Panama Canal Transit

March 29, 2020 – Transiting the Panama Canal in the dead of night

2020 South America cruise

The Rotterdam and Zaandam are at anchor in the bay just off Balboa today. At dinner this evening, the captain informs us we have approvals for a canal transit, so both ships raise anchor and proceed to the Canal entrance after dark.

I have transited the Panama Canal on three previous occasions, but I find this is without a doubt the strangest. First of all, apparently the reason we were approved to transit is that Panama considers this a medical humanitarian mission. Both ships are proceeding after dark with minimal external lighting – no veranda deck lights, cabin blackout curtains are pulled, and we are transiting using the more remote, but new Cocoli Locks. I’m speculating, however I think it’s likely these measures are in place so the Panamanian public and canal workers don’t see our ships. There is great fear of mass protests by governments during these strange times we now live in…

The banner image above shows a webcam view of the Zaandam passing through Cocoli Locks. Note there are no canal workers in sight, since these new locks are designed to allow ship’s thrusters to be used instead of the labour-intensive towing that is required in the old locks.


Chile to Panama

March 22, 2020 – Day 1 at sea – off the coast of Chile

2020 South America cruise

Ship's position off the Chilean coast
Ship’s position off the Chilean coast

It is a lazy morning, but I’m finally motivated to get up and go to the Explorations Cafe for a cappuccino. I sit quietly in a recliner looking out at the flat seas we are currently sailing through off the northern coast of Chile. I try to calm myself and relax, as my mind races through all the scenarios the end of this ill-fated voyage might take.

At 2pm the captain comes on the PA system with an important announcement: “A higher number of passengers with influenza-like symptoms reported to the medical centre this morning. Until further notice all guests need to stay in their rooms, since it is well-proven that this strategy will slow the spread of the virus. All food service in public areas will cease and meals will be delivered directly to passenger staterooms.” This is dreadful news – we are in quarantine!

March 23, 2020 – Day 2 at sea – off the coast of Peru

We wait until 10:30am for our breakfast to appear, and considering the ship’s clock lost an hour early this morning, it was actually 11:30am! Instead of a pot of coffee, we just get two cups, along with eggs, bacon, sausage, fruit, Cheerios and milk. There were also a couple of pancakes, which didn’t look at all appetizing. No doubt, food services staff are scrambling to deliver meals to all 1,300 guests three times a day!

Ship's position off the Peruvian coast
Ship’s position off the Peruvian coast

After lunch, the captain announces that Holland America has dispatched the Rotterdam to assist us with any additional staff or supplies we might need until we reach Fort Lauderdale. Rotterdam loaded extra supplies (including COVID-19 test kits) from the now-idle Eurodam and Oosterdam, and is now underway towards us, meeting us on Mar 26th off the coast of Panama. All three ships were located near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

Our lunch arrives around 3pm, and consists of chicken breast, rice, vegetables, spring rolls, and salad. A half dozen beer and bottles of red and white wine are also delivered outside our door. So we now have four bottles of wine in our stateroom. Too bad we’re in no mood to party!

A first-stage alarm goes off this afternoon, which turns out to be a small fire in the laundry. It doesn’t go any further, and the captain announces a stand-down for the crew shortly after, and reassures the passengers that the incident is successfully resolved.

The couple from across the hall are thrilled to see out our window while we chat with them (at a distance) with our cabin doors open. They occupy a windowless stateroom, but they seem to be coping pretty well.

Sunset over the Pacific Ocean offshore from Arequipa, , Peru
Sunset over the Pacific Ocean offshore from Arequipa, , Peru

March 24, 2020 – Day 3 at sea – off the coast of Peru

Ship's position offshore from Trujillo, Peru
Ship’s position offshore from Trujillo, Peru

Thirteen guests and 29 crew members have fallen ill on board as of yesterday, displaying flu-like symptoms. The captain relates that new cases has fallen dramatically today, since passengers and non-working crew remain in their cabins for the second day. The captain continues to indicate they still want to give at least passengers in inside cabins with no window some brief outside deck access. We would also very much appreciate having access to some fresh air and be able to walk on deck, since our window doesn’t open!

