Cruise ships – the final voyage

To be honest, I haven’t really been obsessing too much over cruise ships for the last 36 hours or so. I pretty much stated my case here and moved on. Because as large as this story is, there is a lot of big news right now, with profound implications for so many populations and industries.

I sort of expected some dramatic action yesterday, and it didn’t happen. But there were some hints. Pence made mention of a 72 hour action plan that started from the Saturday meeting. Trump made some remarks yesterday about big news coming today. But no big news. This evening I went back for another look.

I mentioned in my first post on cruise ships that I was watching two ships, the Pacific Princess and the MSC Opera. There have been a few others that I’ve kept an eye on that I don’t have to drag out right now.

The MSC Opera is docked in Genoa. I thought I read somewhere that the passengers and crew were cleared to disembark, but now I’m not sure. It will come out soon enough. I’d bet my last dime on there being infection aboard. I hope the actions of port and health authorities in Greece and Italy with this ship will come under close scrutiny. Malta turned the ship away under pressure from doctors there. There’s a story there if anyone wants to find it.

A point I’d like to make on Pacific Princess is one of spin. They went aboard, tested a small group of occupants, and came back with close to a 50% positive rate. 21 people total, according to the Princess web site. And the headline number everywhere has remained small. It’s not a stretch to suggest that the majority of crew and a good number of passengers are currently infected. The true numbers will no doubt be available somewhere, some time. I want to emphasize that perception is being very tightly managed. They could easily have tested all passengers by now and made summary results available. But 21 doesn’t raise the same alarm as 867, or some such number. The CV-19 numbers being thrown around in the US lately have been largely bullshit. I’ll talk about that lots. Just a heads up.

One more Pacific Princess thought: US announced they would take passengers but not crew. I’d bet that there was a plan in place, if only briefly, for the ship to depart Oakland for BC. That’s probably back in the air now, but a relatively minor concern in the scheme of things. It sounded like US was expecting owner to handle it.

Now, to some current at-a-glance pics from my free Android App. These are cruise ships shown.

What I think I’m seeing is that ships that are at sea are mostly lollygagging around. Ports seem very empty. Destinations appear to be almost completely empty. I’m sure there’s data out there to support or disprove my thesis, but all will become clear soon.

I have a narrative on the last few days. Here’s some points:

1) US and cruise chiefs met Saturday under the cloud of Pacific Princess and with other alarming information just bubbling up. I’m pretty sure there were clear negative indicators in Florida over the previous week that were at best willfully ignored, at worst understood and suppressed.

2) while wanting to be supportive of the business, I think the administration likely laid down the law on avoiding another Pacific Princess. And put the onus squarely on the business to make sure it didn’t happen, and that if it did they would own it.

3) public messaging changed quite dramatically on Sunday. Public health official’s concerns were winning the day through the weekend. I mentioned the State Dept announcements earlier.

4) Pence made specific mention of at least one other ship they were interested in. Can’t remember the details, but there could very well have been others. One other ship I was watching as likely known infected was due in two days ago but is now loitering around Grand Bahama.

I’m going to venture that limited or possibly full onboard testing started on the weekend across multiple ships, and after positive results started pouring in, the magnitude of the problem became clearer.

I’m also convinced that no ships with known cases will enter port in the US. Not their problem.

The magnitude?

I’m not going to speculate much further, but if ports insist on seeing negative test results for all passengers and crew in order to land they may remain largely empty. There are some very tough decisions ahead on how to deal with this, and the magnitude of the challenge may be much higher than anybody was expecting.

Just dug out a post that I made to Trawler Forum when the subject was introduced. Feb 17. It didn’t get much traction then.

I was pretty much bang on. But it’s not a couple. It’s much more than that.


Social Distancing

Anyway, I’ll offer up my highly individualized plan for social distancing and how I got there. There’s lots of credible information out there, so I’m not going to try to explain too much.

Not long after I started following CV-19 closely I started thinking about risk. It’s the kind of guy I am. I like to make qualitative decisions and manage risk. Get the big stuff right and don’t sweat the small.

