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‘The holiday of a lifetime’: An oral history of the infected, rejected Zaandam cruise ship

Passengers left the Holland America Line ships Zaandam and Rotterdam on April 2. Here is what they said before they knew when they would be able to disembark. (Video: The Washington Post)
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The cruise ship Zaandam is nine decks of escapism, stretching 781 feet bow to stern, with a casino and spa, a steakhouse and two swimming pools. Its walls are adorned with signed guitars from Iggy Pop and Eric Clapton. It was christened 20 years ago by Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, who wore matching nautical suits. On March 7, four days before the novel coronavirus was classified as a pandemic, the ship set sail from Buenos Aires for its routine trip around Cape Horn. It carried more than 1,000 passengers from around the world. They were hoping for an unforgettable journey. They had no idea.

Three weeks later, all of Zaandam’s passengers were quarantined in their cabins. Four people had died. Dozens were reporting symptoms consistent with covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Port after port had denied entry to the ship, which is operated by Holland America Line, a subsidiary of Carnival. There was nothing to do but float on a beautiful vessel that had become a beautiful prison — one beset by illness and the presence of a potentially deadly virus — and hope for deliverance.

Stranded on the water, the cruise became a microcosm of what’s happening on land, with the pandemic upending daily life in an uneven way. Some people were living in a nightmare, sick and scared. Some people were living in odd inconvenience, doing jumping jacks on their balconies and watching movies. The crew, depleted by illness, had to work overtime — like other essential workers on the mainland. But all were in the same boat, so to speak: on an anxious voyage back to a changed world, unsure when they’d return to solid ground.

This is their story, as told by Zaandam passengers through phone interviews, social media posts and email correspondence. Some quotes have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Valerie Myntti, 68, retired attorney (Minnesota): My parents had given us this trip as a present; they had done exactly this cruise, and they loved it.

Daniel Petrucelli, 71, retired business analyst (Massachusetts): We booked it more than a year ago.

Ian Rae, 73, musician (England): For my wife’s 70th birthday celebration, we decided to go on the holiday of a lifetime.

South Koreans have been quarantining themselves for weeks. Italy has made the decision to close its universities and schools. But on March 7 in Buenos Aires, the day Zaandam’s passengers board the ship, Argentina has only just announced the country’s first coronavirus-related death.

Rae: As far as I was concerned, coming to South America was better than being in Europe, with Italy getting bad.

Orlando resident Dave Parks, whose Florida-based parents are on the ship: I know as late as March 7, the vice president was saying, “Hey don’t cancel your cruises, it’s still safe to go.”

John Williams, 73, retired teacher (Canada): We did our due diligence. We checked with the government of Canada.

California resident Max Jo, whose parents are on the ship: The cruise company wouldn’t refund cancellations; $15,000 is the most money my parents have ever spent on anything.

Petrucelli: We had three containers of Clorox wipes, 10 things of hand sanitizer. My wife was a Girl Scout. She’s prepared.

Paul Major, 63, professor of dentistry (Canada): My wife definitely had reservations about being on a cruise. I hate to think about it now, but I convinced her it would be okay.

In the first days of Zaandam’s voyage, the cruise lives up to its promise.

Myntti: Sea life and cruise life take on their own rhythm. There are beautiful rooms, beautiful food, beautiful architecture. You’re learning and having wonderful conversations. There are libraries and books and fresh air and lectures. It’s just its own world.

Major: [It was] everything that we were hoping for. Great food, excellent staff.

Petrucelli: When we got to Punta Arenas [at the southern tip of Chile], we did a tour called “Off the Beaten Path.” We went to a penguin reserve. We had to take a smaller boat off to Isla Margarita —

Mary Ellen Petrucelli: Magdalena.

Mr. Petrucelli: Macarena.

Mrs. Petrucelli: Magdalena!

Mr. Petrucelli: We went to the island. The penguins just walked around, but the rangers were making sure you didn’t try to touch a penguin. That was the last time we were off the boat. After that, things started to go wrong.

Zaandam’s next scheduled stop is Ushuaia, a resort town on the southern tip of Argentina. Mid-route, the captain announces that Argentina is closing its borders to cruise ships. The new plan: Zaandam will immediately reverse course, trying to make it back to Punta Arenas before Chile closes its borders, too.

Rae: Suddenly, in the middle of the night, there was a thing put through the door — a letter saying that Argentina had closed its border and the ship was turning around.

Major: Then the captain was told that Chile was closing its borders.

Rae: By the time we got back to Punta Arenas, we were too late.

Major: We completed all the health forms [from] the Chilean government, including taking our body temperature. We even booked our flights. Unfortunately, after two days, the authorities denied disembarkation.

Daniel Petrucelli: We sat in the harbor in Punta Arenas for a couple of days. They wouldn’t even let us in the harbor. … What looked like their navy was out there. What do they think, we’re going to jump off the boat and try to swim?

Rae: We had to go back to sea.

