At the Port of Galveston, cruise ships are coming and going more often than ever.
Nearly 300 times this year, cruise ships operated by Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Disney will dock at one of Galveston’s two cruise terminals, back from the Caribbean or Mexico, and release their passengers back to their post-vacation lives.
There’s a controlled chaos around a ship’s arrival in port. In the course of less than half a day, the companies have to clear out, clean and resupply a floating hotel, with as many as 4,900 passengers aboard.
The trucks start arriving at 6 a.m., nearly as soon as the ships pull into port, and while crew members are still throwing lines to dockworkers and tug boats are pushing the big liners to the pier.
The trucks carry everything needed for the journey: diet soft drinks and vacuum cleaners, linens and flowers, apples and lobster tails. The ship connects to the city’s fresh water supply, and solid waste is unloaded into trucks.
“Every week is the same process,” said Henry Torres, the assistant business agent of International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1504. “New crew, food for seven days, drinks for seven days. You name it, they get whatever they need.”
As many as 80 men from the ILA can work loading and unloading a ship, Torres said
In recent years, the port has increased the number of cruises that it services, and the cruise ships have gotten bigger.
In May, the port set an unofficial record for the average size and capacity of the cruise ships that moved into and out of the port.
Bigger cruise ships means more work for the longshoremen of the ILA, Torres said.
“They’re adding more people on and we’re getting the work done,” he said.
More than just loading and unloading of supplies occurs during the turnaround. The U.S. Coast Guard conducts a seaworthiness inspection, while the first passengers scheduled to board are screened through security, and passengers leaving the ship move through customs.
Both processes can be time-consuming, as security teams flag things that can’t go on the ship and customs officers make passengers account for things coming off of it.
As more passengers move through the port every year, officials are exploring the possibility of upgrading customs systems at the cruise terminals to include self-service kiosks, like those in some airports, said Cristina Galego, a spokeswoman for the Port of Galveston.
Smaller things get attention too. Soon after a ship docks, workers get out buckets and begin rolling new coats of paint on the hull. Sometimes, a wedding party is hustled through the terminal for a ceremony on the ship that must be completed before it departs. Sometimes, the Galveston County Medical Examiner must go aboard to retrieve the body of a person who died while sailing.
Meanwhile, the hundreds of crew members disembark for a few hours of personal time.
Many will head to stores on Galveston Island to pick up supplies for their next sail, but others will opt to go into the small Crew Connection store tucked into the backside of the cruise terminal.
The store aims to serve the diverse crews of the cruise ship, said Robert Darato, who has owned and operated the store since it opened in the early 2000s. Darato stocks his store with foods and treats both familiar and foreign. The stores of the shelves are stacked with bagged treats from places such as India, Indonesia and the Philippines.
The store also has a wire transfer station that allows the ship workers to send money back home, and Darato allows his store to act as the “home address” for packages they may buy on Amazon.
Darato, who worked on commercial ships before opening the stores, said he enjoys interacting with the cruise ship employees and giving them a taste of home.
But he also noted that the rush to turn a cruise ship around limits the amount of time the employees get to spend at his store. Some are required to be back working on the ship by 2:30 p.m.
“I wish I had them for another 30 minutes,” he said