Question one: How afraid am I to get the virus personally? For me, not terribly. I’d likely survive, and for the moment I have top notch care available locally. I don’t work or care for others, so a stint in the hospital wouldn’t be a huge disruption.

But that’s just the beginning. Think about your close circle. Those who are most at risk of catching the virus from you if you become infectious. People you work with. Family. And identify those who are high risk From what we know age is the big leading indicator, but there may be others with health concerns.

For me, there are really only two people who are at significantly higher risk from the virus in my immediate orbit, my mother in law Kathleen and my sister Susan. I’m in regular close contact with both of them.  The other people that I have regular contact with are not at high risk, so I am less concerned with unknowingly infecting them.

I had a brief chat with Susan about this. She has a terminal illness and is carrying on with life in downtown Toronto, walking to work at her government office and free of interactions with the general public. She’s relatively protected there. But she still goes out to community events and her church. I can’t fault her choices, and am relieved that I’m off the hook. If she catches C-19 it’s not likely to have been from me.

Kathleen is a different case. She and I have lived under the same roof for more than 20 years. I love her dearly. She’s 77 and vibrant, but not invincible. So I’ve worked with other members of the household to implement a regimen that I hope will allow us to live together while taking appropriate precautions to protect her. It’s an evolving situation, but I’m pretty comfortable with it right now.

Lots more to come on this, but thought I’d throw it out.


railways in a train station close-up photography

C-19 – Who is this guy?

I saw the C-19 term earlier on Trawler Forum, and I think I’m going to adopt it locally. I’m referring to the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.

I have many thoughts. And I’ve had several discussions today that have helped clarify things. It started with an early morning chat with a friend who I was very close to in my youth, and who is now an accomplished thought leader and business developer. I’ll call him David henceforth. And I’m hanging in Guelph with Samantha, Sarah and Kathleen. They provide perspective, comfort, and support as always.

The cruise ship thing is a done deal for me. I don’t need to obsess over the end. So I’m focused pretty much entirely on the virus now. The CCL puts have boosted my portfolio, and I laid down additional hedging about two weeks ago that I think protects me against the financial threats I see. They’re in lockstep with C-19 and this may well turn into a financial crisis in addition to being a health crisis. But there’s nothing more for me to do to there.

I want to describe where I come from on C-19. This is tough. I don’t operate like most folks. My perspective is idiosyncratic and largely self-formed. My twitter profile says I’m a pro-social hermit living on my boats. There’s a long back story, but I’ll try to be brief.

I used to work in data. Lots of it. Loved it. Spent 20 years with one data warehouse in the financial industry, from developer to end user to business ownership. Saw hundreds of millions of shareholder dollars spent supporting efforts to provide business leaders timely and meaningful metrics, and hence insights into their business. I have an undergraduate degree in computer science.

I’ve also made a habit all my life of surrounding myself with smart, thoughtful and generally level-headed people. Especially those whose experiences and perspective differ from mine. Samantha, my spouse of 30+ years, is probably the smartest person I know. She don’t operate like most folks either.

But when I say surround myself I mean it figuratively. My friends are few and scattered. I need very little social contact. I can happily spend days, weeks alone. Hence the hermit part. I’ve been involved in and welcomed into many communities, but have always resisted the pull towards the center. I’m a little too disjointed and intense for most folks, and am not big on assimilation. Hence my unique and self-formed opinions.

Pro-social? In an alternate universe I’d be a social science wonk. The most fascinating ideas I’ve tossed around (mostly internally!) in recent years are around technology and societal change. I continue to find interesting nuggets in history, geography, economics and political science. And I believe in good government and an informed and educated populace. I have followed US politics closely since I lived there almost 30 years ago.

I guess I should also offer up that I’ve lived in the US, Australia and New Zealand as well as Canada, where I was born. Over the past two years I have spent much of my time in the US. I’m a very proud Canadian, I support the current government, and I have confidence in leadership at all levels. I would identify as a Democrat were I to vote in the US. Hope that doesn’t slam any doors.

