THEY have become a sad sight off the south coast – anchored cruise ships offering a stark reminder of how devastating Covid-19 has been to the industry.
But for Mudeford ferry owner Paul Derham they have been a very welcome boost to his business, which has seen him having to cut passenger numbers from 80 to 30.
As someone who spent 27 years working for P&O – latterly as deputy captain of the Aurora – Paul hit on the bright idea of offering a cruise past the huge vessels so that people could get a close-up view of these masters of the seas.
The “ghost ships” anchored in the Solent have become a big draw and a tourist attraction in their own right.
Paul said: “I know the captain of the Aurora, so I called him up and asked him about the possibility of putting on a cruise to see the ship.
“He said that was fine as long as I stayed 50 metres away. So I advertised two cruises and within two hours they were completely sold out.
“It is a unique chance for people to get so close to these cruise ships. You don’t even get that close at Southampton port unless you are about to embark on one.”
Weather permitting, he now runs four “ghost ship” cruises a week, with adult tickets at £20 and £10 for children.
The ships are rotated but among those which have been spotted are all three of Cunard’s Queen flagships, plus Britannia and Carnival’s Valor which normally sails out of New Orleans.
Paul said: “I can tell them what all the markings on the side of a ship are for, what the crew do and what life is like on board for them
“I give them all the statistics about the ships and can answer any questions they might have.”
Among the rather surprising questions that have been fired at him is: “Can we go on board?”
Paul said: “I have to politely say no. No question surprises me, really, not when you’ve had people ring you up and ask if they can bring their car on the Mudeford quay to Sandbank ferry route.”
The most impressive ship in terms of scale, says Paul, is the Allure of the Seas which was once the biggest in the world.
He said: “It is 230 feet high and 1,200 feet long. When you come within 50 metres of her it really is something to behold and, of course, everyone always goes, ‘Wow, it’s so big!’”
Among the most personal stories Paul tells on the two-and-a-half-hour cruise is about the rescue of the Pamela Dream in the South China Sea in 2001.
The Aurora, which was on her maiden voyage with Paul on board, went to her aid, finding only three crew members floating among a raft of wood splinters and life vests.
They were spotted with the help of the 1,200 passengers aboard who the captain had asked to line the decks and help look for survivors.
He said: “It really was a tragic sight. The Pamela Dream had sunk within 40 minutes. The crew we found had been in the water for four hours.”
Sailing past the Aurora has bought back many memories for Paul who says he is “sad” at the state of the cruise industry which has been decimated by Covid-19.
He said: “I really do not know how it is going to start again. Arcadia has just cancelled its world cruise for next year.
“I am not sure the industry will ever be the same again which is sad for the crews. It is a great life.”