Holland America Line president Orlando Ashford took time to document life on two stranded HAL ships – Zaandam and Rotterdam – as they sought refuge and rescue from any port that would take them.
It’s a fascinating and harrowing insight into life onboard just two of the many stranded cruise ships around the world. Thanks fully, this story has a happy ending.
29 March 2020 (US time)
The coronavirus (COVID-19) has run rampant through neighbourhoods, businesses and nations, catching all of us off guard. Stoked by fear of contagion, millions of people around the world are sheltering in place waiting out the storm.
During a time when we’re afraid to go out, fearful of others as possible COVID-19 carriers, how do we ensure we continue acting in ways consistent with our common human dignity?
Holland America Line is working tirelessly to find medical help and safe passage home for the 1243 guests and 1247 crew stranded at sea on our two ships, Zaandam and Rotterdam. They are among the 9000-plus passengers still remaining on about a dozen other cruise ships worldwide. These are unfortunate souls unwittingly caught up in the fast-changing health, policy and border restrictions that have rapidly swept the globe.
The questions I keep asking myself for guests and crew on these ships are:
- How will those needing intensive medical treatment receive it with limited shipboard medical staff, facilities and supplies?
- Nations are reluctant to share provisions or afraid to carry critical supplies out to us. What happens when our supplies run out?
- Can guests and crew without symptoms get home with limited flights and closed borders?
Even our guests are questioning, “My president or prime minister told me to get home. I’m a citizen. How can my government turn me away?”
Nations are justifiably focused on the COVID-19 crisis unfolding before them. But they’ve turned their backs on thousands of people left floating at sea. Are these reactions based on facts from experts like the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), or fuelled by irrational fear? What happened to compassion and help thy neighbour?
Forced to fend for ourselves
We are dealing with a ‘not my problem’ syndrome. The international community, consistently generous and helpful in the face of human suffering, shut itself off to Zaandam; leaving her to fend for herself.
As a result, Zaandam was forced to take proactive measures, rendezvousing with sister ship Rotterdam to replenish much-needed supplies and protect the health of the guests and crew who weren’t ill.
We made the unprecedented decision to transfer to Rotterdam those guests we could quickly and safely move to alleviate Zaandam crew’s workload immediately, and to get as many guests as possible into rooms with windows and verandas. Following CDC protocols, we screened guests prior to transfer, and all wore protective face masks. To ensure everyone’s wellbeing, we did not move guests who needed further screening or those likely to need ongoing support by the medical team on Rotterdam. Guests on both ships continue to self-isolate in their staterooms.
Reducing the guest count on Zaandam helps available staff better serve those remaining on board. No guests who have been ill or symptomatic were moved, nor were their close contacts. And no Zaandam crew moved to Rotterdam. Zaandam received additional medical supplies including COVID-19 tests, face masks for guests and personal protective equipment for crew, as well as medical staff. This will help, but patients will need to get home for additional medical care.
How we got here
It’s important to remember passengers and crew did nothing wrong. When voyages began in early March, South and North America had few confirmed COVID-19 cases. The World Health Organisation (WHO) was advising against travel restrictions and the Americas weren’t affected by travel or health advisories. Travel in all forms continued to bustle across the continents as recently as mid-March – albeit with more personal hygiene reminders.
Within a matter of days, that all changed. Local governments swiftly closed ports globally. Ships previously cleared for docking were abruptly turned away. Officials denied repeated requests for access and assistance, and the world shut itself off, leaving ships stranded at sea to make it on their own, which isn’t sustainable. Eventually someone must allow these ships in.
Holland America Line began actively monitoring COVID-19 in early 2020, working with international health authorities to step up already-robust screening, prevention and control procedures to keep guests and crew safe. Then on 13 March, amid growing global health concerns, we announced a 30-day suspension of global cruise operations. On 30 March that suspension was extended an additional 30 days, cancelling cruises through 14 May.
For ships like Zaandam mid-operation – its two-week South America voyage began 7 March – we quickly sought approval to disembark guests for flights home. Chile announced the closure of their borders on 16 March, literally while Zaandam had been sitting in Punta Arenas for two days awaiting clearance for guests to disembark for flights home. Peru closed, as did Argentina, and the rest of the ports in South America. Repeated requests for humanitarian consideration were denied.
Then 22 March – one day after the voyage’s original end date – a few guests and crew began reporting influenza-like symptoms. Despite countless desperate pleas in the following days, we were forbidden to medevac critically ill patients to shore-side hospitals (usually standard operating procedure for comprehensive care that ships aren’t equipped to provide).