Myntti: At that point, Holland America suspended all of its cruises. We knew we needed to find a port, but all the way up the [Chilean] coast — all the ports were closing as we reached them.

Many passengers were meant to disembark in San Antonio, Chile. But with Chile refusing to allow Zaandam to dock and offload passengers, the ship is forced to anchor off Valparaiso while boats from the mainland bring fuel and supplies.

Myntti: There were Purell stations everywhere. The staff was constantly sanitizing rails, and handles, and elevator buttons, and everything you can imagine.

Daniel Petrucelli: At that point, it wasn’t so bad. You could go out on the deck and read a book. We [saw news about the coronavirus spreading on land] and thought, “Boy we dodged a bullet.”

Jo (in California): Dinner was delivered to rooms. Dad writes, “lobster and shrimp, not bad,” and, “We are doing okay so far.”

Myntti: People are clearly worried about their families, but they were saying, “We’re safe on this boat.” We’re in the better place to be than they are. I have a daughter in Brooklyn. I’m much more worried about her.

Petrucelli: Then they announced people were showing up in the infirmary.

Major: The captain announced that passengers and crew members had reported influenza-type respiratory symptoms.

Williams: We were all sitting on the pool deck, and they made the announcement that we all needed to go to our cabins. We didn’t think it would be forever.

Jo (in California): My sister had been writing to my parents, “How are you feeling, health-wise?” And they kept not answering that question. My sister called me — “Does it worry you that they’re not answering the question?” I’d had the same concern, but I almost didn’t want to bring it up. I almost didn’t want to know.

Williams: The second day, they gave us masks.

Rae: One day, certain parts of the ship were allowed up on the deck to walk around and get fresh air.

Petrucelli: The starboard side of deck one would go and then the portside of deck one would go, all the way up to the seventh deck.

Joan Price, traveling with John Williams: The people across the hall don’t even have a window. Sometimes they call us and ask, “Is the ship moving?” Because they can’t tell.

Petrucelli: We have four bottles of wine, but we’re not really in the mood to be drinking. I look out at the window and all I see is water, water, water.

Jo (in California): I could hear it in my dad’s voice that he wasn’t feeling well. He said, “Yeah, I didn’t want to tell you, but I’ve been running a fever for about a week.”

By now Zaandam has left Valparaiso, bound for Panama. That weekend, March 21 and 22, people begin to get sick and, by the following Tuesday, 30 passengers and 47 crew members have reported to Zaandam’s medical center with flu-like symptoms. Another Holland America cruise ship, Rotterdam, meets Zaandam off the coast of Panama, carrying supplies, an additional 611 crew members and a batch of covid-19 test kits. Two passengers test positive, 20 more report flu-like symptoms, and now 14 percent of the original crew is feeling ill.

On Friday morning, there is a chilling announcement over the public address system: Four guests are dead. (All were men in their 70s, and two had succumbed to covid-related complications.)

Myntti: We cried and cried. We were concerned for the safety of the staff, and our fellow passengers. There was the sense that these people died and their families are so far away. They may have died alone in an infirmary.

Rae: It was just a shock to the system. It’s very much a sobering thing. As my wife says, quite often people pass away on ships because if you look at the passengers, they’re in that age bracket. I am in that bracket.

Max Jo (in California): I couldn’t help to think what it would be like to be my parents, in the prime-risk category, learning that people were sick on board, and then learning that people had died. And meanwhile, they’re stuck on a tin can.

Dave Parks (in Orlando): My parents lost Internet in their room for that time frame. And those three days of not being able to communicate — when you’re not hearing anything more, you think the worst.

Jo: I don’t want my parents on that ship a minute longer. And I can’t stop thinking about the crew.

While passengers are confined to their rooms, the crew members have to keep the ship functioning. A dancer on the entertainment staff, who had been ill, is released from quarantine and reassigned to food delivery, pushing a beverage cart down deserted hallways while wearing an N95 mask and gloves. On a Facebook page for family of crew and passengers, a mother expresses terror for her son, whom she says works in the ship’s kitchen.

After the deaths are announced, Holland America begins to screen and transfer symptom-free guests to the Rotterdam.

Myntti: We were told all of the people who had inside rooms, and were over 70, and were healthy would have the chance to go to the Rotterdam.

Williams: They gave us a questionnaire and we had a doctor come around and take our temperature.

Major: My wife and I transferred from the Zaandam to the Rotterdam using the small tender boats from the ships.

Rae: My wife and I have had a little cough. The first question on the questionnaire was “have you suffered from a cough or fever or tiredness over last 10 days?” We answered it honestly, so we didn’t get to the Rotterdam.

The plan is for the two ships, one “healthy” (Rotterdam) and one not (Zaandam), to head for Florida and come to port in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Getting there requires traveling through the Panama Canal.

Rae (aboard Zaandam): Lots of places are saying we don’t want the ship, and it didn’t look as if Panama was going to let us through.

