One Ocean Expeditions in Hot Water?

One Ocean Expeditions (OOE), the Squamish, BC-based cruise line founded by Westmount native Andrew Prossin in 2007, has canceled eight of this season’s cruises, leaving angry customers — some of whom have paid as much as (or more than) $20,000 for their tickets —  in its wake.

I’ve heard recently from a couple of people affected by the cancellations — they found me through the Spectator‘s reporting on OOE and are asking that I continue to investigate the situation, which I will certainly do, but this week I have time only to try and update local readers on recent developments in the OOE saga.

As Prossin told us with some fanfare back in August 2017, the niche Arctic/Antarctica cruise line was supposed to make Sydney its “home port” once the second cruise ship berth was in service and the marine terminal had the capacity to provide fuel and to handle international garbage and the federal government had made some necessary regulatory changes and reopened a number of federal offices here (“Transport Canada, Canada Customs, et cetera, et cetera”). Just as soon as all those ducks were in order, OOE would begin calling Sydney home.

John Geiger, CEO of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke and OOE managing director Andrew Prossin in Sydney in August 2017.

OOE even held the recommissioning ceremony for its third vessel, the RCGS Resolute (RCGS for the Royal Canadian Geographic Society, OOE’s “partner” in the Canadian North), in Sydney in October 2018, although the guest of honor was unable to attend — The Resolute was kept from docking in Sydney by high winds.

The Resolute was to make a third with the two Russian vessels — the Akademik Ioffe and the Akademik Vavilov — OOE was leasing from a Russian scientific institute.

The Ioffe, though, had ran aground in the Canadian Arctic just months before the Resolute ceremony. Passengers had to be rescued by the Vavilov and the vessel itself had to be towed to a shipyard in Quebec for repairs.

Then in May of 2019, OOE announced it had lost the leases on both Russian vessels and as a result canceled a number of summer cruises. I spoke by phone with Jackie Gilchrist, an operations manager with an Edinburgh travel company, who told me she’d been booked for one of those cruises:

I saved for a year to pay a deposit, which I did in April 2018, and then I saved for another year to pay for my flights. And then I got a phone call to say that the Russian boats were gone, did I want to switch to the Resolute?

Gilchrist says she agreed to re-book and was offered a good deal — including a free upgrade (worth US$6,000) and the refund of costs incurred by changing vessels, including re-booking her flights (Gilchrist’s cruise is scheduled to sail in February from Chile). Although pleased with the compensation, Gilchrist says she remembers wondering, given how many passengers the company had to re-book, “Can they afford this?”

RCGS Resolute

Gilchrist says she fared better than many of the people she’s encountered on a Facebook group (peopled mainly by disgruntled OOE customers) called Updates on One Ocean Expeditions because she booked her cruise through the British travel agency Swoop Antarctica:

I think there’s been a real difference in the way people have been treated depending on whether they booked via One Ocean directly or booked through one of the agents…A lot of people who booked directly with One Ocean are on this Facebook group because a lot of them didn’t pay by credit card, they paid by bank transfer directly, and because One Ocean are canceling each voyage seven days out and not declaring bankruptcy or insolvency…a lot of insurance agencies are saying, “They’re going to give you another trip.” So a lot of people aren’t having a lot of success with their insurance companies. I fall into a different category because my agent in the UK I’m hoping will refund me…

 

Restructuring

As the Spectator has previously reported, OOE blamed the loss of the Russian ships on the institute that owns them, saying it had recalled them abruptly, in breach of the terms of the lease. But the Cyprus-based company that managed the ships,  Terragelida Ship Management Ltd, said the leases had been canceled due to outstanding debts.

Subsequent events would lend credence to Terragelida’s version of events.

In August 2019, the RCGS Resolute was “arrested” by the Nunavet sheriff’s office, acting on a statement of claim and warrant from the Federal Court in Halifax. The Guardian newspaper explained that unpaid OOE contractors had placed a maritime lien on the Resolute:

The Resolute was eventually released after One Ocean paid outstanding invoices to its contractors. But those payments only covered salaries on the Resolute – not other ships[‘] contractors have worked on for One Ocean, including the two Russian ships from last year.

Then in October 2019, the Spectator heard from Devin Gattey of Portland, Oregon who’d been a passenger on a OOE voyage that departed from Buenos Aires on October 19 (after an initial delay blamed on a medical emergency involving a crew member). Gettey provided a detailed timeline of the trip, which saw the Resolute travel from Buenos Aires to Puerto Madryn, Argentina, where it was refused bunkering (according to the FleetMon website, this was due to OOE’s “outstanding debts”). OOE canceled the cruise and returned the vessel to Buenos Aires where, again according to FleetMon, it was “berthed at cargo/passenger pier, disrupting its’ [sic] operations. Bunkering was again, refused.”

