Editor’s Note: Peninsula Community Library Director Vicki Shurly reports in from a cruise ship in the South Pacific, where the crew and passengers are coping with the fallout from the COVID-19 virus that’s spreading across the globe. Here’s her story, with all ongoing updates at the bottom of the story…
As many of you know, Bob and I left our lovely Peninsula in February for a trip to the South Pacific, a getaway after the incredible but busy three years of planning and building the new library. We spent a few splendid days in Oahu, Hawaii, and a few vibrant days in busy Sydney, Australia, on our way to board a cruise to experience more of Australia, Fiji and the French Polynesian Islands.
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We have seen incredible sights, islands, cultures and people, even an island so small that it does not appear on a world map, inhabited by 144 residents with only solar for energy and rain barrels for drinking water. Many of these small islands do not have airports of any significance, if at all. They are only accessible via water. A cruise was the way to go.
Arrival in Sydney – A Vague but Growing Concern About a Virus
When we arrived in Sydney, there was a vague but growing concern about a virus that had, at that point, hit a handful of Asian countries. We knew enough to be careful, having packed and used masks and bacterial wipes on the flights to the Southern Hemisphere. One lady on the plane from Hawaii shared a large container of wipes with anyone who wanted one. Wipe down the arm rests and food trays, we were told. We did, and at the time, that seemed enough. While we were not alone in these measures, no one was otherwise concerned for safety.
Human customs agents were almost nonexistent when we disembarked the plane in Sydney. The airport is incredibly automated, although we did fill out and turn in multiple new health forms on the new virus, as well as any possible contact. Our electronic passports told officials where we had been, and we breezed through. Passengers from a few countries had already been weeded out before we boarded in Honolulu. We spent the next few days reveling in all the sights.
The day before we were to board the ship, we were sitting in a lovely restaurant enjoying the harbor view of the Sydney Opera House. An American couple next to us asked if we had received an email issued that day by the cruise line. We had not. Bob contacted our travel agent. He forwarded the letter to us, stressing that it did not affect us. Passengers AND cruise line staff from a list of countries were not going to be allowed aboard.
We had to fill out more health forms and agree to both a health inquiry and having our temperature taken before boarding. They also announced that Norwegian Cruise Line was automatically giving everyone a 25 percent refund on the fare, as well as 25 percent off a future trip due to some port changes. They promised to reimburse denied passengers for flights home.
Passengers Turned Away as World Situation Becomes More Critical
As we waited to board the ship, we did see passengers turned away, and we knew immediately that the ship was neither booked to capacity nor had the full 1100 staff members on board, since staff and crew members from certain countries were under the same guidelines as passengers. From the start, Norwegian Cruise Lines instituted an amazing list of rituals to keep all of us healthy. In our cabin, via smart TV, we have access to much of the same news as you do – MSNBC, BBC, Fox and more, albeit Australian versions of what we watch at home. At each port and as days have gone by, we have watched the world situation become more critical.
As news developed, the procedures on the ship have become even more intense. It started with staff disinfecting walls, doors and handrails four times a day, having staff serve from the buffet and not allowing any “help yourself” food venues, reminders to wash hands and to not shake hands. If you wanted to use the card room, you were given a new set of cards to keep. Public restroom doors were propped open.
As the days have gone by, the basketball court, tennis court, putting cage and other sports facilities offered on board were closed. The books disappeared from the ship’s library one day with no way to return the ones people had checked out. A posting said the library was closed. That last one has been deviously defeated, for good or bad, by passengers who quietly trade books among themselves. It seems that we can live without a lot of things, but not books. Fortunately, I downloaded 15 books to my iPad before we left home, but we have shared hard copies back and forth with an Australian couple we have become friends with.
A few days ago, tablecloths stopped being used and silverware is now handed to you sanitized as you enter a restaurant. The grandfatherly Swedish captain makes announcements several times each day, much like admonishments to a child about hygiene – wash your hands often, don’t touch your face, keep your personal space, use the hand sanitizer! And evidently, on this ship, it has worked.
Entry Allowed or Denied Via Passports
At each port, we handed over our passports the night before so that local authorities could make a decision on who to allow off the ship. It varied. Early in the cruise, French New Caledonia did not allow anyone holding Italian, German or Spanish passports off the ship.
