UK (Sky News)

Coronavirus: ‘Living hell’ – Britons describe life on cruise ship that no one would let dock after returning home

By April 5, 2020 No Comments
Emma Birchley and her mum Wendy

It was meant to be a once-in-a-lifetime adventure cruising around the coast of South America.

Instead, it became a living hell.

Nearly two weeks later than planned, a plane of British holidaymakers in masks and plastic gloves finally landed at Heathrow on Saturday afternoon, at last allowed to leave their virus-stricken ship.

Cheryl and David Deeks in their back garden in Suffolk
Cheryl and David Deeks, Emma’s aunt and uncle, were stuck on board the ship with their sister Wendy Birchley

Among them, my mother, aunt and uncle, and their two friends.

Back in her garden in Suffolk, my mum, Wendy Birchley, spoke of her relief.

“It’s great to be home and it’s come to an end. I’m tired and jet-lagged… a bit numb. It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions.”

For my aunt, Cheryl Deeks, listening to the birds from her own bed was a joy.

“At 5.30 this morning I heard the first blackbird. It was absolutely wonderful just to be home,” she said.

“Even when we were on the coach near the runway before leaving, we didn’t want to count our chickens. You are at someone else’s mercy.”

For nearly three weeks, country after country turned away their ship, the Zaandam, even before the first crew members and passengers had fallen ill with COVID-19.

“The ironic thing at that time was that we thought we were a healthy ship. It was disconcerting,” said my mother.

“You are in the middle of the sea and no one would let us in. None of them.”

But when news emerged on 20 March that four people had died on board, their story began to make global headlines and the determination not to let them in hardened.

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My mother said: “We were shocked when we found out a lot of crew were ill initially – about 40 crew and 19 passengers and then it grew and grew and grew. We were worried, of course.”

For 12 days and nights, they were cabin-bound, allowed out only once for 30 minutes on deck and also to transfer with other healthy passengers to the vessel’s sister ship, the Rotterdam, near the Panama Canal.

My mother was in a room with two friends, while my aunt and uncle were in another. For two weeks they didn’t see each other at all.

“We were stuck in this room with air conditioning. It was not pleasant,” she said.

“We would have breakfast when it came, sometimes at 6.50am, which would make it such a long day.”

Cheryl and David Deeks had to stay on-board the ship for two weeks without seeing their sister
Cheryl and David Deeks had to stay on board the ship for two weeks without seeing their sister

At 10am each day, they’d do half an hour of keep fit, led by crew member Amanda, beamed into their cramped cabins on the television.

“When I got off the plane and there was that cold air, it was just heaven. You just so miss the fresh air,” said my mother.

The cruise began in Buenos Aires in Argentina on 7 March but one week in, ports began to refuse entry.

And when it became clear they would be unable to fly out of San Antonio in Chile as planned, the target was Florida.

But it was only with the US president’s intervention that the ships were finally allowed to dock in Port Everglades on Thursday.

Cheryl said: “I never thought I’d hear myself say I was grateful for President Trump for getting involved.”

Cheryl and David Deeks in their back garden in Suffolk
Cheryl and David Deeks, Emma’s aunt and uncle, were stuck on board the ship with their sister Wendy Birchley

Fourteen people from the Zaandam were taken for treatment in hospital and others are still on board while they recover.

“You do worry about them,” Cheryl said.

“We were a tight knit group and we were all looking forward to going home, but some will have to stay another week.”

When they flew to Brazil at the start of March to sight-see before the cruise, the first isolated cases of COVID-19 were only just emerging on the continent and back home people were still going to the races and football matches.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Now, after weeks of worrying and waiting for news, my family is back and so far still healthy.

But with self-isolation firmly in force, the hugs will have to wait.