March 25, 2020 – Day 4 at sea – off the coast of Ecuador

The meals being brought to us are very good, but neither of us have an appetite, so we just snack a bit. I can feel myself shutting down – both mentally and physically. I just sit doing nothing…it’s like I can’t achieve focus, despite having lots of tasks I could be doing on my computer, or listening to music or e-books, or watching TV, etc.

In-cabin food: beef stew, quinoa vegetarian, chicken strips, lemon cake, green salad with mushrooms
In-cabin food: beef stew, quinoa vegetarian, chicken strips, lemon cake, green salad with mushrooms

Today we get to leave our cabins for the promised fresh air break for those of us who don’t have verandahs. Each group gets 30 minutes outside on deck, which is very much appreciated, even though we have to wear masks and follow other quarantine protocols!

March 26, 2020 – Day 5 at sea – no report

March 27, 2020 – Balboa, Panama

Both the Rotterdam and Zaandam are now anchored in a bay adjacent to Balboa (the Pacific entry point for the Panama Canal), where we continue to await clearance to transit the Canal. Rotterdam will refuel while at anchor.

The captain announces this morning that four passengers have died over the last couple of days. COVID-19 testing has revealed two passengers testing positive. A small number of healthy guests will be moved from Zaandam to the Rotterdam today, with priority being given to inside cabin occupants and those who are over 70. We qualify to be moved to the Rotterdam, so after passing yet another medical test, we’re all packed and waiting for our transfer to happen. We know everyone will continue to be confined to staterooms while on the Rotterdam, but it is still a more promising situation for us.

Later, the captain reports that transfers are delayed since the Rotterdam is still bunkering fuel, although he expects at least some guests will transfer this evening, with the rest of the transfers now delayed until tomorrow. He also reports that new cases reported to the medical centre have levelled off, but he urges all passengers to wear the personal medical masks provided. They are also suspending the fresh air program on the advice of the US CDC.

March 28, 2020 – Balboa, Panama

Our transfer from Zaandam to Rotterdam.
Our transfer from Zaandam to Rotterdam.

Wendy and I are transferred to the Rotterdam this morning, since we are both relatively healthy. They continue to transfer healthy passengers from Zaandam to Rotterdam all day using strict medical and cleaning protocols.

Our cabin on the Rotterdam ends up being nearly identical to the one we had on the Zaandam, right down to having the exact same number!

Now we wait for news of our ships being permitted to transit the Panama Canal.

Although Capt. Albert J. Schoonderbeek was not the duty captain on the Rotterdam at the time of our voyage, he was aboard the ship as an “ambassador”. He personally and cheerfully greeted my fellow passengers and I as we climbed the gangway into the ship when we were transferred from the Zaandam. If you are interested in the behind-the-scenes activities the crew carried out on behalf of the passengers, please read his blog.


Valparaiso, Chile

March 20, 2020 – reprovisioning in Valparaiso, Chile

2020 South America cruise

We arrive in port this morning on time and anchor in the harbour. The fuel barge comes alongside and the bunkering commences. I have breakfast with four other Canadians: a couple from New Brunswick and two women from Orillia and Montreal.

It is a dull and rainy morning in Valparaiso, but I’m hoping it will clear a bit so I can take some panoramic photos of the city later today. Executive Chef Vinod attends the coffee chat this morning, which is proving very popular now that the passengers are bored and can’t leave the ship. He tells us there are 64 chefs and kitchen staff working for 11 hours each day, with breaks between the meals. There are also two chefs who take care of the room service meals 24/7. The kitchens produce 6,000 to 8,000 meals every day.

There is storage for: fruit & vegetables, meats, seafood, dairy. Corporate chefs determine the menus, depending on the ship’s route. In our case, he has full authority to determine our menu on this cruise. There is 15% wastage, especially from Lido. Vegan and vegetarian options are being featured more often. He is working on food planning for the upcoming Canada and New England cruises.

