The Journey Home

Published: April 10th 2020
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Wednesday 1 April – at sea

We were off the coast of Cuba, so I changed my Facebook profile to reflect that I was in Havana. April Fool’s Day joke.

We were back to being served non-vegetarian regular meals, which means variety and vegetables. Thank you Jesus.

Florida continues to argue that we shouldn’t dock because the 14 sick people on board the Zaandam might overwhelm the hospital system and take away beds from the locals. Maybe they should build hospitals for more than 20 people. Clearly, we are the biggest threat to their state. Never mind the 7000 thousand infected locals who are moving amongst the communities.

Trump gave a press conference saying the ships need to be accepted because “it’s the right thing to do” and he said he’d speak with the Florida Governor.

I love watching the bright blue waters of the Caribbean from my balcony. We haven’t been close enough to shore to see the green turquoise bays but the deep ocean reflects the sun’s rays in a dazzling kaleidoscope. There is little wildlife, however. Not many birds, no dolphins or whales to speak of. I wonder if that’s typical of the Gulf of Mexico, or whether it’s just the time of year we’re passing through.

Last night I was able to see the Southern Cross, but it was almost on the horizon. Tonight, as we started to see the lights of Miami, it was not visible. We had arrived at the point at which it is below the horizon. Still, I’m surprised that we were able to get as far as Cuba and still see it.

At 9pm the Captain announces that we have been approved, subject to all the signatures. We should pack and be ready for an afternoon disembarkation, as well as keep 2 days worth of clothes in our carry-on in case of delays. I wasn’t counting my chickens though.

Thursday 2 April – at sea

MSNBC starts reporting live from Port Everglades, saying that our ships are scheduled for 1pm and 1.30pm respectively. We received a letter under the door confirming that our flights home will be booked by HAL (at their expense). By 12.30pm it was clear that we wouldn’t be docking on schedule because we were doing laps off the coast. MSNBC said it’s a done deal but the lawyers still needed to provide their signatures.

We enjoyed the afternoon out on the balcony, knowing this would be our last day with a view. By 3pm the Captain confirmed the Zaandam would dock first at 3.30pm, we would follow at 4. As the ship turned for Port Everglades, we were joined by a barrage of authorities in various crafts. Everyone needs to make sure we’re not jumping ship. The Sherriff was doing laps in his helicopter, there were two pilot boats, two coast guards complete with either a water cannon or machine gun in front – not sure which. There were also two marine corp dinghies.

We entered the narrow channel, watched the water colour transition from bright blue to brilliant aqua, followed by beach and holiday high rises. What came next put a lump in the throat. As we entered the canal of the port, there were houses backing onto the waterway and from the lawn of these houses were people blowing air horns, waving flags and palm branches and clapping. I don’t think I have ever been so happy to be in the USA as I was at that moment.

When the Rotterdam was ready to swivel into position at the cruise terminal, one of the coast guards came out the back on his vessel and gave us the thumbs up before they turned around and left, which almost made me cry. We would later discover via a Facebook video that when both ships were fully berthed at the dock, all the cruise terminal staff collectively shouted “Welcome to Florida” with claps and cheers.

From being the dirty little secret in Panama, to a welcome friend in Florida. Such a contrasting reception between South America and North America. I’ve never been a fan of Trump but for this week, he had my full admiration. Who knew he would be our hero. Winston Churchill once said “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing - after they have tried everything else.”

And so it was the end of our ordeal. 27 days at sea, 13 in cabin confinement, over 3500 miles sailed in two hemispheres, 2 ships, 1400 passengers, 1300 crew and 2 captains. Hundreds of onshore staff working thousands of hours over the 3 week scramble.

Friday 3 April – Florida

8am came and our Canadian neighbours, Maggie & David, knocked on our balcony divider to say goodbye, as the Canadians were leaving for Toronto. An hour later we heard a right raucous on the road and noticed 30+ police bikes coming down the road in double formation with lights, turning into the port. 3 minutes later they all re-emerged out of the gate followed by 4 busloads of Canadians, followed by another 10 or so bikies. It was a motorcade!

