Akash Dookhun, a Celebrity Cruises crew member from Mauritius, an island nation in southeastern Africa, has not set foot on dry land since he was on a port call in New Zealand in early March. And he doesn't know when he'll stand on solid ground again.
"The more time passes by and the more (stressful) it gets," he said.
And by late March, the Celebrity Solstice, the cruise ship where Dookhun worked as a stateroom attendant, had been completely emptied of passengers, he told USA TODAY.
He remained on the ship until he and other crew members were transferred to Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas, where he has been since May.
"I have been on board for almost 10 months," Dookhun said, noting a number of fellow crew members have been on board ships for over a year.
Dookhun, who has worked for Celebrity for five years, arrived on board the Solstice on Nov. 8 and was scheduled to leave the ship July 3. Instead, he has been at sea for a month after his contract's expiration, and there's no telling when he'll go home.
His story isn't unique.
As of Tuesday, nearly five months after the coronavirus pandemic shut down the cruise industry, more than 12,000 crew members remained on ships in U.S. waters, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. That's down from more than 70,000 in May.
The Coast Guard "is tracking 57 cruise ships moored, at anchor, or underway in vicinity of a U.S. port, or with potential to arrive in a U.S. port, with approximately 12,084 crew members," Brittany Panetta, a lieutenant commander and spokesperson for the U.S. Coast Guard, told USA TODAY.
The Coast Guard says that number includes an estimated 209 Americans who are spread out among 37 of the ships. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said as of Wednesday that the agency knew of 53 U.S. crew members on 22 cruise ships in U.S. waters. But despite the discrepancy in numbers, it's unclear how many of those crew members are actually stuck vs. working.
"We do not know if these 53 crew members are considered essential for the safety and seaworthiness of the ship and need to remain on board or if they are working with their cruise lines to be repatriated," CDC spokesperson Jason McDonald said, noting the agency "is allowing crew members to disembark from all cruise ships in U.S. waters."
Cruise ships always require at least "minimum manning" for upkeep and to maintain basic onboard operations, though the number needed to keep things running varies by ship and is determined by the ship's flag country, McDonald said.
As far as disembarking U.S. crew members who aren't needed, McDonald said it's the responsibility of cruise lines, which must complete response plans and meet certain criteria to determine whether crew members can use commercial or noncommercial transportation.
Cruise industry trade group Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) tracks crew members differently than the Coast Guard, estimating how many around the world are actually trying to get home. The group represents 95% of oceangoing cruise lines.
“Our best estimate of the number of seafarers on cruise ships still awaiting repatriation is approximately 5,000, based on a survey of our major cruise line members," Bari Golin-Blaugrund, senior director of strategic communications for CLIA, told USA TODAY Thursday. But, unlike the Coast Guard, CLIA is estimating specifically the number of people who need to be repatriated to home countries. The group doesn’t have an estimate of the number of American crew members on board ships who are still trying to get home but believes there are “very few,” underscoring the challenge in tracking the status of those still on board.
Some crew members face repatriation challenges
Since the cruise industry came to a screeching halt on March 14, with CLIA's voluntary sailing suspension and the CDC's "no-sail" order, both of which have been extended multiple times, cruise lines have struggled to send home crew members stuck on their ships.
Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesperson for United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, called the issue a "humanitarian and safety crisis." Dujarric urged countries to allow stranded seafarers to repatriate in a June statement.
"We visit 130 countries, we have crew coming from at least that many countries," Adam Goldstein, the global chair of CLIA, told USA TODAY. CLIA's member lines have had "extreme" difficulties getting crew members home, according to Goldstein.
The reason it's been so difficult? Government-imposed travel restrictions, according to the International Maritime Organization.
"There are a lot of countries you would normally take air transportation or might find yourself going from home port to home country on ground transportation," Goldstein said. "Borders started to be closed, and (crew members) couldn’t access normal routes."
Even when cruise lines brought crew members directly to their countries via ship, there were issues.
"For example, in the Philippines, ships took the crew themselves into Manila Bay," he said. "Even then (they were) not able to get expeditiously from the ship to their home country."
The industry had faced challenges early on trying to repatriate crew members in the U.S., too, Goldstein said. Particularly due to the CDC's stiff requirements for crew's use of commercial air travel.
And Dookhun doesn't blame his employer, Royal Caribbean Group, which owns Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises, for the situation. He blames his home country of Mauritius.
"The feeling of being abandoned and neglected by our own country is very harsh on us," he said.
He said that the Mauritian government refused any repatriation from cruise ships at the beginning of the shutdown. The regulations have evolved but remain difficult.
The latest estimates available from the Mauritius government indicated there were about 2,000 Mauritian crew members stranded aboard cruise ships as of June 10, and they would be allowed to return home on charter flights of 150 passengers per trip, with just a few flights per month. At the rate things are going, Dookhun estimates it will take until November to complete repatriation efforts.
"The government was not very keen towards any deviation from their repatriation plan," Dookhun said.
All repatriation flights to Mauritius, he added, are out of Europe. So the company has decided to send them on Majesty of the Seas, another Royal Caribbean vessel, to await repatriation in Southampton, England.
USA TODAY has reached out to the government of Mauritius for more information.
Dookhun and other crew members have used social media and reached out to news outlets around the world to talk about their situation. They've also reached out to government organizations, though he says they haven't received any response.
Dookhun's employer, Royal Caribbean, said the company is continuing to work to repatriate crew members after several months of effort.
