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 its 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 webcam image above shows 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 still adjusting to having to deliver meals to 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.
The 5,000-passenger MSC Preziosa docks before we anchor, so their passengers are crowding the dock area and the downtown. Some of us walk the few blocks to the town, where there are festivals and busy open air markets. I soon return to the ship to escape the heat and chaos.
An excursion is late returning passengers to the ship, so we depart Kingstown at 2:00PM instead of 12:30PM. I’m concerned, since I have an excursion scheduled for a 2:15PM departure from Bequia, the next island. The Cruise Director assures us the excursion will run, since it is a short trip to Bequia.
I try some roast suckling pig for lunch. The crackly skin is pretty tough and the meat is dry, so I use some gravy to make it edible. There is a 30 knot wind in the harbour by lunch time, and the crossing to Bequia is exceedingly rough, with the ship rolling wildly – passengers are struggling to not crash into things and each other. Welcome to the Windward Islands!
Our Magical Coast of Bequia excursion this afternoon is delayed but still leaves from Port Elizabeth as promised. It isn’t pleasant because of the high winds and being on a speed boat means we are pitching and banging wildly. The crew are constantly asking us to move to a drier part of the boat as they struggle to put up tarps to keep us from getting completely soaked. Nobody can hear the narration describing the sights we are passing because of the roar of the engines and the strong wind.
Moon Hole is one location where the waves and wind subside, so we can actually take some photos and hear the fascinating story behind the place. Nearby is an old whaling station at Sempler’s Cay. Apparently residents of Bequia still have the right to take a whale or two each year, but it hasn’t happened for awhile.
We also go around West Cay to see the airport (unimpressive) before retracing our route. The last stop before we return to the ship is to swim and snorkel at Princess Margaret Beach. Due to the late start, it is almost sunset by the time we arrive, so it is pointless for me (and others) to go in the water, since we won’t see anything and we only have 20 minutes. Some go in for a swim anyway, while the rest of us stay aboard and enjoy the rum punch.
The ship’s servers and kitchen staff all parade through the dining room at dinner this evening, and sing “We Are The World” waving flags as the rest of us wave our napkins. Tomorrow the cruise is over when we dock in Bridgetown, Barbados. After returning to my cabin, I pack everything in my big travel bag, and put it out for the porters to take ashore tomorrow morning. I’m feeling a bit nauseous due to the extreme pitching of the ship as she takes the strong winds on the nose. Once I finish packing and go to bed I am fine, and sleep well.
I am up early this morning to take the tender at 9:15AM for my Segway tour. We are met at the dock by a driver who takes us across the island to the largest city of St. Johns, where we hook up with the Segway tour company. They spend quite a bit of time instructing our small group on how to operate the machines safely, since we are all newbies.
Then we are off, following our tour guide as she talks to us with radio earphones, keeping us on track, safe, and describing the sights. Our first stop is at the Minister of Tourism’s estate on top of a ridge, where we can take photos while overlooking the beautiful harbours, coastline, and an abandoned sugar mill.
We next stop at beautiful Runaway Beach (see banner image above) for a refreshment break. Before the new airport was built, small passenger aircraft would land on the hard sand on this beach. Fort James is our next stop – an abandoned fort with lots of cannons still on the rock walls overlooking the harbour. We scoot along Fort James Beach, and then back to the starting point.
Our driver takes us back across the island to Falmouth Harbour, where our ship’s staff are staging a barbeque lunch on the local beach. I stop to have some lunch, but take the next tender back to the ship and then relax with a beer while on deck overlooking the beautiful harbour. A steel band comes aboard in the early evening to play Caribbean beats before the ship sails out of the harbour.
I get up late and spend my morning spotting Caribbean islands and sea birds (Frigates and Boobys) as the Royal Clipper slowly approaches St. Barts. First is Sint Maartin/St. Martin, then striking Mount Scenery on the island of Saba, and finally the northern islands of St. Barts itself. We anchor near Grande Vigie in Gustavia harbour by 11AM. The 3-masted clipper Stad Amsterdam is anchored in the outer harbour near us. There are the usual complement of super-yachts docked at the marinas in the harbour (see banner image above).
My afternoon excursion today is aboard a charter sailboat, and includes sailing to the leeward side of the island, with a stop at a beach and cove for swimming not too far from Gustavia. I go for a swim in the lovely warm water, and walk the beautiful uncrowded beach. There are snacks and beer served after our swim, as we sail around the windy point back into Gustavia harbour. All-in-all, a sublime and relaxing day!
Saint-Barthélemy is a department of France, and like all of the other French Caribbean islands, it is an expensive place to visit or to live on. That said, all these French islands are also noticeably better off than the other Caribbean islands colonized by other European nations.
I sleep in yet again this morning to 8:45AM, but it doesn’t matter since today is a sea day. After getting cleaned up a bit, I wander down to the dining room for breakfast: ordering a cappuccino to start, have some fruit, yogurt, pastries and a pancake.