This happened continuously over the next 4 hours, and I couldn’t believe all the money being spent on escorting us to the airport. You would think we were either the President, or the world’s most wanted. Eventually it came time for us to depart and we donned our face masks and gloves, and entered one of 8 freshly sterilised buses sporadically populated with Australians, Kiwis, Asian and Western Americans. The noisy and impressive motorcade started the procession and we had an uninterrupted run as every intersection was closed whilst we passed. Onlookers had their phones out, recording the spectacle. We bypassed the terminal and went straight to the tarmac, where a desk of 3 immigration officers sat. Our names were ticked off and we boarded a charter flight, filled to the brim. This was the quickest airport run I’d ever had in my life – no lights, no parking, no terminal queues, no security or immigration lines. Zero paperwork. How do I get me more of that? By being famous, or infamous.

It’s flabbergasting to think how much HAL had to spend in order to meet all these imposed demands. The buses, motorcade, ground staff, various charter flights to all corners of North America and the flights home to all corners of the globe. And to think that they haven’t asked for one cent from their guests.

I know I’ve been critical of HAL at times for their inability to get our food correct, or their cabin assignments or fudging the itinerary with their scenic cruising days. However, these are all minor things that recede into the depths of memory in favour of all the good things they did. This cruise line looked after its passengers as best they could, with the limited staff they had, and threw every penny into the ring to get us home. Charter flights, private drivers to US resident houses, free wifi, free satellite phone calls, zero’ing every guest account of charges and gratuities – no expense was spared to alleviate our discomfort and deliver us back to our home ports.

Orlando, the President of HAL, needs to be given a gold medal for his staff and for the way he and Carnival petitioned on our behalf. Despite the harrowing experience, it is these memories of generosity, authenticity and care that will stay with us for years to come.

Sabbath 4 April – San Francisco

Last night had a nasty surprise for us. We flew from Fort Lauderdale to San Francisco without issue, arriving at San Francisco to catch our connecting 10.50pm commercial flight to Sydney. There was no security or health checks upon arrival, and we were all in good spirits as we waited for our angel flight home. It was not to be.

At the time of boarding at 10pm, we were advised that the flight was cancelled due to “an abundance of caution” for staff and commercial passengers. We were to change terminals to collect our luggage and head back to the check in counters to receive hotel vouchers. The flight would be rescheduled for Saturday night instead.

It was chaos. The United staff had no idea what was going on. Where were we staying, how many nights, did we get meal vouchers and if so, how many? We were 10th in the line, with another 100 behind us, and it was 12.30am by the time we arrived at the hotel and checked in. Those who were at the back of the line didn’t arrive until close to 3.

We also discovered that the reason the flight was cancelled was because the cabin crew walked out when they discovered we were “that cruise”, so the captain made a call to refuse boarding. I understand the concern but we had completed our 14 day quarantine with no-one presenting ill, and if United were that worried about our health, why didn’t they complete checks when we landed? Or better still, decline the job to begin with? If they had, HAL would have sourced another option. They didn’t need to accept the job and then decide we were too risky.

I also find this position to be somewhat hypocritical, because the crew put their lives in danger every day flying untested, undiagnosed Americans in a country that already has 300,000 confirmed cases. We have completed our quarantine and been tested up the wazoo, so they can't catch something we don't have.

In the morning, after a great sleep in very comfy beds, we discovered that the meal vouchers for the hotel restaurant were useless because the restaurant was closed due to Covid. California is in lockdown and all eat-in places are shut. We asked about breakfast and they said they were trying to locate some staff who could do a basic breakfast at 9am. Eventually they did cook up a tray of eggs, roast potatoes and a basket of bread. United had told us breakfast was included in the USD 135pn rate, but the hotel said it wasn’t so we had to all pay $10 for the 3 items on our plate (and no seconds either). 2 Coffees was another $10 so we spent $30 all up for eggs, potatoes, bread and coffee. Quite the rip off.

The one good thing was that we hadn’t been told we were room quarantined, given we’d completed our isolation period, so everyone was socialising in the lobby and going out for walks. For the first time in 2 weeks, we walked several km. It was only 10C but it was good to get out and about.

For lunch United provided ceasar salad, for dinner margherita pizza.

At 4pm we made our way down to check out for our rescheduled flight, only to be told it wouldn’t be going ahead because United no longer were allowing us on a commercial flight. Instead, they would be using a charter flight with a volunteer crew on Sunday night instead. This would allow them to space us out (1 person per 3 seats) to cater for social distancing.

