An Adventure in Changing Plans: A COVID-19 Story

This is my story of living on board a cruise ship during the coronavirus epidemic. Our ship is healthy, does not have COVID-19, and has now disembarked all of the passengers. We are currently making our way to Fort Lauderdale from Fremantle, Australia. (You read that right – literally half way around the world.)

This is a bit of a long story. For those that are just joining me, here’s the quick summation:

I am sailing on the m/s Amsterdam with my husband where he works as an Engineer. When I joined the ship in Chile on February 11 the ship was one month into it’s annual Grand World Voyage. The Grand World Voyage starts in Florida and circumnavigates the globe before returning to Florida four months later. This particular voyage was scheduled to go to South America, Antarctica, Australia, and Africa. It was going down the east coast of South America, then to Antarctica. After Antarctica the ship made it’s way up a bit of the west coast of South America (where Stuart and I joined the ship), then across the Pacific to Easter Island, a couple spots in the South Pacific (Tonga and Tahiti), over to New Zealand, a bit of Australia, then it was meant to head north to a few places in Indonesia (including Bali and Komodo Island), then to Singapore, Sri Lanka, and across the Indian Ocean to make our way down the east coast of Africa, with a multi-night overnight in Cape Town, South Africa, making the way across the Atlantic ocean doing a bit of island hopping and finally ending in Florida.

And, that was the only part of this story that was quick. The John Lennon quote of “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans” has never been so true. As the coronavirus started to spread worldwide it showed us that all of the plans we made were about to get changed… a few times.  

The First Big Change:

The first time it really changed things was before we got to New Zealand – so towards the end of February – we were told that we weren’t going to be going to Indonesia or to Singapore. This was the start of countries closing their ports to cruise ships. The alternative itinerary was after we left Darwin, Australia (up on the northern side) heading directly to Sri Lanka, with an extra day in Sri Lanka, followed by a double overnight (two nights and three days) in Mumbai, India. We were then going to make our way down to Africa, have an extra day in the Seychelles and then go on to the rest of Africa from there. Unrelated to COVID-19 Kenya was also taken off of our itinerary due to unrest in the country.

Let’s Try Again! Big Change Number 2:

Then, things changed again. Sri Lanka stopped taking cruise ships and Mumbai wasn’t far behind so that plan was scrapped. The new plan was we were going to leave Darwin and make our way down around the western side of Australia. I hadn’t ever been to the western side of Australia and I was going to get to go on an overland tour to the Outback. After stopping in ports like Broome and Exomouth we would go to Fremantle which is the port city for Perth. We would then make our way across the Indian Ocean towards La Possession, Reunion. That crossing is seven days at sea (same as Portugal to Florida, for comparison) and then we would make our way through the majority of our African itinerary. We weren’t going to be going to Kenya, but most of the rest of the African countries were still open to cruise ships.

This is when things changed again in a very, very big way:

Princess Cruises announced on March 12th that they were suspending operations for 60 days. This was an unprecedented move in the cruise industry, but what that unprecedented move would soon become the norm for the entire industry. At this point we were still on course for our itinerary number 3. 

We kept cruising along. A couple days before Holland America Line suspended shipboard operations and made plans to disembark guests I was on a tour that didn’t go well.  There were guests that were upset that we didn’t get to go snorkeling that day, but they were also upset that Komodo Island had been cancelled – they hadn’t ever been there. While there are a lot of people on Grand Voyages that come every year, there are some that had never done a trip like this and these places are big exciting incredible opportunities.

But, while they were lamenting not being able to go snorkeling and their sadness over not seeing dragons, they didn’t know that in an office on the other side of the world there were some very big decisions being made.

The Cruise Is Over:

The next day onboard the announcement was made that Holland America Line would also be suspending global ship operations – but, only for 30 days. (I have no doubt that this will be extended for another 30 days). The ship we are on would continue on throughout the Australian portion of it’s itinerary (as Australia’s borders were still open), make our way to Fremantle for March 24th, and then everyone would go home from there. As the President of the company said, “It is important to think of this not as an early end to your vacation, but rather an emergency repatriation in the midst of a global pandemic as identified by the World Health Organization”

Okay, it’s a plan! Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans? The next day we hear on the news and are told that Australia has closed its borders. So, our next port of call, Darwin, is cancelled. The next day we’re informed that the rest of our Australian ports are also cancelled and we are making our way to Fremantle – just another 6 days at sea (totaling 9 sea days from our port in Cairns).

Let’s fast forward another day or two and we find out that we’ve sped up because Australia is closing its ports to cruise ships on March 20th at 9:00pm. We are scheduled to get there at 7:00am on March 22nd. Even with speeding up the soonest we could get there would be at 7:00am on March 21st – for those keeping track this is after they’re scheduled closure. This led to a lot of speculation from both passengers and crew as to whether or not they would even let the passengers leave when we got there. However, in the one bit of luck that the Captain announces that the government has given us permission to disembark passengers even though it is past their closure date.  