"We’re doing everything possible to get everyone home. It’s still our priority," Jonathon Fishman, spokesperson for Royal Caribbean, told USA TODAY Wednesday.
Goldstein said that there isn't a single party to pin blame on as the cruise lines and countries have been navigating uncharted waters and a litany of new rules and precautions.
Countries, he said, have been trying to attend to the public health of their citizens in a global pandemic and not open them up to coronavirus exposure but in doing so created obstacles to repatriation.
"It’s not like anyone was intentionally doing them harm," he said of the crew members. "It was a natural byproduct of what was happening."
What life is like for crew stranded on board amid a pandemic
On ships, crew members have faced quarantine restrictions, lack of work and mental health issues.
"Crews were subject to a variety of regulations ... that often required them to remain in their cabins for very extended periods of time," Goldstein said. "Sometimes far beyond the 14-day incubation cycle of COVID-19."
Dookhun said that life on board the deserted Voyager of the Seas has been dull.
"We lost our main purpose of being on board – that is our job, and we are not allowed to go home as well to be with our families for mutual support," he explained.
As a result, boredom is one of the biggest challenges. "We basically don't do much."
Not only have they stopped working, but the crew members who remain on board don't have access to many of the amenities that would make a cruise exciting for passengers.
"For us, the non-working crew, we are allowed to go eat at the buffet wearing our masks," he said, noting they are served food instead of doing self-service. "Social distancing is in place at all times, and we are not allowed to socialize much. Gyms, bars or any space that promotes socializing are closed, and we are not allowed to be out of the rooms between 11 p.m. til 7 a.m."
Bruno Cruells, a music director for Celebrity Cruises, is now home but was stuck at sea until June 3, he told USA TODAY after disembarking.
"I was working on the Celebrity Infinity, but during the last month I was transferred to the (Celebrity) Reflection, to the (Celebrity) Equinox and back again to the Reflection," he said. He originally boarded a ship on Nov. 28 of last year.
His movement between ships isn't surprising as many crew members have been shifted around the globe on various ships as cruise lines attempted to get their employees home.
"Many crew members felt depression on the ship I was on and on other ships," Cruells said, noting one difficult stretch of 33 days of isolation in their cabins. "Every time a flight (home) was canceled, anxiety grew among the crew, and people dealt with it in different ways."
For some crew members, the time on board, particularly in isolation, went beyond just being boring and frustrating.
Maiara Leones, an international guest services associate for Holland America, is currently on land in Brazil, though she lives in Italy. But she was stuck on Holland America's MS Koningsdam until May 23 after being transferred from the MS Westerdam – a ship that was stuck in limbo at the beginning of the pandemic as it was turned away from ports around the world and finally disembarked passengers in Cambodia. She boarded on Jan. 13.
Leones had suicidal thoughts multiple times on both ships, she told USA TODAY. They came not only due to spending time in isolation and the stress of being on board and not knowing when she would return to land, but she also struggled with co-workers.
"(I thought) I will hurt myself because then they (will take me) to a hospital," she said, thinking it could be a way to get off the ship.
"And my thought was, 'if I hurt myself and it doesn't work I’ll die,' and I thought, 'well that's OK it doesn’t matter.'"
Now she says she's in stable condition and seeing a psychiatrist.
Repatriation efforts aren't over yet
The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) has been working to help bring home crew members stuck on cruise ships throughout the pandemic for months.
So far, the ITF has supported the industry's efforts to repatriate roughly 250,000 crew members around the globe, Johan Øyen, chair of the ITF’s Cruise Ship Task Force, told USA TODAY.
"There do remain seafarers stranded on some vessels for a number of reasons," Øyen said, though the ITF also believes very few of those crew members are from the U.S.
The three major cruise companies, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd., Royal Caribbean Group and Carnival Corp. have also been working to bring crew members home. But they still have more to do.
Norwegian expects to finish repatriating its crew members within the next 45 days. According to a quarterly earnings report released Thursday, the company has sent home over 21,000 crew members to more than 75 countries.
"As of (Wednesday) 43,524 have been repatriated – fewer than 1,000 left to go – (that's) 98% repatriated," Fishman said of Royal Caribbean's repatriation efforts.
And Roger Frizzell, spokesperson for Carnival Corp., which is the parent company to multiple cruise lines, told USA TODAY Thursday that the cruise giant was nearly finished repatriating its crew members.
"We were at 1,600 remaining last week (78,400 completed), and the number will be smaller by the end of this week, so there we are close, too," Frizzell said.
Are stuck crew members getting paid?
Dookhun hasn't worked for more than a month, but he isn't without pay.
"We are being paid $400 per month, which is less than our usual salary but much better than nothing considering the fact that we are not working and we are just waiting for repatriation," he said.
But not all crew members have a financial cushion.
In fact, some crew members who work for Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line have filed a lawsuit against their employer.
Michael Winkleman, the Miami-based attorney who filed the suit, told USA TODAY that the cruise line hasn't paid crew members who have had no other option than to remain on the ship, which they see as the equivalent of forced labor. USA TODAY has reached out to Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line for comment.
"It's shocking that a company thought this was acceptable," Winkleman said.
"I think similar issues are happening across the industry with crew members stuck on the ships for nearly five months now."
American cruise workers denied disembark: 'Treating us like disease vectors instead of humans'
If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time day or night, or chat online.
Crisis Text Line also provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they dial 741741.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cruise ships in US still have 12,000 crew members aboard amid COVID-19