Niagara-on-the-Lake travelers Fran and Eric Harman spent the beginning of March in their “Azamara bubble” worlds away from the rapidly changing COVID-19 situation.
The Harmans did their homework before leaving Canada to board the Azamara Pursuit cruise ship in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
“We’d heard about the Diamond Princess obviously before we left and people said, 'Why are you going?' and we said, 'Well, we've checked with the Canadian government and they said it was safe to travel.' The airlines were flying, and the cruise lines were going,” Fran said.
She said that the Azamara Pursuit has “an extreme measure for cleanliness and within being on board for two days they had gone to what they call a level three risk.”
Fran explained that this meant, “nobody was allowed to touch serving utensils, you couldn’t serve your own coffee, you couldn’t touch anything related to food servicing and our room attendant called us to sanitize our room twice a day with special chemical cleaners.”
“Doesn't matter what the conditions were because we've sailed with them before. You can't serve yourself for the first 24 hours, no matter what,” Eric said.
“So, that was going on immediately. I think there was one day we got to serve ourselves, and then boom, it was back to no you can't serve yourself.”
Because this standard of cleanliness was not entirely foreign to the Harmans, just an enhanced version, the vacation continued normally for a while.
“We never thought what was going on in the world was really going on because we call it the 'Azamara bubble': In a perfect little world where nobody was sick, and the food kept coming and the wine kept being poured.”
Then things started to change as the crew of the ship adjusted to an enhanced cleaning schedule and sanitation measures.
“Azamara Pursuit is a little unique in that it's got a passenger load of around 650 passengers and I'd say about 350 crew. So, in cruise ship terms, it's small,” Eric said.
“The interesting thing about being on a small cruise ship is you start to realize something's going on when you get up in the morning and the piano player from the night before is now serving you porridge because there's not enough staff on the small ship,” Fran said.
Twelve days into the cruise, a stop in Chacabuco, Chile, was were Eric said they got “the first slap in the face if you will. Saying, Wake up. Something’s happening in the world.”
After entering the harbour and dropping anchor, passengers waited for tender boats to take them in to the dock and then there was an announcement. Chile is not allowing any passengers on its territory. Eric said this was a real wake-up call for passengers.
This was the beginning of missed ports for the cruise ship. After two days at sea, the ship spent four days anchored in Valparaiso, Chile, where the country was debating whether it would be provisioning the ship, which was “a little low on fuel and a little low on food,” Eric said.
Eventually the ship was stocked with fuel and food, which was brought over to the boat by barges and lifted on board by crane. This would normally be done ship to ship with a tow motor and hand carts with a group of less than 10 people.
“The night before the captain had asked for volunteers, because that was not the way it was going to be done this time,” Eric said.
Crew members were suited in protective gear to load the provisions by hand onto the boat and sanitize the items.
“So, now we're really getting the picture that a people don't want us. And this was the first time that we started thinking about alternate flight plans,” Eric said.
On March 15 travellers were told to book flights out of Valparaiso because their original final destination, Lima, Peru, would no longer accept passengers from the cruise ship.
“You gotta imagine you now got 650 people from all over the world trying to book flights to get home, and the airport is two-plus hours away from the cruise port,” Fran said.
“So now the cruise line's trying to organize secure transportation and all that, but long story short everybody gets their flights the whole nine yards and it goes bust. Chile just says no nobody's coming ashore.”
The crew of the Azamara Pursuit now had to get in contact with their head office in Miami because the entire coast was closed to the ship. The captain came on the PA to tell everyone that they were going to Miami.
The ship was originally supposed to travel through the Panama Canal toward Miami after ending the Harmans' cruise in Lima.
“They had a window to go through the Panama Canal, which they book years in advance to have that one slot that go through the Panama Canal, and that slot was not until the 28th originally. They negotiated to go through on the 25th, which we suspect negotiating means lots more money. We have no proof that, but they moved up our time slot on the Panama Canal by two days,” Fran said.
“And I dare say we could still be somewhere if we didn’t have that slot because we would have missed our seventh flight back home had we not had that.”
Upon arrival in Miami, “We did have to do a circle out through all the other ships off Miami that were at anchor. I can't even guess the amount of money sitting there. Probably with minimum energy being expanded and minimum crew on board as well,” Eric said.
“There are literally billions of dollars just anchored with skeleton crews on them, keeping them going,” Fran said. “Nobody around, nothing to see, no noise and it's just us coming up into the cruise terminal in your dock beside all these ships that are empty. It's a very eerie feeling.”
The Harmans spent a full day on the ship March 30 because they were not allowed to go anywhere. The following day they boarded buses directly from the ship to be taken to the airport.
“It was a very controlled exit,” Fran said.
They commend ship captain Carl Smith because, “he kept everybody calm,” Eric said. “We feel so fortunate with this particular situation that turned out the way it was.”
“But as far as our experience of the reality of the world, I'm still sitting here in our house,” Fran said. “Obviously, because we're not going anywhere, and I'm thinking 'What's it really come to?' because I'm nervous when we leave here in 14 days that the food chain will be shut down because of border issues and trucking issues.”
Fran said they're a bit fearful now that they're home, with concerns that didn’t exist when “we were living in our bubble because our bubble was looking after us for the most part, as best they could.”