I got rid of broadcast television in the mid 1990s.

And that leads to perspective.

The outcome of the 2016 US election turned my world upside down, because I really believed for a long time afterwards that data and analytics – my world – had played a little recognized but significant part in Donald Trump’s victory. It also put up a few social barriers for me. I didn’t want to be a hater, and found the anti-Trump rhetoric that ramped up quickly overwhelming and disturbing. It’s really easy to get sucked into the fire.

So in response, I cocooned. I abandoned the personal arguments and debates and set out on my own to get some answers to what’s going on around us. It’s been an interesting trip so far.

My boat travel has been a key part of the process, allowing a wonderful local perspective across often diametrically opposed landscapes. You don’t really know New York City until you’ve followed the garbage and explored the ports in New Jersey. The last couple of years are documented here.

And the internet. Ahh, the internet. So full of promise… It more than anything else enables me to lead the life I do.  Like all things a double-edged sword.  I got pretty spooked in 2017. My challenge was perspective. I wanted a balanced, consistent view of the world.

My actions in 2017 are what I think gradually brought clarity. Essentially I went on a media lock down. I picked a small number of online social communities to hang out in, and settled on a handful of reputable major news providers. I spent a few months getting the right mix to establish a baseline, and it’s been largely unchanged since. For me the payoff since has been huge, just having a consistent daily diet of news and analysis through the last couple of years. We all need anchors, and I feel comfortable that mine is well set.

One more relevant piece of back story. I have a history of following some types of disasters pretty obsessively. Katrina and Fukushima as well as several aviation incidents kept me glued to the screen for weeks, and provided me with an approach and framework for selective deep dives to build an overall narrative. And while I largely sat out the 2008 financial crisis racing Lasers and riding bikes in Canberra I pretty much put the pieces together afterwards. C-19 isn’t my first rodeo.

So, getting back to this disaster. Being a news junkie and generally interested in this sort of thing, I’ve been following developments from the beginning. When the Pacific Princess news started coming out my attention was captured, and has been there ever since.

I’ve recently expanded my toolset to include twitter, and I’m settling in to share my thoughts and perspective here and there as we go through this. Happy to have you with me. @jeff_zolo

Selfie in front of the St. Louis Gateway Arch

Cruise ships – It all fits

Wow. I’ve been muttering that for the last 24 hours. But I’ve finally put the pieces together I think.

Those that haven’t read my earlier posts should read this one first.

The big final piece for me was recent US State Dept announcements saying (my words) 1) don’t go, and 2) we won’t rescue you from quarantine if you do. They’re getting ready to pull the trigger.

So, the big question is whether the cruise lines fold their hand immediately. One assumes they will. If they don’t they’ll be willingly and knowingly risking people’s lives. Cancel all future sailings immediately and get to work managing the fallout.

On that assumption, what to do with the passengers afloat? Here’s what I think will happen. I should note that the Caribbean trade is several hundred thousand passengers. I should also note that I expect this to happen world wide.

1) entry will be delayed until onboard inspections and testing can take place and results received. This is entirely at the port’s discretion.

2) many ships will fail testing and will be refused entry to the port.

What I’ve been wondering all along in my doomsday scenario is what would happen to the ships that get turned away everywhere. No port is obligated to take them. They don’t have home ports. They’re ‘international conveyance’ in the eyes of the WHO.

The recent CBC report on preparations at Vancouver and Victoria got me thinking of Halifax. Helluva place to moor a few dozen big ones. Fill the Basin.

It’s a remarkable thought. Are we ready to do this? Canada, that is. I’m pretty sure the US has landed its last infected ship.


I should note that I’m not an authority on any of this. Just informed speculation. I’ve been tracking this since Pacific Princess.


Cruise Ships vs Conferences

I’ve been chatting lots with Samantha about conference travel over the last week or two in light of COVID-19. And it strikes me that there’s a point to be made about cruise ships that I’ve uncovered during those discussions. It may take a while. I’m writing to clarify my thinking.