At 5pm the officials from the Australian Consulate in SFO arrived, telling everyone in the lobby to go back to their rooms as we were supposed to be in quarantine until we landed in Australia. We’d already been wandering around the terminal and socialising since landing yesterday, and as far as we were aware, there was no law in force that mandated travellers were to be locked away. Well, you can imagine what 135 irrate people said to that!

The Aussie officials, United and hotel management held a forum in the hotel’s ballroom to placate the mob. The mob wanted guarantees that the plane would leave Sunday night after 2 delays already. There was anger that the Australian Government had forced us into this position, with their continual messaging “If you are overseas and need to get home, please do so ASAP on commercial flights. There are no rescue flights.” So here we were, trying to get home on the only option the Government had recommended to HAL, and being blocked again. It was hot, feisty, disrespectful at times, raw and frustrating.

To make matters worse, we were told that the reason for the delay was because they were waiting for 80 more Australians from the Coral Princess in Miami. This ship also had confirmed Covid on board, except they had only gone into lockdown 5 days earlier. If any of those passengers were infected, it was too early for them to display symptoms. Additionally, the plane only took 250 people and our 135 plus another 80, meant 215 of us would be all squeezed shoulder to shoulder.

So much for an abundance of caution and social distancing.

I give up. Give me Covid already!

Sunday 5 April – San Francisco

Went down to breakfast to discover that our Sydney flight had been redirected to Melbourne, and that’s where we would be completing our mandatory 14-day detention.

We went out for a walk with friends, trying to make the most of the fresh air and exercise while it lasted.

The CDC made a decision yesterday that no cruise passengers would be allowed on commercial flights and that health screening was required. So we did the 1.5m distancing dance, complete with masks and gloves, ignoring that we had all been packed on the buses and Friday’s charter flight. We had to go through health screening, which wasn’t required on Friday. It just goes to show how arbitrary governing bodies are. On Friday, they were abundantly cautious about packing us in the plane, today they don’t care, we can sit shoulder to shoulder. On Friday they didn’t care about health checks, today it’s mandatory to get in the terminal. Nothing has changed since Friday, except the CDC’s ruling. I hope Covid pays attention to those rules and doesn’t just go and do its own thing!

United provided a decent dinner at the departure gate, and when the crew arrived, there was applause and a standing ovation. We boarded the plane with the Coral passengers, packed to the rafters with no spare seats, and settled in for the 16hr flight in the sealed metal petrie dish. The captain welcomed us aboard, saying it was their honour to help us out, and finished with “We’re going home, folks.” There was applause.

Monday 6 April – in transit

The masks and gloves are of little use when exposed for 16hrs straight. I wonder how many of the healthy Rotterdam and Zaandam passengers, will get sick in Melbourne? Thank you United and the CDC, for your abundance of caution.


10th April 2020

I'm pleased to hear that you made it home!
You experienced bureaucracy at its worst and inconsistent behavior. Trump really is trying to break through this bureaucracy. My guess is that he is going to start reopening our economy on 1 May, despite the screams of his medical advisors and their supporters of the main stream media. I'm in the 65+ age with underlying conditions so I will continue to practice social distancing and hand washing, but that's it because if I catch Covid-19 I will just get a prescription for hydrochloriquine and be done with it. The U.S. should be letting a herd immunity build up.
13th April 2020

Happy to be home
What a trip...a 20th Wedding Anniversary that will dance dinner parties for years...the highs & lows with incredible lows. Being a Sydneysider following fulltime ABC through the bushfires, floods and now the matter what your thoughts were on the doomed Zaandam and numerous carriers and airports...I believe you were never out of mind of the Australian Government. Desperate Yes...abandoned No. We have been walking a tightrope in Oz and there is still a rough road to go. But in Oz thanks be to God and the Australian Government there is no safer place to be. Now you are safely on our shores its time to hear the magpies and kookaburras sing and as long as we all observe safe distancing we will overcome this pandemic for sure. Welcome home. At last you are safe. Time to dream of Torres del Paine and something to look forward to. The thrill of entering that park once denied...when you do so should be (other than Oz) your most beautiful place in the World.

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