I just boarded the first cruise ship to sail in the Caribbean since March. This is what the process was like
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The process of getting on board a cruise ship is going to be a little different for a while. But maybe not as different as you might think.
Within minutes of arriving at the port of Barbados on Saturday afternoon to board the first cruise ship to resume sailing in the Caribbean since March, I found myself in a medical tent, face-to-face with two staffers in full Contagion gear — masks, goggles, medical gowns, the works.
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They were there to test me for COVID-19 — my second such test in just three days. It’s a new requirement for anyone who wants to step onto the vessel, SeaDream Yacht Club’s SeaDream 1.
I also had my temperature taken, underwent a pulse oximetry test, was asked to sanitize my hands, had my luggage sprayed down with sanitizer — even my hand luggage! — and had to produce several pages of medical-related forms.
Compared to the way boarding a cruise ship was just a few months ago, it was all a bit bizarre.
But it also was not nearly as obtrusive as I had imagined. And it was all over relatively quickly.
From the moment I was dropped off at the port in a private, COVID-safe transfer arranged by the cruise line, to the moment I stepped on board SeaDream 1 — a new, negative COVID test officially under my belt — less than one hour had passed.
Forty-eight minutes to be exact.
The Points Guy is getting exclusive access among North American media this week to SeaDream I’s very first sailing in the Caribbean.
The sailing is a watershed moment for the cruise industry, which has been eyeing a restart in the Caribbean for many months. While some limited cruising has resumed in Europe and a few other places around the world since the summer, no cruise line has successfully restarted operations in not just the Caribbean but all of North America.
Assuming all goes well with this sailing and more than a dozen other voyages SeaDream plans in the region over the coming weeks, it’ll prove that a safe resumption of cruising in the Caribbean — the world’s biggest cruise destination — is possible.
The sailing also offers a first glimpse of what cruising in the Caribbean really will be like when more ships restart operations. For the most part, SeaDream is implementing the same anti-COVID restrictions on its ship that other lines have discussed as part of their restart plans.
In this, our first dispatch live from the ship, we offer a look at the new boarding process.
In some ways, the arrival process for this cruise was no different than for any other sailing. Upon stepping out of my transfer to the port, I was directed to an initial outdoor check-in station where a ship staffer awaited to check me in.
The first order of business was to sanitize my hands. I then gave her my name and cabin number, which she checked off a master list.
That much was par for the course. It was the next part that was different than anything else I have experienced in 25-plus years of writing about cruising.
From the initial check-in station, I was directed to an isolated (by party) outdoor seating area for a few minutes before being called up to an initial medical screening desk. A second staffer here (wearing a mask and face shield) took my temperature and measured the level of oxygen in my blood with a fingertip device. She also collected several pages of medical forms that I had filled out on my way to the port.
This was the initial screening hurdle — and apparently I passed. My temperature was 36.4 celsius — about 97.5 fahrenheit. My blood oxygen level was 98%.
I was sent back to the isolated seating area, which was a covered outdoor area of benches at the Barbados port, to await my COVID test.
The COVID test
Every passenger heading to SeaDream 1 must test negative for COVID-19 at least twice before being allowed on board.
The country of Barbados and SeaDream both require passengers to test negative for COVID-19 with a laboratory-processed PCR test within three days of traveling to the country and the ship.
SeaDream then requires an additional PCR test at the pier, with a negative result required before passengers are allowed to proceed.
I underwent the initial PCR test at an urgent care clinic near my home near Philadelphia three days before flying to Barbados, and the results came back negative the day before I flew.
Just to enter Barbados, I had to show a printout of that negative test to health authorities at the airport in Barbados. A printout of the test also was one of the medical forms that I had to turn over to the SeaDream staff upon arrival.
I waited about 20 minutes before it was my turn for the second COVID-19 test at the pier, which took place in a temporary medical tent that was set up in a covered outdoor area.
Like the test that I took back home, it took all of about two minutes. It was the same kind of COVID test that I had had three days earlier — the one where they stick a Q-tip-like swab so far up your nose that you think it’ll come back with a little brain matter.
If you’ve had one of these tests, you know it’s not pleasant. But it’s over quickly.
Afterward, I was sent back to my isolated area to await the result.
