When Life at Sea Cruises announced the upcoming launch of its 130,000-mile voyage it was billed as the “world’s first – and only – three-year cruise.”
Demand for cabins was said to be “unprecedented,” with some travel enthusiasts apparently selling their homes in preparation for the trip of a lifetime.
But just a few months after Life at Sea Cruises, a subsidiary of Miray Cruises, opened bookings for the voyage onboard the MV Gemini, the journey, scheduled to sail from Istanbul on November 1, appears to be in crisis, and customers are already requesting refunds.
The entire team at Life at Sea Cruises, which was set up specifically for the project, has parted ways with Miray Cruises after an apparent breakdown in communication over the suitability of the ship.
Mike Petterson, the now former managing director for Life at Sea Cruises, confirmed to CNN Travel on Wednesday that he and the rest of the founding team have “stepped away” from the project.
While there has been speculation that the cruise was to be called off, Kendra Holmes, director of business development and commercial operations at Miray International, insisted that this was not the case during a webinar held by the Miray Executive Team on Wednesday evening.
“This cruise is not canceled,” Holmes said. “We are moving ahead. It is departing November 1 as planned. So I just want to make sure to clear that up right now. We are not canceling this.”
However, it’s still unclear whether the voyage will go ahead on board MV Gemini, or a different ship.
“Currently the name of the ship is Gemini,” Holmes added, before explaining that she was not able to discuss a new ship at present.
“I wish that we didn’t have these kind of situations,” said Fuat G., hotel director at Miray Cruises. “We are moving forward. Whatever we have to do to finish that project. And [we will] go to a second, third, fourth and fifth ship. Whatever it is.”
In an email to CNN Travel, Holmes confirmed they are unable to release any details of the potential new vessel due to confidentiality of the contract, “which is standard in the cruise industry.”
“We anticipate sharing even more information with cruisers in the coming weeks, however when we do release the information, we will not be able to state what the vessel’s current name is or which company it was purchased from,” she said.
However, she said the customers would be told the gross tonnage of the vessel and how many cabins there are.
“Due to confidentiality requirements of the agreement, we would be prevented from stating the previous name of the vessel and the company it was purchased from. We will also be releasing updated deck plans, cabin dimensions and public space information.”
A press release announcing the project back in March stated that the MV Gemini would be “overhauled” for the voyage.
But according to Irina Strembitsky, former director of sales and marketing of Life at Sea Cruises, the ship, which has capacity for up to 1,074 passengers, was deemed “unseaworthy” by an engineer, who also expressed doubt that it would be able to complete a three-year journey.
In the email to CNN Travel, Holmes disputed those claims.
“Unseaworthy is a very specific term that relates to the safety of a vessel (that a vessel has enough lifeboats / LSA’s, decks that are skid proof, among other requirements to ensure its safety),” she said in the email.
“With that said, every cruise ship must have a Passenger Ship Safety Certificate issued by the class society that the ship belongs to, evidencing that the vessel complies with the requirements of SOLAS 1974 in order to be able to sail with passengers. Gemini has this certificate, and it will be renewed again at the end of July 2023.”
Holmes added that without this certificate, among other required regulatory certificates, a passenger vessel cannot get clearance to depart from any port in the world.
“This certificate was last renewed in November of 2022 and Gemini has been sailing with passengers since March 2023 in the Aegean Sea,” she said.
Maritime tracking website Marine Traffic this week showed the Gemini plying the waters of the Mediterranean, calling in to port on the Greek island of Rhodes before sailing on to Çeşme in Turkey.
After apparently discussing the possibility of the voyage taking place on a separate ship at the price originally offered to customers, Strembitsky says that relations between the Life at Sea Cruises team and Miray Cruises ultimately broke down, and things came to a head shortly before further payments were due to be taken.
Understandably, news of the uncertainty in relation to the cruise has been particularly worrying for those who’ve already put deposits down on some of the 400 cabins advertised.
“I know a lot of you have concerns,” Holmes told passengers during the webinar. “So we are trying to do everything we can to help eliminate those concerns.”
Holmes told CNN they have been hosting two webinars a day at different times to accommodate current and potential guests.
“We want them to understand that Life at Sea is and always has been, Life at Sea by Miray Cruises and we have an entire team that has been working behind the scenes to make this trip a reality for everyone who wants to go,” she said.
“We are now the front-facing team and we are humbled that our current and potential guests have given us an opportunity to learn more about who we are, our passion for this project, and most importantly, our honesty.”
Retired high school teacher Sharon Lane, from California, booked a 130-square-foot cabin and had planned to sell “95% of her possessions” before setting off.
However, Lane says that regardless of how things turn out, she will not be going on the journey, which was due to visit 135 countries and seven continents.
“Life at Sea says the trip is canceled. Miray says it’s still a go, but without the entire Life at Sea management team,” she told CNN via email on Tuesday.
“I don’t really care who is right or wrong. I’m allergic to chaos. Going was a huge calculated risk to begin with. Now, it’s far too risky for my liking.”
When reservations opened, room prices ranged from around $30,000 per year, including a discount for solo travelers, to $109,999 per person for a balcony suite.
“It’s very sad,” adds Lane. “I was all in. It will take me some time to undo what I have already set in place, but at least I’m not one of those who has already sold a house and all of my belongings. My heart aches for them.”
Holmes told CNN Travel the voyage is currently just over 50% booked, and they’ve refunded reservation fees for less than 10 cruisers to date.
During Wednesday’s webinar, she said that she and the team at Miray Cruises were currently working on a Google form specifically for the “many” customers who have been requesting refunds.
“I know the events of late have created a lot of hesitation, and I understand that,” she said, stressing that it would likely take around five to seven days for refunds to be processed.
One customer, who asked not to be named, told CNN shortly before the webinar that they remained hopeful that the trip would go ahead and were awaiting further developments before making any decisions.
“Some people have made arrangements to do this,” added Strembitsky, who says that she’s currently working on another cruising concept and still hopes to “deliver the dream” that she and her team spent years working on in some way.
“So people are hoping somehow it happens. A lot of people are in limbo.”
This story has been updated with comments from Kendra Holmes, director of business development and commercial operations at Miray International.
CNN’s Francesca Street, Marnie Hunter and Karla Cripps contributed to this story.