Suzanne Westover is a writer who lives in Ottawa.
My husband, Craig Ravesloot, is the staff captain, or second-in-command, on the MS Maasdam – a cruise ship belonging to Holland America Line. The line’s vessels boast distinctive blue hulls and proud, pointed bows; to me, they stand out as regal and dignified among a sea of megaships bobbing around like floating apartment blocks.
These days, you might know Holland America Line for more worrisome reasons.
For more than two weeks, the MS Zaandam and its sister ship, the MS Rotterdam, had been adrift at sea, with ports around the world closing their doors to the vessels in their time of need. They were unable to disembark their guests – even as crew and passengers fell ill, with at least two dying from the novel coronavirus. This week, after being granted humanitarian passage through the Panama Canal, the ships headed toward Fort Lauderdale, Fla., but staff were unsure whether any non-Floridians would be allowed to disembark.
The world watched with bated breath on Thursday, when the ships arrived. The state’s governor finally relented and accepted the more than 1,200 passengers on board the vessels.
While the Zaandam and the Rotterdam have captured headlines, there have been other cruise liners still stuck at sea, as countries shut their doors to ships they once welcomed as vital economic engines. My husband, in fact, had been on his own journey from Australia to San Diego on the MS Maasdam.
I haven’t seen him since the beginning of January, when he began his latest contract with Holland America. This particular cruise began in early March. To me, even that feels like a lifetime ago. And judging from the sound of his voice over the phone, he’s aged 10 years since.
It’s easy to forget that these larger-than-life ships – which are being painted with every pejorative under the sun, from booze cruises to petri dishes – are run by highly qualified officers who uphold the most rigorous standards of health and sanitation. That a virus spreads in close quarters isn’t in dispute, but lost in the midst of this are all the ships on which the novel coronavirus did not transmit and spread.
However, ships like the MS Maasdam didn’t make the news because people like my husband were working around the clock to enact the most stringent sanitation regulations to ensure the safety, comfort, and, yes, enjoyment of the guests. It may not be a very interesting story, but it’s vital for context: For every ship that succumbed to coronavirus, scores of others didn’t.
That standard has always been high. Twenty years ago, I was a young cruise staff member with Holland America Line. I was sailing on the MS Prinsendam when SARS broke out in China, and we quickly rerouted our itinerary to Japan. The internet was spotty, and cellphones weren’t ubiquitous; the only way I was able to grasp the seriousness of the situation was by the onboard protocols, which changed overnight.
Gone was the self-serve buffet; in its place, gloved stewards doled out dishes. Away went the self-serve coffee machine, now manned by a smiling staff member, happy to fill up your cup with your warm beverage of choice. Public bathrooms, always subject to a cleaning schedule of military precision, were now scrubbed every fifteen minutes. Crew members already working full-time jobs had their duties double in 24 hours. I can still smell the disinfectant on my hands, rubbed raw, reddened and blistered, after cleaning every item touched by guests, right down to the very last Scrabble tile.
We were all exhausted, and we were all uncertain, and we were far away from home. But we didn’t utter a word of complaint. Our guests had saved up – some, for their whole lives – for an unforgettable cruise experience. So, clad in rubber gloves and brandishing Clorox wipes, we were hell-bent on giving it to them.
Today’s situation is much different. It’s far more dire. But it’s all the more reason to remember that these ships aren’t just floating monoliths. They are home for hundreds of crew and officers, who are working in a situation beyond their control, and doing their best to keep everyone aboard safe.
My husband wasn’t on the Zaandam or the Rotterdam. His ordeal ended last Friday, after more than 14 days; the Maasdam is now at anchor off the coast of Mexico, and he is safe and well there, while passengers have gone home. So to those who would close their doors to these vessels, I say this: What if one of those ships, so maligned, held your loved one?
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