One German man cut abruptly in front of Bob when we were disembarking for the day. You are issued a ship’s card that is used as a credit card on the ship as well as passenger information when you leave and board again. Normally, it makes a pleasant chime when scanned and you are free to go. The German man’s card elicited a loud alarm, and he was told firmly that he could not leave the ship. Fiji allowed everyone off, to the relief of those banned from New Caledonia.
Yesterday and the day before were March 12, and today is March 14. Somewhere in crossing the international dateline twice in two and a half days, we entered a time warp east to west and again from west to east. March 13, 2020 will have never been a part of our lives. Good thing my birthday is not March 13, because I would have been cheated.
French Polynesia Closes Borders, Ship Turns Around
As well, we are headed in the opposite direction of our flight home in Tahiti. When we left Fiji, the ship was sailing toward the French Polynesian islands. Yesterday afternoon, as people were commenting that it seemed the ship had made a very wide turn around, the captain made an all ship announcement that French Polynesia had closed its borders and we needed to return to Suva, Fiji. Details were to be forthcoming.
Today at 10 a.m., those plans changed. We are not going back to Fiji, but have turned again, this time south to the very southern and cold waters of New Zealand. There, we are told, we will be allowed off, and the ship will be bunkered to wait out the chaos. So that’s where we are headed – New Zealand. We are working on canceling our hotel reservations, flights home from Tahiti and arranging new ones, as well as applying for a last minute visa to New Zealand. We were told it is winter where we are headed.
The ship is giving everyone free calls to cancel and re-book. We don’t have any dates or details yet, but Norwegian has announced they are refunding 100 percent of the trip, despite the fact that we have had a “normal” two-thirds of it. They will also credit any additional costs of flight changes to get home.
This has been quite an adventure, but not in the way we initially imagined. In a strange way, we are safer than a lot of people out there in the world, at least here on the ship. We are disease free – not even a case of the usual cruise line norovirus, we are days beyond the incubation period, at least until we leave the ship, and we have only been to ports in places that are thus far virus free.
A Little Floating Village – Disease Free and ‘In This Together’
No one is panicked, although understandably, some are anxious. Citizens from some countries would stay on the ship if they could, floating out here in the Pacific, since they are from Italy, Germany and Spain. They don’t want to go home. We are from over two dozen assorted countries, the majority from Australia and Germany, but the English language is the tie that binds.
The Australian classical pianist at the concert last night said it just about right – “We are in a little floating village, with fine cognac and French champagne. We have world class entertainment, can gather in groups, and unlike a good part of the world, we are disease free. There is a sense of ‘We might be from all over the world, but we are in this together, at least for now.'”
In two days, we will all disembark in a tiny town in New Zealand far from our hotel reservations and return flights. We will worry about staying healthy half-way around the world, and we will all try to find our way home, wherever it is, the best way we can.
New Zealand Closes Borders, Ship Turns Around Again
Postscript: March 15 (which is March 14 on the OMP):
Shortly after I wrote this, as we were in line to apply for New Zealand visas, an all ship announcement was made that New Zealand had closed its borders. As the announcement was made, we could feel the ship slowly make a wide turn north.
The mood on the ship is mixed. The staff still greet us with the same sunny faces, and passengers are still smiling and laughing, but we talk a lot with each other about getting home, and make random comments about floating forever in the South Pacific, as long as fuel and food hold out. Humor is a good form of release.
The Last Cruise Ship on the Ocean
At breakfast this morning, we heard rumors that the Associated Press had issued a news release about the Norwegian Jewel, and that Fiji has agreed to allow us to dock outside of Lautoka, a smaller city than Suva. Are we the last cruise ship sailing? The ship’s captain has confirmed the report.
Buses will be waiting to take us to the airport. We are not allowed to remain in Fiji. The ship has opened up Internet, free to all, in order to book flights home, but the bandwidth is poor, and it takes forever to get anywhere online.
People are a little more anxious now. At the Internet cafe, the line to book flights has grown into an hours-long wait. People are calm, but you can feel an edginess. There are security people from the ship visibly present. We must have proof of flight documents by 8:30 a.m. tomorrow.
