How the three-year cruise fell apart

Life at Sea promised a dream trip on the MV Lara, but the company failed to buy the ship when investors pulled out.Life At Sea CruisesCNN — 

In April 2023, George Fox was gearing up for the adventure of a lifetime: a three-year cruise taking him around the world. The departure was set for Life at Sea’s inaugural cruise, slated to leave Istanbul on November 1.

There was just one problem: His bank refused to wire his payment.

“I told them I needed to make a foreign transaction wire, and I had to tell them what it was for,” says Fox.

“My bank told me they didn’t want to do it. They said, ‘It’s too risky.’ I couldn’t believe it.

“I said it was my money, but they said, ‘It’s coming from our bank.’ They were acting on my behalf.”

In the end, they agreed. Fox’s bank asked him to research Miray Cruises, the Turkey-based company that was launching the Life at Sea project after 30-odd years of cruising around the Mediterranean.

“It took a week or two – I had to find out the names of the owners and do a lot of research, but they finally acquiesced,” he says.

Today, Fox is one of more than 100 would-be passengers waiting for a refund from Miray, which canceled the cruise just two weeks before its delayed departure date. In all, he says he paid $70,000 of the $230,000 total fee for three years in an external cabin.

Others say they spent more. One would-be passenger CNN spoke with says they are more than $300,000 down.

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When canceling, Life at Sea vowed to refund passengers in full. Payments were to be made in three monthly tranches, with the first to be completed by December 22, according to company emails seen by CNN.

But now, after two of three payments should have arrived, passengers say that only a handful have seen any money, and no one has got what they were expecting. The company doesn’t deny problems with repayment, and it now says that customers will be reimbursed in full by February 15.

The majority, including Fox, have not even seen a dollar, passengers tell CNN.

The high hopes and eventual failure of the Life at Sea cruise reads a bit like a Greek tragedy.

Over the past 10 months, as it went from dream to nightmare, CNN has been in contact with around 20 would-be passengers. Some say they always feared the cruise would be canceled, but they signed up anyway – the dream was too alluring. Some think it was a scam; others think the company simply couldn’t afford to buy the ship. Some hope they might see their money back. Others think it was as good as gone as soon as they spent it.

Hearing their stories, two months after the cruise was abruptly canceled, sheds light on why so many booked – some even selling their homes and property to do so.

So what happened?

‘I didn’t even hesitate for a second’

The idea for Life at Sea was to take an older, smaller ship on a trip of a lifetime – at an affordable price.

The idea for Life at Sea was to take an older, smaller ship on a trip of a lifetime – at an affordable price.Life At Sea Cruises

In March 2023, Miray launched its Life at Sea concept: 1,095 days sailing around the world in a floating apartment block. The idea of a long-term, round-the-world cruise wasn’t new, but Life at Sea’s relative affordability – fares started at $30,000 per person per year, including accommodation, food, drinks, laundry and even health care – made waves.

For many people, the idea of living in a small cabin is the stuff of nightmares. But for the passengers who’d signed up to fill 111 cabins of the Life at Sea vessel, it seemed perfect.

Some were experienced cruisers. Others, such as Meredith Shay, had never set foot on a ship.

Shay made headlines as the first person to sign up. A retired flight attendant, travel is in her blood, and cruising around the world sounded a lot more relaxing – and affordable – than flying. “The concept of being in one room and not having to jump onto airplanes was very enticing,” she says now.

Shay had already been thinking about long-term cruising when Life at Sea first launched. While Miray was by no means the first company to offer it, other options tend to be at least double the price. Several startups in the field had already delayed their launches or failed to acquire ships.

“But then this one popped up – they were leaving quickly, doing it for just three years and the itinerary was close to perfect,” says Florida-based Shay. “I jumped on it.” Within 12 hours of reading about Life at Sea, she’d booked a cabin.

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She wasn’t the only one to move fast. Also in Florida, Jenny Phenix had been looking into the idea for several years.

“When they described a residential cruise at a price I could actually afford, that was a no-brainer for me,” she says. “My entire working life, I was planning on traveling as much of the world as possible once I retired. It’d all depend on what I could afford, and I thought I’d be doing it in little chunks, as much as I could fit in before the end of my life. No other cruise was even close to affordable for me, so when I saw that, it was a game changer. I didn’t even hesitate for a second.”

As for Fox, once he paid his deposit, he decided not to share his plans with anyone.

“I guess I always had a feeling inside that it might not happen,” he says. “I never told anyone, because I didn’t want to make a big deal about it and then tell everyone it fell apart.”

