By mid-morning, we are called to leave the Rotterdam, so we put on our face masks and gloves before leaving the ship. US customs and immigration wave us through, as does US Health, since ship’s staff pre-processed the required paperwork the previous day. As we board our buses, many of the staff in the terminal wish us well, and one woman is waving a Canadian flag – very touching and much appreciated! We wait in the buses for about an hour, and then the Broward County Sheriff officers take us on a half-hour motorcade to a private area of the Fort Lauderdale / Hollywood airport (FLL). I must say, it’s a very impressive ride!
We are then checked in by US officials and airline staff, and walk aboard the aircraft to find our seats and get settled. We wait for over two hours while the rest of the passengers board the aircraft. The Eastern cabin attendants are fully-suited up (see banner image above) and only offer basic services. The 1978-era Boeing 767-300 charter aircraft is a wide-body cabin with 2-3-2 seats across two isles, and has a capacity of 375 passengers. Every seat is taken. Once we take off for Toronto, we have several hours to get into the bagged meal given to us as we boarded.
After our arrival in Toronto, we are processed by Canadian Border Services and Public Health Canada, given a kit describing the quarantine conditions we will be operating under for the next two weeks, a digital oral thermometer and a new mask. They take my temperature, ask me some health questions, and get me to dispose of the mask and gloves I’ve been wearing all day on the aircraft. I’m on my way to Terminal 1 and my domestic flights from Toronto to Vancouver, and then Victoria. I barely make it aboard the Toronto-Vancouver flight, since the shuttle driver doesn’t know where she is supposed to take us, and once we arrive at the terminal, the Air Canada staff are confused about how to get us to the gate!
The flight to Vancouver is otherwise uneventful. Once we make the short hop from Vancouver to Victoria, my travel buddy and I drive (independently) to our respective homes adhering to the Canadian quarantine rules we are now bound by for the next two weeks. Air Canada manages to lose my checked bag, but the baggage claim clerk takes a description of my bag and assures me they will deliver it tomorrow afternoon (which they do).
I make no journal entries and take no photographs for the two days it takes to sail from the Panama Canal to Fort Lauderdale, since by that time I am pretty well shut down mentally. I concentrate on surviving the ordeal of being confined to our cabin for nine days, so I am able to ultimately return home to Canada. As can be seen by the ship’s route map, both ships proceed at full speed on a northerly course across the Caribbean Sea, rounding Cuba to the west by Havana.
April 2, 2020 – arriving in Fort Lauderdale
9:15am – We are 22 miles offshore from Fort Lauderdale, and still awaiting permission to land, so we can start the pre-clearance process today. We put our main checked bags out this morning, which are taken to a holding area on board the ship, ultimately to be transferred ashore for us.
1:50pm – Both Zaandam and Rotterdam are approved to come alongside and dock at the cruise port terminal within the next hour. We sail up the shipping channel to the cruise terminal, with lots of friendly waves coming from people on shore, however under the watchful eye of the US Coast Guard (see banner image above). We are designated to disembark the ship tomorrow morning – the first wave of Canadians leaving the ship to return to Canada!
Once docked, the pre-clearance process aboard the ship involves yet another health questionnaire and submitting to a health screening. We are then given the treasured “Approved to Disembark” card, walk off the ship into the terminal where we are waved through by US Immigration and Customs officers. We then walk back on board the ship, where we will stay overnight until tomorrow’s actual disembarkation. What a strange procedure!
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.
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!
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.
March 24, 2020 – Day 3 at sea – off the coast of 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.
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
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.