Life at Sea passengers say canceled 3-year cruise owes them millions

Life at Sea

More than a month after a Turkish cruise company reneged on the promise of a lifetime - a three-year trip around the world in more than 140 countries - customers who spent millions in deposits are asking a U.S. attorney for help getting their money back.

In a saga seemingly destined to join the canon of Netflix scandal documentaries, Miray Cruises’s failure to launch the Life at Sea sailing has left dozens of passengers without homes, jobs, cars, retirement funds and life savings.

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A letter sent to Markenzy Lapointe, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, identifies 78 of the passengers for the Life at Sea sailing as “Victims of Miray.” The letter, which was reviewed by The Washington Post, says they passengers lost an estimated $16 million from Miray actions that amount to misrepresentation and fraud. The group includes citizens from the United States, Australia, England, Singapore and India, among other countries. The majority of the customers were seniors over 65.

“The failure of Miray to refund passenger money as promised has caused a significant number of residents to literally become homeless,” the letter says. “Many are living out of suitcases in motels or in spare rooms because of the generosity of friends.”

Miray said in a statement to passengers earlier this month the refunds are slow-rolling due to banking and credit card problems, according to the letter. Spokespeople for the company did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday. It’s unclear if Lapointe’s office will take up an investigation. The passengers’ letter, which is intended to serve as a formal criminal complaint, says they suffered damages worse than victims of the botched Fyre Festival in the Bahamas; organizer Billy McFarland went to federal prison for wire fraud.

“They’ve not only dashed our hopes and dreams and upset the course of our lives, but they keep wasting our time,” passenger Shirene Thomas, a 58-year-old retired social services worker, told The Post. She said she moved out of the house she was renting, sold her car and condensed her life into five boxes for the trip. She’s currently living with a friend in North Carolina.

Between June and August of 2023, Thomas said she made 27 individual transactions across eight credit cards to Miray, amounting to nearly $157,000 for the three-year trip. (Miray was offering slight discounts to customers who paid upfront for the three years.) “It took so much time and now as you can imagine, it’s taking even more time to file disputes with 27 different transactions and provide them all the documentation.”

So far, only four passengers have seen any of their money returned to them, the letter says.

“One of the harder parts of it all was the lack of communication and being gaslit,” Thomas says. “It would have been much easier if they had just come out and said this was falling through, but that was not what they did.”

In March 2023, Miray, a company that typically runs cruises around the Aegean Sea, announced the 1,095-day cruise for as low as $30,000 a year, including lodging, food and other accommodations. While the concept wasn’t particularly new, what Miray was offering and the price it advertised were somewhat rare. (Thomas says that the price tag didn’t end up being entirely accurate, as it reflected the price of only some double occupancy cabins.) Prospective passengers were informed that they would be sailing on the Gemini, a vessel owned by Miray. The boat was scheduled to set sail in November.

As the months elapsed, passengers paid their deposits, acquired new visas, packed up their lives and prepared for sea. Some re-homed pets. Some sold houses. Others dipped into their retirement funds. Meanwhile, the original management team behind Life at Sea quit, apparently over disputes regarding the Gemini’s seaworthiness. During this time, most communication with passengers happened via webinars with new Miray executives, including former CEO Kendra Holmes and COO Ethem Bayramoglu. In July, they announced they’d found a bigger boat to embark on the journey.

In October, passengers, shipped off their belongings to Istanbul or Miami (where the vessel was stopping after Turkey). Miray’s owner, Vedat Ugurlu, then announced that the voyage would be delayed until Nov. 11. Many passengers had already bought plane tickets or were in temporary lodging in Istanbul waiting for departure. According to the letter submitted to the U.S. attorney’s office, Ugurlu claimed funds were being finalized for the purchase of the boat - but that the trip was still a go.

On Nov. 19, the letter says, Ugurlu announced the complete cancellation of the voyage; plans to secure a larger vessel had fallen through. Miray promised passengers a full repayment of the trip and any additional funds that would be paid out in three installments, the first coming on Dec. 22, with payments following in January and February.

In a statement to passengers on Jan. 14, Miray said disputes over credit card chargebacks have delayed the refunds and prevented the company from processing any transfers. Even still, the passengers claim, the company has engaged in “significant and repeated illegal activity,” for marketing a three-year cruise without having a ship first.

Kara Youssef and her husband, Joe, are one of the few who have seen a fraction of the money they sunk into Life at Sea come back to them. The couple had been living in Turkey for two years at the time the cruise was announced. They used up most of their retirement fund, dug out a significant chunk of their savings and sold both properties they owned in Turkey to fund the trip. Since Oct. 28, they’ve been living out of three suitcases in a hotel paid for by Miray.

“Our biggest concern at this point is we’re not going to have anywhere to go very soon,” Youssef told The Post. “It’s not that we’d be homeless, but we may not be allowed to go back to our lives since we sold the property we did our [Turkish] residency under.”

On Saturday, more than a month after the first repayment was supposed to turn up in all passengers’ accounts, Youssef was able to arrange an in-person meeting with Bayramoglu, the COO, who paid her 10,000 in cash - 12 percent of what she and her husband had paid for the cruise. She said the remainder is supposed to come in February at the latest.

“I think that Miray has made some horrible management decisions and has been atrocious in their communication, but if they make their payment, if they refund their passengers, as far as I’m concerned, I’m good,” Youssef says. “I’m not trying to ruin them to make them pay or anything like that.

Not all passengers signed onto the complaint; George Fox, a 67-year-old Maine resident, told The Post he takes responsibility for the money he lost on the cruise. He had always been skeptical it would happen - the change of management and boat gave him pause, as did his bank’s refusal to wire Miray $30,000 for a deposit - but he says he doesn’t believe it was the result of intentional fraud.

“Everybody that signed up for this, they knew that it was a risk,” says Fox, who after growing dubious of the launch, changed his plans and decided he’d embark in Florida, once the ship had successfully set sea. “It was just a lot of things that kind of came together and didn’t come together. It’s just one of those things … I mean, what can you say? It’s a crazy world.”

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