It was back in 15 minutes: Negative.
I was cleared to proceed to the ship.
SeaDream 1 has three Abbott ID Now rapid testing machines that each can process one test every 15 minutes. That means that the ship’s staff can process about 12 passengers an hour.
SeaDream 1 can hold up to 112 passengers, so in theory it could take up to nine hours to test every passenger at the pier if the ship was sailing full. But SeaDream won’t be sailing the ship full initially. On this week’s sailing, there are just 52 passengers on board.
When I had arrived, there were just a handful of passengers ahead of me, so I was able to get in and out fast.
I heard from some later-arriving passengers that there was a longer line at the time they arrived, and the process was a bit less speedy. Still, everybody was processed within a few hours.
Every one of the passengers joining the ship tested negative.
A warm welcome on board
After receiving the negative result of my COVID test, I was sent onward to the ship’s gangway, with just one more quick stop on the way. A staffer was waiting to spray down all my luggage, including my hand luggage, with a germ-killing sanitizer. He then took away my larger bag to deliver to my cabin later.
At this moment, the oddities of the arrival process faded away, and the boarding process reverted to what cruisers would normally expect.
I was directed through the port’s main arrival building and down a dock to the ship. After a quick stop for one last sanitization (both for my hands and my shoes, which got a spray down), I was climbing the gangway.
The ship’s hotel director was waiting at the top of the gangway to greet me and other arriving passengers. There also were staffers handing out cold towels and Champagne. Just a few steps away, in the ship’s main lounge, more staffers awaited with a spread of light bites to tide us over until dinnertime.
It was the same warm welcome for which SeaDream, an upscale line specializing in small-ship sailings, has long been known.
Masks not required onboard
I will note that none of the crew awaiting me at the top of the gangway were wearing masks, and as I walked on board, they told me that I no longer was required to wear a mask at that point, either.
Given that every passenger (and crew, too) must run a gauntlet of multiple COVID tests to get on board, the thinking is that the ship is effectively a COVID-free “bubble” where the extra precaution of mask-wearing is not critical. That said, the line does require social distancing between passengers at all times on board as well as daily temperature checks, and there is rigorous cleaning and sanitizing on board. I’ll have more on that in future dispatches.
There also will be yet another round of COVID-19 tests for all passengers this coming Wednesday — four days after our departure. (Anyone who tests positive would be required to quarantine.)
SeaDream has drawn some criticism on social media for not requiring mask-wearing on the ship at all times. But so far, the line’s new anti-COVID policies have proved to be effective.
While SeaDream is just starting up operations in the Caribbean this week, it has been offering cruises in Europe since June with the same procedures in place, with little trouble.
Overall, the boarding process for this weekend’s departure of SeaDream 1 was extremely smooth. It was rigorous in terms of COVID precautions, but it also was efficient. It worked.
SeaDream 1 is, of course, a very small vessel compared to the giant ships operated by Royal Caribbean, Carnival Cruise Line and the like. It carries far fewer passengers. Whether the sort of anti-COVID measures SeaDream is implementing for arriving passengers can work for bigger ships in the Caribbean remains to be seen.
That said, several larger ships have been operating in Europe with similar procedures for several months, and the early reports are that it’s going relatively smoothly there, too.
Larger ships operated by Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Line and other major cruise lines aren’t expected to resume operations in the Caribbean for at least a few more months due to regulatory issues.
Within four hours of my boarding SeaDream 1 on Saturday afternoon, it had slipped away from the port of Barbados, on its way to St. Vincent and the Grenadines. (We’ll have the full report on what calls are like later this week.)
While it was a milestone moment for the line, and for all of the cruise world, too, it was an oddly anti-climactic moment. Since the ship had waited at the pier for an extra hour to accommodate some late-arriving passengers, the ship’s dinner service already had begun at the time. Few passengers headed up top to watch as the ship pulled away.
I did sneak out after placing my dinner order to watch the lights of Bridgetown, Barbados, fade into the distance. It was a lovely sight.
The first cruise in the Caribbean since March was officially underway.
The Points Guy cruise writer Gene Sloan is traveling on SeaDream 1 as a guest of the cruise line.
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Featured image of SeaDream 1 by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy
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