'Stranded at sea': cruise ships around the world are adrift as ports turn them away

A Guardian analysis finds that at least 10 ships remain at sea – and four passengers have died while being stranded

Ports around the globe are turning cruise ships away en masse amid the coronavirus pandemic, leaving thousands of passengers stranded even as some make desperate pleas for help while sickness spreads aboard.

Four passengers have died aboard one such vessel, the Holland America cruise ship Zaandam, which has been stranded for days after Chile refused to allow the ship to dock in its original destination of San Antonio on 21 March.

The Zaandam is one of at least 10 ships around the world – carrying nearly 10,000 passengers – still stuck at sea after having been turned away from their destination ports in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a Guardian analysis. Some of the ships are facing increasingly desperate medical situations.

Holland America announced Friday that four elderly passengers had died and two others had tested positive for coronavirus, with 138 additional cases of respiratory illness on board; further tests are still being conducted among its 1,243 guests and 586 crew. The Zaandam is carrying hundreds of American, Canadian, Australian and British passengers, and is currently off the coast of Ecuador and seeking permission to dock in Florida.

The ship is steaming up the coast of South America, hoping to make it through the Panama Canal and on to the US. But the Florida port, where many of the passengers had planned to disembark on the final leg of the cruise, has refused to confirm that the ship can dock.

While the Zaandam and at least two other ships still carrying passengers at sea have reported outbreaks of coronavirus-like respiratory illness onboard, other ships are being turned away from docking and unloading their passengers even with no signs of illness at all.

‘We need help’

Dramatic scenes of coronavirus-stricken cruises, such as the Grand Princess in California and the Diamond Princess in Japan, have become synonymous with the pandemic. The plight of those still adrift highlights how cruise ships have become a kind of pariah of the seas, with cities wary of becoming the next home for a potentially infected vessel.

On the Zaandam, which was headed northeast along the coast of Ecuador on Thursday, anxiety was growing.

Passengers who spoke with the Guardian describe being locked down in the cabins, with three daily meals left on the floor outside their doors. Meanwhile the number of people reporting influenza-like symptoms has almost tripled this week: 56 passengers and 89 crew members, passengers say the ship’s captain has told them. Four elderly passengers reportedly required oxygen.

Cruise ships sit off shore near the Port of Miami in Florida.
Cruise ships sit off shore near the Port of Miami in Florida. Photograph: Cristóbal Herrera/EPA

But on Tuesday a port commission in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, delayed approving the Zaandam’s request, with some commissioners arguing the ship should be turned away because it didn’t originate in Florida, and others calling the situation a humanitarian crisis and saying the passengers should be allowed to disembark, according to the Miami Herald.

Amid the confusion, passengers began an online lobbying campaign to convince Florida officials to allow the boat to dock. “I am a US citizen and longtime Florida resident who is stranded at sea off the coast of South America,” wrote passenger Laura Gabaroni Huergo on Facebook on Wednesday. “Some (Florida) county officials are trying to turn us away and abandon us at sea to fend for ourselves. We need help getting a plan together to dock and return to our lives.”

Laura and her husband, Juan Huergo. Passengers were allowed 30 minutes to walk on Wednesday, the first time the couple had left their cabin in three days.
Laura and her husband, Juan Huergo. Passengers were allowed 30 minutes to walk on Wednesday, the first time the couple had left their cabin in three days. Photograph: Courtesy of Laura Gabaroni

Holland America said this week it had dispatched support in the form of another cruise ship, the Rotterdam, carrying 611 extra staff, supplies and coronavirus test kits to meet up with the stricken ship.

The company announced Friday that it plans to offload healthy passengers to the Rotterdam, while keeping ill passengers and those who have been exposed to them aboard the Zaandam.

“Priority for the first guests to transfer will be given to those on Zaandam with inside staterooms and who are over 70,” said the statement from Holland America. “Once aboard Rotterdam, all guests will continue to remain in their staterooms until disembarkation. Any guests who are currently ill, or in isolation as a close contact, and all crew will remain on Zaandam.”

The company’s statement said there are now four doctors and four nurses aboard the Zaandam and two doctors and four nurses on the Rotterdam.

As the Rotterdam pulled alongside the Zaandam in darkness Thursday night, passengers exchanged photos and cheered each other on a Facebook group created for the ship.

“I would have rather had a helicopter, but beggars can’t be choosers,” said one.

