David Holst is stranded on a ship denied entry by six countries due to the coronavirus.
David Holst is stranded on a ship denied entry by six countries due to the coronavirus.

Destination unknown: Cruise ship can’t dock after HK visit

When I started writing this piece we thought our 11-day stressful isolation at sea was coming to an end.

By the time I finished writing, Thailand had also rejected us and we have no idea when and where we will disembark this ship.

No one wants to be a passenger on a cruise ship that is suspected of carrying a potentially fatal virus.

Even the strongest and toughest would admit to being nervous or scared in such a situation. Anyone who is not nervous and is not taking every health precaution probably needs therapy.

When the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and even Guam refuse to let you dock you know you are at grave risk and in potential trouble.

 

Holland America's Westerdam cruise ship: The journey so far. Picture: David Holst
Holland America's Westerdam cruise ship: The journey so far. Picture: David Holst

 

David Holst and his wife Judy aboard the Holland America's Westerdam cruise ship. Picture: David Holst
David Holst and his wife Judy aboard the Holland America's Westerdam cruise ship. Picture: David Holst

 

Over the last ten days just one of the eleven ports we were scheduled to visit let us in, but then they asked our ship to leave quickly.

The tragedy of the Diamond Princess, now docked in Yokohama, has been followed by everyone.

The Google searches for "Coronavirus" and "cruise ships" from our boat are non stop. People on board are extremely knowledgeable and often know information before it hits the general press. This Thailand rejection was online six hours before the ship knew. Passengers on the Diamond Princess claim they first they knew of the virus being on board was via the internet.

Our Captain assures us we will be first to know if things go bad, the virus is not on board but the worry does not go away.

Modern information access has driven at times an atmosphere of tenseness. Every time the ship bells ring and the Captain makes an on-board announcement the silence is eerie. Passengers are waiting with trepidation for a crisis announcement as there has been little good news in recent times or important information about getting home.

When the Captain advised on February 7 that the cruise was abandoned and we would be seeking a disembarkation port it was a relief. We were heading for home, even if we did not know where we were going or when we would get there in a wait that lasted four days. The uncertainty is straining. The ship literally sailed in circles for two days, going nowhere, as it seemed no port would take us.

Onboard the ship we are not in quarantine and people have made the best of it. Some have done what they normally do and enjoyed all the events and activities. Judy and I have been a little more circumspect. We have spent a lot of time in our cabin. The last thing we want to do is bring the virus home to our family, friends and beautiful grandchildren. You see the occasional mask on the ship but they are rare. We will be wearing masks as we go through Bangkok and Singapore airports, just in case.

Since our ship, Westerdam, owned by Holland America, docked in Hong Kong on February 1, my wife Judy and I have lived under an ominous shadow. Some 800 new passengers boarded the boat in Hong Kong and many of the 800 crew and 700 passengers already on board went ashore. My wife, Judy, and I were amazed that the ship did not hand out face masks to those going ashore or even demand that everyone boarding the ship antiseptically washed their hands.

Like many on board who started their cruise in Singapore on January 16, we had become increasingly concerned as our boat sailed closer to Hong Kong, the gateway to China. The photo of us widely circulated was taken in Vietnam on January 29th, when we bought masks just in case.

 

David Holst and his wife Judy aboard Holland America’s Westerdam cruise ship. Picture: David Holst
David Holst and his wife Judy aboard Holland America’s Westerdam cruise ship. Picture: David Holst

 

The World Health Organisation had declared a pandemic on January 30. Hong Kong was on Red Alert, the highest internal health warning they could declare, and other cruise lines had already announced they were bypassing Hong Kong. In both the Philippines and Japan local authorities were voicing concerns about having cruise ships in port. Personally I had spoken to senior staff on board and emailed head office in Seattle. My last email said "the decision needs to be made, we cannot go to Hong Kong".

Twenty four hours after we departed Hong Kong the bad news started. We are banned by Manila, then the next day banned by Hualien, Taiwan.

The ship started zigzagging as they searched for ports of call.

On board the ship life was okay, if you could clear the worries from your mind. Sleep in. Check the internet and messages. Breakfast followed by the gym. Check the internet. Then lunch, swim, check the internet and then dinner, check the internet before bedtime. Each day for 10-11 days it has been the same. We have not seen land for over a week.

Nick and Jan Kennedy, from Tickhill, England, describe the experience as like having "Stockholm syndrome" where one is kidnapped, but eventually enjoys the adventure. That enjoyment improved each day that the ship got further away from China and Hong Kong and there was no virus outbreak on board.

There are of course much worse places to be than a luxury cruise ship

There are also a lot better places to be than a cruise ship 400km out to sea if a virus outbreak occurs. That situation could have been catastrophic.

 

The Westerdam cruise ship, isolated at sea for 11 days. Picture: Holland America
The Westerdam cruise ship, isolated at sea for 11 days. Picture: Holland America

The countless messages of support from home were really appreciated. Celebrating a birthday at sea in such circumstances was very different. This morning we expected to get off the ship on February 14 in Bangkok and home when we could arrange flights.

Now we are back in that twilight zone. Who knows when, where and how this journey finishes?

The two questions commonly asked are: 'Would you cruise again?' and, secondly, 'Would you cruise with Holland America?'."

The answer to both is yes. Cruising is a great way to travel and Holland America are a good company.

Holland America made what I thought was the wrong call to go into Hong Kong but hopefully at this stage we have dodged the Coronavirus and our holiday will end more as memorable than a full-blown crisis. Wherever and whenever that may be.

Holland America are also refunding our cruise fare and giving us a future cruise to the same value. That is appreciated.

Please wish us safe travels. We still have a few days until we get home and things can still go wrong, as we have seen today.

David Holst is a South Australian disability advocate and a passenger on the Westerdam.