Staying Afloat in Troubled Waters

The challenges of running a cruise line in this unstable economy.

ByABC News
May 25, 2009, 2:31 PM

May 26, 2009 -- Portree, Scotland – Aboard the Seven Seas Voyager: The worst part of Regent Seven Seas Cruises President Mark Conroy's job is when the phone rings in the middle of the night. It happened at 1 am this past March 19th.

"Mark? This is Dag," Conroy recalled the conversation beginning. The head of the highly rated small luxury cruise line knew it wasn't going to be good news. Captain Dag Dvergastein was on the bridge of the line's premier cruise ship the Voyager as it was departing Singapore on a segment of its world cruise.

Dag told Conroy that his ship had accidentally run over some unmarked fishing line which became caught in one of the propulsion pods. Later, Conroy would relate that the $12 worth of fishing line would cost his company $20 million.

An accident like that could have bankrupted other small cruise lines. But Conroy worked tirelessly to keep his customers satisfied and his cruise line above the water.

It's not uncommon for boats to run over fishing lines. Ships like the Voyager that use propulsion pods instead of fixed propellers have special cutters to break the lines before they do any damage. But Conroy said the cutters were scraping the propellers so when the Voyager went into its regularly scheduled dry dock in December, the cutters were modified and spaced farther apart. It turned out to be a costly decision.

The newly modified cutters didn't do their job. The fishing line took one of the Voyager's two propulsion pods out of service, reducing the ship's speed to only 13 knots, and forcing long and expensive repairs which would have to be done soon in a dry dock. The world cruise would end early and the disappointed passengers who had paid a minimum $50,000 each had to be put at ease.

The ship was on its way from Singapore to Dubai carrying 265 world cruisers, the company's best and highest paying customers, plus almost another 300 passengers. Conroy personally took charge of damage control. He authorized a full refund to all cruisers on that segment, "Otherwise, they'd kill me," he feared. Conroy personally flew to the ship to explain the problem to the passengers. And he supervised dealing with the logistical nightmare that was to follow.

Conroy had to come up with alternatives for the passengers on board and those scheduled to join the ship in Dubai. He also had to figure out how to get his crippled ship safely through the pirate ridden Gulf of Aden. "It's like putting up a sign that says 'Hijack me,'" he said.