For more than 21 days, Myra Evans and Frank Pasquill have been afloat in the South Pacific on a Holland America cruise ship, the MS Maasdam. In some ways, things are fine, a “lovely little bubble.” No one on board appears to be sick, and they can move freely, having meals and walking around, getting a little exercise and staring out into the endless blue sea.
They have seen land only once when, waiting anxiously with their luggage packed and after a tense day of negotiations, they were ultimately denied port in Hawaii. Now, they’re en route to San Diego, where they are hoping they may finally be allowed to get off the ship and go home – but already steeling themselves to hear otherwise.
“It’s a cruise to nowhere,” Ms. Evans said.
Ms. Evans and Mr. Pasquill, ages 78 and 75, are among 240 Canadians on board the ship, and among thousands of others from all countries currently stranded around the seas as the world scrambles to deal with the spread of the new coronavirus.
Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Angela Savard says officials believe there are an estimated 3,500 Canadians currently on cruise ships abroad.
“Global Affairs Canada is fully aware of the very stressful situation many Canadians abroad are currently facing as a result of the COVID-19 crisis," Ms. Savard said in an e-mailed statement to The Globe and Mail on Sunday evening. "We are doing everything we can to provide assistance under these unprecedented circumstances.”
Ms. Savard pointed to a weekend announcement about new measures being taken to fly Canadians home, including flights planned from countries such as Peru, Spain and Morocco. In announcing the new efforts, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also cautioned that Canada won’t be able to get every citizen home.
“We are going to ask people to stay safe, to make smart choices and do the best they can in a situation that is unprecedented, exceptional and very difficult,” he said, speaking on Saturday.
But for those on cruise ships, very few choices remain in their control as their ships go port to port looking for a country still willing to accept them. Cruise travellers face the double challenge of both finding a country that will let them disembark and then also finding a way home, while also trying to avoid catching the virus if they are still healthy.
Halifax-area residents Werner and Carla Joller, both 66, are currently aboard the Costa Pacifica, which, having already been denied port in Spain and France, was as of Sunday ported outside Genoa, Italy.
Their daughter, Petra, says communication with the cruise company has been scarce and that she can only communicate with her parents by text on WhatsApp. Her parents have heard that the current plan is for them to be removed from the ship and placed into a 12-day quarantine in Italy, the European epicentre of the coronavirus.
“All they know is that they have landed in this port, and the ship does not expect to set sail again,” says Petra Joller, a family physician in St. John’s. She says no one on the ship is ill and that docking in Italy, knowing the current conditions there, “is crazy.”
“[My parents] are becoming very frightened now that the ship is staying in Genoa without a plan for them,” she said. “For me, the scariest thing is not only being stuck, but where they are stuck.”
In the absence of information from the cruise company, she says people on board are keeping each other informed with meetings and a WhatsApp group. New information circulating among the travellers on Sunday that they wouldn’t be quarantined or would instead be taken to Rome remains unconfirmed.
She says her parents are currently in good health, but that they and others on board are starting to run low on medications, and that other supplies – such as toothpaste – are also dwindling. She says at least one other couple on the ship is from Canada, and that they have heard that other foreign nationals from Switzerland, Russia and Argentina were removed from the boat, and immediately bused to flights home.
Dr. Joller says she has been reaching out to every politician and official she can think of, but has so far gotten no response. She and her sister have also posted pleas on social media, looking for anything that might help get her parents home, and away from the threat in Italy. She says keeping them there is “a grave public-health mistake.”
Nicole McTague, a resident of Summerland, B.C., who is currently stuck at sea in the South Atlantic, says her holiday to Chile “has turned into a cruise to find somewhere to dock with no timeline of return.”
“It is really hard to think about the uncertainty of getting home,” said Ms. McTague, 48, in an interview conducted through e-mail.
Ms. McTague and her 50-year-old husband, Greg, are among 220 passengers and 70 crew on board the Ponant’s Le Boreal. Ms. McTague says she believes there are 11 Canadians on board.
Ms. McTague says her journey was supposed to end in Chile on March 20, and went as planned until March 14, when passengers were informed that Chile was closing the border, and that their ship wouldn’t be able to dock. She says the ship rushed to get to Chile in time but was unsuccessful, and the vessel was then turned away by Uruguay as well.
