Disembarking the Carnival Vista on a clear October morning, Vicki White was relieved that her bad knee had held up.
She had been worried that taking a tender boat from her cruise ship to George Town Harbour would be hard on her body. But once on shore, she said the boat ride had been a good experience.
“Sometimes you have to kind of crawl up a ladder or something [to board the tender], and this time you just went right in. It was much better,” White said.
The last time White tried to visit Grand Cayman with her husband, Roger, they hadn’t been so lucky. The sea was too rough, and passengers weren’t able to come ashore that day.
“That does happen with the tenders. Can’t help that,” Roger said.
But that day, the wait had been short, and the ride had been smooth.
More than 11,000 cruise passengers arrived at George Town Harbour that morning aboard three cruise ships: Carnival Vista, Carnival Paradise and Royal Caribbean’s Liberty of the Seas.
Despite the clear skies and calm seas that day, about 16% of passengers stayed aboard their ships, a typical number across cruise ports in the Caribbean and Latin America, albeit high for Cayman.
That left just over 9,900 tourists that day to transport by tender boats – smaller vessels used to move passengers from ship to harbour.
At terminals that use tender boats, like Grand Cayman or Belize, cruise lines tend to prefer local vessels over their own, often smaller boats. Local vessels are typically roomier and more comfortable, with open air roofs and railing where passengers can view the passing water.
In Cayman, the local boats are operated, in large part, by Caribbean Marine Services.
Captain Renell Sosa has worked those tenders for six years now. It’s an all-day job for him, starting before sunrise and ending after sunset, but he enjoys working on the water.
On a clear day like this, running the boats is simple for Sosa.
“We moved 750 people at once. That’s just the first load. Then we have the tenders go alongside again. That’s another 750. So, it’s pretty quick and efficient,” he said aboard one of 15 boats operated by the company.
Each vessel carries 250 to 300 people at a time. From ship to shore, Sosa said the journey lasts about four minutes.
In all, he estimated transporting the 4,000 passengers deboarding the Carnival Vista would take about two hours.
How it works
Guests that have scheduled tours take priority. They’re part of the early-morning ‘rush hour’ around 6am. Other guests take a number and ride to shore after the tour groups have been transported.
“What they normally do in the morning, if they’ve got a tour of about 800-900 people, we would access three shell doors and then we wouldn’t even have a back of the line. We would load three tenders at a time,” Sosa said.
He’s not intimidated by the idea of transporting passengers from larger, Oasis class cruise ships, carrying upwards of 6,000 tourists.
He says there was a time when naysayers doubted the ability of tender boats to service ships like the Carnival Vista, now a regular visitor to George Town, with a maximum carrying capacity of nearly 5,000.
“I’ve been alongside the Oasis class many times,” he says.
“For us to get access to the shell door is the same way we do it here with the other ships. A ship of that size, we would just put on there six or seven tenders. We open three shell doors and we can move a volume of 4 or 5,000 people in maybe two and a half to four hours.”
Sosa thinks tourists enjoy tendering in Grand Cayman. The experience offers something different and gives the destination a unique character.
“They don’t see a big slab of cement. They see nature. To be on a boat is a different view. … It’s a different kind of experience,” Sosa said.
Grand Cayman’s tender business has been in operation for around 40 years and while cruise lines may prefer docking at a proper port, it’s not clear if guests really mind.
On a clear and sunny day, tourists are happy just to be on the water.
“It was a very, very short trip, so it totally worked fine,” said passenger Leticia Gutierrez of Houston, Texas.
“I think we were the second boat on, so it took less than 10 minutes.”
Blake Mitchell of Phoenix, Arizona, said, “Everything’s enjoyable on a boat.”
And, in general, cruise passengers leave Grand Cayman satisfied.
At 5.29 hours, time spent ashore in Cayman ranks fourth out of 34 Caribbean and Latin American cruise destinations, according to the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association. Out of 36 destinations, Cayman ranks second, after Cozumel, for how likely tourists are to return for a land-based or resort vacation.
But in terms of overall satisfaction with the initial shoreside welcome, Cayman barely breaks the top 20, coming in at No. 19., after St. Maarten and St. Kitts.
Then there are days when the harbour is too choppy for tender boats to operate. This is when the ‘mobile port’ concept comes into play. Ships reroute to the Spotts dock on the southern shore and the tender boats follow.
Sosa doesn’t see the mobile option as a problem.
“If we have a storm coming in here and George Town is out, we could follow the ship wherever she wants to go,” he said.
“With a [port], you would have less flexibility because you wouldn’t have access. I’ve seen times where guests are left behind by the ship. We just call the ship and say, listen, we’ve got guests here on the pier. He just stops, we chase the ship down and get alongside.”
While tender operators have been accused by government of financially supporting opposition to the cruise port, Sosa says he’s less concerned about the business than he is about the harbour itself.
“Because that’s the future for our kids,” he said.
“They’re just thinking about the money. That’s not the way to think. You’ve gotta think about your kids, who’re coming up …
“It’s not the tender operation that’s going to be hurting. They’re going to be hurting the environment. I’ve been down in that water there and it’s a beautiful, beautiful place.”
Tendering isn’t just a nostalgic experience for Cayman’s cruise sector. For people like Sosa, it’s also a defining trait.
“The port is unique. You don’t find this nowhere else in the Caribbean.”