Cabin Fever: Trapped on Board a Cruise Ship when the Pandemic Hit: A True Story of Heroism and Survival at Sea

Michael Smith and Jonathan Franklin, Cabin Fever: Trapped on Board a Cruise Ship when the Pandemic Hit: A True Story of Heroism and Survival at Sea (London: Endeavour, 2022)

IT’S been said that the perfect design for a virus incubator would be a cruise ship; and so it proved at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Although sister ships had already experienced problems, Holland America’s Zaandam left Buenos Aires on 8 March 2020 assuming that the vessel was virus-free and would be sailing around a continent that had minimal Covid cases. But scores of passengers had flown in from Europe, an early hotspot; and brought with them what Michael Smith and Jonathan Franklin describe as a stowaway. Some passengers, expecting a fourteen-day cruise, after an arduous journey on what became a plague ship, would reach home only fifty days later. Many crew members took much longer. And some of those on the Zaandam did not survive.

The ship was regarded with deep suspicion by small coastal and island communities such as the Falklands from the outset. After rounding South America through the Straits of Magellan, there was mounting evidence that this was indeed a problem ship with rapid spread of what was diplomatically termed ILI (influenza-like illness). The Zaandam had no Covid-19 test kits at this stage, an increasing number of very sick passengers and crew, and no permission to dock anywhere on the west coast of South America.

This was the point at which public health caution, fanned by panicking politicians, evolved into mass irrationality. The authors disappointingly do not ask whether international law was broken by refusal to provide assistance. This was a ship in acute distress full of critical medical cases. The little that was offered occurred in great secrecy after complex negotiation. The Ecuadorians allowed a consignment of medical supplies to reach the Zaandam and the airlifting out of two sick passengers. Otherwise, the ship proceeded north hoping for salvation, its limited medical facilities overwhelmed, and now in full lockdown.

Few cruise ship cabins are large and most have no windows. Apart from claustrophobia there was understandable but probably unwarranted fear of the piped air. Crew were falling ill as fast as the passengers although those whose jobs had suddenly vanished could be redeployed. But inexplicably there was no adjustment to the food regime, with all meals now needing delivery. There were also complicated rules for washing up, unnecessary even at this early stage of understanding about the virus. This is a reminder of the illogicality and fear that gripped the globe in early 2020.

The cruise company seems not to have contributed to this book, although there is no explanation for this. However, it did arrange a rendezvous off Panama with its empty sister ship, Rotterdam, which was able to resupply the Zaandam, transfer volunteer crew, and take on a large number of passengers.

One of the heroes of this story is the government and people of Panama, especially volunteer pilots who eased both liners through the canal into the Atlantic in record time. But they were still pariahs without a dock even though headed home to Port Everglades. The Colombian Island of San Andrés rejected them even on humanitarian grounds. Finally on 2 April both ships came in from maritime isolation and evacuation of passengers began, some to intensive care. Some experiences tended to the bizarre. For example, busloads of people en route to the airport were not allowed to stop even at red traffic lights. Passengers were taken directly to charter flights; but once in, say, Atlanta, there were no restrictions and only Zaandam evacuees wore masks. The label cruise ship passenger evoked intense fear; until the individual was somewhere else.

The crew, and passengers without charter flights such as those from Argentina and Uruguay, set sail once more and spent days in a holding pattern along with many other vessels in the western Bahamas. (In all there were 124 cruise ships stranded near the US.) Eventually the cruise companies pooled their resources in order to repatriate crews to various parts of the world. In a sense they were lucky to be employed by a billion-dollar industry, many seafarers being basically abandoned at the height of the pandemic.

This book was written as a human interest story based on interviews with and the experiences of a small, selected group of passengers and crew. The writing and editing are in the American style. A company perspective is absent and little is said about the medical personnel. The villains of the saga are various South American governments, with the obvious exceptions of Panama and (to a limited extent) Ecuador; and a general culture of panic and lack of common-sense logic that discounted humanitarian imperatives. But there were also many heroes, especially among the Holland America crews who worked and volunteered far beyond the call of duty. One was Wiwit Widarto, the Indonesian manager of the Zaandam’s laundry, who literally worked himself to death not far off retirement.

One lives in hope that the next time there is a global health emergency of this magnitude, greater intelligence and humanity will be brought to bear. But whether one should be optimistic about that is an open question.


Book review by Christopher Merrett, reproduced from his web page, From the Thornveld