Back from Sea

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(Part 3)

If you’ve been following along with my story, then you are well aware that since mid-march, I was stuck at sea on Voyager of the Seas. The Covid-19 global pandemic has put the entire world at a standstill and forced the travel industry to come to a screeching halt. In the midst of this crisis, the cruise industry has been placed in the spotlight, negatively misrepresented, scrutinized by the media, and controlled by the governments. Cruise ships have somehow gotten an image as viral hotspots; an epicenter cultivating the spread of the coronavirus. Yet ironically, the amount of protocols and extreme procedures taking place on cruise ships to reduce the spread of the virus are far more extensive and controlled than on land.

First of all, let me be very clear, I am not here to declare that one situation is worse than the other. I do not have the right to do so and will not pretend to. The world is experiencing this epidemic in different ways, and we are all working to get through it the best that we can. This article is not another saga about me personally being stuck onboard, but I’ll get to that in a second. Rather, I am hoping to share the reality of what it is like to be stuck at sea, the frustration and desperation that is ever present, and the humanity that has seemingly been lost for crew members just trying to return home to their families.

Let me back up for a second and explain the events that have recently transpired.

I left off with the information that Voyager of the Seas was awaiting another two-week social distancing quarantine ordered by the local authorities off of Manila Bay, and had plans to begin crew repatriation for all non-working crew members beginning on May 6th, 2020. We let the days pass aimlessly, counting down and waiting to get word on going home.

On April 30th, 2020 at 8:00am, Captain Ervin Pajic made an announcement with the following information:

“Today there is a group of international crew who are leaving on flights. These were booked on available flights and country restrictions so we have around 40 crew members that will leave Voyager of the Seas today and they will sent with commercial flights to their home cities. We have people from Brazil, Canada, Hong Kong, Mexico, United States, Batswana, New Zealand, Thailand, and Zimbabwe.

So be ready, check your app, you will be contacted by the HR team, how to proceed from now on, and this will happen this afternoon. For the rest of international crew not on today’s flights, we are working with commercial airlines, charter companies, and your embassies to get you home as quickly and as safely as possible…”

- Captain Ervin (Announcement made over the PA system)

Let me just pause and say that Captain Ervin was an incredible Master during this unfortunate period. The transparency and empathy that he showed for the crew was invaluable. He was personable, lighthearted, attentive, and constantly made himself accessible to crew members in a time of need. He worked to eliminate “fake news” and was honest when information was unknown. I realized that I never commended his efforts in either of my articles, and I along with many crew members on Voyager of the Seas, want it to be known that his efforts were greatly appreciated.

This announcement was what I had been waiting to hear every day for the last few months and finally it happened. I was ecstatic and honestly didn’t really believe it was happening. I tried not to get my hopes up because we had been turned down so many times before and we all know that the world is changing by the minute. But I was elated and at a loss for words; my hands were shaking and I couldn’t stop crying tears of joy.

The rest of the day passed by quickly. We had roughly three hours to pack and drop off our luggage to security. We would also need to clean and inspect our cabins, get our temperatures checked, and wait for our sign off meeting times and escorts to the tender boat. We didn’t have the option to say a proper goodbye to our friends onboard that had become our family over the last six months, given the social distancing requirements.

I think that it is important to explain the sign off process that we went through to help share a better idea of the extreme measures that were taken for later comparison.

On Thursday, April 30th, 2020, two groups of flights were meant to sign off. Due to complications and timing, the first group meant to fly out at around 6pm were unable to make their flights. That meant that only the tender boat I was in, with 14 people total (13 American Citizens and one Chinese Citizen), were the lucky few that were able to debark that day. In the days that followed, a few more groups were offloaded, and then another change in plans occurred, and still, they are stuck out there. Basically, Manila airport has temporarily closed and Royal Caribbean is working tirelessly on new charter plans to get crew members home. Those plans are not set in stone, of course, and are not public knowledge, so I am not at liberty to disclose that information at this time. However, what I know and trust is that Royal Caribbean is doing everything they can to take care of us. In total, only 49 people from Canada, United States, Mexico, Brazil (and one from Hong Kong) out of all the hundreds crew members onboard (just the Voyager of the Seas) have made it home. Keep in mind, this is just one ship, out of all the ships all around the world facing this constant challenge.