Major (aboard Rotterdam): There was a great deal of rumors on social media regarding whether or not we would be granted passage through the canal, but the formal word came [Sunday] evening from the captain that we were granted passage.

Parks (in Orlando): I’ve been tracking the ship online through Cruisetracker. I was up at 2 a.m. the other night seeing them entering the canal.

Joan Price (Zaandam): Everybody who had a balcony had to turn off their lights and not go outside. They didn’t want any lights from the ship [to avoid potential backlash from Panamanians]. The captain announced that we’d gone through the canal in seven hours, which was pretty much a record.

Major: There is no solution to when or where we will disembark. The two ships are traveling together toward Florida.

The ships emerge from the Panama Canal on Sunday, and set a course for Fort Lauderdale. On Monday, 76 guests and 117 crew on Zaandam have flu-like symptoms; eight people have tested positive for covid-19. The vast majority of the passengers and crews of Zaandam and Rotterdam — 2,300 people altogether — remain healthy. There are about 300 Americans, including several dozen Floridians. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) says on “Fox & Friends” that it would be a “big, big problem” if passengers were “dumped” in his state. A task force of officials is trying to organize a plan that would allow for safe disembarkation at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale.

Barbara Sharief, Broward County, Fla., commissioner: I have several constituents from my district [onboard]. They’ve been sending me emails. I have an elderly couple, and his wife is on chemotherapy. She is out of her medication and she needs to get off that ship.

Dean Trantalis, mayor of Fort Lauderdale: We’re a welcoming community. We should be prepared to receive these folks. We’re also concerned about [asymptomatic carriers] and what impact they would have as they entered Fort Lauderdale. So that was the dilemma we were faced with. There still is no protocol to address the disembarkment. And now we’re discovering there’s not only one boat but two boats.

Sharief: I get probably 10 emails every hour, and two people are saying “Don’t let this ship dock,” and the other eight are saying, “Let these people come home, give them care, it’s the humanitarian thing to do.”

Orlando Ashford, president of Holland America Line (in an open letter March 30): 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.

Myntti (Zaandam): They don’t want us to dock. I understand and I sympathize. The local officials are there to protect Floridians. But this is truly a time where we need to find humane and wise solutions.

Dave Parks (in Orlando): [People are] thinking, “Well, it departed from Argentina, it should go back.” But what’s been lost is the goal was for the ship to end up back in the United States on April 7. My parents had full intentions of sailing back to the United States.

Parks’s stepfather, Roy J. Smith (Zaandam), in a March 30 Facebook post: Governor DeSantis has lost our vote . . how can we be “dumped” in our own state. We just want to go home! … We have been in isolation for almost 10 days and are not sick. People in Florida need to stand up for us and help us get home.

Trantalis: We understand [passengers] want to go home and escape this nightmare. There’s no simple solution here. We never want to say no to people, but we want to make sure when we lay out the welcome mat, we’re not pulling it out from under them.

Max Jo (in California): My parents, 50-year citizens of the United States, are going to get to the border and say, “I’m home,” and we’re going to say, now, “You can’t come home even though you’re sick”?

Gregory Tony, interim sheriff of Broward County: We are all being tested. Not only in our capability but in our own humanity. What are we willing to do for each other? What are we willing to sacrifice for each other?

On Wednesday, Holland America reports that there has been only one new flu-like case in the past 24 hours aboard the Zaandam — a “significant decline.” At a news briefing in Washington, President Trump says the passengers must be accepted “from a humane standpoint.” As Florida figures out a solution, and deals with its own explosion of covid-19 cases, life in limbo continues on the ships, which pass by Cuba.

Daniel Petrucelli (Rotterdam): I’ve got my Kindle. We saw “Die Hard With a Vengeance.” We saw “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I don’t know what I’d do for a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee.

Rae (Zaandam): We have got a nice balcony, a stateroom. I’ve always tried to do 10,000 steps a day, which is becoming a real challenge. Which is 22 steps from one end to the other. So I have to do about 500 of those laps to get 10,000.

Williams (Zaandam): We have done a little exercising. We grab a wine bottle in each hand and use them as weights.

Myntti (Zaandam): The ship captain is an extraordinarily accomplished professional and communicator of the highest order. Wise, capable, compassionate. And I would take another cruise if he was the captain.

Rae (Zaandam): There is something really great, late at night to be traveling across the oceans and hear the sound of the water hitting the ship. It’s so relaxing. And empowering. You suddenly realize where you are in the solar system. You’re just very small, but the world is still a superb place.

On Thursday morning, the ships enter U.S. waters off Florida. About 3 p.m. the captain of Zaandam announces that docking has been permitted. Although 250 people reported flu-like symptoms during the voyage, only 76 remain symptomatic, with 13 needing hospitalization onshore; 97 percent of passengers are deemed “fit for travel.” They are scheduled to be taken by chartered vans and planes over the next few days to begin a 14-day home quarantine.

Rae: It’s a great feeling of relief. We all just want to get home.