Already four guests have passed away, and I fear other lives are at risk. As of 30 March, 76 guests and 117 crew on Zaandam have influenza-like illness, including eight people who have tested positive for COVID-19. We have seen a notable and steady decline in cases in the last 48 hours, which shows the immediate actions we took have helped contain spread.
However, there are also 1167 healthy guests and 1130 healthy crew across these two ships.
Thankfully, the Panamanian government graciously granted humanitarian approval, allowing us to move through the Panama Canal, which we did on the evening of 29 March. Even with this progress, we are still facing a multi-day journey before we can safely dock and disembark. And we need confirmation from a port that is willing to extend the same compassion and grace that Panama did and allow us to come in, so our guests can go straight to the airport for flights home. It’s tempting to speculate about the illnesses that may have been avoided or lives saved if we’d gotten the assistance we sought weeks ago.
COVID-19 response a test of our humanity
It’s easy to condemn those who are unhelpful and unwelcoming during times of need. But what if instead we focus on the type of society we strive to be, where nations share a collective responsibility to help others in peril? Because these travellers could have been any one of us or our families – caught up by a fast-changing scenario nobody foresaw.
The COVID-19 situation is one of the most urgent tests of our common humanity. To slam the door in the face of these people betrays our deepest human values.
Given the opportunity, I am hopeful that all of us will follow the lead of our Panamanian friends and help our neighbours.
2 April 2020 (US time)
Holland America Line is pleased to confirm that Broward County and the Unified Command cleared both Zaandam and Rotterdam for arrival at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to disembark guests who are fit to travel per guidelines from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
We extend our sincere gratitude to President Trump, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, the Broward County Board of County Commissioners, Port Everglades Unified Command, Broward County Administrator Bertha Henry and all governmental and embassy authorities who helped to resolve this situation and get our nearly 1200 guests home. And a special thank you to Broward County Mayor Dale Holness for his leadership, help and understanding.
These travellers could have been any one of us or our families, unexpectedly caught in the middle of this unprecedented closure of global borders that happened in a matter of days and without warning.
We are so happy to be able to get our guests home and assist those few who need additional medical services. The COVID-19 situation is one of the most urgent tests of our shared humanity, and we must do everything we can to ensure we continue to act in ways consistent with our common human dignity.
Our guests on board both ships have been truly incredible, and we extend our deepest thanks and appreciation to all of them.
Their cooperation, support and understanding throughout this entire experience helped us best protect the health of all on board and ensured our shipboard teams could focus on caring for everyone and getting them home.
I would also like to extend my sincerest thanks to the amazing officers and crews of Zaandam and Rotterdam.
They are heroes who rose to the challenge of taking care of our guests and each other under extraordinary circumstances. All of us at Holland America Line are so very proud of our colleagues for their exemplary leadership and service.
Following arrival in Port Everglades, guests will be health screened and also cleared for entry by US Customs and Border Protection. Disembarkation is expected to be completed cautiously but expeditiously, with priority given to those who need immediate care at local health system partners who have approved their arrival.
Fit-to-travel guests will transfer straight from ship onto buses for transfer directly to the airport for their flights home. The majority will leave on charter flights. Local Florida residents will return home immediately via private car. Guests have not left the ship since 14 March and have self-isolated in their staterooms since 22 March.
Guests who still have symptoms will remain on board and disembark at a later date to be finalised after they have fully recovered and meet the CDC guidelines for being fit to travel. They will continue to be well cared for on board by the ships’ medical staffs.
No crew from either ship will disembark in Fort Lauderdale.
Since 22 March, 107 guests (90 on Zaandam and 17 on Rotterdam) and 143 crew on Zaandam (0 on Rotterdam) have presented with influenza-like symptoms.
There are 808 guests and 583 crew on Rotterdam. On Zaandam there are 442 guests and 603 crew. Among the guests, 311 are American citizens and 52 are residents of Florida.
Due to global health concerns, Holland America Line made the decision to suspend its global cruise operations for 30 days and end its current cruises in progress as quickly as possible.
At the time, Zaandam was sailing a South America cruise that began in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on 7 March. It was originally scheduled to end in San Antonio, Chile, on 21 March.
Attempts were made and denied to disembark guests in Chile on 15 March and at other ports along its route to the United States.
On 21 March, Zaandam was originally scheduled to begin a 20-day South America and Panama Canal cruise from San Antonio, Chile, and end in Fort Lauderdale on 7 April. On 30 March an additional 30-day extension of cruise cancellations was announced, including departures through 14 May.
Can you imagine what it would be like to be ‘cut adrift’?
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