With Over 30 Cruise Ships Stuck at Sea, Passengers Try to Stay Optimistic

March 21, 2020 Updated: March 21, 2020
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Texan newlyweds Jay and Carmen Martinez went straight from celebrating their beachside wedding to embarking on a globe-trotting honeymoon cruise across the South Pacific on board the Norwegian Jewel.

Ahead of the Feb. 28 departure date in Australia, the couple had worried about the spread of the CCP virus but didn’t have the option to cancel the 23-day trip they’d booked two years earlier.

Now they are among thousands of passengers still at sea aboard more than 30 oceangoing cruise ships, some still hunting for a port that will accept them amid a global shutdown of the cruise industry and mounting fears of infection.

The Norwegian Jewel is believed to be heading for Hawaii, but there’s no official word on its final destination and the ship has already been turned away from several ports.

“We had hesitations,” Jay Martinez tells CNN Travel about their preboarding apprehension. The couple looked into amending their plans but were told they were locked in.

“Up until the day that we left, that was not an option,” says Jay, “And with us having so much money invested into our honeymoon, we had no other choice but to board the ship.”

The couple feared their itinerary might be curtailed, but they never expected that they’d end up stranded at sea, their ship scrambling for a place to dock.

Escalating Situation

They’re not the only ones.

As CCP virus outbreaks afflicted numerous ships on at sea, the Cruise Lines International Association, or CLIA, made the decision on March 13 to suspend operations from U.S. ports of call for 30 days.

CLIA encompasses 38 cruise companies, making up more than 95 percent of global cruise capacity—a total of 277 ships.

“A handful of ships—about 14 percent of the total CLIA fleet—are currently at sea completing their journeys,” the organization said in a statement to CNN. “Our members are focused on bringing these ships safely back to port as soon as they can.”

The Norwegian Jewel cruise ship is in lock down while health authorities test a man for Coronavirus in Sydney,
The Norwegian Jewel cruise ship is in lockdown while health authorities test a man for COVID-19 in Sydney, Australia, on Feb. 14, 2020. (Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

Among the 30 or so still at sea, Norwegian Jewel is heading toward Honolulu, Hawaii, but no one’s quite sure whether it’ll be allowed to dock there.

Right from the outset, it was clear some ports were closed and some plans would have to be changed, says Jay Martinez.

The situation escalated dramatically about a week ago when CLIA recalled its ships, and French Polynesia turned the Norwegian Jewel away.

At first, the ship planned to head to Fiji instead and disembark there, but this plan was abandoned en route when the island country said the cruise liner would not be accepted. New Zealand followed suit.

The ship was subsequently allowed to refuel in American Samoa. “And that is when we started our long journey to Hawaii,” says Jay.

Cruise operator Norwegian has yet to give official confirmation of the ship’s final destination. In response to a query from CNN, a spokesperson confirmed that a plan to dock in New Zealand had been scrapped. “We will share an update as it becomes available,” they said.

On board, Jay says guests have been riding waves of emotion—relief when hearing of an imminent destination followed by disappointment when the plans were abandoned.

So far everyone on board the Norwegian Jewel is well, with no cases of COVID-19 or quarantined passengers.

Still, Jay says guests are concerned and highly anxious, with tensions rising as the ship’s trajectory became increasingly uncertain.

Everyone’s aware, he says, that there’s a real possibility that this could continue for days or weeks.

There are worries about medication running out, the health of friends, families, and livelihoods back home.

Pacific Princess

On the other side of the Pacific ocean, 76-year-old Ron Ernst has been playing a waiting game on board the Pacific Princess, a 338-cabin cruise liner with capacity for 670 guests.

Ron and his wife, Susie, boarded the ship on Jan. 20 in Los Angeles. The retired Californian couple have enjoyed more than 25 cruises, including three round-the-world voyages.

They left U.S. shores ready for another global adventure, embarking on their 111-day cruise odyssey barely aware of the mounting virus threat.

“I am sure we had heard about some virus in China, but we had no concerns,” says Ron.

It was toward the end of February that they became aware the virus might impact their itinerary.

The ship skipped calls at the Indonesian island of Bali, Singapore, and the Thai resort of Phuket. Passengers were also banned from exiting the ship in Sri Lanka.

Like the Norwegian Jewel, the Pacific Princess is healthy—with no cases of CCP virus—but has still been riding a tide of uncertainty.

“The second night after Sri Lanka, the captain made the shocking announcement that, in view of the developing and quickly changing conditions, the cruise would terminate in Fremantle/Perth,” says Ron. “We quickly realized that things were getting serious.”

The ship made an 180-degree turn in the middle of the night, and began the 18-day sail back to Australia.

It finally arrived Saturday morning local time.

“Life on the ship continued with great food, entertainment, and lots of socializing,” says Ron.

“The crew is absolutely fantastic. Their future is completely uncertain, but they are not letting it show. Princess has done an amazing job especially considering these unprecedented conditions.”

