This article is an extension from part one of what it has been like to be stuck at sea on Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas, during this global pandemic. We’ve been away from land for 44 days now, but I’d like to take a step back from where I left off, in Port Kembla, Australia. To reiterate as in my first article, my intention to be both politically correct and as transparent as I am allowed to be still remains pertinent. I hope to paint a vivid picture and humanize the crew members onboard various cruise ships around the world that have been scrutinized by the media and restricted by the governments. Once again, I will only share factual information that has already been published by Royal Caribbean International or is public knowledge from news and governmental websites. As time has progressed and desperation to return home has increased, I’d like to also incorporate how other crew members on the ship are handling the situation, not just my own perspective. Hopefully in doing so I can yield sympathy and maybe even be a small voice, specifically for American citizens, to help get us home.
To clarify, I am speaking for myself and other American citizens that have asked to be a part of my article. However, I’d still like to recognize that everyone’s feelings about remaining onboard versus going home are unique to their own situation, and I definitely do not want to generalize us all. I will say, however, the overall consensus from crew members worldwide is the desperate desire to return to their families, regardless of the rapid spread in their hometowns.
To backtrack, on April 3, 2020, the day following Port Kembla, we began our journey out of Australia towards Asia, directed particularly at Indonesia and the Philippines. We were also informed that we would be meeting up with our sister ship, Celebrity Solstice, and taking on their Filipino and Indonesian crew members to bring them home. The hope was for all crew members, of all nationalities, to be able to debark in Bali. However, if not, at least the Indonesian and Filipino nationals, who make up roughly half of our crew, could be directly shuttled home.
On April 4th, 2020 Royal Caribbean International announced the fleet-wide initiative of a mandatory 14 day cabin quarantine for all onboard, non-working crew members (Royal Caribbean Press Center).
The following day, we anchored off the coast of Sydney, Australia and tendered roughly 380 Celebrity Crew members onto our ship. As the non-working Voyager crew, we watched the transition from the confinement of our cabins, surrounded by police, maritime, and military authorities on land, air, and sea.
New South Wales police lead the largest maritime operation that took place in Sydney harbor to coordinate the provisioning and crew movement of five cruise ships. “Operation Nemesis”, as they called it, was assisted by the Port Authority of NSW working closely with Royal Caribbean Cruise lines to help coordinate the movement of crew between ships to return home (NSW Incident Alerts).
April 5th, 2020: Cabin Quarantine Day 7
Surrounded by police and military from all directions, I felt nothing more than a common criminal. Our every move was monitored, as if this was a maximum-security prison. We watched from our windows as about 380 Celebrity crew members were tendered onto our ship, bringing them one step closer to home. The hope in bringing them onto the Voyager of the Seas was to at least get local citizens home, even if all nationalities were not able to debark there. As my heart pours out in hope for them, the depressive feelings of my own likely hood of getting home anytime soon increases every day. Why were we not transferred onto a ship that was headed towards the United States? Is it because they are a majority here and the number of Americans on board this ship may be less than 20? I try not to dwell on the whys and why nots, because ultimately, it is out of my control. That sentence, “it is out of my control” is the worst feeling in all of this; no matter what I want or what I try to accomplish, there is in fact, nothing I can actually do to get myself home. My hope and ability to stay positive is dwindling with each wave taking us all the way around the world, but not anywhere near my country. To be blunt, I don’t have faith that Bali will be a gateway for us. If countries are closing their boarders, how are we meant to fly, either by commercial airline or charter flight to get ourselves home? How can we be guaranteed a safe return home and to not be pulled out of line in a connecting airport and be forced to isolate in some country where we may not even be able to speak the language. How are they going to ensure I’m not stuck in an unsafe place in the world. We’re surrounded by the media telling stories of people getting shot in countries we are heading to, people protesting their anger for cruise ship workers not to step on land; well that’s comforting. I’d love to be positive, but right now I am planning for the long haul. If only the food could be better, this would be more manageable, maybe my emotional status would be healthier. Why am I eating rice and bread three times a day, when other ships have colorful plates of food and we just took on new provisions in Port Kembla a few days ago? Perhaps it is again because we are not the majority here. I’m going to choose to not even go into depth on the quality of the food we are being given, that’s a whole different battle, that I’m not ready to fight.
