Sailing through COVID-19
Thirst for adventure
The cruising industry took a battering in 2020. And as we sail through 2021 although vessels remain afloat, companies may not.
Nearly a year since COVID-19 entered the realm of Western Australia with an outbreak onboard the ‘MS Artania,’ the government has decreed a ‘snap lockdown’ to quell the spread from a single infected security guard tasked with managing hotel quarantine guests. As businesses close and wearing masks is mandatory we continue to navigate this epic global voyage. ‘Welcome Aboard’ our altered journey of life. Time to reflect…
We meet in Malaysia
Harris decides to fly to Kuala Lumpur to visit his sick mother while I remain in Stuttgart to oversee staff and despatch final Christmas orders. My plan is to fly to England to stay with friends and catch up with extended family. We agree to meet in Malaysia, so forfeit the first leg of our journey from Kiel. It has been a productive yet stressful year, and we are both exhausted.
At last, Harris picks up his mobile and apologises for missing my calls. As agreed, I have arrived at Port Klang. It is one o’clock and I wait in the queue with my suitcase, perspiration oozing from my face and neck. Telling me to stay right where I am, Harris is soon by my side and squeezing my waist. Relieved and excited to see each other again we laugh and kiss, feeling safe in our love.
Eight decks of opulence
With paperwork in order, we board the ‘MS Artania.’ It is an amazing eight-decked vessel, a truly magnificent floating hotel with the added benefit of no children. We make our way past the central Reception area on Neptun Deck, swept up in the excitement of boarding passengers and the opulence of our surroundings. Everything is gleaming, from the balustrades to the enormous sculptural artwork. Our eyes soar upwards to the commanding primary colours of a stunning stained-glass domed orb. We cannot wait to ascend the magnificent staircase and explore the decks above.
Healthy salt air
Our suite is beautiful, a large regal blue Queen size bed just waiting for our tired bodies. Greeting us at the foot of the bed is a cleverly twisted white towel Swan, atop folded thick fluffy blue and white bath towels. There is plenty of wooden bench space with drawers underneath, and a separate area with two elegant teal slipper chairs and a small circular wooden glass-topped table. Fluted wall sconces are warm and inviting. The place is heavenly and hugging each other we never want to leave!
Eventually we pull back our sheer curtains and grin at our gorgeous balcony. Opening the sliding-door we step outside and expand our lungs with some healthy salt air. Dodging two welcoming chairs and a side table, we lean on our private railing and stare at the twinkling cobalt Strait of Malacca. The sea is calm, still, and mesmerising. We are at peace.
Unpacked, clean, and ready to explore, we eventually meet up with work colleagues on the Salon Deck for a drink at Harry’s Bar. Our trip is all expenses paid as a company reward for high achievers, and to celebrate the new 2020 decade. We have a total party of 12 on board. Four singles and four couples. The four singles are in their 20s and daring each other to down shots and cocktails. Everything from Tequila to Espresso Martinis are slammed down into a bubbling gut concoction.
Suzie is tall and blonde. Smart and fun, she is becoming more and more attractive to her three doting colleagues. The other three couples are senior managers. Two of the men have their girlfriends with them and Mariel has brought along her husband, Frank. Quite a surprise as rumour has it she is entangled in a three-way with colleagues in Gerlingen. Frank is quiet as he sips his glass of August Kesseler Riesling and scans the room like a Dachshund. An hour into drinks and he has disappeared.
Let the games begin!
Next morning, we all meet up for a game of deck coits and a swim before an outside buffet lunch on the Lido Deck. I notice Frank is missing. Mariel says he is doing research in the Bibliotek down on Jupiter Deck. She is far from concerned, having caught the eye of an attentive steward. After lunch Harris and I excuse ourselves to go back to our cabin. Exiting the lift, we are stunned to see Frank scurrying out from the room of another male passenger. A cough interrupts their quick kiss, before Frank scarpers down the corridor — a book in one hand, sandals in the other. We look at each other in disbelief. This is going to be one memorable cruise. The fun has begun!
Suzie looks the worse for wear at dinner. Stefan is sullen and the other two boys are engaged in conversation with Mariel. Crisp white linen tablecloths and sparkling polished silver adorn the tables that follow the arc of the walls. Meals are gourmet. Frank attempts conversation but is distracted and excuses himself before dessert. Saying he is not feeling well, he thinks a rest is best and promises to meet us later up on the Salon Deck for drinks. He kisses Mariel on the head then leaves the restaurant.