Sure enough, the weather clears in the afternoon, giving us a nice sunny 17°C day, so I spend quite a bit of time on the Lower Promenade Deck. A Sea Lion is sleeping on the bulbous bow of the fuel barge beside us, so passengers take lots of photos, including me!

Jamsheed Master playing piano on Main Stage
Jamsheed Master playing piano on Main Stage

After dinner I go to see Jamsheed Master play a piano tribute to The Golden Age of Song in the Main Stage. It is a very good performance, and apparently this is one of only 12 live performances with a live audience that is running worldwide today, due to coronavirus crowd restrictions! They are live streaming the performance, but I can’t find the URL to share.

March 21, 2020 – reprovisioning and departing Valparaiso, Chile

I sleep in until almost 9am this morning, since there is nothing to look forward to today. We are still in Valparaiso harbour, and still waiting for the provision loading to complete. I have breakfast with a couple from Spain who are originally from Brazil, and an oriental couple from Australia. Wildfires in Australia and speculation on where we are headed next dominate the conversation. The Australians arrived a few weeks before the ship departed Buenos Aires and visited Peru and Igazu Falls, which they saw from both the Argentina and Brazil sides – on my bucket list.

Our provisions are being barged from shore, so it is a very slow operation, but the captain updates us at noon saying our remaining supplies are on their way and we should be able to depart today at 5pm.

This afternoon, our captain tells us that all our stores are aboard and the ship is full of fuel, so we weigh anchor and once again head north. He shares with us that Plan A will take us through the Panama Canal and onward to Fort Lauderdale with a tentative arrival of March 30th. Should circumstances change, Puerto Vallarta is Plan B and San Diego is Plan C. Complimentary wine is served to everyone at dinner this evening in celebration of our departure from Chile. The captain tells us no Chilean wine will be offered, which amuses the passengers!

I call home before we leave port to let my family know where we are and the situation in general terms. I assure them the ship is now sailing as fast as possible northward, with three possible ports currently in play: Fort Lauderdale, Puerto Vallarta, and San Diego.


Sailing to Valparaiso – 2 sea days

March 18, 2020 – sailing north to Valparaiso, Chile

2020 South America cruise

I have breakfast in the main dining room this morning, and share a table with a woman from Calgary on a small group tour, and a couple from Florida who I shared the breakfast table with yesterday. They spend 6 months in Chicago and 6 months in Florida. He is a retired paediatric dentist.

Bridge report: The ship is on a northerly course offshore from land, proceeding through overcast, misty skies with very light sea conditions and mild temperatures at 14°C. We have 1,256 passengers and 586 crew aboard.

The Secret Language of Ships is presented today by our cruise director Kevin. He talks about hull markings, flags, and whistle blasts.

It is Gala night, so we get dressed up to go for dinner in the main dining room this evening. I have escargot and sea bass for dinner, and a meringue for dessert. We then go up to the Crow’s Nest bar for an after dinner drink. I have a martini, and my friend has single malt scotch.

March 19, 2020 – sailing north to Valparaiso, Chile

The captain updates us this morning on our situation. He tells us we are cleared to load provisions and fuel at Valparaiso, where we are scheduled to arrive at 8:30am tomorrow. Since we will be at anchor, provisioning will take at least 24 hours, considering we need 6-7 shipping containers for our food and supplies for up to a 3 week voyage, although the Captain is quick to point out that our cruise shouldn’t last that long. Once fully provisioned, we will then resume our northerly course, with our final destination still unknown, although I’m sure the captain has plans in place for a few alternatives.

When I join two couples for breakfast this morning, three possible destinations are discussed: Panama, San Diego, or Fort Lauderdale. I would prefer to see us disembark in San Diego, since that would make it relatively easy for Wendy and I to make our way home by either driving a rental car, taking the Amtrak train, or flying through Vancouver. Fort Lauderdale also makes sense, since that is where the cruise was planned to terminate, and the ship is scheduled for a refit in the nearby Bahamas. Panama is the closest port, and has a big airport where we could likely find flights to return to Canada.