(Quarantine log excerpt)
The next few days in cabin isolation passed by slowly. They were particularly unremarkable. As we came to the halfway point of isolation, my positive, go-getter attitude that was present in the beginning quickly went on a downward slope. I apologize for the tone of this article, but the truth of my reality is rather hard for me to swallow. The meals were below average; a form of rice and bread present at every meal. My energy and motivation level to workout reflected the quality of nutrition in my meals, or the lack thereof.
“This is mentally exhausting, that’s the only way to put it. I have used this first phase to power through, take advantage of reflection, manifest new goals, and embrace the ‘stillness’ but the fact of the matter is that it is now past the point of ‘getting through’ and surviving. As an aspect of mental health, this is dangerous. We do not have access to small things that are able to act as mood boosters when facing a challenging time. Simple aspects that are not talked about: eating just lettuce and hoping there is a “vegetable of the day” not covered in oil, having access to daily vitamins, not having reliable internet, and lack of any human contact. It has all added up and is becoming too much. We can only power through this for so long without losing hope, because every time we are given an inch, they make it one more mile.”
– Taryn Martin, Voyager Production Cast, U.S. Citizen
Let’s sidebar for a second – as an athlete in this situation, the amount of movement and physical exercise we can get in a small cabin is minimal. We’ve all at once taken the amount we usually workout daily, topped with types of foods with a lack of nutritional value, that most of us never eat regularly. Our jobs are our bodies. Let me say that again, our jobs are our bodies. More than the average person, the pressure for us to look a certain way and have the ability to bounce back with the industry is ever present. If we want work as soon as the world goes back to normal, we have to look the part. Yes, everyone in the world is initially judged by their appearance, unfortunately. But more so, in an industry well-known to represent a large percent of people with body image issues, the pressure to look a certain way is in itself overwhelming and difficult to maintain in this environment. I can only speak for myself, but this process is fueling a negative image of my own body, that I feel I have limited control to change. This time, more than ever, I’m working to remind myself and others around me that a person’s worth doesn’t run parallel to their appearance.
In other news, on April 7th, 2020 (day nine of cabin quarantine) Royal Caribbean began delivering a daily fleet-wide message that included a memo from the Miami office as well as our captain and another senior leader on rotation. These daily video updates from Miami and our onboard leadership team only lasted about a week. Nevertheless, on this day, the captain came on to explain his top two initiatives: health and crew movement. He also worked to eliminate rumors and fake news to provide the crew with actual information that concerned us, which was greatly appreciated. As well, our onboard HR manager delivered a reassuring message of their goals to debark all citizens to their home countries from Bali, Indonesia.
During this process of crew reparation, the company has allowed us to change our returning city to accommodate us in these extreme circumstances in order to have an opportunity to return home. This is a privilege that someone of my standing doesn’t normally have access to.
Attached with this message was an announcement to crew members onboard all ships in the fleet from Mark Tamis, Senior Vice President, Hotel Operations in Miami. He reassured us that we are important and that the Miami head office is working tirelessly to get us home. He attempted to deliver a message of hope that we are all family in our “home away from home”, and he was successful. For a brief moment, a part of me felt like things were going to be okay.
At this point, there were 1428 people onboard with the new crew members from Celebrity Solstice. Because of the new numbers onboard and the isolation procedures, we were instructed by Maritime Safety and Marine Operations to run an audible drill for the crew members onboard to ensure a safe procedure in the event that an emergency was to occur. We were not to leave our rooms, just to understand and be reminded of our emergency duties, as far as practical (SOLAS).
On the 11th day of cabin quarantine, I still couldn’t seem to shake the feeling of being trapped. Over these past few days it’s been a downward spiral, with glimpses of desperation and reaches for hope. At around 9pm that night, I started to feel a heaviness on my chest building. The internet was disconnected for the next four hours so calling my family to calm me down wasn’t an option.