At roughly 4pm, the Manila government boarded the ship and we began lining up to be disembarked. One by one, we were brought through a room where a governmental official checked our temperatures again and asked personal and medical questions. Once we were cleared, we were lined up by the gangway to be loaded onto the tender taking us to the port. During the entire travel process we were required to wear PPE, as we have been for the last few months.

As we arrived to the port, we were met by the Manila Coast Guard, who again, checked our temperatures, our passports and quarantine documentation. We were loaded onto one bus, that was escorted by the military to a secure entrance at the Manila Ninoy Aquino International Airport (MNL). It felt surreal, like the beginning of a zombie apocalypse movie. The streets were lifeless, we were all in masks, we had police lights leading us, and armed men surrounding us. I felt so many emotions, but fear was leading at this point. From our perspective on the ship and the media we were privy to, cruise ships were unwanted and countries were reluctant to let us in. Although I knew these intense procedures were put in place for our safety, it also put a big flashing light above us, and for that reason I was afraid.

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When we arrived at transport only area of the airport, we were escorted in by the Coastguard and walked through a “voluntary” sanitizing tent. Maybe voluntary means something different in other countries, or maybe it just wasn’t voluntary for us, but as I began to walk around it, I was redirected back. I couldn’t tell you what the chemical was that was sprayed, but I entered with my luggage, closed my eyes and waited for 10 seconds. As I walked through, I had my temperature checked another time, then was escorted through an outdoor security, and finally directed to the check in counter.

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Every flight on the board was cancelled, except ours. Everyone was wearing masks, some in face shields, and even full body hazmat suits.

Thankfully, we were escorted through customs by a government official that had been organized by Royal Caribbean to ensure that we wouldn’t be stopped individually. I am beyond grateful to Royal for setting this in place because I am not sure if we would have made it through without them. Once we had cleared security and customs, we were sent to our gate to wait for our flight. Every other chair was taped off to follow social distancing guidelines. At roughly 11:40pm, we boarded our flight, and our temperatures were taken again. The 14 of us were put on two different flights, one on Korean Air and the other on Asiana Airlines depending on our arriving city in the United States (and one in China).

After a four-hour flight, I landed at Incheon International Airport in South Korea (ICN).

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After deplaning, we walked through immigration as usual. Beyond the checkpoint there was an entire medical counter for those entering into Korea, signage for all quarantine requirements, an application that was necessary to download, and a mandatory health screen. For the rest of us transferring through, we had our temperatures checked and were questioned on our current symptoms, if any. The immigration officers wore masks and gloves, as did every other employee and passenger in the airport that I saw.

Nine hours later, I boarded my flight from South Korea to Los Angeles. As I boarded, I was asked where I was coming from, how I was feeling, and my temperature was checked again. Masks were recommended for the entire flight, and stewardesses served closed meals using gloves. Some airlines were more prepared and more thorough than others, although, my experience on Asiana Airlines was well managed.

Based on our flight from Seoul to Vancouver, Canada (and my flight to Edmonton), Air Canada was super Covid prepared! They announced that masks were mandatory, that they installed hospital quality air-filters and disinfected the plane. They delivered us lunch boxes and got two meals up front, breakfast later, and a few water bottles. This was to reduce contact with regular in-flight service. They also were keeping an eye on those lining up for the bathrooms; spacing people out for social distancing, etc.”

-Abbey Reid, Production Cast, Canada

When I landed in Los Angeles, I finally felt some relief. At that point I knew, that even if I was stuck, or pulled out of line to quarantine, I was in the United States, and if nothing else, I could drive myself 18 hours to get home. I thought for sure, I would be stopped, given that it was the first time I touched down in United States after being on a cruise ship. I had heard stories of prior crew members being stuck in the United States and unable to use public transportation to get home. I was pretty certain that since the CDC had been so demanding on crew members from cruise ships coming home that the quarantine procedures would be amplified and they would be immediate.

