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A day on the docks

They have 10 hours to get passengers off the ship, clean it up, get new passengers on and leave the port. Stay out of the way.

Published March 27, 2005

Getting the ship in shape
A look at the challenges and procedures of getting a cruise shape ready for a voyage.
Click for graphic

TAMPA - Shortly before dawn, the imposing Inspiration towers over the dark shops and restaurants of Channelside. Lights in a few cabin windows and a handful of security guards milling around the dock are the only outward signs of life at 6 a.m.

Soon a tightly scripted, sometimes hectic dance will begin to play out, and over the next 10 hours crew members, stevedores and federal agents will prepare the Carnival Cruise Lines ship to head out for another a Caribbean cruise.

More than 2,400 departing passengers with some 6,000 pieces of luggage will be checked by U.S. Customs officers, then make a mad dash for cars or plane flights home. Ninety minutes after last call to leave the ship, the first wave of new passengers come aboard.

Before the ship pulls away from the dock on this recent Thursday morning, it will be the scene of three weddings, a possible heart attack and a decision on whether to wait for four passengers running late on a snow-delayed flight.

Thirteen tractor trailers bring industrial quantities of food and drink: 5 tons of fresh potatoes, 1,405 loaves of bread and 19,540 bottles of beer.

Housekeeping crews are too busy cleaning 1,026 cabins to take extended breaks. But hundreds of other crew members venture into Tampa to shop for electronics gear, clothes and groceries.

The drill is repeated over and over for Inspiration and five other cruise ships that use Tampa as a home port. That doesn't make it easier or less chaotic, says Miles Willis, the ship's hotel director.

"It's the longest day for most (crew) people," he says. "It's extremely intense. Everything has to go like clockwork."

7:45 to 9:15 a.m.

Union stevedores drive forklifts up to two square doors in the ship and pick up 5-by-5-foot steel "bear cages" stacked high with luggage. They speed 70 yards down the dock and drop the cages for other drivers who take them into Cruise Terminal 2.

Workers line up the bags, grouped by color-coded tags that indicate the level and location of the owner's cabin. Customs agents may randomly check luggage with drug-sniffing dogs.

Outside, the first trucks back up to the dock to restock Inspiration. This is a heavy provisioning - enough for the four-day cruise leaving today for Cozumel and the next five-day trip that stops in the Cayman Islands.

Two men in blue Carnival jumpsuits inspect cases of Garden Jewel tomatoes and Dole cauliflower stacked chest-high on wood pallets. One counts the number of boxes, the other peeks inside to check for insects.

All supplies must pass a sniff test from an explosive detection dog. A 4-year-old chocolate Lab named Coco runs up and down rows of pallets. Her handler slaps an orange sticker on each one with the logo of American Detection Technologies, a Carnival contractor.

A Tampa Fire-Rescue ambulance with lights flashing suddenly roars down the dock to the crew gangway. A 53-year-old passenger with chest pains went to ship's infirmary, which called for help. She was taken to Tampa General Hospital.

9:15 to 9:50 a.m.

"Ladies, move away from the door before you get run over," instructs Penny Romutis, a member of the "embarkation staff" outside Cruise Terminal 2.

This is peak rush hour for tired vacationers heading home. Romutis isn't exaggerating. Passengers lugging bags can easily get rear-ended if they linger too long on the sidewalk between the terminal doors and tour buses running to Tampa International Airport.

Tempers sometimes run short. "Waddya mean move?" a woman snaps at another embarkation staffer. "Don't you see my legs moving?"

A hawker for the Bay Shuttle, a van service, yells "Airport! Airport" at waves of men in straw hats, girls with braided hair and boys in T-shirts with slogans like "Born to Be Wild/Cozumel." When a family of five walks past, he cracks, "It's a long walk."

Annette Frost-Janvrin and her daughter, Victoria, have a 3 p.m. flight to Boston. They heard a snowstorm bearing down on the city could bring 8 inches by afternoon. "We want to get to the airport and see if we can get an earlier flight," she says.

9:50 to 11:30 a.m.

The day is going well for Anthony Scott and his housekeeping staff. They began cleaning cabins at 7:30 a.m. as guests cleared out and easily meet the 11:30 deadline to finish before new passenger s arrive.

Cleaners attack cabins in teams of two. A stateroom steward opens curtains, turns on the air conditioner, checks all eight channels on TV, strips and makes the bed, cleans surfaces and the ice and drinks.

An assistant cleans the bathroom, replaces towels, vacuums the cabin and sanitizes the ice bucket. The whole process takes about 20 minutes. Stewards run an ozone machine, about the size of a hand vacuum, to clear the smell from cabins previously occupied by smokers.

They didn't need to make emergency repairs to torn carpets or broken fixtures today, Scott says. But the upcoming trip might be different.