April 9th, 2020: Cabin Quarantine Day 11
We have two more days until we are released from our full cabin isolation. People keep asking me at home if I am excited, “you get to go out and walk around, you must be so thrilled?” To be completely honest, it’s difficult to get enthusiastic because I don’t know what’s coming next. I’m discouraged and it is seemingly never ending. Everything that we had been originally told has been taken away from us, as a precaution and following the governmental orders, but nevertheless, it’s one thing after the next. There are rumors that we will only be let out for a few hours a day, like a dog being let out on a walk. I’m hoping that this isn’t the case, I would just like to return to some semblance of normal life. Beyond that, I’m not sure I see the light at the end of the tunnel; we still don’t know when or where we can get off.
(Quarantine log excerpt)
On the last day of cabin isolation, the ship decided on a detailed plan for phase two: social distancing. This plan outlined the times and guidelines for meals, temperature checks, shop opening hours, laundry restrictions, sanitation guidelines, social distancing requirements etc. However, at around 10pm on the last night of our 14-day isolated quarantine, we were informed that we would be extending this period for another 72 hours out of precaution. We were let out of our cabins for two hours a day, one in the morning and one hour at night, but that was it. We went in groups according to deck numbers, so there were less people walking around and socializing with one another to keep the distance. I was so angry; in a state of rage that I didn’t know I could get to. I was tired of the excuses, tired of being a number, and now, I was let out for walks like an animal. I know this wasn’t the intention of the company, in fact it is quite lovely that they trying to give fresh air to those without balconies, but the positive mentality has been hard to keep.
In the morning on April 15th, 2020, we began our 72-hour precautionary extension with daily let outs, one in the morning and one in the evening. We were required to wear our masks provided and to keep social distance.
April 16th, 2020, we arrived in Bali, Indonesia where 232 Indonesian crew members were allowed to return home. They all tested negative and were medically cleared. The isolation requirements that they were instructed to fulfill once they arrived on land, I am unaware of and cannot speak to.
This same evening, all international and Indian crew members received information that we would be transferring to Ovation of the Seas, and headed towards the Middle East. The plan was for us to drop off the Indian crew members in one of their home ports, and attempt to sail over to an international hub in the Middle East for flights (very vague, no real plan set in place besides crew transfer). For all cruise division crew members, we had time slots to remove all of our belongings out of our crew cabin, and sanitize and restore them to their original status. We would later have a regular sign-off cabin inspection before transferring ships the next day. Because we were still in isolation, we were allowed to be out just to complete this moving process, then were required to return to our guest cabins for the night.
The following day, we completed our 72-hour precautionary isolation extension and were permitted to leave of our cabins for this new phase two plan following strict social distancing guidelines. However, the plan of crew movement and repatriation had changed again.
Instead of all international and Indian crew members transferring over to Ovation of the Seas to head towards India and the Middle East, now only Indian crew members would be moving, and they would be doing so later that day. All international non-working crew members would instead be remaining on Voyager of the Seas, and head towards Manila, Philippines, in yet another attempt to head home. This meant that the Filipino crew members from Voyager and from Celebrity Solstice would be taxied to their homes, and Royal Caribbean would attempt to negotiate International travel for the rest of us.
We said goodbye to 129 of our fellow Indian crew members as they transferred to Ovation of the Seas, and began our journey towards Manila, Philippines. We were told we would arrive there on April 22, to await the next assessment and plan based on the Filipino local government.
The world changes by the minute, and every day we hear of another modification, another restriction, another antidote from someone in our same position that was so close to making it home but was hit with yet another setback. Governments around the world are refusing to let cruise ships with crew members on them into their countries merely just to use their airports to go home. The ironic part of it is that cruise ships (at least I can speak for those in the Royal Caribbean fleet) are complying with multiple government’s isolation and quarantine protocols. We have been segregated from the rest of the world, with no new contact, therefore no new connection for spread of the virus. We have been following strict sanitation procedures and have consistently received twice daily temperature checks. In this difficult time, we cannot even get a hug from a friend because we are restricted by social distance policies and mask wearing. We are quite literally, in the safest environment on Earth, health wise. But alas, we are still stranded because governments around the world are not letting crew members leave just go home.