I spot some Juan Fernandez Petrels following the ship today. Obviously, we are not too far offshore for them to fly the distance.

Juan Fernandez Petrels following the ship
Juan Fernandez Petrels following the ship

I can’t motivate myself to write a blog post for my website. I think many of my friends would be interested in knowing more about my experiences so far on this cruise. I have posted regular updates to Facebook, but a significant number of my friends don’t use social media. We actually accomplished many of our goals early in the cruise, experiencing Buenos Aires, Montevideo, the Falkland Islands (penguins!), Punta Arenas and the Strait of Magellan, and scenic cruising through the Chilean fjords.

Lots of people are taking advantage of the warmer weather to sunbathe either beside the Lido Pool or the Sea View Pool. We have a beautiful sunset over the Pacific Ocean this evening, but no green flash was visible.

Panoramic of the Sea View pool and deck

Scenic cruising through the Chilean fjords

March 17, 2020 – sailing north through Summer Passage and Sarmiento Channel, Pacific coast of Chile

2020 South America cruise

The captain updates us twice today. At 8:30am, he tells us that we are sailing through Summer Passage where there is only 2 metres sea depth below us, so we slow down to 14 knots as we proceed on a high tide. We then sail through Passo Franco and then spend the afternoon sailing through very scenic Sarmiento Channel before sailing into open waters this evening. Our destination remains either San Antonio or Valparaiso for reprovisioning.

At Noon the captain reports that our course will result in sailing 1,279 nmi to San Antonio. We have 50 kt winds on the nose right now while we are in Sarmiento Channel, which will switch to NW 15-20 kt winds by tomorrow, with 3 metre swells when we emerge into the open Pacific Ocean. He also mentions that passengers who are in need of critical prescriptions should fill in the form and present themselves with their prescription bottles to the medical staff this afternoon in the Atrium.

The Flying Dutchman ghost ship
The Flying Dutchman, a legendary ghost ship

My travel buddy first thought of this, but I agree there is a distinct connection that the Netherlands flagged Zaandam feels like The Flying Dutchman, a legendary ghost ship that never makes port and is doomed to sail the oceans forever. Of course, according to the story the Flying Dutchman’s crew were all dead, but the Zaandam’s crew are a long way from dead – they are very engaged, and very much alive and well!

As we sail through the scenic Sarmiento Channel this afternoon, I spend quite a bit of time on the Lower Promenade deck taking photos with my Canon EOS R, making good use of my zoom lenses, and also take a few panoramas with my iPhone XS. We meet the predicted 3 metre swells this evening, so some passengers disappear for the evening, while the St. Patrick’s Day celebrants party on.


Leaving Punta Arenas

March 16, 2020 – sailing from Punta Arenas, Chile

2020 South America cruise

Line up for temperature and health check questionnaire by Chilean authorities
Line up for temperature and health check questionnaire by Chilean authorities

There appears to be some progress this morning, since Chile has issued us entry visas after we have our temperatures taken and answer yet another health questionnaire. We also receive our passports, which the ship’s office has kept on file for this voyage to facilitate port clearances. Although we are still not alongside the dock, this is a very encouraging step to enable us to disembark in time to catch our flight to Santiago on Wednesday afternoon.

The Captain reports to us this morning that the Dutch embassy and US consulate are applying maximum pressure to get us alongside. He thanks us for our patience and cooperation, and he is hopeful we will tie up at the dock today.

Apparently there are 11 more ships heading to Punta Arenas, and we have already spotted a few more anchored in our area, so it is going to be a busy time for this town in the next while! Of course, that all depends on getting passengers and crew ashore.