Finding Our Way Home
The good news is that we have been disease free for 16 days, and we will not be required to quarantine in Fiji. The airport in Lautoka is a small one, but we have been told there are nonstop flights to Sydney, Honolulu and Los Angeles. Bob and I hope to book whatever nonstop flight to the U.S. we can get. If not, we will fly back to Sydney, a much larger airport, and get home from there.
We feel sorry for the Europeans who are having a difficult time finding a way home with so many borders closed. We are still all in this together. However, when we leave the ship on Tuesday (which will be Monday at home), it will be everyone for themselves.
Keep your fingers crossed for us for a flight home! Stay healthy!
Update from Jane – March 15, 2020, 10:34 p.m. OMP Time: I’m watching the Norwegian Cruise Twitter account (@CruiseNorwegian) and a Facebook group called “Family of Norwegian Jewel Passengers.” At this writing, the ship is scheduled to land at Pago Pago, American Samoa on March 16, 12 p.m. local time to refuel. They do not have permission to disembark at this time. We do not know the current food situation on the ship, or if they’ll be picking up food and supplies upon their arrival at American Samoa. We’ll keep updating this story with new information.
Update from Vicki – Landed in Jane’s Email Inbox March 16, 2020, 7:43 a.m. OMP Time: At dinner last night, the captain announced that, sadly, Fiji had closed its borders and we would not be going there. He assured everyone that various governments are working with the corporate office to find a solution. We were in one of the formal dining rooms, and at first there was silence, then a clinking of glasses. Here’s to whatever comes in this trip of a lifetime in more ways than one!
Rumors said we were heading back toward Australia. It did feel like we had turned due west. Then we saw in the news that Australia is not accepting cruise ships. Before tucking in for the night, we checked the navigational charts on the screen in our cabin and saw that the ship had turned again, not west but northeast toward Western Samoa.
Breakfast brought more ideas from anyone you stopped to talk to: “We are being taken to a decommissioned military base on American Samoa.” “The Americans and Canadians are being let off there to reduce the numbers on the ship.” “We are headed to the Philippines.” Some even suggested that the virus had run rampant on the ship and was being hidden!
Fortunately, our very kindly captain came on the address system after breakfast. We ARE headed to Samoa, where we are being allowed to refuel. No one will be allowed off the ship. He assured everyone that there are food and provisions to take care of all, that in all his decades as captain he has never seen a ship so virus free – of any virus – and that we would have enough fuel to keep us going wherever we end up.
He also pointed out that despite being stuck on a ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, we are better off than most of the world at present. The mood on the ship is much lighter now. People are still waiting in line to cancel flight reservations. Our new Australian friends spent eight hours yesterday making them and are now trying to cancel them.
Bob waited in the call line for over two hours to cancel our flights home once again and couldn’t get through when his turn came up. So there you have it. We are truly a floating village with no idea of when we will get home. However, we are safe, and we hope all of you are, as well.
Headed for Hawaii
Update from Vicki, Landed in Jane’s Email Inbox March 16, 2020, 7:51 a.m OMP Time: A new official announcement was made late yesterday afternoon that the ship will be allowed into port in Hawaii. We were in the packed theater watching the Mr. Roger’s movie, “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” The film was paused for the announcement. There was a thunderous applause from all around the ship, even from people who will now be further from home.
We don’t know when or any of the details, so we’re unable to book flights home. We will be in Samoa all day tomorrow for refueling, but cannot leave the ship. A schedule and plan for disembarkation will be announced then. At least, we hope it will! We have been disappointed so many times that most of us won’t believe it until we sail into port! We cross the international dateline for the fourth time tomorrow. Tomorrow will be today. We have had two March 16s, two March 12s, but no March 13. The last was a Friday so maybe that was a good day to miss.
Read the latest dispatch from Vicki here.
A NOTE FROM JANE: I started Old Mission Gazette in 2015 because I felt a calling to provide the Old Mission Peninsula community with local news. After decades of writing for newspapers like the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, and magazines like Family Circle and Ladies' Home Journal, I really just wanted to write about my own community where I grew up on a cherry farm and raised my own family. So of course, I started my own newspaper. Because the Gazette is mainly reader-supported, I hope you'll consider tossing a few bucks my way if I mention your event, your business, your organization or your news item, or if you simply love reading about what's happening on the Old Mission Peninsula. Check out the donation page here. Thank you so much for your support. -jb