Let’s sidebar for a second. Transitioning back from life on the cruise ship is always difficult, but now there was the added factor of being in a world that has learned a “new normal” that we haven’t been a part of. It is always bittersweet leaving the ship; leaving the life that we love, the people that have become our family, not knowing when’s the next time we will be able to do what we love again. I was worried about how I would adjust to returning to a life in a place that is only temporary in between contracts. I thought, by the drastic measures the CDC enforced on cruise ships, that home wouldn’t feel like home at all. However, that is not the case in the slightest. Maybe I will feel that way when the anxiety of the experience I had just gone through has settled, but not right now.

When I arrived in Los Angeles, and proceeded through customs, nothing was different besides a few signs recommending social distance. The customs officer didn’t take my temperature, I wasn’t asked any questions on my quarantine plans, I wasn’t given any information on required quarantine, not even a piece of paper with suggestions. He wasn’t wearing a mask, all he asked was where I was coming from. I was apprehensive to tell him that I was coming from a cruise ship, but I had no other option. I immediately spewed out information in defense.

“I am coming from a cruise ship but I have been out at sea for 48 days without being on land. It is only crew onboard, I was isolated in my cabin for 17 days, we wear masks everywhere we go, we keep social distance, I’ve never had a fever, we get our temperatures checked two times a day; mine is 36.6 C, almost perfectly every time…”

 He looked at me with surprise and said, “48 days? Go”, and that was it. I was so relieved and excited at the fact that I had only one more short flight until I was with my family, the frustration hadn’t hit yet. All I could feel was overwhelming joy; I cried like an absolute fool at the gate and I didn’t even care.

I went through Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), through security and waited for my final flight home. Not everyone in the airport was wearing masks, including the gate agent that checked my ticket. I boarded my flight and within three hours, I had arrived home. After a tender boat, marine escort, four immigration checkpoints, seven temperature checks during transportation, three flights, 18 hours of flying, 33 hours of travel, and four different airports, I was finally home. As you can imagine, I was extremely emotional. My mom picked me up from the airport, and I couldn’t help it, I jumped into her arms and cried my eyes out. I am at a loss for words that I am finally home; I am so grateful, and I know I am one of the lucky few. I am counting my blessings and have been since I was let off the ship in Manila. But that’s not really the point of all this.

Here’s what I want people to understand. I had seven temperature checks during my travel, none of them were in the United States, which is where two of my airports were. I wasn’t asked any questions or given any sort of instruction on necessary quarantine after travel upon arrival in the United States. As I was driving home, I expected to see deserted roads, but there were cars out everywhere. People on the sidewalks walking around without masks on, grocery stores open, and restaurants open for drive through and pick up. All of this, I saw on my drive home.

“I flew through the Chicago O’Hare Airport, where I went through customs and all I was handed was a general pamphlet from the CDC advising hand washing, mask wearing, and general information on COVID-19. No information on quarantining, where we were going to be quarantined or anything of the sort was asked. From there we flew to Will Rogers World Airport, where I made it home to Oklahoma. Nothing there either.”

-Melissa Lissner, International Ice Cast, United States  

Although no information was instructed and it isn’t mandatory, Melissa will also be quarantining at home for two weeks. Others had similar experiences, as well, traveling through multiple different United States airports.

“I traveled from Manila to Korea, Korea to Chicago O’Hare, Chicago to Charlotte Douglas International Airport, and from there to Myrtle Beach Airport. I was in three U.S. airports and not one questioned me, gave me information on required quarantine, not even a pamphlet. Also, the day I got home, South Carolina lifted their quarantine.”

 -Taryn Martin, Production Cast, United States  

In general, everyone else arriving in the United States from Voyager of the Seas had a similar experience. We had crew member’s final destinations in Chicago, South Carolina, Florida, New York, Tennessee, Michigan, California, several others, and me, in Oregon. All of us have decided to partake in a two-weeks of self-quarantine, some alone and others with family members depending on their personal situation, even though not a single one of us received any information from our countries requiring us to do so upon arrival. However, Royal Caribbean has repetitively expressed the importance for us to self-quarantine for two weeks and monitor symptoms, if any.

