The cruise ship MS Maasdam left New Zealand on the evening of 1 March, steaming out of Auckland’s Waitemata harbour into the Hauraki Gulf, where it headed north. The route was to San Diego via Fiji, the Cook Islands, French Polynesia and Hawaii. On board the Holland America Line ship were around 1,200 passengers, including Americans, Britons, Canadians, Australians and French holidaymakers. The 542 crew included Dutch, Americans, Germans, Venezuelans and Filipinos. There were also a handful of entertainers and guest lecturers along for the ride, including Jon Tonks, a portrait photographer from Bath, who ended up with a portrait of a cruise that didn’t go to plan.
Covid-19 was certainly a thing at the beginning of March, but it was still considered mainly a China thing. The Maasdam wouldn’t be going anywhere near China. Questionnaires were handed to passengers, about symptoms and where they’d been before, but then they were good to go. Still, Tonks says that friends had joked before he left: “Good luck on your corona cruise.”
In some ways it did turn into a corona cruise, in that the virus was the major factor in what played out over the next month. No one on board got infected; this is not a story of passengers being locked in their cabins and the ship’s morgue overflowing with corpses. But it will be some time before people gather en masse on a floating resort again.
To begin with, everything went to plan. “We had a full entertainment team, and the schedule all worked out for this beautiful journey,” says cruise director Thomas Weber, speaking on the phone from Palm Springs, California. Weber, 50, had by then been working for seven months straight, and had had to be begged to do this one. “Little did I know it was going to be the most challenging contract I had taken so far.”
Among that entertainment team was Adam Langstaff, 34, a drummer from Birmingham with onboard covers band the Runaround Kids, who mostly do 1950s and 60s rock’n’roll to cater for the tastes of the passengers, most of them in their 70s and 80s. Was there any dancing? “We always tried, but it was normally an uphill struggle – nobody has the guts to be the first,” he says. But Langstaff was having a nice time in the South Pacific, enjoying the food, the friendly atmosphere and an undemanding workload.
There were lectures about the natural world, and Tonks gave his first photography talk, which went well. To his surprise, his former religious studies teacher was in the crowd. Terri Shanks, 49, from Worthing, was travelling with her 12-year-old son Cameron, whom she had taken out of school to “world-school”. Her grown-up daughter kept them up to date with life at home, sending pictures of supermarkets stripped bare and people fighting over loo roll. “It was surreal. We stepped on in Auckland, in a normal world, and 28 days later stepped off in San Diego, into this global apocalypse. The whole world had changed in those four weeks.”
Hygiene rules got stricter as the cruise progressed, with more frequent and visible cleaning. Crew members started standing by the hand sanitiser stations, to make sure passengers used them.
The Maasdam stopped further along the coast of New Zealand’s North Island, and in Fiji, and then the problems began. Tonga wasn’t going to let them in, for fear of letting the virus in, too. Weber was sympathetic. “You live on an island in the middle of nowhere with no cases: I 100% understand.”
But it was becoming harder for him to go on stage to introduce a comedy show, when the audience had just been told that their next stop had been cancelled and that they faced several days at sea. Weber found that getting up there with a martini in his hand helped lighten the mood. The passenger questions in the regular Q&A sessions with the captain were suddenly all along the lines of: is there coronavirus aboard? And: where the hell are we getting off this ship?
Most passengers were understanding, with a small minority up in arms. Tonks remembers a group of young Americans, who had been looking forward to a diving excursion somewhere. “They sat at the bar, smashing margaritas all day, getting progressively more drunk and irate. I remember one of them saying, ‘You’re using a pandemic as an excuse!’”
Then Rarotonga in the Cook Islands let the Maasdam in. Passengers could take one of the tenders ashore for a day’s sightseeing, before returning to the ship. Next stop: Tahiti, where several passengers and entertainers, including Tonks and the Runaround Kids, were due to disembark. But there was bad news that evening: Tahiti wouldn’t have them, either. The Maasdam sailed on into a fog of uncertainty.
Tonks tells me he thinks people go on cruises to see the world, but also to be institutionalised. “When that comfort blanket was removed, they didn’t know what to do.” He was with a group at the bar, staring into their phones, trying to work out which way they were heading: was it west, back to New Zealand? Or east, to America? “It took a while to realise we were going round in circles.” The captain was figuring out what to do, as well as trying to negotiate with ports to allow them entry. In the end, the Maasdam returned to anchor off Rarotonga, for further uncertainty, and for passengers to do more staring into their phones, trying to find out what was going on – here, at home, in the world.
For Dave Morin, 79, on the cruise of a lifetime with his wife Vicki, the main worry was the family wedding venue business back home in Massachusetts. “I was getting a lot of panicky phone calls: brides concerned about what was going to happen with their weddings.” He didn’t mind about extending the cruise. “I can think of a lot worse places to be held hostage. While we were on the ship, we had three good meals a day and got to play bingo, and see shows at night and sunbathe on the back deck.”