The captain gives an interesting presentation this morning titled “Everything”, which covers the questions posed to him from passengers over the last few days: sailing ship configurations, navigation and GPS, and the physics of how to sail ships with sails. Amazingly, he has written a PhD on using Super-cavitation for fast underwater propulsion – a subject I knew nothing about!
Our course is 090 due east with a stiff wind on our nose, so no sails are set today. We pass by Puerto Rico this afternoon, so I turn off my cellular data roaming, since I don’t have a roaming plan for the US, only for the other Caribbean islands.
Lunch is served on deck from the Tropical Bar. It was quite a spread…it took the staff an hour to haul everything up from the kitchen to serve to us. They work hard, and for long hours! My cabin steward tells me he gets some time off in the afternoon.
I attend a presentation given by a passenger this afternoon which profiles his working life aboard the Union Castle Line on the Royal Mail route between London and South Africa. It was somewhat interesting to see glimpses of life at sea in the 1950s and 60s for the passengers.
The wind is strong and it’s also hot outside this afternoon, so I stay in the Piano Bar working on my journal and photos while sipping a cappuccino. Later in the afternoon the clouds come in, making it more pleasant outside as the sun sets.
I join a table for eight for dinner this evening: five from the UK and two from Canada (Sidney, BC, but former Brits). I have a bunch of Internet time to use, so this evening I work on my photos and manage to post a new album to Facebook.
I sleep in again this morning, but leave my cabin by 8:45AM to have a cappuccino and some breakfast. The ship is sailing along the coastline of the Dominican Republic for quite a while until she pulls into the port of Santo Domingo at noon. I’m on deck while the ship is being cleared by customs and immigration, and ask Camilla, the Tour Director if there are any spaces left on today’s city/walking tour. She indicates there are two spots left, so I take one, even though I’ve arranged to walk the town with my friends as well.
My friends and I are some of the first to disembark the ship, finding our way across the busy street in front of the cruise terminal, and climbing the stairs up into the historic colonial zone. The local kids have been let out of school to have their lunch outside, so I get some cute photos of them. We walk around the nearby old cathedral (Catedral Primada de America), but I soon peel off from my friends and return to the ship. Walking around in the heat of the day is not my idea of fun!
I have some lunch in the dining room and then grab my camera bag before debarking again to board the small tour bus for this afternoon’s walking excursion. Our first stop is across the river from where the ship is docked to see and photograph the Christopher Columbus monument and lighthouse. His remains are in this massive concrete monument, but we don’t go in. He landed at this location in the New World, representing the King of Spain. By most accounts, he was the first European to reach the Caribbean.
We then drive back into the colonial zone and are dropped off at the cathedral. Our guide gives us a narrated tour of the many interesting and historic buildings in the colonial zone: Catedral Primada de America, the Alcazar de Colon, the National Pantheon, and the National Monument commemorating national heroes.
We continue walking down the Calle las Damas a favourite haunt of the Vicerene Maria de Toledo, niece of the King of Spain and wife to Diego, son of Christopher Columbus. Apparently she used to walk there on her way to Mass with the other ladies of the court, hence the name Calle las Damas (Ladies Street).
As we cross the Plaza España, there is a giant Coca Cola Christmas tree display setup on the plaza in front of the impressively reconstructed house of Diego Colon (Columbus), who was a viceroy for the Spanish colony. It is fascinating to learn how the viceroy and his family lived, and to see the beautiful artifacts placed in the various rooms where they were originally.
It starts to pour rain just as we re-board the tour bus, and are taken along the first part of the city’s Malacon near the port, to the Presidential Palace (a photo stop I didn’t take advantage of), and drive through Chinatown on our return to the cruise terminal. We arrive about 15 minutes before the gangway is pulled up, so I’m glad I took the organized tour since the ship is guaranteed to wait for you! Thanks to our very good tour guide, I certainly have lots of interesting information about the city’s history, and better understand the country’s context in the Caribbean.
I watch a beautiful sunset as our ship leaves port, bound for St. Barts. We have a sea day tomorrow, which I am glad of. I have dinner with three men in their 70s who are best friends, and who travel together once or twice each year without their wives. They are wine connoisseurs who are working their way through the ship’s wine list, to the great pleasure of the wine steward!
I sleep in until 8:30AM this morning since this is a sea day, and go to the Piano Bar for pastries and a cappuccino. It’s much quieter in this area than the main dining room, where the feeding frenzy is well underway.
I decide to climb the rigging to the crows nest this morning, so I get my GoPro action cam ready with a head strap, leave all my other stuff in the cabin except my room card, and head forward. The sports crew are there to put on a harness, clip you onto the safety line, and give instructions. Getting to the passengers’ crows nest involves climbing a rope ladder to the mid-point of the second forward mast, where there is another sports crew person up there to help unclip and for safety. Two or three passengers at a time are in the crows nest, since it is quite a big platform.
