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Cruise: Port Agents

Shore Patrol

Little-known harbor hands can help Passengers in trouble

September 08, 1996|ARLINE INGE | Inge is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles

I had booked a Caribbean cruise to get away from crises, decisions and hysteria. But on Day Five, I was flailing my arms at a deckhand, one foot planted on the dock at St. Martin and the other on the gangway of a shore boat waiting to take me to my cruise ship.

It was the last boat back to the Celebrity Line's palatial Zenith, riding at anchor in the harbor, and I knew one passenger was missing. On the way to the dock, a young woman had discovered some unspent dollars and ran back to Front Street to scoop up last-minute duty-free loot.

"Don't let the tender leave without me," Amy called over her shoulder. I foolishly nodded OK.

"Madame, please, all aboard," said the deckhand. "Your ship sails in 20 minutes. We can't wait anymore." I stood fast, wildly considering stepping ashore to stay with Amy. But the woman was just a shipboard acquaintance. Where did duty end?

The deckhand's firm hand on the small of my back answered the question, and we were under way. Like the Ancient Mariner, I repeated my tale of woe to the passengers as we sailed to the mother ship. The deckhand absolved himself with a shrug. "Whenever we wait for somebody, it turns out that they took an earlier boat. Your friend probably has had her shower and is on her second mai tai. They always are!"

If there's one thing cruise lines drum into your head during shore excursion briefings, it's "don't miss the ship." If you do, you'll have to make it to the next port on your own, and at your own expense.

As it happened, Amy sailed up just before the ship's gangway was raised, having been delivered by another line's shore boat. This last-minute save is common courtesy among cruise lines, I learned later, when I asked a ship's officer what would have happened to my bikini-clad friend if she'd been left on the island with no toothbrush, no cash, no credit cards or ID.

"The port agent would have helped her," he said offhandedly. I looked puzzled.

"That's why his name and phone number are listed in the daily activities program," he said.

"The port agent?"

"Everyone around the dock knows our agent and someone would get him for you," he answered. The officer went on to explain that if the ship had sailed without Amy but was still in reasonable range, the agent could have sent her out by tug or chartered boat, or he could have put her on the vessel that goes out to fetch the harbor pilot who guides the ship out of port.

Failing these measures, the agent would have called for authorization from the ship's captain to lay out funds for meals, hotel and a plane ticket to the next scheduled port. Later, the cruise company, of course, would bill her for the works.

Back in my cabin, I scanned the program that had been slipped under my cabin door that morning. The agent for St. Martin was listed in a small box on page two but without any explanation. Most cruise lines list their port agents there and in the informational pamphlet that comes with your ticket. However, passengers are merely instructed that they can receive mail and cables through the agents at each port. Not a word about their role in saving a wayward Amy.

I have since asked several cruise line officials why many passengers are left in the dark about this important agent function. The best answer I got was a tongue-in-cheek reply from Joan Brower, of G.C.I. Group in New York, which does public relations for deluxe Celebrity Cruises, based in Miami.

"You can understand why ships might not want to publicize this service," she said. "They probably don't want people to think they can miss the boat."

*

The duties of the port agent go far beyond delivering mail or rescuing stranded passengers. In each of their ports of call, shipping companies contract with local agents for marine services and emergency passenger aid. An agent can be a lone man with a phone on a remote Pacific island or part of a large maritime agency in a megaport such as Los Angeles, Athens or Hong Kong. Most deal not only with passenger ships but also freighters, tankers and inter-island ferries

Matthew Sams, director of port operations for giant Carnival Cruise Lines, calls his agents "the eyes and ears of the port."

"Our company is based in Miami, but our ships call throughout the world," Sams said. "Agents know the local rules, regulations and fees, the docking and anchorage locations, berthing arrangements, customs and immigration requirements. They deliver supplies and mail to the ship and make sure that repair and emergency services are ready if needed. They schedule the local harbor pilots and arrange for prompt boarding by customs and immigration officials, so that passengers can get ashore as soon as possible."

One of the biggest full-service maritime agencies in the country is Eller & Co., of Ft. Lauderdale, which serves 26 cruise lines--including such prominent ones as Holland America and Cunard--in several southern Florida ports. Eller's duties include the handling of stevedoring and terminal operations.

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