Fellow crew members arriving in Canada and Mexico had different experiences upon arrival. For Canadians, before they left Manila, they were encouraged to download an app that the Canadian government made for them abroad, so they could detail where they were staying before they got into the country. Once they arrived, they just needed to get a “token” or a code, that was submitted through the app. Upon landing, all Canadians went through immigration and declarations as normal, however there was an additional set of questions about Covid related symptoms asked by the Immigration officer. Once they finished, they had another interview with Provincial officers regarding similar questions and gathering contact information for their quarantine. At both screenings, they were given informational sheets about how they should quarantine and contact information if they had any questions. I also think it is important to mention, these crew members explained that there were signs everywhere explicitly saying that everyone entering Canada must quarantine for 14 days.

“Immigration and declarations was a breeze and after that I went through declarations as normal, and there was an additional set of questions about Covid related symptoms. Then getting to the Immigration Officer they asked us where we were staying, with who, how old they were, whether they had pre-existing conditions. They asked where I was, what I did, and I said I was a dancer on a cruise ship and there were no issues about being a crew member. Once we got our luggage, we were escorted through to another interview with provincial officers, and they asked the same questions, but this time they took our personal information, my home address and phone number, and the address and phone number of where I was staying.”

-Scott, Production Cast, Canada

Clearly, we can see from personal experience, that the Canadian government has a more thorough screening process for citizens coming home from other countries.

“The Canadian customs agent asked me very thorough questions about my quarantine plans including:

    • Where will you be quarantining?
    • Who else will be there?
    • Are they over 65 years old or at risk?
    • Is it an apartment building or seniors facility?
    • Are you aware that everything must be delivered to you?

He also informed me that if I don’t do the 14 days it would be a fine of up to one million dollars or three months prison time.”

 -Abbey Reid, Production Cast, Canada

Unlike, the United States, as we have seen thus far, Canadian citizens have given explicit information about where they are staying and can be called for check-ins.

“The government already called my parents to check in. The call was supposed to go to me but since I don’t have a working phone number, they called my land line. I think they were just clarifying so that they don’t think I am isolating with my parents.”

 -Cole Stanbra, International Ice Cast, Canada

 For the crew members that returned home from Mexico, they weren’t questioned, however they were required to list what countries they had visited and their temperatures were checked.

They didn’t ask me any questions but they took my temperature before the plane, when I landed, in immigration, and before I left the airport as well. They are taking precautions. I also know from my family that even in every single supermarket they do a temperature check.

-James Wolburg, Production Cast, Mexico

I realize that is quite a lot of information, but I think it is truly important to share the experiences from some of the few countries where crew members have made it home. With all of that said, here is where my frustration lies.

Why is the CDC, the leading national health institution in the United States putting extreme, unreasonable restrictions on crew members, of all nationalities all over the world, that just want to return home to their families, when the implementation of these rules isn’t represented in the United States itself?

Let me be very clear, I am beyond happy to be home. I am so appreciative of Royal Caribbean’s tireless efforts to work on getting crew members home to their families. I value their attention to detail and for taking precautions to ensure escorts throughout certain airports to assist our safe arrival home. I am thrilled that in two weeks once my (self-implemented) quarantine is over that I can go to the grocery store and get outside, responsibly of course. I can get take out from my favorite restaurant, hug my friends, and begin to settle into my normal life. I really am so, truly grateful.

However, none of this frustration has anything to do with Royal Caribbean. The fact of the matter is, the United States right now is semi-normal, and it is not at a complete stand still. I am not saying this “new normal” isn’t difficult here, I am only trying to contrast the differences to life at sea, and share the loss of humanity for those that cannot come home. I am hoping that given the unique situation that I was in, having experienced both life at sea and now briefly on land, that I can share my perspective and help people understand what it is really like every day to have no control and be so isolated from the rest of the world.

The United States’ CDC is implementing these rules restricting crew members from getting off in their ports and returning home, yet the lax environment roaming my hometown every day is staring me in the face. My frustration comes from the fact that I am subjected to strict guidelines by my own government, but as soon as I am removed from an environment that has been so harshly represented (cruise ships), I am no longer a worry to that same government. I understand that each state is different, so I will admit to generalizing off of the experiences that I have heard from other U.S. crew members that have recently returned home, from family and friends, and from my own short time here. All the while, other countries are implementing stricter quarantine protocols that mirror some of the requirements present at sea. Third world-countries with less access to proper healthcare are taking greater precautions in implementing a harsher quarantine, similar to what that the United States is requiring cruise ships to do. I’m not saying that I wish life was more difficult for people in the United States, I just it wasn’t so difficult for crew members to come home.