‘If it’s a scam, you deserve to keep my money’

Renderings of the ship touted a dream lifestyle.

Renderings of the ship touted a dream lifestyle.Life At Sea Cruises

To begin with, everything was plain sailing, but then the plans hit rougher waters.

As managing director of Life at Sea, Mikael Petterson had been overseeing sales. Petterson says the idea for Life at Sea was originally his, conjured up while working as a cruise start-up consultant.

“I’ve worked with some of our competitors, and they all shoot for the moon – million-dollar residences; it’s never affordable,” he says.

His idea, he says, was to get a slightly older ship, with slightly smaller cabins, and make it “affordable for the everyday person.” A shipbroker paired him up with Miray which, unlike other residential cruise start-ups, already had a boat: the MV Gemini, a 19,000-ton vessel built in 1992, with a capacity of 1,074 passengers. Petterson was hired to manage sales.

By the end of March 2023, just one month after sales opened, Petterson says his team had sold 285 out of 400 cabins. Miray disputes this, claiming that after Petterson’s departure, it found “around 130 cabins” booked, 30 of which later canceled.

In April, says Petterson, they got bad news. On a visit to the MV Gemini, his team was told by engineers that the ship wasn’t up to scratch for the planned journey. Miray disputes this, although in a March email Ethem Bayramoğlu, Miray’s then vice president of marine operations and ground services, called a proposed nonstop transatlantic crossing in the Gemini “very risky” because of limited fuel capacity.

“Vedat said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it. We’re going to get you a new ship,’ ” says Petterson, referring to Vedat Ugurlu, Miray’s owner.

Passengers knew nothing of the speedbump. As they pored over pictures of the MV Gemini, the Life at Sea team traveled to Germany to visit the Aura, a larger, 42-ton ship with a capacity of more than 1,200, that was soon to be retired by Carnival subsidiary AIDA Cruises. They decided to buy.

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Petterson says that as a May 30, 2023, customer payment deadline approached, he still hadn’t received confirmation that a suitable ship had been acquired for the cruise – so without consulting Miray, he postponed the payment deadline by a month. When Miray objected, he resigned, along with much of his team, and told passengers the cruise was off.

In response, Kendra Holmes – who was promoted from vice president of strategy and business development to CEO – told passengers on Facebook that around half the founding team had left, but that Miray was determined to make the cruise go ahead.

Things turned nasty.

Petterson – who says his team was never paid commission for sales made – told clients the cruise was off and criticized Miray on social media. Miray promptly brought a defamation lawsuit against him, although the company dismissed it in December 2023 after the cruise had been canceled. Petterson has now launched a rival project, Villa Vie Residences.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit against Life at Sea from four members of the original sales team demanding nearly $600,000 in damages is underway. Bayramoğlu, now chief operating officer of Miray, calls it “ridiculous.” He has shown CNN an invoice from Petterson, demanding $1.7 million in commission – what they’d be owed if everyone had paid in full – dated May 10, 2023, when only deposits had been taken.

“How can we pay $1.7 million if we have collected only $500,000 as deposit?” Bayramoğlu asks.

The schism within the cruise team rattled some passengers. Miray offered full refunds to anyone who wanted to cancel. Sharon Lane took her money and ran. “The risk was too great,” she told CNN at the time. Looking back now, she’s relieved: “I lost large sums of money twice in my life by trusting people to do what they promised. I did not want to risk a third financial disaster.”

But many stayed. “There’s no trepidation at all,” Shay told CNN at the time. “I’m over-the-moon excited to just drop out and drop into a new life.”

Others who stayed had reservations. “I had to ask myself, ‘Is it a scam?’ ” says Fox of the new team. “I decided no, it can’t be.” Holmes, the CEO, called him personally to go through plans. “After I talked to her, I was persuaded it was legit, even if I wasn’t convinced they’d succeed,” he says. “I told her, ‘If it’s a scam, you deserve to keep my money.’ ”

Diving ever deeper

The German cruise ship Aida Aura is pictured on March 3, 2020 at the quay in Haugesund, Norway, pending the answer, whether two quarantineed passengers have been infected with the coronavirus. - Two passengers on board the ship have shown symptoms of corona infection and the ship on March 2, 2020 has posponed its departure from Haugesund, Norway, while waiting for the results of medical tests. (Photo by Marit Hommedal / NTB Scanpix / AFP) / Norway OUT (Photo by MARIT HOMMEDAL/NTB Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images)

Miray put down a deposit to buy the AIDAaura. But when putative investors backed out, the sale was off.Marit Hommedal/NTB Scanpix/AFP/Getty Images

With Petterson and his team gone, plans for the cruise continued apace. Miray promised passengers a bigger, better ship – the Aura. It said it would complete the purchase in late September 2023.