Are you exhausted by all these changes yet?

Let’s take a quick aside from the COVID-19 changes to March 20th when there is a guest that is having a medical emergency and needs to get helicopter evacuated off of the ship. The helicopter evacuation is successful. I don’t know how the guest is doing, but hopefully they got the treatment that they needed and are doing better.

Now, throughout all of these sea days there are a number of guests that express a very strong desire to stay on the ship until we get back to land. They create a petition to send to the head office. They refer to the cruise line as “villains”. It’s all quite dramatic. There are some guests with serious medical challenges and reasons that they don’t fly. I empathize with these guests. Ironically though, of the guests that I spoke with that referred to the cruise line as a villain, none of them had any medical issues preventing them from flying.

Initially it was thought that it was going to be an option for some guests that were unable to fly to stay onboard back to Florida. However, the head office deems it unsafe because if someone gets sick we will be in a remote enough area out to sea that a helicopter evacuation would likely not be an option. The other part of this – the crucial part of this – is that even if we were close enough to land for a helicopter evacuation countries have closed their borders even in medical emergencies. So you might be able to see land, there might be a hospital there – but you wouldn’t be allowed to go there. In the case of the evacuation just days before, in many countries that would no longer be an option.

With all of the constant changes you can guess what the presiding emotions were onboard. I will tell you that it was not very happy. There were some that handled it all well, but I would say the pervading emotion was frustration.  You know how if you see someone you’re likely to ask how they are and most of the time you get a fairly generic “I’m good” or “I’m well”? That was not the case in this situation. People were very self focused. In a normal situation if a passenger asked me how I was doing I would nearly always say something on the positive side of things. At some point when everyone just kept telling me the entire world was ending I switched my reply to “I think that most everyone is feeling similarly right now.”

To make things even more fun in the midst of this while we were helping everyone book their flights airlines began cancelling flights left and right as demand fell and governments continued to close their borders. Someone would have a flight booked one day only to find out that it was cancelled the next. At this point whether or not we could stop in Australia to disembark guests wasn’t the only big concern, it quickly also became when the guests disembark will they be able to get a flight home?

We get to March 21st, the first day of disembarking guests. Flights are secured, or as secured as they can be in the ever changing environment. Contrary to what you’ll read online the guests had help both from staff on the ship and staff in the Seattle office to book and rebook their flights. They will also be reasonably reimbursed for them (not enough for Business class, but enough for everyone I helped that booked in coach.) It’s time to start disembarking the guests, when yet another change happens.

The Australian Government had told the company, and in turn had told all of the guests that they would be allowed to stay in Australia for 14 days after disembarking – then, the day we get there they say that our guests have to go straight from the ship to the airport and if they stay in a hotel or try to go to a hotel they can be fined up to AUD$50,000! Holy hell. Considering we had guests planning on staying in Australia for a few days, or some staying for a couple weeks this was a BIG change that resulted in massive amounts of drama, stress, and challenges on both passengers and crew. It became an intense and tense environment as the crew worked to print out copies of all guest’s flight itineraries (that was being required by the government upon disembarkation), and to figure out what to do for those guests that had planned on staying in hotels.

This also means that guests with flights early the next day wouldn’t be able to stay in a hotel the night before. This might not be a big deal except that there were only certain windows of time that guests could go through immigration. This was going to result in some guests basically spending the night at the airport.

Now, to further complicate things, the guests that were planning to disembark and go to a hotel already had their luggage taken ashore and removed from the ship. Oh – and they could see that the ship next to us was bringing luggage back onboard, so “don’t you tell me that it can’t be done because I know it can because I see them bringing it back onboard on the Princess ship.” Umm, remind me again why you’re yelling at me? This situation just happened. I get that you’re stressed and annoyed. We will figure it out; but, “Sir, you need to calm down.

Everyone is stressed. Everyone is angry. Everyone is confused. Fast forward a few hours and then you hear the bing, bing, bing of the ships Public Address system. At this point this sound could give a healthy person heart palpitations. This time it is good news – the government has changed their mind. We had been sailing in Australia long enough (more than 14 days) that they decided our guests were okay to stay in a hotel. If a ship itself could have a sigh of relief, it would have with this announcement.   

So, what seems like 1,000 hours later our guests start disembarking, and once it gets going it actually goes pretty well.

None of what I’ve written above is to say that the Australian government did anything wrong. This pandemic has changed everything. The officials that I met were incredibly nice and wanted to help the ship through the situation in the best way possible while still following all of the requirements of their government. I certainly don’t have any negative feelings towards them for any of this as they were trying to do their best by both their country, the ship, and the passengers.  

Now, here we are – our third day at sea after leaving Fremantle. Onboard there are only crew members and a handful of spouses. Suddenly the ship feels very empty.