“Why are we less important than the people traveling and working abroad or all the passengers (the very ones we worked tirelessly to make sure their cruise vacations were memorable) we had on all our ships around the world, why do they get the priority to make it home? And yet, we’re barred all around the world to even try and get off the ship to head home. Do we not matter?
- Melissa Lissner, Voyager International Ice Cast, U.S. Citizen
In general, my days improved, specifically because I was allowed to walk around, pick my own food from the Windjammer buffet, get a coffee, and workout outside. This was the first time I had a salad in over two weeks, and my body needed it. We were still required to wear are masks at all times when socializing, maintain social distance, and be in our rooms for our twice daily temperature checks.
April 18th, 2020:
This is the best day I have had since all of this started. Maybe it’s because I’ve been deprived of decent food, a good cup of coffee, and any socialization with people I care about that my standards have lowered – but today was a really good day. I had a salad for dinner, with French fries, and a coconut cookie! I actually had a salad with the minimal vegetables they had, but finally something healthy. I had a double shot latte, not with almond milk because they ran out, so my stomach wasn’t extremely happy, but I had a real coffee for the first time in 17 days. I also had my first glass, well, plastic cup, of wine in a socially distant setting with my mask returning over my face once I was finished. The only thing I’d love now is a hug. I can’t wait until I can finally have physical contact with someone. Through all of this difficulty and emotionally draining period, it has been so challenging to be restricted from having any sort of physical comfort from a friend or family member. But, it was one good day, I will take it.
(Quarantine log excerpt)
The next few days passed as we sailed towards Manila, waiting anxiously for more information on our status to return home. I tried to create a new normal; wake up, coffee, temperature check, lunch, blog or creative activity of some sort, temperature check, workout, dinner, socially distant hangout, sleep, repeat. I did my best to fill my time socializing with others, having that human interaction to counteract my anxiety about this uneasy time. For everyone around the world, going through this global pandemic, every day is a strange mixture of normalcy, anxiety and emergency all at once. My emotions are up and down, and even in the calm days, I find moments of panic. I think many of us, regardless of where we are and what our situation is in the world, can relate.
“As an American still stuck onboard, the word that best describes how I feel is frustrated. At times, it’s very easy to feel forgotten. We have been sailing without guests since March 18th and have not walked on land for 40+ days and that can certainly do something to your mental health. We all want to go home so badly to be with our loved ones. Our families have reached out to US embassies who I know are trying to deal with this as best they can. And while we understand there are a lot of things going on we still more than anything just want to move forward and finally come home.”
- Abby Lindahl, Royal Caribbean Vocalist, U.S. Citizen
A few days passed, and on April 22nd, we arrived in Manila, Philippines along with many other ships, waiting in the waters off of Manila Bay. It’s heartbreaking to be many other ships in the industry stuck in the same position filled with thousands of people, that also want nothing more than to go home. When I look out onto the horizon, the reality of this global standstill is right in front of my eyes. Voyager of the Seas is surrounded by ten other ships anchored off of Manila including Majesty Princess, Sun Princess, Pacific Explorer, May Lillies, Pacific Dawn, Queen Elizabeth, Carnival Spirit, St Augustine of Hippos, Sea Princess, St. Therese of Child Jesus; soon to be joined by Spectrum of the Seas and Ovation of the Seas. Not to mention, the tons of cargo ships surrounding us as well. Think of all these crew members on board as if they were your own family members stuck out at sea. Keep in mind that these are only the ones in the Philippines, and that this is a reality for cruise ships remaining all around the world. Before I continue, I would like to quickly breakdown our quarantine for a bit of perspective. At this point:
- We’ve been out at sea for 41 days
- 36 of those days have been in “quarantine” without guests onboard.
- 17 days in completely in cabin isolation without being allowed to leave our rooms.
- An additional three-day isolation extension with “walks” was added.