In early summer, diver Noel Hansen met for coffee with his old friend Kendra Holmes. Miray’s new CEO was also a qualified diving instructor who had previously worked for Hansen, who owns The Dive Place in Clermont, Florida.

“We’ve known Kendra for years, and we were chatting in the store. It started out as a light conversation about ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to go diving around the world?’ ” he says.

“It progressed to the point where she came back and said, ‘I want to do a dive-round-the-world program, and I’d like you guys to do it.’ ”

Hansen and his team got to work. “We spent weeks going through the itinerary, setting up contacts for dive opportunities in the ports of call. Then, because we were going to be putting two staff members on the ship, we hired another instructor in September.”

‘Hook, line and sinker’

Lorna Boldrun (blue), Rebecca Varner (peach)

Rebecca Varner (left) sold her house to go on the cruise. She’s now in Costa Rica with fellow passenger Lorna Bolduc.Rebecca Varner

No one outside Life at Sea and Miray knows exactly how many people signed up for the cruise. In July, Holmes suggested to CNN that around 200 cabins had been sold, with new bookings for the Aura evening out the cancelations from the Petterson split. Now, she estimates they had about 150.

When the cruise was canceled in November, Bayramoğlu told passengers that only 111 cabins were booked.

Some people had lucky escapes thanks to Miray’s own staff.

Bonnie Kelter, from New Jersey, had read about the cruise when it was first announced, but boarding it had seemed like pie-in-the-sky. Then, in August, her husband announced he wanted a divorce.

“I said, ‘Well I don’t have grandchildren, I don’t have a husband – the anchor had been cut off my neck,’ ” she says. “My ex was like, ‘You’re crazy.’ In my mind I was on the ship already.” The staffing and medical care appealed to her as a newly single retiree, as did the community that the passengers were building on social media.

Kelter immediately put her house up for sale and called Life at Sea, asking if she could put down a third of the money they wanted – it was all she could afford until her house sold.

“She said she had to go to upper management, and I never heard back. When I read on CNN about the delays, I thought, ‘Well, I won’t press her,’ ” she remembers. But she trusted Miray’s sales representative: “She had a good answer for everything. If she was lying, she was really good.”

Kelter’s plan was to put down her deposit as soon as her house sale went through. Luckily for her, it sold on December 1, two weeks after the trip was canceled. She didn’t lose money, but she no longer has a home.

She is now living in an extended-stay property, working out her next move.

Kelter wasn’t the only person to sell her house to go on the cruise.

“I liquidated everything I owned in preparation for that trip – I was in hook, line and sinker,” says Rebecca Varner.

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Varner had spent 30 years traveling the globe for the US Foreign Service, but 18 years earlier she had settled in Maine. She loved her community there, but reading about the cruise, she’d felt a pull.

Regular cruises, where you dip into port for a day, had never appealed to her, but a cruise where you spend around a week in each port, as Life at Sea was promising? “This was going to take me to cultures I could explore,” she says.

She put her house on the market in April, then sold her car and possessions that she’d collected from all over the world. In October, she moved in with her sister in Florida to await the departure.

‘Homeless and jobless’

Jenny Phenix feared she'd end up without a place to live if the cruise was canceled. Her prediction came true.

Jenny Phenix feared she’d end up without a place to live if the cruise was canceled. Her prediction came true.Jenny Phenix

Life at Sea had told passengers that it would officially buy AIDA’s Aura by late September 2023 and rechristen it as the MV Lara, with dry dock renovations starting soon after. But as the clock ticked into October, several passengers got worried: the company had stopped responding to messages.

Holmes told CNN on October 6 that the sale would close the following week. She said the cruise was “not delayed” and that whispers that the sale had not completed were “merely a rumor.” She added that passengers were “not concerned.”

In fact, Holmes says now, she flew to Germany in late September to complete the purchase of the Aura, and boarded the ship with her team, as well as crew that Miray had hired.

But while she was in a meeting onboard with Carnival to sign for the ship, she got a call from Miray owner Ugurlu.

“He basically told me, ‘The money didn’t come through. We’re working on it. We need another week.’ So then I had to tell Carnival, ‘We didn’t get the money.’ It was the most humiliating position I’ve ever been put in in my entire life.”

She says the ship was sold to another company as Miray looked, unsuccessfully, for other investors.

Miray then set its sights on buying Aura’s sister ship, the AIDAvita, which was also on sale. That way, they could reuse the customized interiors they’d had made for Aura. But without investment, it was impossible.

