On the 12th March, the day that the WHO declared the Coronavirus to be a global pandemic, the Holland America Line (HAL) cruise ship MS Noordam set sail from Tauranga in the South Pacific. All the passengers had been disembarked – the company having announced a 30 day pause in operations – and Noordam was returning to the US to repatriate the multi-national crew to their home countries. Little did they know at the time that almost every country in the world, including the US, were about to close their ports to the world’s ships, leaving the estimated 100,000 crew members stranded on board for weeks and months.
One of those was Glaswegian Claire Macdonald, who worked in the on-board jewellery shop. ‘It was fine at first,’ recalls Claire. ‘Holland America had gone out of its way to try and make life as comfortable for its crew as possible. We were moved to passenger accommodation. I had a balcony, and we were able to wander freely around the ship. But as we got closer to the US the CDC took control and imposed all these crazy guidelines.’
Holland America decided that it would be easier to get crew home if they were grouped on ships by nationality. Some of the Asian crew could be sailed home by sea, if their home countries would let them ashore, but the Europeans were trapped by the closure of the Panama Canal so would have to wait to be allowed to fly. On 30th April, US and European crew based on eight HAL ships in the Pacific were transferred to the Konigsdam to keep them together.
‘So now there were eight different communities on board that all had to be kept separate from each other. On CDC orders we all had to self isolate for ten days, even though by this time the crew had already been isolated from the outside world, on their respective ships, for several weeks, so it was clear that no-one on board had the virus. We were confined to cabins for over 20 hours a day and only allowed out for meals (with separate dining times) and for twice daily temperature checks, which were sent to the CDC. When we were finally allowed out we had to wear masks and maintain social distancing.’
Although these rules seemed unnecessary it was felt that if it meant the US would allow the crew to disembark and go home it would be worth it. But when they got there the US only allowed the American citizens to get off. The Konigsdam then sailed for Mexico, hoping for better luck, but the Mexican authorities only permitted the 20 or so of their own citizens to leave.
Claire was at her lowest point during this period. ‘I got very bored being confined to a small cabin with very limited internet access,’ she admits. ‘I no longer had a balcony, but at least I had a window.’ She had taken a few selfies on her balcony with her Nikon D7500 and 18-140mm lens, and realised that she could do something with them in Photoshop to keep herself occupied. Claire has a photographic background and had previously worked as a ships’ photographer with Holland America. She went through her photo collection and found a nice sunset that she had previously taken, and created a composite with one of her selfies. Pleased with the result, she decided to look for other suitable backgrounds that she could use. She downloaded a selection of skies and backgrounds from a royalty free stock website, and began creating a series of montages each more fantastical than the last.
‘The sunset shot is not that different from many sunset selfies I have taken up on the deck,’ she admits, ‘but although you get to see some incredible night skies in the middle of the ocean, miles away from anywhere, it is impossible to photograph them like this on a moving ship. Her next montage imagined being beneath the waves, watching dolphins playing outside her window. ‘It was so realistic that I had loads of comments on social media asking which ship I was on that had such an amazing undersea window,’ she laughs. The fire image was the most challenging. ‘I had to watch a lot of tutorials for that one and it took me ages to get it looking right. Fortunately time was something that I had plenty of.’
Finally but very suddenly, Claire received news that she would be one of about 80 European crew who would be disembarking and flying home that very night. She hurriedly packed and waited as the Konigsdam sailed into Puetro Vallarta, Mexico, from where the cruise line has managed to charter a plane especially for them. What followed was like a scene from a movie.
‘It was midnight when we eventually left the ship,’ she recounts. ‘It was the first time I had set foot on dry land for 70 days. We had to wear masks and gloves and put our luggage in one spot on the quayside and then stand in another, socially distanced. We were surrounded by men in full hazmat suits with sniffer dogs, who checked our luggage before hosing it down with disinfectant. Some distance away a crowd of Mexican press photographers were taking pictures of us, their flashes going off. I felt like a diseased criminal. All that was missing were the handcuffs.’
The crew were escorted onto buses that had also been thoroughly sprayed with disinfectant, and were driven in the night down dark, unlit backstreets, accompanied by a full police escort, until they arrived onto a deserted runway. A few minutes later a single plane landed. At 4am, after their luggage had been swabbed again on the tarmac, and they had been ushered aboard, the plane took off for Mexico City, where they would have a 16 hour wait at the airport before the next leg of their journey home.
‘It felt weird because we had come from a really healthy, virus free community on-board, and now we were in the middle of Mexico City, clutching our little bottles of anti-bac, surrounded by all these people who may or may not be infected – yet we were supposedly the dangerous ones.’ Finally, at 10pm that night the crew departed Mexico on a ten hour flight to Amsterdam, from where they would disperse to their various home countries. For Claire it meant an overnight stay in Amsterdam before her flight home to Scotland – a total journey time of about 60 hours.
Now back home in Glasgow with her family Claire is philosophical about her ordeal and realises that compared to many of her fellow shipmates she got off fairly lightly. ‘It was tough at times but I don’t want to disregard the people on those ships who actually had a coronavirus outbreak on board, who had a very different experience to mine, and at least I’m home now. ‘
Claire is full of praise for the way the cruise line looked after the welfare of their crew. ‘The amount of effort that HAL went to in order to get us home was just incredible, and I’m very grateful for that, but now I’m worried about all my friends who are still on board – the deck officers and engineers who have to look after the ships, and the crew whose home countries still won’t let them return. There were still 600 on the Konigsdam alone when I left, though some of those may have gone home now.’
Claire is more scathing about the way that the cruise industry has been treated by the rest of the world, and about biased and distorted media coverage of the cruise industry. ‘The reality is that very few ships ever had a coronavirus outbreak yet over 100 days since the pandemic started there are still tens of thousands of people stranded at sea, separated from loved ones, many of whom have struggled with their mental health,’ she says. ‘At the last count there have been eight suicides among ships’ crew around the world.’
In the meantime the industry waits and wonders when it will be able to resume cruising, and when it does, Claire can’t wait to get back on board.