Ship's position at 11pm, heading NW through the Chilean fjords
Ship’s position at 11pm, heading NW through the Chilean fjords

Late this afternoon, the captain announces that Chile has closed all borders and imposed a 14-day quarantine on our ship. He states we will depart immediately and head north for San Antonio or Valparaiso, where the ship will have a service and provisioning call. He states that we will eventually disembark “well past Chile”, whatever that means. Most passengers agree that we will now proceed to our original destination, Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

The captain doesn’t waste any time getting underway by dinner time (see banner image above). A couple of hours later, we are almost through the Strait of Magellan as the sun sets, and turn north to wind through the Chilean fjords, which will give us some spectacular scenery to enjoy tomorrow!


Punta Arenas, Chile – day 2

March 15, 2020 – Punta Arenas, Chile – facing uncertainty

2020 South America cruise

The captain announces this morning that Chile has closed its ports to incoming cruise ship traffic due to the just-declared global pandemic (COVID-19), so we are at anchor in Punta Arenas awaiting further information. He made the decision to return to Punta Arenas and end the cruise here, since there are good transportation options for passengers to return home. We shall see how that plays out…I must confess, I’m worried that it has come to this.

Noon – The captain is working with Chilean authorities and he detects some movement with his requests to dock and to disembark passengers here, but he has nothing to formally announce yet. He assures us he will keep us informed.

I go for lunch to the main dining room where I have seafood poutine. This is a first for me, since despite being Canadian, I have never eaten poutine before. It is good, but there is no gravy on the fries. We spot a small whale beside the ship as my table of six eat our lunch.

I’m certainly depressed about this whole scenario. We are less than a mile from shore. The bridge is having to use thrusters to keep the ship from dragging anchor due to the strong winds and currents. When we were docked yesterday, special bracing lines were being used!

Chilean navy ship between the Zaandam and the Punta Arenas dock
Chilean navy ship between the Zaandam and the Punta Arenas dock

We receive an official letter today from Holland America’s President Orlando Ashford, which offers a choice of refunds and/or credits for the cruise. After receiving this letter, I book flights leaving March 18th from Punta Arenas to Santiago, where we will spend three nights before flying Aeromexico on the 21st through Mexico City and Vancouver, arriving in Victoria on WestJet on the 22nd. Everything is confirmed, so now we just have to get off the ship by Wednesday afternoon. Apparently, Holland America will shuttle us to the airport.


Punta Arenas, Chile

March 14, 2020 – Punta Arenas – last day of liberty

2020 South America cruise

The captain comes on the PA system this morning at 8AM to tell us our cruise will be ending when we arrive in Santiago. Holland America has decided to suspend operations worldwide for 30 days. Needless to say, all the passengers are upset, depressed, and rather anxious about what comes next.

I go on my excursion this morning, which is a standard city tour, including: the Plaza de Armas Muñoz Gamero which includes a statue of Magellan, Cerro de la Cruz viewpoint of the city and the Strait of Magellan, and Maggiorino Borgatello museum. Our last stop is Museo Nao Victoria, which has life-size replicas of three historic ships: HMS Beagle (Darwin’s ship), Nao Victoria (Magellan’s ship), and Goleta Ancud (a Chilean exploration and colonization vessel).

The captain makes another report this afternoon at 4pm, telling us that Argentina has closed their ports to cruise ships, so our scheduled stop in Ushuaia tomorrow won’t be happening. He outlined an enhanced scenic cruising schedule to fill in the time before our next port-of-call, Puerto Mont on the west coast of Chile. I adjourn to the Explorations Lounge, to consider all this ominous news today.

Free wi-fi and worldwide telephone calling is now available to all passengers so they can keep in touch with their families and friends, make any needed arrangements, and keep up on the world news.

I go to the main dining room and have a lovely prime rib dinner, and after go to see Planet Earth II in concert, a BBC Earth movie. I enjoy this well-done documentary, but the sound is far too loud.


Day at sea – to Strait of Magellan

March 13, 2020 – day at sea from Falkland Islands to Strait of Magellan

2020 South America cruise

I go for breakfast in the main dining room this morning. I am the last to join the table, but the other four people wait for about an hour for service. One couple is from Sydney, Australia, and are veteran cruisers. The other couple are from Burlington/Toronto area.