Where is the humanity? Crew members and cruise ships are not the problem. At the airport in the United States maybe fifty-percent of employees and passengers were wearing masks and there were no sanitizing stations to encourage you to clean your hands. Yet on the ship, masks are required at all times when outside your room, Purell stands are everywhere, and when entering and exiting the buffet, you are required to both wash and sanitize your hands. It felt clean and safe on the ship, but at the airport I had to make a conscious effort to find a washroom and carry my own hand sanitizer.

The media and the government have criminalized cruise ships for being an “epicenter for the virus” yet in the hour I was out and on my way home, I was more at risk than my 48 day at sea. The fact is, I am at a higher risk every day in the United States to be infected, yet cruise ships are under strict restrictions and it is nearly impossible for people to come home to their families.

Royal Caribbean employs crew from more than 60 countries, each of which has their own set of rules, regulations, and timelines. Then you have crew members from one country, working in another, and the company has to make sure that crew member’s country allows them to return home in the same time-frame and with the same protocols as the country they are trying to leave. Some countries don’t allow charter flights and others don’t allow commercials. There are already enough moving parts making it difficult for the company to get each person home without negative, drama-driven stories from the media and new practices put forth from the CDC. In fact, I have refused to talk to multiple news sites that have approached me because of the fear that they would use my words to slander the cruise industry, when really, they aren’t the problem at all. See below the description of the “Non-Commercial Travel or Crew Transfers Pre-Approval of NSO Response Plan” put forth on April 9th, 2020 from the CDC.

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On the second page, you have the list of requirements for crew members onboard trying to return home to their families. Seven bullet points of information required for transport back to their home countries. The first six are similar to what would be required on land: notify health authorizes to adhere to testing, agree that he/she has been screened for symptoms, he/she will wear PPE, he/she understands quarantine required at home, etc. The final bit of information, highlights nearly impossible restrictions placed on crew members leaving their ship including: crew members

  • will not stay overnight in a hotel before the flight or at any point until they reach their final destination
  • Will not use public transportation (including taxi’s or ride-share services) to get to the airport/charter flight
  • Will not enter the public airport terminal
  • Will not take commercial aircraft after an initial charter flight
  • Will not have a transportation layover exceeding 8 hours
  • Will have no interaction with the public during their travel home or to their new duty station ( e.g., rental car companies, restaurants, other public areas, etc.)

(CDC, April 9, 2020)

As well, the CDC will only allow crew members to disembark if company executives including the CEO himself is willing to attest, subject to criminal penalties including imprisonment, that they will not use any public transportation and that each crew members will comply with certain conditions after disembarking the ships. The fact that I have made it home with this wording in place, shows how much Royal Caribbean cares for their employees and for that, I am thankful.

While company executives are working tirelessly to repatriate crew home amidst these requests, another day passes where crew members are out of control in their own situation, away from their homes, and counting the days.

I cannot even begin to scratch the surface and explain the mental and emotional toll that it has while being stuck at sea. Walking around waiting for your day to go by, waiting for someone to tell you what will happen next to you. Seeing so many talented and smart individuals depressed, drained, and afraid, and I come back home and life is near-normal. Being policed everyday on the ship; temperature checks, keeping social distance, not because you want to but because if you comply with these rules you will have a better chance of impressing the government, giving them less points to argue, and eventually getting home. Crew members wait for the daily update, eat whatever foods are available and provided, when on land, we can go to the store, pick exactly what we want to eat while touching the same things as thousands of other people, without mask-wearing being enforced. Performers who have dedicated their life to this art are now questioning whether they will return to work on ships ever again after this traumatic experience. Like I said, this doesn’t even scratching the surface. The toll that it has taken on us is tremendous, the impact it is unexplainable. Yet, I come home, and almost nothing seems different.

