Despite setbacks, the passenger ship industry continues to use science and spacing to make its vessels Covid-19-free
The abrupt abandonment in July by Hurtigruten of all expedition cruises following an outbreak of Covid-19 comes as a warning to the passenger ship industry despite all the precautions it has taken to ward off the pandemic. The suspension is even more of a blow because Hurtigruten was in the forefront of measures, both on board and ashore to protect passengers and crew.
“In light of the recent increase in new cases of Covid-19 globally, the only responsible choice is to suspend all expedition sailings,” says chief executive Daniel Skjeldam in a statement in early August that must come as a shock to the entire industry. “[We must be] absolutely confident we can carry out our operations in line with all requirements from the authorities and with the even stricter requirements we have set for ourselves.” The suspension, although temporary, applies to Fridtjof Nansen, Spitsbergen and Roald Amundsen, the affected ship.
The industry will however learn from the Hurtigruten incident, which appears to have started with crew before they arrived on board, as well as other incidents occurring in late July and August, and push on with a broad swathe of measures. Under what might be called passive protection, a swathe of science-based products is being deployed.
For instance, hard surfaces such as doors, table tops, bars, outdoor seating and other fixtures will likely be treated with antibacterial paints and other sanitising materials. Doors are a particular target, as Antti Marine’s commercial director Markko Takkinen tells Passenger Ship Technology. “I would say there is considerable interest in hygienic and antibacterial materials on door surfaces,” he says. “I believe that new standards will come. These antibacterial paints and surface materials are available but we have not used them – yet.”
Often ahead of the curve, Antti Marine’s award winning ‘e-hinge’ (standing for ethernet-equipped) was designed before the pandemic but its online cabling system reduces the amount of handling required. It has become a bestseller in the industry.
Typically, all door surfaces are specified by the passenger ship companies and the surface materials are usually paint in the form of powder coating, PVC-laminated sheet steel, HPL-laminates and stainless steel.
Manufacturers are also working on door locks to enhance protection. Princess Cruises, for instance, will hand passengers a device called Ocean Medallion that allows touchless cabin entry. Like a wrist watch, it features a button on the face that activates the door automatically.
Virgin Voyages Scarlet Lady will feature some advanced science in the form of sensors that can detect whether a cabin is occupied or not so that there is no non- essential interaction between staff and passenger. In another form of passive protection, even more advanced thermal cameras will monitor the body temperatures of guests and crew.
Quick off the mark, Germany’s Brombach+Gess has released a rapidly installed, prefabricated sliding window kit that among other benefits allows for natural ventilation in busy areas such as pool decks or crowded public spaces. The health benefits are considerable because research on Covid-19 shows the virus is transmitted much more quickly in enclosed spaces.
The system was designed for easy installation, coming as a complete preassembled system that is fitted to an existing window, regardless of the size. No welding work or structural changes are required, which slashes time and cost. And, Brombach+Gess says, “the installation process can be done at any port during normal cruise operations”.
All vessels will be much cleaner than before. Some of the interior changes will be invisible, like Virgin Voyages’ air purification system. In partnership with UK’s AtmosAir Solutions the group will deploy a hidden technology that sanitises the air on board. Borrowed from the airline industry, it renders air a claimed 99.9% free of coronavirus.
Hurtigruten and Virgin Voyages have also borrowed ultraviolet light technology from hospitals and laboratories. The light can identify potentially infective organic materials invisible to the naked eye on hard surfaces in cabins, galleys and public areas.
In February, just before the pandemic shut down the cruise industry, ecology-conscious Lindblad Expeditions instigated an automatic disinfecting system called Premium Purity. Its secret is a photo-catalytic process called ACT CleanCoat. Developed by Copenhagen-based ACTGlobal, the disinfecting process fires up under light and attacks undesirable microbes such as bacteria, viruses, mould and airborne allergens. Applied to all surfaces, the spray is transparent and odourless. For good measure it purifies the air for up to a year. Based on advanced science, the product is chemical-free.
After booking impressive results, Lindblad decided to deploy Premium Purity across its entire fleet. “We reduced guest-reported illness by 50%,” says Lindblad vice president for hotel operations Bruce Tschampel. “The crew is raving about how much healthier the ship is and how effective it is to use this solution.”
Under the heading of active prevention, all companies have taken the most direct option of reducing passenger numbers, some by as much as half of the usual complement to make public spaces much less crowded. The movement of passengers is also being directed so as to avoid unnecessary contact. Here, technology is coming to the rescue once again. MSC Cruises’ smart system – MSC for Me – is a wrist band that allows groups to locate each other on board without having to search all over the ship. The system also ensures that public areas do not become overcrowded.
Throughout, trade bodies and authorities have worked hand-in-hand. America’s Passenger Vessel Association (PVA) was quick off the mark, recommending preventive measures relating to working furniture such as keyboards, telephones, hand rails and door knobs, mainly in the interests of the crew.
“Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces” the association recommends. Its guidelines also require workstations to be reconfigured – “where possible, work stations should be staggered so employees avoid standing directly opposite one another or next to one another.” Six feet of separation is considered ideal.
Similarly, the arrangement of restaurants is mainly being dictated by regulation. The PVA’s guidance recommends that floor plans for common dining areas are designed to ensure at least six feet of separation – the magic distance – between table setups. “Where practical, especially in booth seating, physical barriers are acceptable,” the PVA says.
One practical outcome is the end of that favourite of cruise ships – the buffet. Under advice from health authorities, restaurant service areas will be reorganised entirely for table service, with orders taken from apps on mobile phones. The purpose is to limit queuing. As the European Maritime Safety Agency’s recommendations for cruise ships, issued late July, it is vital to maintain physical distancing, particularly in queues so that “overcrowding is prevented or at least reduced”.
In practical terms, as the document makes clear, interior spaces must be reconfigured to maintain safe distances and furniture placed accordingly. The document pays equal attention to crews, recommending protective barriers at fixed locations “wherever staff members connect with passengers”.
It is clear these guidelines will provide the basis for the next few years, and probably permanently.