"The four-day cruises have a lot of office workers who like to party a lot over the weekend," Scott says. "We'll have to keep an eye out."

Below decks, forklift drivers maneuver pallets of food and beverages through tight hallways to refrigerated storage rooms.

The seafood freezer holds a huge variety: smoked whitefish, salmon fillets, rainbow trout and mahi mahi, bags of conch meat and shrimp (deveined and breaded). A worker hauls 350-pound blocks of ice for ice sculptures.

People in the hallway keep an eye out for the next forklift trying to squeeze between stacks of supplies and bodies. "I hate it when people get run over," says a deadpan Miles Willis, the hotel director. "All the paperwork."

11:30 a.m. to 2:15 p.m.

Many of the early arrivals gaze aimlessly at the neon-and-brass atrium, their first glimpse inside Inspiration. Lois Stone, however, is all business.

A local contractor for the Wedding Experience, she climbs the granite staircase and shouts instructions down to a crowd of wedding participants and guests around a half-oval bar. There will be three weddings - at 1, 1:30 and 2. Be in place no later than 15 minutes ahead of time. Don't eat anything before the reception.

"It'll be close," Stone says. "But we'll do it."

She doesn't let on that there's a tiny problem: The second wedding part y has not arrived. Stone dashes off the ship against a steady flow of passengers intent on squeezing every minute out of their time on Inspiration.

"I want to get on as quick as I can and get my money's worth," said Randy Hadden, who paid $500 and drove with family members from Dothan, Ala.

Most beat a path to their first feed of the cruise. It's a casual affair, snack bar burgers or a buffet of roast beef, broiled mahi and grilled chicken. By 1 p.m., people have trouble finding a seat in the Brasserie Bar & Grill or even walking around.

Two decks below, work on tonight's sit-down dinner is under way. "Galley production" workers build hundreds of salads and desserts, which go into refrigerated cases. This will help make room for waiters scurrying in and out with trays of freshly cooked entrees during the two seatings.

The two buses carrying wedding party No. 2 got lost en route and arrive late. Stone finds the group in the cruise terminal. She tracks down the bride in her cabin, and the wedding begins just five minutes late.

About 2:20 p.m., the third wedding - a bride, groom and three family members - wraps up in the ship's library.

Stone's final job: Round up 36 guests who aren't taking the cruise and move them off an hour before the ship is scheduled to leave.

It's serious business. At one wedding she worked, a guest drank too much and fell asleep in a bathroom stall. He didn't wake up until the ship was at sea. The crew kept him confined in a cabin, Stone says, and dropped him off at the first stop. He was charged for the room and meals.

2:15 to 4:30 p.m.

Through much of the day, crew members gather near an exit at dock level for a few hours on U.S. soil.

Nearly all are citizens of other nations. So they must wait for the 15-minute window each hour when a Customs agent checks documents and clears them to go ashore.

Some use the trip to send a money order home or to make an overseas phone call. Most returning to the ship this afternoon are weighted down with shopping bags from stores like Best Buy.

Amy Lutz, a dancer from Australia, piled into a taxi with three fellow crew members for a trip to WestShore Plaza and Publix. She returned with avocados, vegetable juice and fresh fruit for herself, and soups, Cheez-Its and frosted shredded wheat for friends on board.

"It's food you can't get on the ship," says Lutz, 25. The fruit on board generally has "been a while in storage," she says.

The Inspiration's Italian captain, Fabio Minetti, hasn't left the ship all day. He was on the bridge at 1 a.m. for the vessel's trip through Tampa Bay's narrow, 41-mile shipping channel. Once the ship was secured at the dock, he hit the rack for some sleep.

Now, his officers watch the weather and winds. Inspiration is scheduled to depart between 4 and 4:30 p.m.. But with an hour to go, about 90 passengers haven't checked in. Some are piling off buses at the cruise terminal.

Four passengers are trying to get in from Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C. Their United Airlines flight, scheduled to arrive at 2:44 p.m., was two hours late leaving because of deicing and is expected to land at Tampa International just after 4 p.m.

A delayed departure is not a simple matter. Vessels must stop in both directions when a big cruise ship moves through the 500-foot-wide shipping channel. If Inspiration waits past 4:30 p.m., it might be held up another hour or longer to let other ships clear the channel.

Minetti will confer with the harbor pilot responsible for guiding Inspiration through the channel, then make a decision with officials at Carnival headquarters in Miami.

"We'll see at 4 o'clock if we're going to wait 'til 4:30," he says. "If I can wait, I wait."

The ship departs at 4:30 - but without the Dulles passengers and 17 other no-shows. United flies the Dulles four to Cozumel, where they join the Inspiration on Saturday.

Steve Huettel can be reached at or 813 226-3384.

[Last modified March 27, 2005, 00:37:41]

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