Most people have a basic idea of the risk of any sort of travel right now. You might get sick. And the illness could be fatal. Hopping on a plane to Seattle and shaking a lot of hands shouldn’t be in anyone’s plans at this point.

But that’s not really the point. The point is that your travel could provide a vector for an infectious community disease to hop a couple of thousand miles. Your activities risk others.

If you care at all about broader societal good you’ll recognize that it’s a bi-directional concern. If you live in Seattle and have been shaking a lot of hands stay off a plane please.

Anyway, back to conferences. You fly off to a conference centre or big hotel, meet and mingle with 3,000 other participants, get a little sightseeing in, maybe a boozy evening or two, fly home. Whatever. Lots of variants.

What threats are you posing as a vector there? If you are or become infectious you risk spreading the disease among the participants. That’s an obvious risk. But the vulnerable population that gets missed is the hotel and restaurant staff. The people you never see who clean the trays and your room.

So what happens to them? Most try to work through the illness. Those that get seriously ill go home or to a hospital and hopefully don’t die.

That in itself is a sobering thought, but I think I’ve gone far enough. Now to the cruise ship. You hop on with 2,999 other holidayers. There are 1500 staff there to serve you. They all live together a couple of decks below you. Just came in yesterday from another cruise.

I’m not sure I want to go on here. The point that I was trying to get to is that we can’t forget the staff as a key vector. They remain through multiple cruises, and are a very close community. If one gets sick they all do. And the passengers on the next cruise get it.

The whole thing is terrifying if you care about not living with the virus in close proximity. Conference travel is rightly being cancelled. What about cruise departures?



Cruise Ships and COVID-19

I’ve been saying it for a while now, ever since the Pacific Princess case. The cruise industry is going to shut down due to COVID-19. Until recently that’s been in fringe lunatic territory, so I haven’t said much publicly apart from one or two conversation stopping posts on social media. I did however buy some put options on CCL on Feb 10. I was confident then that there was trouble coming. They’ve proved to be a good hedge against broad market losses in recent weeks.

Things are developing very quickly as I write this, but in the last day or so two cruise ships have turned up as index cases in onshore testing for the virus. Passengers who got off ships recently are getting sick.

The two ships I’ve been watching are the Grand Princess in San Francisco and the MSC Opera in Greece.

Now what’s going to happen? Here’s my doomsday scenario:

1) as authorities in both the US and Europe try to decide what to do both ships will remain at sea

2) there will be on board testing that will confirm infections in passengers and crew

3) there is already concern over other recent passengers as part of public health authorities, especially if test results are high. Don’t forget that the index cases just got off a cruise with 2500 others. More cases will heighten the panic.

4) as the publicity ramps up and the consequences sink in other cruises are going to become suspect. Further testing in Europe and/or US will point to other ships.

5) Ports will close to cruise ships, first on an individual basis as we’ve seen in the Caribbean recently, but eventually as temporary bans to all.

6) returning to home port and disembarking passengers and crew will become problematic even if there are no known issues. If a growing number of ships are proven to be infected all will be suspect.

7) the scale of an orderly wind down would be daunting. Ten million passengers a year take a Caribbean cruise. This is the busy season. The economic consequences are huge, particularly at busy or remote ports. But I don’t think there’s any hope of an orderly wind down at this point.

Go ahead. Poke holes in it. We’ll know fairly soon how it goes. But I’m throwing it out there. If I’m right it’s going to be very bad.


It’s pretty clear to me that there’s a serious threat coming our way from COVID-19. I’ve been chatting with family members and thinking about preparedness and risk.

I’ve really been enjoying living alone on my boat in downtown Toronto. Will write more on the experience, but it’s comforting right now in view of a possible health crisis. The city and overseeing health authorities learned a lot from the SARS outbreak, and I have confidence in our systems. And I’m not worried about possible medical bills.

One of the joys of living alone on a traveling boat is mobility. I’ll be out of here and heading north in 2 months. In the meantime I’m in the best place I could possibly be.