I will never forget that Sunday morning.
On March 15, 2020, as Downing Street was preparing to announce Britain’s first national coronavirus lockdown, I and three other women were on the other side of the Atlantic, racing to the Port Everglades, Florida terminal.
For a cruise ship terminal that usually sees up to 120,000 passengers embark and disembark on a single day, Port Everglades was chaos. Why? Thousands of passengers were being removed from ships, with all future sailings canceled, due to rising fears of coronavirus.
I, and the other women, were in Florida to meet with our partners, who each worked as crewmembers on such ships. Former crew myself, I was looking forward to the holiday we were due to start: a two-week cruise around South America before flying to my hometown in Colombia then back to the UK, where he is from and we both now live.
My partner, like most crew, was staying on board. Making our way to the port, I and three other women waited to see if we would be allowed to join them, or at least see our partners before the ship sailed away. The anxiety was gut-wrenching – I knew that this might be my only chance to see him in a long time. Joining that ship felt like our only chance and I was holding onto that small piece of hope with everything I had.
After much discussion between the on-board management, the captain and the port authorities, we were allowed to board and, as the ship departed, we hugged tearily as though we had been separated for years. What we didn’t realise then was that, like some 80,000 crew members around the world, we would soon be stranded at sea. For months.
The first days were bliss.
On a cruise ship suddenly without its usual thousands of passengers, we all got to enjoy the spaces normally reserved for guests. Basketball tournaments, scavenger hunts, Zumba classes, the gym and the pool filled our days; movie and karaoke our nights.
For the crew, who were used to mostly working 10-hour shifts, seven days a week this was a welcome change – gone were the uniforms and name tags, the sometimes forced smiles and formalities. With time, seeing the usually guest-packed spaces empty and covered with sheets to protect the furniture, a shadow of what the ship used to be turned nostalgic. The genuine connections forged between the crew and the guests were missed.
Despite other cruise ships living a nightmare, we felt safe and lucky not to have any cases on board. We convinced ourselves this pandemic wouldn’t last long, and that in the meantime we would simply get to see it out from the haven of our floating city. But as the situation evolved worldwide, our untouched city was soon caught in the turmoil.
As cases soared worldwide it became evident that crew members needed to be repatriated, with those not needed for a skeleton crew, sent home. With the pause in operations extending beyond what anyone could have anticipated, it was only logical to downsize the amount of staff on board to reduce costs as much as possible.
It was a logistical nightmare. With over 900 crew members from over 50 different nations that were each rapidly closing their borders, our bliss quickly turned into desperation.
Management on board tried very hard to keep us happy. Every crew member was moved to a single guest cabin, where the goal was to give everyone still on board a balcony, or at least a window. The chefs did their best, organising themed dinners, while the captain made an earnest attempt to cheer us up with daily announcements.
But there was only so much they could do. Whatever means we had come up with to entertain us were about to be thwarted by the pressure of the outside governments who insisted on us proving that we were Covid free. As a vessel usually operating in the United States, we were bound by the CDC requirements – that meant we were required to socially distance, have temperature checks twice a day, and wear masks fashioned from pillowcases by the on-board tailors. We were suddenly only allowed to leave our cabins for work or to eat – where we would all sit apart.
After weeks of this, with still no positive cases, the possibility of us having Covid on the ship appeared to be virtually none. And yet, as we sailed through the Panama Canal to Mexico, looking for a port that would take us and allow us to fly home, we became citizens of nowhere. Flights would be acquired, then suddenly canceled with no explanation.
Every member on-board felt neglected by our governments. When the American crew was allowed to go home, after weeks of pressing the media for support, the CDC had strict requirements. Each crew member would be flown on privately chartered planes and be transported home in private vehicles, with the company to be legally accountable in case these agreements were breached in any way – even though at the time the United States was not locked down and in fact, few measures were being taken to slow the spread of the virus. The world needed a scapegoat, and it felt like crew members paid the price. Blame was placed on cruise ships even when some governments didn’t know how to handle the crisis either, and as a result repatriation processes got stalled.
There’s a difference between staying at home to stay safe and save lives, and doing it for the sole purpose of proving that we were complying with the rules for the sake of it. We were forced into the latter. I remember sitting on my balcony alone, wearing a mask just so the drones coming off the coast of Mexico wouldn’t take pictures that could jeopardise our chance to dock and finally go home.
I lived in that cabin for four months, the endless view of the water surrounding me. We tried hard to make the most out of it with the limited resources we had – our internet connection was slow and unreliable, we didn’t have Netflix or sourdough baking to keep us entertained like most people on dry land. At least, me and my partner knew, we were so incredibly lucky to have each other. Most people on board did not have even that.
The restrictions, the requirements and the lack of governmental support took a toll on the overall mental health of the crew. Soon, we started hearing about suicides on other vessels, and worrying about our own. Every day as we did our temperature checks, the staff would conduct a mental health check as well. It was daunting.
After countless attempts, I was finally able to get hold of the Colombian consulate in Mexico and procure a humanitarian flight home – that came with a hefty price tag. I flew from the port of La Paz to Mexico City, where I stayed for three nights, and then finally to Bogota.
My partner and I had a tearful goodbye. After four months constantly in each other’s company, we only had a 24-hour notice to say goodbye.
We hoped desperately that we could be together soon but we didn’t know when or how that would happen. We had both tried to contact our governments looking for a way to be reunited on land but the restrictions wouldn’t allow it, and my partner still had no news of when he would be able to disembark. As part of the essential crew on board, his leave was conditioned by the arrival of his replacement.
I worried about leaving him alone. I was also terrified of the outside world. The ship had been a safe place from coronavirus and now I had to face a four-day journey from a city that had some of the highest numbers of cases at the time.
Even today, thousands of crew members continue to do hard, lonely work on ships doing minimal maintenance operations. Many commit to staying months at a time without going on land just to keep their jobs.
It took us over six months to reunite again, and once more we’ve said farewell as he is currently back at sea to work – this time, without me. We have learned to cope with it, but I constantly think back about those days and of how little has changed one year later.
As a person who used to travel around the world for a living, having been locked out at sea was something I never expected, yet that ship became my home. When our different nationalities came in the way of us reuniting that ship gave us the possibility to stay together amidst a worldwide pandemic.
If there is one lesson I have learned from this experience, and the pandemic itself, it’s to never take for granted our ability to cross borders – and how quickly that can be taken from us.
Maria J. Arabia is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter at @MariaJArabia
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