She said everybody on board is healthy and unrestricted in their activities, though there are food rations as supplies are getting low for passengers and crew, and exercise is difficult on the small ship. Ms. McTague is the owner and manager of Hagen’s Travel & Cruises, and says she has been working non-stop while on board to get her own clients home.
She said she’s been told that the current plan is to dock in Brazil on March 26, where hopefully the North American and Australian passengers will be allowed off. If Brazil declines to let them dock, the last resort would be to return to Paris, since the vessel and most of its passengers are French, arriving on April 20.
“That would be devastating not only financially and professionally, but emotionally,” Ms. McTague said.
After someone fell ill on her cruise on Feb. 29, Jenny McCormick, a resident of Brampton, Ont., and her two friends found themselves in a similar situation aboard the MS Costa Luminosa, with their cruise ship being denied entry at several ports in the Caribbean, and then ultimately heading out across the Atlantic toward its home port in Italy. She says there were 77 Canadians and 255 Americans on board.
“You’re stuck on the ship and no one wants you on their soil,” the 72-year-old Ms. McCormick said.
For weeks, passengers were quarantined to their rooms, and at one point lost all internet access. After hearing that only French and Americans would be allowed to disembark in France, and that the ship would be docking in Italy, Ms. McCormick’s daughter, Andrea, says she “went into panic mode” and began working feverishly to find her mother another route home.
Andrea McCormick and her sister Amy Phillips also called every politician and embassy she could think of, and was ultimately able to help get her mother and the other Canadians onto a flight to Atlanta from France that had been arranged by the American government.
Jenny McCormick said it was a harrowing journey to Atlanta, with some passengers feeling ill and even fainting on the flight, though possibly because most hadn’t eaten in 24 hours. Ms. McCormick was then able to fly into Toronto, and is now self-isolating at home after arriving on Friday around midnight.
“It was unreal. It was as though it was out of a sci-fi movie. You really realize how you are dependent on the services around you, and if they’re not there, you’re helpless,” she said by phone from her home in Brampton. She noted that her thermometer recorded a slight temperature on Sunday morning, but said she felt fine.
Both she and her daughter said they were disappointed in the lack of responsiveness or help from the Canadian government, but that she is grateful to be back on Canadian soil.
“If I do have [the virus], I’m thankful that I’m home,” she said.
In her statement, Global Affairs spokesperson Ms. Savard says officials are aware of reports of cruise ships being unable to dock, and are actively monitoring the situation. She said the government is working as hard as possible to respond to Canadians who have requested emergency assistance, and advises Canadians who are affected to follow up with cruise-ship officials to stay aware of the latest information, and look for updates on the government’s COVID-19 website.
“For the time being, we ask Canadian travellers aboard a cruise ship to remain patient and to follow the advice from health officials,” she said.
Back on the MS Maasdam, Ms. Evans says she and Mr. Pasquill were “beyond anxious,” waiting all day to find out whether they would be allowed to get off the boat in Hawaii, and then crushed when they were ultimately denied. They said they’ve been told the discussions about whether those on board would be allowed to disembark involved U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence and Hawaiian congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard.
“It’s a politically and emotionally charged situation,” Ms. Evans said.
Ms. Evans and Mr. Pasquill are uncertain about what will happen by the time they get to San Diego, their current destination. For now, the MS Maasdam is charting a course northeast into a vast horizon.
Ms. Evans says she’s lost interest in drinking, which doesn’t help, but that people on board are talking and supporting each other, which does.
The only entertainment on board is provided by a couple of stranded British comedians and some singers. Mr. Pasquill said everyone is trying their best, and that at dinner a woman went table to table playing a magic trick she’d learned from the wait staff.
“People are just trying to keep some levity in the whole situation,” Mr. Pasquill said. “Because it could turn into anger very, very quickly.”
Ms. Evans says the cruise line and crew have been trying to deal with things as well as possible in the circumstances. She says the travellers have been refunded costs for a segment of their trip, and been given a credit for a future cruise.
“But nobody is at the future cruise desk right now,” she said.
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