As of Thursday, the Guardian had identified five ships in the Americas that were unable to unload nearly 6,000 passengers. At least three other ships were having trouble off the coast of Australia, including one which sought urgent medical attention for an outbreak of respiratory illness. Two more ships were trying to get passengers to ports in Italy.

Lori Bessler, a southern California resident whose parents are stuck onboard the Coral Princess, another boat stranded off the coast of Brazil with no reported illness onboard, says she is nonetheless concerned for her family’s health and wellbeing. “My mom and stepdad are diabetics and … we’re very concerned about them having enough medication to sustain them,” she told the Guardian.

Crew members aboard a luxury cruise ship docked in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, wear protective masks and gloves.
Crew members aboard a luxury cruise ship docked in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, wear protective masks and gloves. Photograph: Wagner Meier/Getty Images

The Coral Princess was due to dock in Buenos Aires on 18 March but is now headed for Florida. So far the cruise ship has only been allowed to disembark passengers from South America; more than a thousand US, Canadian and British citizens, including Bessler’s parents, remain on the ship.

Bessler said she has struggled to get information from either the cruise company or from US government officials. She worries that Florida may become overrun by Covid-19 cases by the time the ship arrives there in two weeks.

“It’s a scary situation,” said Bessler, who has been texting with her mom many times a day. “I think they need to be rescued and brought to their homes.”

‘There is a level of greed’

The fast-moving nature of the virus has added to the confusion – when many passengers left for vacations in early March there were no cases of Covid-19 in South America, so they thought it would be safe to travel.

But Ross Klein, a professor at St John’s College in Newfoundland who has written four books on the cruise industry, said companies should have acted weeks earlier to cancel trips and refund customers. He noted that cases of cruise ships being turned away from ports as a result of coronavirus fears began as early as January and escalated in February, with passengers being quarantined on the Emerald Princess in Japan on 3 February.

“There is a level of greed on the part of these companies,” he said. “They want to make every penny – and they make money when people are on the ships.”

Cruise ships are drawing increasing government scrutiny for not doing enough to protect their passengers during this pandemic. In Florida, the attorney general’s office is investigating potentially misleading sales practices, after the Miami New Times obtained leaked emails showing representatives for Norwegian Cruise Lines may have downplayed the coronavirus in sales pitches to passengers, even as the pandemic was disrupting trips. “The Coronavirus can only survive in cold temperatures, so the Caribbean is a fantastic choice for your next cruise,” said one sales script obtained by the paper.

Passengers sit in quarantine aboard a cruise ship in Fremantle, Australia.
Passengers sit in quarantine aboard a cruise ship in Fremantle, Australia. Photograph: Paul Kane/Getty Images

Despite Donald Trump’s repeated vows to bail out the cruise ship industry, money for cruise companies was not a part of the $500bn in aid for large employers included in stimulus bill passed by Congress on Wednesday.

Most of the major cruise operators register their companies in countries such as Panama and Liberia, thereby avoiding most US taxes and labor laws. Thus, the cruise industry’s trade group said on Thursday the companies will not have access to the US aid for large employers, according to the Washington Post.

Meanwhile a report from the US Centers for Disease Control this week laid the blame on cruise ships for spreading the virus in the crucial early weeks of the outbreak, linking hundreds of cases to the Diamond Princess and Grand Princess.

“Cruise ships are often settings for outbreaks of infectious diseases because of their closed environment, contact between travelers from many countries, and crew transfers between ships,” the CDC report concluded.

Back aboard the Zaandam, passengers are passing the time however they can. Some chat with other cabins on a Facebook group, others enjoy the free liquor, snap pictures of brown boobies flying outside their windows, or partake in meditation, yoga classes and a daily quiz offered via the ship’s TV. Passengers joke the top quiz prize should be extra face masks or toilet paper, or a chance to get outside and do laps around the promenade deck.

Jamsheed Master, one of the ship’s piano players, wrote on Facebook that he has composed a thousand songs during his confinement.

But despite moments of levity, the situation is bleak.

“I’m safe and healthy right now. Staying confined in my cabin except for the strange ritual of eating meals in the crew mess while maintaining a safe distance from each other,” he wrote on Monday. “I won’t lie: things are looking grim here and I just want to go home. We all do.”


Erin McCormick in San Francisco

The GuardianTramp

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