The Casablanca Lounge is a great place to chill and mingle with other passengers. It is almost a full ship with 1,000 Europeans and nearly 500 crew from the Philippines and Indonesia. Despite the intriguing company of colleagues, I feel that at last Harris and I can truly relax. We are excited to discover all the exotic ports of call. Next stops are Singapore, Java and Bali before sailing to Australia. We will visit Cairns, Townsville, Brisbane and Sydney before venturing on to New Zealand, Fiji and Polynesia. Dating for over three years I have a sneaking suspicion Harris is going to propose.
But things do not go as planned. Who could know the seafaring adventures awaiting us? News spreads quicker than the virus. A number of passengers have become sick, including Frank. Even one of our favourite entertainers tells us his throat is sore. Then he downs his whisky sour and belts out another song. Helpless, we do not know what to do. Information is rife. We are now captive on this floating hotel-cum-hospital. The Captain asks us to stay in our cabins as we sail into the West Australian port of Fremantle to refuel. We are told to remain calm, despite the rate of illness growing. Although the ship’s hospital and medical centre are on the lower deck, coughing is audible from cabins.
You must leave
We are not allowed to get off the ship in Fremantle. There was an incident in Sydney with another vessel, the ‘Ruby Princess,’ where passengers were allowed to disembark and make their way home without testing. This led to widespread infection, and a government enquiry. As a result of the Sydney debacle, the West Australian government is taking a heavy-handed approach to protect the capacity of local hospitals. The ‘MS Artania’ is not welcome and we are asked to leave. Stoically, our crew refuse. With passengers becoming ill by the day, going back out to sea is not an option.
Eventually, those needing urgent care are taken off the ship and transported to two local hospitals. Medical staff come aboard and systematically test us. Self-isolation is advised until we know what is happening. From our balcony the sea is a wave of panic, forever rising.
Testing positive to coronavirus
As part of the Phoenix Reisen fleet we are kept informed. Our crew still refuses to set sail, despite continued local government warnings. A total of 49 passengers and crew are now testing positive to Coronavirus. The Australian Border Force directs Captain Morten Hansen to set sail immediately and go back to home port. But our ship remains; defiant. More ships are banking up off the West Australian coastline, desperate to dock. The situation, and the number of passengers infected with COVID-19, is escalating.
A paper rampage
Turning on our small television, the local news features shopping panic. Bulky muscled men are pushing weaker shoppers aside and grabbing everything they can. Screaming like a banshee, one petite middle-aged woman strikes her elbow into a large beer-gutted man before slapping another’s face. Staff come running to the aisle to halt the rampage. It is a shit fight for toilet paper. Unbelievable! An ugly and unsanitized view of human behaviour.
News reports the Italian cruise ship ‘MSC Magnifica’ sailed to Dubai but was refused entry and is now making its way back to Fremantle. Watching the world in pain we feel helpless. Flicking the remote to ‘off’ we close our eyes and try to sleep.
Condor flights to Germany
The ‘MS Artania’ has been in Fremantle since 29 March. It seems longer than a week. Harris and I are not sleeping. In isolation we are worried sick, but then we get some good news. Those infected will be taken off the ship for treatment, and those of us remaining who did not test positive will board buses and be taken to the airport. Four charter Condor flights are standing by, ready to fly us back to Germany.
Boarding the bus in our face masks, Harris and I know we are lucky as we wave to waiting journalists. The media is remarkably well behaved, unlike their usual ‘frenzied pack.’ They keep to their required 1.5 metres ‘social distancing’ from each other as cameras click. Grateful to be heading home we know that some of our fellow passengers are not so lucky, including Frank, Suzie and Stefan. They remain in Perth hospitals undergoing treatment from exhausted nurses and medical staff. Sadly, we learn one passenger has already died.
Flying miles above the clouds, I reflect how ironic it is that 2020 was named ‘The International Year of the Nurse and Midwife’ by the World Health Organisation. It is a bizarre twist of fate that no public relations effort has been needed. The current pandemic has shone a Florence Nightingale beacon onto the amazing work our nurses do globally, at great risk to their own health, and for little compensation.
Despite current darkness, it is a light that shines bright, celebrating 200 years since Florence’s birth. It is our time of renaissance and, like the Phoenix, we will rise again.
Cotton-wool clouds stretch across the sky, as shards of sunlight make me blink. No time to reflect. My window shade, tray table and seat are in the upright position. As I fasten my belt and prepare for landing I sense there is more turbulence ahead.