Captain’s noon report:

  • He will immediately notify us of any changes caused by coronavirus that will impact our cruise
  • Princess Cruises is suspending operations for two months
  • Our position: 52° 40’S 65° 16’ W
  • Arrive at pilot station at 9:30pm
  • Punta Arenas – 5:00am arrival
  • Lots of currents in the Strait of Magellan, so navigation will be challenging
  • Tomorrow’s weather: cloudy, some showers, cool
Heading from Falkland Islands to Magellan Strait
Heading from Falkland Islands to Magellan Strait

Everyone aboard has filled out a health questionnaire for the Chilean government, so hopefully we are clear to enjoy the numerous ports-of-call in that country. From my perspective, we have been on the ship for a week, and everyone appears to be healthy, so I’m inclined to stay on the ship and complete the cruise. I have confidence that Holland America will take care of everyone as best they can, no matter what situation might develop. Despite being anxious, I refuse to succumb to fear, and I detect the same attitude among most of my fellow passengers, including my travel companion.

As I walk circuits on the Promenade Deck this morning, we are currently sailing through thick fog. The ship’s horn is sounding every couple of minutes, making our voyage feel particularly “nautical”. Later in the afternoon, the skies clear, and we have remarkably calm seas as we approach the Strait of Magellan.

I have a cappuccino and a brownie in the Exploration Lounge just after noon, and find a recliner to sit in. I strike up a conversation with the man sitting beside me about the coronavirus and how it might affect our cruise. Like us, he is sailing all the way to Fort Lauderdale. He is also taking a wait-and-see approach, and trying to remain calm. He lives in Texas, about 800 miles from Ft. Lauderdale, so he isn’t concerned about getting back home, but the uncertainty of our cruise completing as originally planned is obviously on everyones’ mind.

I go to see the live show this evening in Main Stage: the cello-playing Polish duo Celli and an illusionist who starts the show with a few card tricks. Neither act are too terrific compared with their previous performances. I go outside on deck to see the stars under a clear sky.


Falkland Islands

March 12, 2020 – Port Stanley, East Falkland, Falkland Islands

2020 South America cruise

We arrive at our anchorage outside Port Stanley on time this morning around 7am, and after anchoring, the tendering ashore starts promptly. I’m up at 6:45am, have breakfast in our stateroom, and take the first tender ashore to meet our excursion operator. We are driven most of the way to Bluff Cove Lagoon in a large minibus, and then transfer to 4x4s for the last 5-10 minutes to get to the penguin rookery.

We see both Gentoo penguins and King penguins with their young. Most of the Gentoos are molting, so they are pretty miserable, just sitting there trying to survive the unseasonably cold, wet weather (see banner image above). This is Autumn going into winter in the southern hemisphere, and it is only 8°C today. Mind you, we are at 52° South latitude right now, so the weather can’t be expected to be that warm.

Mission accomplished: I saw penguins on the Falkland Islands!

Bluff Cove Lagoon is a small part of a 35,000 acre sheep and cattle farm, where the owners offer access to the penguins and other wildlife. They also operate a small museum, gift shop, and most importantly the Sea Cabbage Cafe, where complimentary sweet treats and hot beverages are served to their guests!

Once we return from the penguin rookery, I walk along Port Stanley’s waterfront road, stopping here and there to see some of the quaint buildings and historic sights. The Maritime Museum is well worth seeing. Passengers from the Roald Amundsen (Hurtigruten, 500 passengers) are also in town, wearing their distinctive coats. I do no shopping, and return to the ship by 12:30pm, and have a very nice Vietnamese rice stir fry lunch in the Lido.

I download all the photos and videos I shot today into my computer and start the task of entering titles and locations. Thankfully, the GPS unit I have on my Canon EOS R is working perfectly. Having all the photos geocoded combined with having access to the Internet makes annotating the photos with place names much easier and faster.

The cruise has been wonderful so far. Tomorrow we sail the Magellan Strait to Punta Arenas, then explore Beagle & Cockburn Channels before we round Cape Horn and sail through the Chilean Fjords. The upcoming week is looking spectacular!