A cruise ship is trying to evade US arrest at sea

All at sea.
All at sea.
Image: Crystal Cruises
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A cruise ship evading the authorities wound up in the Bahamas instead of its Miami destination, leaving hundreds of passengers to make their way back to the US a day after their tour was scheduled to end.

The Crystal Symphony, a luxury liner, was finishing a two-week cruise when a US judge issued an arrest warrant Jan. 20 over a lawsuit alleging the vessel owes more than $1.2 million in fuel bills. Arrest warrants for ships are permitted under US maritime law for plaintiffs seeking to collect unpaid debt; in this case a US marshal would arrest the vessel when it entered US waters.

“Vessels have a legal personality much in the same way an individual or corporation would,” says Michael Karcher, a professor at the University of Miami who teaches in the maritime law department. In this case, the ship was party to a lawsuit and deemed responsible for unpaid bills issued by a fuel provider. Rather than dock in Miami the following Saturday as planned, the cruise ship headed for Bimini, an island in the Bahamas.

The debacle is a sign of the financial trouble facing Crystal Cruises and its parent company during an already fraught economic moment for the cruise industry.

Lawsuit leaves crew members, passengers in limbo

Crystal Symphony’s near run-in with the law came shortly after Peninsula Petroleum Far East filed a lawsuit in Miami federal court on Jan. 19 against the Crystal Symphony as well as Crystal Cruises and Star Cruises. The lawsuit (pdf) alleges the cruise lines owe the fuel provider $4.6 million in total.

Both Crystal and Star Cruises are owned by Genting Hong Kong, which recently began the process of liquidating its assets and dissolving the business over rising debts it can’t repay. Crystal Cruises announced on Jan. 21 it would temporarily suspend sailing operations due to Genting’s financial struggles.

Elio Pace, a singer-songwriter working aboard the ship, said the news came as a surprise to passengers on the Crystal Symphony, who were initially informed they would need to disembark from the ship once it arrived in Miami on Jan. 22 and head home from there. Those plans changed when the cruise ship rerouted to Bimini, though, to evade being seized by a US marshal.

After the ship docked in Bimini on the evening of Jan. 22, some passengers disembarked and were put on a ferry to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Crystal arranged to provide other passengers with ground transportation to local airports, as well as the Port of Miami.

“This end to the cruise was not the conclusion to our guests’ vacation we originally planned for,” Crystal Symphony said in a statement provided to Quartz. The company declined to comment on its pending legal matters.

The fate of crew members that remain on board the cruise ship remains unclear. Pace told the Associated Press that 30 to 50 workers disembarked because their contracts ended, but roughly 400 remained on the ship with no word on how long they’d remain employed. As of around 12:30pm US eastern time today the Crystal Symphony was sailing off the northwest point of Puerto Rico, according to cruise tracking data.

Diversion signals larger struggles for cruise industry

Genting, which first started a casino business, built up one of the biggest cruise companies in Asia by acquiring not only Crystal and Star Cruises but also Dream Cruises, which offers trips from Singapore and Hong Kong.

Genting Hong Kong was hard hit by the covid-19 pandemic, though, and reported a record $1.7 billion loss last May. Its decision to begin the process of dissolving the company came after MV Werften, the German subsidiary that builds ships for the company, filed for insolvency.

In recent months US cruise ships have continued to operate even as omicron outbreaks have forced some to skip stops and quarantine passengers. But it’s been more difficult for liners to resume normal operations in Hong Kong, where public health regulations surrounding covid are stricter. Genting suspended its regional “cruises to nowhere”—which typically last one to three nights—following orders by the Hong Kong government earlier this month.

Its CEO and chairman, Lim Kok Thay resigned as chairman and CEO of Genting Hong Kong yesterday, but still owns stakes in casino resorts in several countries as well as palm oil plantations in Malaysia. He is worth an estimated $2.2 billion and ranked as Malaysia’s 11th richest person by Forbes. As for the Crystal Symphony, it will need to pay its bills or work out another arrangement, such as paying a bond, to evade arrest. “They’re probably not coming to Miami anytime soon,” Karcher says.