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Page last updated at 08:39 GMT, Wednesday, 21 April 2010 09:39 UK
On Celebrity Eclipse cruise ship for Bilbao rescue

By Jo Palmer
BBC Radio Solent reporter on board Celebrity Eclipse

Celebrity Eclipse arrived in Southampton on Tuesday

No passengers enjoying their breakfast, no sunbathers and no swimmers having an early morning dip in the pool.

Standing on the 13th deck of this huge new luxury cruise ship - Celebrity Eclipse - as it cuts silently through the waters of the English Channel, there is an eerie silence on board.

This brand new £500m ship has put its inauguration celebrations on hold to travel to Spain on a unique and unprecedented rescue mission.

Our destination is Bilbao to pick up more than 2,000 package tourists who have had their holidays elongated by the shutdown of European airspace following the Icelandic volcano eruption.

Rescue mission

Swimming pool
The cruise ship's facilities are unused until it reaches Spain

In the bright morning sunshine, we make a steady 22 knots past the Channel Islands.

Ironically the vapour trails in the sky, which have appeared as airspace opened, illustrate exactly why we are here.

Celebrity Eclipse was due to have official, and very spectacular, launch events this week.

The ship only arrived in Southampton on Tuesday morning but a quick decision was made to postpone a mini-cruise for travel industry and media, and head to Spain. It was clear that many of the guests had been caught up in the ash chaos anyway.

Dan Hanrahan, president of Celebrity Cruises said: "A party at this time didn't seem right - we had to help out."

Homeward bound

Spanish students
Spanish students make the trip home

The only people on board, apart from the hundreds of waiting staff with next to no-one to serve, are some Spanish people who had been stranded in Britain - including 50 teenagers who had been on a school exchange.

After a week of uncertainty and delays, their relief was palpable. Their teacher said: "I've been telling them how lucky we've been - it's incredible."

"It's not the usual way home - we are travelling like princesses," said another woman hitching a luxury ride home, "It's a big adventure" said another.

Package tourists

Crew cleaning
The crew prepare for an influx of rescued tourists

This is not a 'turn up and go' option for anyone stuck in Spain. The 2,500 spaces have already been allocated to customers of three package tour companies - Thomson, Co-operative Group and Thomas Cook.

Some of the holiday makers have been flown to Spain from as far afield as Mexico and Dubai when northern European airspace was closed.

The ship will be focussed on picking up families. Parents with children, who obviously would not want to be split up, are less likely to get odd seats available together on flights back to the UK.

The staff of this 'ghost ship' are looking forward to having passengers - albeit not their expected guests for their first cruise which has turned out to be very different and unexpected.

There will be a quick two hour turnaround when we arrive in Spain, and our return journey should get underway late on Friday morning.

No-one quite knows what to expect and what the journey back will be like - and what stories those passengers will have to tell.

Follow Jo Palmer on board Celebrity Eclipse on Twitter @bbc_hampshire
and on BBC Radio Solent.

Jo Palmer on board Celebrity Eclipse; additional material by Stephen Stafford.

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