[Image: EO Browser, Sinergise Ltd/Attribution 4.0 International CC by 4.0), via The War Zone.]
Comas of temporarily abandoned cruise ships—maritime ruins in an age of COVID-19—have been popping up on the outer edges of Caribbean islands, visible in satellite photos of the sea.
Ships from Carnival, Celebrity, and Royal Caribbean now form a strange new archipelago, a network of ships “spread out loosely in three groups spanning some 30 miles” west from the Bahamas, The War Zone explains.
“Although there are no passengers aboard these ships,” we read, “some of which cost well over a billion dollars to build, there are plenty of people still on board. Much of their crews are literally trapped on these vessels. As the world cut back travel due to COVID-19’s explosive spread around the globe and cruise ships became very unwanted guests at long-established ports of call, cruise line workers were trapped at their floating workplaces far from home.”
But what strikes me here is how the failure of a particular business model has had near-immediate spatial effects, verging on apocalyptic surreality: an overnight surplus of ships and their workers, with nowhere to go, are, for the indeterminate future, a kind of stateless micro-polity, inconveniently flagged to countries unwilling to offer support and unable to dock or disembark in intermediate nation-states for fear they might spread COVID-19.
In fact, as that New York Times link, above, points out, “An estimated 150,000 crew members with expired work contracts have been forced into continued labor aboard commercial ships worldwide to meet the demands of governments that have closed their borders and yet still want fuel, food and supplies.” 150,000! “The result has been a string of desperate emails, text messages and calls to shore. Pleas to governments have gone unanswered.”
For some reason, I’m reminded of the apocryphal story of Babu Sassi, a man from Kerala who allegedly operated a construction crane atop what would soon become the tallest building in the world, now known as the Burj Khalifa. Sassi, the story goes, found the daily journey down from his perch to the surface of the Earth—and back again the next day—so personally tedious and so economically inconvenient that, one day, he simply refused, instead staying in place in his crane and living up there for more than a year (if urban legends are to be believed).
He slept, ate, and worked at such a remove from the rest of the world that his fellow humans became nothing more than dots, blips moving here and there on the horizon, like people stranded on distant ships. Sassi’s decision, of course, unlike these crews stuck on structures marooned at sea, had the illusion of agency; his exile from the earth’s surface seemed not obligatory but self-divined.
Extreme economic circumstances produce equally extreme spatial scenarios. Whether it’s someone living alone atop the world’s tallest construction crane, whole families moving into corporate mining towns in the Canadian Arctic, or these still-crewed ships on pause at sea, spatial loopholes open and people slip into them, sometimes fatally absorbed into the circumstances of their labor.