Tourism & Cruises

They booked a two-week Norwegian cruise. Instead, they got a 'nightmare at sea.'

If veteran cruiser Barry Lieberman had to grade his recent voyage on the Norwegian Sun, "it would be an F-,' he said bluntly.

In more than 40 years of cruising, after 57 cruises, Lieberman has never had a bad voyage.

"But this was worse than bad," he said.

Lieberman and his wife Mickie, who live in Boynton Beach, sailed on a late March sailing from Miami to Los Angeles on the Sun — while the ship underwent construction. For two weeks, the sounds of jackhammers pierced cabin walls, decks were inaccessible and sewer lines broke, filling entire cabins with the odor of feces and urine.

Deck 12 chemicals
Chemicals, cables and other tools photographed on the Norwegian Sun by a passenger. Panama Canal Sun Facebook group

Lieberman's March 16 to March 31 voyage on the 1,936-passenger ship through the Panama Canal was the vessel's last before entering a dry dock period for extensive renovations. But Miami-based Norwegian Cruise Line began the renovations early — while passengers were still aboard.

Lieberman and hundreds of fellow travelers are incensed. Their Facebook group, Panama Canal Sun, has already amassed more than 1,300 members, who have posted accounts, photos and videos from travelers on the same trip.

According to the cruise line, the ship was scheduled to get "refreshed spaces" in venues including the Garden cafe, the Atrium and the Stardust Theater as part of the line's $400 million Norwegian Edge renovation program. The Sun is expected to come out of dry dock on Thursday.

Crews working
Crews work on deck 12 of the Norwegian Sun. The noise from jackhammers and other machinery was a nuisance for many travelers on the two-week voyage. Panama Canal Sun Facebook group

A ship undergoing construction before a dry dock isn't uncommon, said Chris Gray Faust, managing editor of cruise review website Cruise Critic, but the situation on the Norwegian Sun — and its impact on the voyage — was.

"For the most part, the pre-prepping is usually pretty non-intrusive when it comes to guest experience. It might be a pool deck that’s closed, or the collecting of deck chairs. But this level of construction is quite unusual," she said.

Norwegian has acknowledged the issue.

"While we do our utmost to minimize any impact to our guests when these enhancements are being implemented, we do recognize that during a recent sailing, we did not meet the expectations of our guests, nor our own standards, for which we truly apologize," Norwegian said in a statement.

Lieberman said that a portion of the promenade on deck 6, which includes a jogging track, was closed for the entire voyage. Crews could be seen jackhammering and running long lines of coiled, greased metal cables, he said. The work made it difficult to walk the trail or visit the amenities on that deck.

worker 1
Workers begin extensive renovations on the Norwegian Sun during a late March voyage while passengers are onboard. Panama Canal Sun Facebook group

And on deck 12, the activities area was cordoned off as crews used power tools and chemicals to remove the deck's blue rubber flooring, he said. In photos and videos posted on the Facebook page, passengers can be seen having breakfast while the deafening sounds of construction fill the air. Videos show passengers tanning next to buckets of chemicals and dancing outside on deck 11 while blue debris falls from above.

The construction seriously inconvenienced the Liebermans, they said, who paid nearly $6,000 for the trip.

But the final straw for them came when a sewage pipe broke near their cabin, No. 8020. The stench was so strong it forced them to leave their room and caused Mickie Lieberman's asthma to act up.

"She used her emergency puffer so frequently that I got alarmed," Barry Lieberman said.

After three visits from maintenance crews over two days, and the installation of fans in the hallway to improve ventilation, the sewage line was fixed. During the trip, other passengers reported having trouble breathing, coughing and experiencing headaches due to the chemical fumes.

Dust from rubberized floor material on deck 12 of the Norwegian Sun, which was being removed by crews, rained on passengers on decks below. Panama Canal Sun Facebook group

One passenger, Marcelino Garcia, called the voyage a "nightmare at sea" on Facebook in an April 7 post. He claimed he closed his business to go on the sailing, after being reassured by Norwegian that nothing would be wrong with the ship.

"They allowed us to experience the worst vacation of my life," he wrote, adding this his cabin was on Deck 6 where some of the construction was taking place.

"The smell of paint and varnishes fumes [sic] in the hallways and room was unbearable at times," he wrote. "I’ve been suffering with a headache and cough while on the cruise and ever since. Even Tylenol doesn’t seem to help."

Tensions boiled over during the sailing as well. After several days of disruptions, about 500 travelers met with the ship's captain to demand an end to the construction, Lieberman said. But the captain, Teo Grbic, said there was nothing he could do about it. the construction.

"My hands are chained and I cannot change the plans," Grbic said in a video posted on Facebook by a passenger. "It comes from the top of the office and we have to follow."

The crowd then got rowdy, shouting "that's a bunch of baloney" at the captain before he walked out to a chorus of "boos."

Norwegian sign
Norwegian has apologized for the inconvenience to guests caused by construction on the Norwegian Sun. Panama Canal Sun Facebook group

In response to the complaints, Norwegian has issued guests their full fare as credit for a future voyage that can be booked anytime in the next five years.

"We realize that this gesture cannot replace their recent experience but do hope to have the opportunity to welcome them on board again soon," Norwegian said in a statement.

As for the Liebermans, the goodwill gesture is not enough. They won't sail Norwegian Cruise Line again, they said.

"It was unspeakable what they did," Lieberman said.

Chabeli Herrera: 305-376-3730, @ChabeliH