To make it feel more empty most passenger areas have been shut down to save on electricity and air conditioning. The lights in passenger hallways and elevator lobbies are at emergency level (so about half of average). Crew members freely walk around the ship in their casual clothes. Crew use one of the hot tubs and the pool, they sit on bar stools, and go in passenger areas with wet hair (as someone that hates blow drying their hair – this one is a big deal.)

It’s been nice for Stuart and I in that he’s getting more fresh air by not needing to change into his regular uniform from his boiler suit (coveralls) that he wears in the engine room.

While sailing without passengers has meant reduced working hours for many, much of the crew still have to work quite a bit. What this means is that the discord that already sometimes exists between departments might be growing a bit. Hopefully this doesn’t last though and as the freedom of not having passengers onboard becomes less of a novelty the disparity between work levels will adjust a bit and everyone will work to help everyone else out.

As frustrating as the whole situation was leading up to the passengers disembarking, and as frustrated as the passengers were that they had to go home, I am grateful that everyone was able to get home. There are ships that are currently unable to disembark any passengers as even more countries close their borders. One of those ships now has coronavirus onboard and I guarantee those passengers wish they could have gotten home. Take a look at the update on those ships here.

Even with the passengers all home the challenges and questions are ongoing. Our ship is en route to Florida, and as Florida is doing basically nothing to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 who knows what situation we are going to be coming to. Who knows whether or not there will be any flights even domestically at that point. Who knows whether or not anyone will be able to leave the ship in Florida. I am fully expecting that if I leave the ship in Florida (am allowed to, required to… we’ll see what happens) I will have to try to rent a car and drive myself to Vermont. Getting guests home now was the best choice. Yes, it was 30 hours of flying for most people, but at least they’re home. With how much things have changed in these past few weeks who knows what will change in the coming month.

To put it mildly this has all been quite an adventure. When I left Vermont in February there is no way I would have though that this cruise would have gone like this. I would never have thought that this virus would become the pandemic that it is.

So here I am, cruising along. A lot of people have reached out to me with concern about how Stuart and I are doing.  We are doing well. I know the media makes it sound like all ships have coronavirus but that is simply not true. We are virus free and theoretically will stay that way since we aren’t taking on any crew or passengers for the next month.

We are in a bit of a bubble from this virus. We are in the rare category that we do not really have to practice social distancing (beyond being confined on a boat in the middle of the ocean with the same 550 people). Even being in our little bubble we are not exempt from some of the fear and challenges that this virus is creating in the world.

We are on a cruise ship with no passengers. The cruise lines are losing an insane amount of money right now. Yes, they are a giant corporation. I would by far offer economic stimulus and bail-outs to small businesses as giant corporations can borrow money against their assets easier than small companies, etc. But, holy hell – if you are part of the hotel department (and even some other departments) you have no idea when your next contract is, and if you already have one scheduled you have no idea if that’s going to happen. People are worried about their jobs, their income, and their livelihoods. For many people onboard it is not their individual livelihoods but their entire family’s livelihoods that are at risk. Of the 550 crew members onboard I would bet that at least 425 of them send money home to their families to provide either for their spouse and children, or in some cases, their parents, spouse, and children. They are the provider and now their income is at risk.

These feelings aren’t exclusive to those on a cruise ship. I understand that. The livelihood of so many are at risk right now, but it is one way that those of us on a cruise ship somewhere in the Indian Ocean are feeling the effects of COVID-19 that people are feeling on land.

In addition to the economic challenges and uncertainty there is some serious emotional challenges happening, too. One of Stuart and I’s friends onboard was supposed to already be home with his wife and 8-month old baby. He’s now onboard for an extra month away from his family. And, even when he disembarks the ship at the end of April (hopefully) Japan has closed its borders, even to residents. He doesn’t know when he will be able to get back home again. There is another that couldn’t go home that had to postpone their wedding (although it seems that a gathering like a wedding would have been cancelled at this point anyway – it’s the premise behind it that you want to focus on). There are so many stories like this that really break your heart.

So, what’s next? We are going to be stopping somewhere in Africa to refuel in a week or so and then will hopefully be arriving in Fort Lauderdale at the end of April. This is likely when I will be heading back to Vermont, and Stuart will stay onboard. His contract was originally until the end of May. But, that will largely depend on whether or not his replacement will be able to get to the ship. With borders closed, airline closures and cancelled flights there are a lot of unknowns. This ship was meant to be heading to do the Canada/New England run for the summer, but now Canada has closed it’s borders to cruise ships until at least July 1st. At this point we are all just taking it one day at a time and we will see how it goes from there.

“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” Keep making other plans, but then when life changes those plans, roll with it, and remember to be kind!

And, lastly, for goodness sake – wash your hands, take a vitamin, drink some water, and get enough sleep. Give your immune system a fighting chance! 

One thought on “An Adventure in Changing Plans: A COVID-19 Story

  1. You my darling are amazing! I admire your grace and resilience and am slightly envious that your bubble is a bit bigger than mine right now. I’ll be here when you arrive home where we can go for walks in the fresh Vermont air (six feet apart of course).

    Like

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