Exploring the 3-Year Cruise That Never Set Sail

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Last February, I was scrolling through Instagram when a peculiar ad appeared on my feed. The ad boasted of a three-year cruise called Life at Sea — said to be the longest cruise ever, with 382 port calls around the world — set to depart from Istanbul on Nov. 1.

As a reporter who covers cruises for The New York Times Travel desk, I was skeptical; I had followed news of similar cruises that failed to launch. I also knew putting together a voyage of this ambition would prove a herculean task, requiring secure funding and a ship furnished for residential sailing.

About three months later, while searching through Facebook for updates on the cruise, I learned from a prospective passenger’s post that the sales and marketing team had resigned after a series of disputes with the parent company, Miray Cruises. Life at Sea’s managing director, Mikael Petterson, also resigned at that time.

It seemed the voyage was doomed before it began.

And so began my investigation into the idyllic-seeming cruise, plagued by management issues and poor planning. My article, a behind-the-scenes look at the company turmoil, was published online last month.

As the departure date approached, I wanted to reach out to prospective passengers to get their take on the upcoming trip. I found one traveler through LinkedIn who shared with me that there was an app for passengers to communicate with one another. The passenger agreed to make a post on my behalf, informing others that I was a Times reporter hoping to speak with them.

The departure date was eventually delayed two times — and the port changed to Amsterdam. On Nov. 20, weeks after the original departure date, the cruise was canceled. Miray had failed to secure a ship.

I wasn’t surprised by the news. Miray Cruises is a midsize Turkish company that specializes in three- to four-day Greek Island cruises. It did not have any experience with sailings of this scale.

After the cancellation, many people who bought the cruise package did not want to speak on the record; some feared that speaking with The Times might impact their chances of getting a refund. By that time, Miray had promised to refund all passengers in three monthly installments, so I understood why they felt hesitant about speaking up. One couple, Kara and Joe Youssef, reached out to me in late November. From Istanbul, they told me that they had sold their two apartments and withdrawn their life savings to pay for the cruise.

But what surprised me most was how divided passengers were over the company’s handling of the situation. Some were adamant that Miray did not intentionally mislead them. Others were convinced that they had fallen victim to a scam, the Fyre Festival of cruises.

Some passengers provided me with another valuable resource: email threads between Miray executives. The emails, dating to March 2023, showed that the company’s executives had failed to address basic issues, like how to set up secure payment methods to collect deposits from passengers. They also appeared to ignore concerns over the suitability of the proposed ship.

In mid-December, I reached out to Vedat Ugurlu, the owner of Miray. I was surprised that he got back to me within minutes as he hadn’t given any interviews to other news outlets. We spoke for more than two hours on a video call that he took from a conference room in the Istanbul headquarters of his company.

He was grateful for the opportunity to explain himself and insisted that he ran a reputable company that had over 30 years of experience in the cruise business. He said he had no intention of misleading passengers, but blamed the cruise’s unraveling on not selling enough cabins.

Some passengers told a different story. When I spoke with the Youssefs again last month, they told me how Miray had led them on until the very last minute; they were told the cruise would depart as planned, even with just two passengers on board. They didn’t believe the company set out to defraud them, but feared that Miray used their money to acquire a ship and would not have the money to refund them.

Now, with all their money tied up, the Youssefs remain stranded in an Istanbul hotel room, waiting for a refund of $80,000. They are at risk of becoming homeless.

Only a small amount of money has been refunded to customers, and the Youssefs have yet to receive their first refund. My next reporting aim is to try and understand more about the company’s finances, as many passengers lose hope that they will be paid back at all.

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