On October 29, Prossin posted this to OOE’s Facebook page:

Source: Facebook

On 1 November 2019, Swoop Antarctica, the travel agency Gilchrest booked her cruise with, announced it had stopped selling trips with OOE:

The decision was taken over concerns raised for Swoop Antarctica’s customers following the abrupt cancellation today of a One Ocean Expedition cruise to the Antarctic…

Swoop Antarctica is strongly urging customers affected by this cancellation to approach their travel insurers to seek full reimbursement for any losses caused as a result of the cancellation of their November 6 trip with the RCGS Resolute.

Alex Mudd added: “We fully appreciate the concern of Swoop Antarctica customers who are booked to travel with future One Ocean Expeditions but have yet to travel. We are working with One Ocean Expeditions to provide as much reassurance as we can to those worried by today’s announcement.”

On November 5, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) removed OOE from its member directory for “non-payment of dues and fees according to MercoPress. On November 7, Prossin sent out another missive to passengers:

But there were more cancellations, and on November 23, the CBC’s Andrea Ross reported that the Resolute had been ordered to remain in Buenos Aires by an Argentinian federal judge due to a “significant debt.”

The RCGS Resolute has been at the port since October when the company cancelled a trip to Antarctica at the last minute, stranding up to 140 passengers. Since then, two more Antarctic voyages have been cancelled and employees allege they’re owed thousands in unpaid wages.

And the cancellations continue — cruises scheduled for December 1, 11, 21, 31 were all scratched. In letters to travelers, Prossin wrote:

…some facets of the restructuring have created complications that will keep us from operating your voyage…On completion of our restructuring, we will be in touch regarding any compensation possibilities. In the meantime, we encourage you to contact your insurance provider.

The reference to “compensation possibilities” didn’t go over real well on the Facebook site, where posts suggest the response of insurance companies has been varying wildly, depending on factors like the type of insurance purchased and the insurer’s interpretation of events at OOE.

Just this Monday a cruise scheduled to leave Ushuaia, Argentina on January 17 was canceled. This time, in his letter to affected travelers, Prossin said:

We wish to advise you that we have signed a partnership agreement with a qualified, reputable operator. Under this agreement we will be able to provide a range of alternatives for clients who have been affected by our difficulties.

But again, the social media response was cool, with posters wondering why, if a deal has been signed, the “qualified, reputable operator” hasn’t been named.

 

Incommunicado

The Squamish Chief newspaper declared OOE a “newsmaker of 2019” for “shut[ting] its doors for the foreseeable future,” an honor the cruise line shared with a local building supply store that declared bankruptcy last year.

That, you must admit, is a pretty hard comedown for a company that partnered with the Royal Canadian Geographic Society and a founder who accompanied former Prime Minister Stephen Harper on his famous Franklin expedition.

But Prossin isn’t the only one suffering. In addition to disgruntled customers, OOE faces 37 complaints of unpaid wages filed with the BC Ministry of Labour’s Employment Standards Branch.

The Chief had some communication with Prossin in mid-November, when he told it:

A number of people have been working very hard on a solution to this difficult and regrettable situation. A solution is very close, and we just need the time to see if we can get that across the line.

But, added reporter Steven Chua, Prossin:

…declined to comment further, and has not responded to subsequent requests for comment made via phone, email and Facebook. The Chief has knocked on the door of the business, but no one answers.

The rooms are dark on the first floor, but lights have [been] seen on the second floor.

 On Nov. 26, lights were on in an office on the second floor (second window from left) of the One Ocean building on Second Avenue. The ground floor offices have been consistently dark since the restructuring of the company was announced. Photo: Steven Chua


On Nov. 26, lights were on in an office on the second floor (second window from left) of the One Ocean building on Second Avenue. The ground floor offices have been consistently dark since the restructuring of the company was announced.
Photo: Steven Chua/The Squamish Chief

Judging by the comments on the Updates on One Ocean Expeditions Facebook group, nobody is having much luck getting in touch with Prossin — or anyone else at OOE (although it’s an open question whether there is anyone else at OOE, the “Senior Management” page of the website now lists only Prossin). Poster after poster says they’ve been unable to reach OOE by phone or email. (I tried the toll-free North American number on the OOE website out of curiosity and was told it was “temporarily out of order.”)

In addition to hoping to recover their own money, many — including Jackie Gilchrist — say they would like to know what happened to “the money.” Gilchrist figures all 142 passengers on her canceled cruise would have paid their fees in full — that’s at least $15,000 per person for a total of just over $2 million. (That’s a conservative estimate, because some cabins cost considerably more.) Multiply that by each of the eight cruises canceled this season and you’re talking about a serious chunk of change.

But even the Facebook group for people who fear they will never be refunded for their canceled voyages includes posts from people who just want to say how much they loved their experience either as passengers or employees of OOE and how dismayed they are to see the company in such straits. (Theories about how it got there abound, needless to say, but I have yet to vet them, so will resist the temptation to speculate.)

And that’s all I’ve got for now, but I have some leads to follow and hope to bring you more information next week.