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Passengers knew nothing of this but realized there was a problem when Miray went silent.

Speaking anonymously at the time, Phenix warned, “I’m completely homeless and jobless come November 1.” Her fears came true. Ahead of the cruise, she closed her two companies and rented out her condo. She says she couldn’t now afford the mortgage even if she evicted her tenant, which she wouldn’t do.

Her fellow would-be passenger George Fox says: “I started to doubt whether it was going to happen. It didn’t seem like they were anywhere near getting enough people.” He decided not to send his next payment. “I was already out $70,000,” he says. “I was still hoping it would happen, but I had a gut feeling.”

He wasn’t the only one.

Noel Hansen had lined up a vendor to supply diving equipment to the ship, but they needed a month’s lead time. “When the communications stopped dropping to the residents, that’s when we went, ‘Wait a minute.’ ” He told the vendor to hold fast.

‘I knew it was coming’

George Fox

George Fox never told anyone he’d booked a spot on the cruise, in case it never departed.Courtesy George Fox

Throughout October, more and more passengers spoke with CNN about their fears that the cruise might not happen. The company was adamant that it would.

On October 24, Miray’s PR spokesperson told CNN that the departure date had been moved to November 30. On November 13, with still no ship on the horizon, the same PR rep said that Holmes had resigned as CEO. Holmes appeared to confirm the news via text to CNN.

Yet four days later it was Holmes who would tell passengers that the cruise was off. At the time, she told CNN that she had resigned, but that her relationship with Miray was “complicated.” CNN broke the news that the cruise was canceled on November 24.

“It was the same as when my parents said they were getting divorced,” says Fox. “I was like, well, doh! I knew it was coming.”

Passengers had boxed up their possessions into “pods” to be loaded onto the ship. The pods were in a Miami warehouse. After waiting in vain for Miray to return their belongings, Varner and another passenger, Lorna Bolduc, paid for delivery themselves.

Bolduc was watching the fallout from Florida where she was renting. She says she paid around $200,000 for an external cabin – upfront, in full, to take advantage of an early bird discount.

“I wasn’t embarrassed it was canceled,” she says. “What’s embarrassing is that people ask, ‘Are you getting your money back and I said ‘Yeah, it’s coming end of December.’ Then in January they asked, ‘Did you get your first instalment?’ ”

Because although Miray vowed to refund all passengers in three monthly tranches, starting in December, few have received any money so far, according to passengers, one of whom is missing $325,000.

Miray’s Bayramoğlu now promises that all passengers will be refunded in full by February 15, the original date for the completion of the reimbursements, in either one or two transactions. He says they will also repay expenses incurred including travel to Europe and the rerouting of passenger pods.

He blames the repayment issues on passengers disputing the transactions through their banks.

“The banks have frozen our funds to secure the payback and will refund the money by itself,” he says. “Our bank here wants to make sure that all chargebacks are paid in full. We now have an agreement with the banks and the refunds will be made very soon.”

Meanwhile, the passengers are in limbo. Some are traveling together: Bolduc and Varner have “dropped off the map” to Costa Rica for three months, and Phenix is renting on the beach in Ecuador along with two other passengers.

Phenix is one of the 78 disillusioned passengers who signed a letter to the US attorney of Southern Florida asking him to investigate fraud claims on January 16.

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“I don’t believe it started out to be anything fraudulent, but I absolutely believe when they realized the Gemini wouldn’t be able to make the trip and then started giving us a lot of incorrect information or withholding important information – at that point it became fraud,” she says. Bayramoğlu says the company “protests” the accusation “because we will pay everything back. Miray Cruises is for real and spent more than 33 years in the cruise industry.”

He added: “Now, we are concentrated on making the refunds, to declare the new vessel for 2024 Life at Sea departure and to continue our Aegean Islands operations with Gemini.”

Miray has offered the would-be passengers a free Mediterranean cruise this summer, and it has promised to actually launch a Life at Sea cruise in November.

Bolduc and Varner, who are feeling sanguine, would consider it “if it were to take place – but I don’t think it will after this,” says Varner, who’s waiting until spring to decide what to do next.

George Fox, whose bank had flagged his initial payment, doesn’t think it was a scam.

“It just fell apart. And the man with the money will either make good or he won’t, simple as that.”

Hansen, the dive shop owner, has a similar theory.

“I don’t think there was an outright intention to defraud or mislead, I personally think they just weren’t sure how to handle it and it was getting out of control,” he says. “I think it was a spiraling staircase going down to the depths of hell. Once the spiral started it kept on going.”

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