Getting On and Off the Ship

Accessibility is only part of the equation when it comes to cruising because getting on and off the ship is another big concern. How does the whole embarkation and disembarkation process work, and how do you get on and off the ship at the ports of call? To be honest, embarkation and disembarkation can be a real zoo. After all, the goal is to get thousands of passengers and their luggage on or off the ship in a matter of hours. So, if you have any kind of physical disability, make sure it is noted in your file, even if you do not need an accessible stateroom. Embarkation assistance can range from moving you quickly through the process to providing wheelchair assistance. If you can’t stand for long periods of time or if you use any type of assistive device, it’s important to request embarkation assistance when you book your cruise. Wheelchair assistance is also available during disembarkation. Different cruise lines have different procedures for disembarking people with mobility disabilities. Some cruise lines gather people needing assistance together in one area, whereas other lines let them disembark before the other passengers. If you need assistance during disembarkation, make your needs known to the purser when the disembarkation procedure is announced. Although home ports generally offer roll-off access, that’s not the case in every port of call. How do you get off the ship if you are in a wheelchair? Do you just roll down the gangway? Well, sometimes that’s the case, but often it’s a bit more complicated, as illustrated by the following comments from Bill, a first-time cruiser. Says Bill of his cruise experience, “Last fall my wife and I cruised to Alaska on the Crown Princess. Although the ship was wonderfully accessible, and our cabin was complete with a roll-in shower, the ports themselves were lacking in accessibility. Many times I had to be carried off the ship in my wheelchair, by untrained personnel. At times I feared for my safety, not to mention the safety of my very expensive (and heavy) power wheelchair. I was also very embarrassed, as the rest of the passengers gathered around to see this ‘spectacle.’ I was told the ports were accessible and not informed that I would have to be carried off the ship in this fashion.” Bill brings up a few good points. How do you find out if the ports have roll-off access? How do you know if you will be carried off the ship? Are there any other options? Basically there isn’t one pat answer here. Although many cruise lines advise people that the ports are accessible, this doesn’t necessarily mean roll-off accessibility. As Princess Cruise Lines stated in reply to my inquiry on Bill’s behalf, “Generally, most ports are accessible to ‘roll-off’ with some help from our crew.” In plain English that means you may be carried off the ship. To be fair, Alaska does experience some drastic tidal fluctuations, so what is accessible in the morning will not necessarily be accessible that same afternoon. Sometimes you can roll off, sometimes you will be carried off, sometimes cruise lines use a stair climber, and sometimes wheelchair-users can use the more level crew gangway. Princess Cruise Lines also advertises a separate accessible gangway with a ratcheted device to get wheelchairs on and off the ship. Unfortunately, their employees seem hesitant to use this accessible boarding option. “When I asked about the accessible gangway I was told it breaks down a lot and costs a lot to fix,” says Loretta. “The crew said it was too much trouble for them to set up just for one person. So instead I was carried up and down, by people who didn’t know what they were doing. It was unsafe and very embarrassing. Princess may have a special gangway, but getting the crew to use it is impossible.” And then there’s the issue of tendering. Some ports are just not accessible to large ships, and sometimes even the larger ports are too crowded to allow all ships dockside access. In these cases, the ships must anchor offshore and tender their passengers to the docks. Tendering is the process of ferrying passengers by small boats, or tenders, from the cruise ship to the main dock. Most cruise lines can provide a list of tender ports, but depending on traffic and tide conditions, any port is a potential tender port. Tendering is handled differently by the different cruise lines, but in most cases it involves hand-carrying wheelchair-users onto the tender. Indeed, sometimes tendering can be a white-knuckle experience, especially in rough seas. It should also be noted that some cruise lines will not tender power wheelchairs at all. This is another good reason to bring along a manual wheelchair for shore excursions. Some ships have a more accessible method of tendering passengers. The Shore Tender Accessibility Project was first introduced on Holland America Lines in 2000. The system was designed by Cap Sante Marine, Inc. and includes a lift that runs on an inclined track from the top of the ship’s gangway to the tender. A ramp on the tender then allows wheelchair-users to roll on board the tender. When the tender reaches the dock, a hydraulic leveling system adjusts for the height differences between the dock and the tender. This process gives wheelers roll-off access to the dock. The downside to this process is that the lifts do not accommodate power chairs or scooters. They are only available for lightweight wheelchairs. Additionally, the lift must be reserved ahead of time, and sometimes wheelchair passengers are only tendered after the main rush of passengers. In the end, how you get off the ship depends on the port, the incline and access of the gangway, and what the cruise line considers the safest procedure for the conditions. The final decision on the safest procedure always lies with the captain of the ship. If the captain deems it too dangerous to carry off a pas