Cruise ships and coronavirus: Trapped on board a ship turned away from port, I'm trying to stay positive

Steaming towards the Chilean port of Punta Arenas, the speculation and rumours are rife. Are some South American ports turning cruise ships away?

We passengers all agree. Those turned away must be ships with a suspected case of COVID-19 onboard. Our ship is a symptom-free utopia, and having been at sea for 17 days, we have completed the quarantine period while isolated in pristine Antarctica. 

On the 15th of March, the night before our scheduled disembarkation, we're informed our ship will be accepted, under strict hygiene protocols. We are to travel on chartered flights only to Santiago airport, then directly out of the country. 

Our relief is palpable, and when the pilot boat arrives to guide us safely to port, a loud cheer erupts. The end is in sight. Or so we thought.

I'd set out for Chile on the 27th of February, back when the country had zero reported cases of COVID-19. I had snagged my dream freelance travel writing gig - an expedition to Antarctica and the Falkland Islands on the new Hurtigruten vessel, the 499-passenger MS Roald Amundsen. 

Although the coronavirus had proven disastrous for one cruise ship in Japan, when I arrived in Chile, I had not foreseen that less than three weeks later the whole world would be shutting down. 

Before these difficulties, the expedition had delivered new wonders every day. Six species of squawking and moulting penguins had me delirious with cuteness endorphins. Crossing the Antarctic Circle, Captain Torry Sakkariassen showed us cathedral-like icebergs by the blushing light of sunset and more whales than we could count. At an unchartered island we explored rock tunnels by tender boat for the sheer joy. 

These experiences were made exceptional by attentive and knowledgeable staff, comprising a largely European expedition team and hospitality and boat tender staff from the Philippines. 

The Filipino staff are especially worried for their industry, with cruising and international travel sliding towards temporary oblivion. And with the Philippines having a closed border, staff are currently unsure where they'll go to wait out this crisis.


Despite the emotional state of upheaval, the night before our planned docking, the crew, mostly the Filipinos, demonstrate their diverse talents by delivering a rocking farewell concert. The band from engineering, 'the Machinists' belts out a gutsy Proud Mary, while Kristita from housekeeping croons a sweet Can't Help Falling in Love.

"I want to take the time to thank our wonderful staff from the Philippines for all that they bring to this cruise and for these unique performances," Says Kristian Saeterhaug, our Norwegian compare and reception manager. "I can tell you, that this next number would never happen off the coast of Norway. I give you… the tender boat drivers!"

The dance troupe of six burly boaties takes their positions on the dance floor as the unmistakable baseline of Tom Jones' Sex Bomb cranks up. Some mock-raunchy moves prompt rapturous applause and raucous wolf-whistles from the crowd.

Finally, the yahooing guests are invited to the floor, and despite everyone's uncertainties about tomorrow, or perhaps because of it, the crew and passengers party. Joining the throng of jovial waitstaff, previously-reserved Norwegian guides and diverse international travellers, I'm conscious of the feeling that whatever happens now, we're all in this together.

The next morning brings devastating news. The Chilean government has changed its advice, and will not accept us, despite our disease-free declarations.

During the coming days hovering off Punta Arenas, we hear that all ports in South America are now closed. Chileans in hazmat suits deliver the ship's order of fuel, food (hopefully lots of dessert) and importantly, more wine. 

The senior crew frantically try to find a solution for what seems like the almost impossible predicament of where to land, and to organise hypothetical charter flights, should we indeed be able to land somewhere, sometime. The Falkland Islands are discussed, but uncertainty reigns.

I'm becoming friends with my room steward, Ralph Abaya, and his cheery smile cheers me up, every time. We discuss our joint predicament, and clearly he has so much more at stake than me. He tells me about his wife and seven-year old son that depend on him, and how he is glad they are safely inside the closed Philippines border, even if he is outside.

"Yes, I'm a little bit worried, but I'm OK," Ralph says. "This cruise is our job, we need to finish it."

I'm desperate to get home to my own husband and kids, even with self-isolation. I'm oscillating between frustration, exhaustion, and just plain sadness, but it's mixed with plenty of laughter too. Photos of penguins are being compared, science lectures delivered, and artistic talents discovered (watercolour penguins, anyone?). 

Like a virus, the positivity is contagious. Ralph is still smiling, and if Ralph can smile, so can I.

Update: The Roald Amundsen is now headed for the Falkland Islands, hoping to disembark passengers there.

The writer travelled as a guest of Hurtigruten.

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