- Another six days out of isolation but with strict quarantine protocols: social distancing, mask wearing outside of our cabins at all times, hand washing and sanitizing, and continued twice daily temperature checks.
After refusal from several different countries, the Manila government agreed to come onboard and assess our quarantine protocols and current situation to decide how and whether we would be allowed to proceed with efforts to use Manila as a gateway for all international and Filipino members to return home. At 9am, all non-working crew members were instructed to proceed to their cabins and remain there until further announcements. Deck by deck, we were called down to the conference rooms, where the Manila authorities watched (dressed in full hazmat suits with face shields) as all crew members walked through a temperature check scan and proceeded back to our cabins. My nerves were through the roof, and I just hoped my temperature would remain as it has been, a healthy 36.6 degrees Celsius. I had no reason to be worried, but the thought of getting pulled out of line from the government with an unacceptable temperature terrified me. We remained in our rooms until the analysis was complete and the authorities had come to a decision. In the evening, we were informed of the following conclusion.
Authorities announced that Filipino crew members would be starting at day zero of 14 in cabin isolation ending on May 6, 2020. At that point, they will be allowed to walk off the ship and return home. For international crew, we would be starting on day zero of 14 more days of phase two, social distancing, ending May 6, 2020. The intention is to begin crew repatriation after the additional two weeks of quarantine are completed.
April 22nd, 2020:
I am extremely excited to have avoided cabin isolation at this time after the Filipino government’s assessment this morning – I will take that win! I honestly don’t know how I would’ve handled another cabin confinement. I had uncontrollable tears of joy and relief that I would not have to spend another 14 days in these four walls. However, I am not excited about more “I don’t knows” and another 15 days of social distancing after we’ve already been isolated, confined, and at sea for 40+ days. I called my poor mom crying and couldn’t get out any words. I was so relieved and so let down all at once. We wouldn’t need to be isolated again, but we also have been extended yet again, and hopefully this time it is the last step. It is also important to note, that after all this quarantine, I will still be required a mandatory 14 days in isolation followed by the restrictions and normalcy of my home country.
(Quarantine log excerpt)
If you are able to be hugged by a loved one, can binge watch those shows that everyone talks about, take a zoom dance class, run outside, drink a smoothie, cuddle your puppy, cook healthy meals, enjoy a delicious coffee, spend time in the stillness with your family, please do.
Everyone in the world is experiencing this global pandemic in different ways. I read something quite enlightening a while ago, that said, we are not all in the same boat, but we are all in the same storm; I wish I knew who wrote it to give credit. The truth of it all is that we are learning to process and cope with our situations uniquely. For some, this quarantine is a time to reconnect with their families, play some board games, and sip beers on their patio; a staycation. For others, it is a nightmare unable to escape from abuse or violence in a home that is supposed to be “safe”. Some don’t even have a home to stay in; their beds are the sidewalks. For many, this is an economic crisis wondering how they are going to afford to pay their rent and get another meal on the table. These people are desperate to run to their work and make money for the next day, while others advocate staying home and want to take out their anger on these very people who break the quarantine. Some are sacrificing their lives on the frontline to save others and keep the basic economy running, and others just want to escape this time all together. Some hide from the information, turning a blind eye, and others are the first to know the next governmental update. Some have faith in God for the next miracle, and others watch scientific trends saying the worst is yet to come.
With all that said, it is true, we are all on different ships trying to hang on for better days. I am where I am and you are where you are. Every one of us will come out of this situation in his or her own way. Try to see beyond the political, religious, and geographic separations, and replace judgement with kindness to empathize for those in desperate need.
For now, my ship remains in Manila, Philippines, for roughly another 14 days, hoping only that this nightmare is almost coming to an end so I can go find a way home to my family. My greatest thank you to Royal Caribbean for working nonstop through these uncharted waters to get us back safely during trying times. To everyone at home, hug your loved ones, stay home, stay healthy, forget the judgement and remember the humanity of every person, no matter what their situation may be. Here’s to another few weeks on Voyager of the Seas, in my “home away from home”.