Other passengers were worried about their medication running out. But they were only allowed to disembark at Rarotonga if they could get an air ticket out, so there was a rush – on the boat’s sketchy wifi – to buy flights. Tonks managed to get one back to Auckland, from where he’d get another to London. He was on the last tender ashore before the ship departed again, this time for Hawaii, 2,800 miles away.
He remembers watching from the shore until the Maasdam was a dot on the horizon, with mixed emotions. “Part of me thinks I should have stayed. I went from being on a cruise ship which was incredibly sociable, had four bars and a load of people who were a good laugh, to isolating by myself in Bath. Also it would have been amazing to carry on shooting photographs.”
Meanwhile, the camaraderie on board became more intense. The irate Americans had gone, and there were 350 fewer passengers, as well as less in the way of entertainment. “Suddenly we had to work for a living,” laughs Langstaff, who along with the Runaround Kids got roped into game shows and talent contests. He didn’t mind; he didn’t have anywhere else he needed to be. “All our other work was out the window anyway.”
Weber hosted a big coffee morning in the main theatre, and asked passengers who could do what, and who wanted to get involved. “Someone said, ‘I can teach Spanish’, or ‘I can teach ballroom dancing’,” remembers Shanks, who offered to do a storytelling session. “After the initial frustration about the cruise not turning out as expected, people just said: let’s get on and enjoy it. It was actually really lovely – we became one big happy family. Cameron was the only child on the ship for those last two weeks: suddenly he had all these adopted grannies and grandads making a big fuss of him, which he absolutely loved.”
One night an amateur astronomer held a stargazing session on the top deck. “The captain turned off all the lights on the ship, so there was this immense blackness around us,” says Huguette Khan, 76, from Ontario, on board with her husband, Sherry. “That will stay in my mind for a long time.”
After Rarotonga, everyone had been on the ship for more than two weeks; no one had joined, no one had got sick – so they knew they were pretty much self-quarantined. “Every time a port didn’t let us in, I pointed out we were some of the luckiest people in the world in our little bubble,” Weber says. St Patrick’s Day, cancelled around the world, was a big one on the Maasdam. Another night, the Runaround Kids abandoned Buddy Holly and came out dressed as schoolgirls; when they did Britney Spears’ … Baby One More Time, with Langstaff on vocals, the crowd went wild.
Then another big blow: Hawaii wouldn’t take them. The governor changed his mind at the last minute, and wouldn’t let anyone – not even US citizens – ashore. After taking on supplies, the Maasdam set off again, for San Diego. Weber, who’d mustered all his energy in keeping the ship on an even keel, emotionally speaking, until they got to Hawaii, faced another week at sea.
“Good morning, refugees,” he began his announcement the following morning, before alerting passengers to a change in the entertainment schedule due to a new health scare. “We have postponed the Hawaiian shirt contest because the Center for Disease Control has announced that Hawaiian shirts can cause paranoia and a weakening of the spine…”
That night, instead of the martini he’d been going on stage with, Weber had a bottle of rum. And the spirit on the ship warmed further. “Everyone was in lockdown at home,” Shanks says. “We were spending our evenings in the theatre and the cinema. The beauty salon remained open, the gym and the pool. Everything that was closing around the world was still open to the very end.”
“I kept reminding everybody: ‘Get your hair cut, get your nails done, because when you get home you’re going to be locked up, and you’re going to miss us,’” Weber recalls. That was if they ever got home. There were news reports that Trump was not letting ships dock: would they even be allowed off in San Diego?
The last night was a big one. “They got every single crew member up on stage, singing and wishing us farewell,” says Dave Morin. “Waiters, cooks, housekeepers, people you never saw from behind the scenes, from the engine room.” Not a dry eye in the house, Weber remembers. There were more tears on the gangway in San Diego the following day – not because they weren’t allowed off, but because they were. It was time to say goodbye.
Back home in Massachusetts, the Morins found their weddings had been called off, and they haven’t got a booking this year. But they have a Christmas tree farm, too, and they’re hoping Christmas won’t get cancelled. Weber is enjoying a long, well-earned break. Langstaff’s next job is panto – Jack And The Beanstalk, in Ipswich – but he’s not sure if that’s going to happen, either.
Sherry Khan, 80, who describes his and Huguette’s cruise as “a significant emotional event”, won’t be sailing again soon. It’s not that they’ve been put off; they just want to wait a while, and maybe not go so far next time. Dave and Vicki, too, and Terri Shanks and Cameron – all of them are looking forward to their next trip. As for the Maasdam, the next cruise, to Mexico and the Sea of Cortez, is due to depart San Diego on 7 October.