Asked about the status of the vessel and those on board, Princess Cruises directed CNN to an online statement confirming the final destination and offering a helpline for friends and family.

On board the Pacific Princess, Ron Ernst says passenger moods fluctuated. It was mostly fear of the unknown that concerned them.

In fact, some were dreading returning to a reality that’s become far from “normal.”

“We were healthy and comfortable as long we are in our safe cocoon,” says Ron. “Not everyone is looking forward to getting back to the world.”

Also on board the Pacific Princess was CJ Hayden, 63, an author and business coach based in San Francisco.

Hayden, traveling with partner Dave Herninko, told CNN earlier this week that she just hopes to get home ASAP, in case further travel restrictions are put into place.

“Our biggest concern now is whether we can still get home to North America before airports, cities, or even borders are closed,” she said. “The ship can’t go any faster.”

There were 547 passengers on board, and 448 are American. Princess Cruises says it has made flight arrangements for each passenger, and paid for air fare.

Anyone unable to fly because of medical reasons will stay on the ship as it sails on to Los Angeles.

Australia had previously announced it was closing its ports to cruise ship passengers. Hayden says Pacific Princess passengers have been granted permission to disembark on the understanding they head to the airport right away.

Those not booked on flights on March 21 will stay on board until their flight is ready to depart the next day.

“Almost all the passengers are seniors, with many in their 70s and 80s, and quite a few with disabilities,” said Hayden earlier in the week.

“Some folks are bearing up well; others are freaking out,” she said.

Like Ron, Hayden said “uncertainty” was the hardest thing to deal with.

Staying Connected

On board the Norwegian Jewel, Jay, who works in public affairs, is trying to keep busy by remote-working from the ocean.

Carmen, who works in disease prevention, isn’t able to telework. As some of the younger and more tech-savvy guests, both are trying to help older passengers.

“[We are] helping out, getting in touch with family members that are having trouble connecting via Internet or phone with those that are on this ship,” says Jay.

He praises crew members also stuck on board and unsure of the future, highlighting their “phenomenal job of cleanliness and sanitary efforts”—and their consistent generosity and understanding.

“There’s a lot of frustrated people, and it’s quite unfortunate that they get the brunt of the effects of what the corporate cruise line’s shortcomings are, because they’ve just done a great job,” says Jay.

Uncertain Times

Right now, those on board the Norwegian Jewel are crossing their fingers that they’ll be allowed to disembark in Hawaii on Sunday, but Jay says they have received no clear information about how they’ll be getting home from the island.

“That uncertainty and that unknown and ambiguity of what our fate is going to be I think is the hardest thing to stomach,” he says.

Jay Martinez captured this shot on board the Norwegian Jewel.
Jay Martinez captured this shot on board the Norwegian Jewel. (Courtesy Jay Martinez)

Much of the travel industry has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic—hoteliers are laying off workers, airlines are appealing for government bailouts, and cruise ships are hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

So would Jay and Carmen Martinez ever get on board a cruise again?

Jay’s diplomatic—no one quite knows what the travel landscape is going to look like in six months or a year, he says. Plus, he hopes the cruise lines will put in new practices to deal with situations like this one.

“I wouldn’t say that it has ruled it out for us in the future,” he considers. “I think it’s a discussion we’re going to have to have when we arrive home and the dust has settled throughout all of this.

“So much will be dependent on how this continues to unfold and what will be the cruise line’s response after their 30 day pause, in relation to this outbreak.”

And despite being stuck at sea and unsure of when they’ll see dry land again, there have been joyous moments on board.

After all, Jay and Carmen have been celebrating their honeymoon. Thursday was their one month anniversary.

“This has been a cruise and a vacation and a honeymoon like no other, and for great reasons and for terrible reasons,” says Jay.

They’re enjoying the on-board camaraderie, everyone’s come together both despite, and because of, the difficult circumstances.

“We’re very much bonded together, I think that we find solace in one another by finding humor in our situation, and conveying concerns from our various countries and sharing that news,” says Jay.

CJ Hayden shares similar stories from the Pacific Princess.

“Some of us have been helping each other learn new skills,” she said. “Two volunteers have been helping me and others learn watercolor painting. Another passenger has been teaching my husband how to use the gym equipment. We’ve taught several folks how to play chickenfoot dominoes.”

The memory that will stick with her, she says, is when the ship stopped in Sri Lanka to refuel.

“On the pier next to the ship were soldiers with guns and dogs, and workers unloading supplies wearing masks and gloves. At 10 a.m., the passenger chorus gathered on the pool deck and belted out ‘Put On a Happy Face.'”

Jay says he’s proud of the way passengers and crew have collaborated in the face of uncertainty.

“It’s a beautiful thing, because I feel at times our world is very separated,” he continues.

“It’s great to feel like we can take a stance in this pandemic as a global initiative, and I think that we have our own little mini community that represents just that—that we are looking out for one another.

We are concerned about each other’s well-being and we want to make sure that everyone gets home, not just one nationality.”

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