs on board to cook our meals, (thank goodness – otherwise it’d be beans on toast for everyone) as well as a laundryman on each ship to keep our uniforms clean and, perhaps most importantly in these times, a nurse to monitor and record our health daily.

We are, of course, isolating ourselves on the ships in order to minimalise any risk of crew catching COVID-19 and then spreading the virus on board. We occasionally ferry crew between either ship by using our own little boats as shuttles, keeping them moored alongside each ship when not in use. This is useful if there is a particular problem on either ship where we might need additional resources or team members to assist, and we also periodically hold special events such as BBQ’s or movie nights in the theatre on either ship, to maintain morale on board.

We have also tried to do our best to help out the local communities in these times of need, by donating whatever foodstuff and medical equipment we can spare to charities and hospitals/health centres. A couple of examples being the donation of two van-loads of foodstuff for local charity 'Friends of Essex and London Homeless', as well as delivery of essential medical spares to Leacroft Medical Practice; who were able to utilise themselves as well as locally distribute these much needed supplies to other nearby medical centres in the south London region.

In between mealtimes and as I type now, our chefs are baking dozens of cakes to be distributed to local NHS medical practices for hard-working staff there as a treat. In fact, I am going to pop down to the galley shortly to see if I might be able to lend a hand…

Captain Kim Tanner

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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