If you’re still with me, what I want you to know is that yes, this is a global problem, and from my experience, life isn’t the same on land as it is at sea. The economic crisis for the world as an entirety is existential. The devastation and worry for family members is terrifying for everyone no matter where you are. People are unable to keep their businesses because they cannot leave their houses to work. Some people have abuse in their homes that they cannot escape. One reality isn’t worse than the next. But here’s the important point I am trying to get to: crew members just want to come home to deal with these same “new normals” of every one on land. Being brought back home doesn’t mean life will be perfect, it just eliminates being “trapped”. We all need to remember the humanity that we have for each other; crew members are not these infectious people and keeping them out at sea isn’t the golden ticket to solving this global pandemic. What confuses me most, is why I am an “infectious person” subjected to the most extreme protocols by the government but as soon as I touch American soil, all these mandatory, hypersensitive travel restrictions are no longer enforced or addressed. The inconsistencies of these unnecessary regulations from a country that these requirements are coming from, keeping people from their families just doesn’t equate.

Being stuck at sea has an impact on a person’s mental health and future life choices of perhaps, returning to a career they love so much and have worked so hard for, is incomparable. There were days I walked around numb, depressed, and broken. Most days I was scared and disappointed. And now that I am home, I feel safe and loved. But I don’t feel relieved because being relieved would be selfish when the rest of my family is still stuck out at sea.

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7 Comments

  1. Susan Chovanec
    May 26, 2020 / 4:32 PM

    Thank you for this well written blog. It has been a sad surprise at how badly crew members have been treated by the various countries, including their own and the US. Also how cruise ships seem to have reaped a disproportionate amount of blame in the saga of COVID.

    I will admit to a bit of skimming but did I miss it if you memtioned whether or not you will ever take another contract with a cruise ship?

    Wishing you emotional comfort and healing. Sue, frequent Celebrity cruiser

  2. Estevenshawaii@gmail.com
    May 13, 2020 / 7:33 AM

    I’m so glad your home! I wish everyone was home. 🥰🌸🥰

  3. ELIZABETH ANN BARNETT
    May 7, 2020 / 10:38 PM

    So glad you are home safe and healthy. Thank you for sharing your experience that is important for all of us to know.

  4. Lisa kayser
    May 7, 2020 / 1:35 AM

    What an informative and well written article explaining the crazy world you had to live in. Beyond happy you saw home safe and sound! Love you! ❤️🥰

  5. Daniel Lariviere
    May 7, 2020 / 12:15 AM

    So glad to read your lines, God bless you all, enjoy this moment to spent quality time with the ones you loved. Hope I will have a chance to follow up on your next adventure. I am a loyal cruiser with Royal (I’m pinnacle) I have 5-6 cruises booked hope life will give us opportunity to meet in a near future. Daniel Lariviere from Canada. Big hugs from all my family (I know we are stranger but I do care for all of you (crew members)

  6. Kim
    May 7, 2020 / 12:09 AM

    Hi Samantha, I started following your posts because they were so honest and heartfelt. Being a loyal Royal Caribbean cruiser for many years, it’s been great to know that they have been looking after the crew so well…..the same crew who make our holiday experiences exceptional….not forgetting everyone involved in providing us passengers with incredible shows and entertainment. Take care, stay safe and enjoy your time with your family and thank you for your posts. xx

  7. Mary Mahoney Robson
    May 6, 2020 / 11:14 PM

    Samantha, So glad to hear you made it home! We were on the VOS in March with you and flew out of Sydney the day after we disembarked on March 19th. LAX was exactly that then, complete lax in any protocols. Vancouver airport was deserted even then; as I told other friends, we are in living in a surreal movie.

    You blog is extremely well thought out and written. I was a professional editor and taught writing and communication courses at UofAlberta, so I compliment you on your ability to convey your moving story and your high standards of not getting involved in being misrepresented in the media.

    Do let Abbey know that we also are from the Edmonton area and are so happy to have her back safe! Canada instituted strict returning rules for everyone crossing the border and are doing a lot to keep people safe.

    All the best in your future travels… “This too shall pass…” My old boss is in her late 80s and was evacuated from London in WWII… staying home is a cakewalk to her childhood experience!

    Mary Mahoney Robson

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