After climbing down, I’m thirsty, so I go to the nearby bar on deck for a couple of good-tasting German Flensburger draught beers. I have a chat with the German guy who was ahead of me in the climb, and a couple of Brits. I also go forward and spend some time on the bow net watching the bow wave dancing in the sun glint (see banner image above).
At lunch I sit with a couple from Thunder Bay (Ontario, Canada). We talk about our travels in southern Africa, and South Africa in particular. The food aboard the ship is very good, and they offer lots of variety, including vegetarian. Drinks are reasonably priced – 3.50€ for a glass of Flensburger draught beer, which is about CAD$4.25 Smoking is allowed in designated spots outside only, which is fine with me. Close to half the passengers are German, but the English-speaking Americans, Canadians, and Brits are the biggest combined group, with French-speakers being a small third group.
I go to the top deck forward near the bridge to observe the sunset, and see the Green Flash. What I observed might be better described as a green glow, since there was some cloud on the horizon partially obscuring the Sun. I captured it on video with my iPhone.
I sleep in until 8AM, get dressed and go to the dining room for breakfast. I have a cappuccino with some pastries, fruit, and a spoonful of scrambled eggs. The ship arrives in Port Antonio on schedule at 10AM. There’s a pretty serious crunch as the ship makes contact with the concrete pier in the stern. The crew make some repairs while we’re docked.
I find this sailing ship is a photographer’s dream if you look up at the fantastic rigging and sails, and it is also a nightmare, because there are lines and masts everywhere obstructing clear views overboard!
I am on the shore excursion Highlights of Port Antonio. First stop in our minibus is to view Trident Castle, a German-built modern castle located on a beautiful cove, which mainly caters to weddings. We don’t go into the castle, but instead carry on to the Jamaica Palace Hotel, which is our first stop. It is a very striking hotel, and has surprisingly reasonable room rates starting at US$120/night. We are given a Rum Punch welcome drink, and a tour of the extensive grounds including their art gallery.
Along the way, we learn about the resident crocodiles in Springs area, and how the national fruit Aki opens naturally and is eaten with salt fish (the national dish). We make a stop at the Blue Lagoon, which I find underwhelming. Trident Castle, Jamaica Palace Hotel, and Blue Lagoon are all touted as being used as locations for movies.
Our last stop is Frenchman’s Cove, where there is a private beach for us to lounge on and swim from. There is a freshwater stream beside the beach flowing into a saltwater cove – both of which are very pretty. Unfortunately, the water in both is quite cold, so I don’t bother trying to swim or snorkel, instead preferring to sit on the beach in the shade of a palm tree. The beach is not crowded, and we have a couple of hours here to enjoy ourselves before returning to the ship.
All 44 sails are set as we leave Port Antonio and then they are taken down again once the Sun sets and the ship is underway. Being a square-rigged sailing ship, the Royal Clipper needs a following wind to actually proceed under sail. The southeast winds we are encountering are virtually on the nose of the ship, hence the reason for the sails being taken down when the ship is underway, although the stay sails are often left up to improve the ship’s stability.
At dinner this evening, I’m seated with a Texan couple who are both real characters. She submitted a request for one of the desserts appearing on the menu this evening – Floating Island with prune. I ordered it, and found it tastes good, with thin custard on the bottom, merengue, and a dollop of pureed prune on top.
I sleep in until about 8AM, meet my friends downstairs for breakfast, and then it’s time to return to my room to pack. We check out at 12PM, check our bags with the hotel and go across the street to the Starbucks at Doctor’s Cave Beach for coffee, snacks, and to hang out for awhile. We return to the hotel lobby and leave for the ship a bit after 3PM for a 4PM check-in.
We have to clear Jamaican customs and immigration before we embark the ship. They shake us down for a Departure Fee of US$35 each, applicable to anyone who stays in Jamaica for more than 24 hours! Once aboard, the usual cruise ship check-in takes place, where they take passports, preauthorize a credit card to pay the shipboard account, photograph everyone, and issue a passenger ID card to run the accounts on and for leaving/returning the ship at the various ports-of-call (in place of a passport).
After everyone is aboard, there is a lifeboat drill, which is conducted in English, German and French, so it takes quite awhile! I go to dinner with my friends, where we are seated with an American and two Brits. The meal is lovely – I have escargot and a salad to start, sea bass for my main course, and three almond cookies with strawberry sauce for dessert. I finish with a cappuccino, which costs 2.50 Euros (CD$3.75).
The crew set two of the four staysails during the evening departure of the Royal Clipper from Montego Bay. They play Conquest of Paradise every time they raise sails on the trip, which gets a bit tedious after awhile!
Champagne is served on deck as we depart the port. It is a lovely evening with warm tropical breezes in my face. Despite not having stabilizers, the ship rides surprisingly well as we pull offshore for the overnight passage to Port Antonio – a small town further along the coast of Jamaica.