Our Travel Stories

‘That’ Transpacific Cruise. PART 3

March Transpacific Cruise on the MS Maasdam

When we sailed away from Raratonga in the Cook Islands in the early afternoon of 13th March with the ship now at just over half capacity we knew we now had a few sea days ahead with all the cancelled French Polynesian Ports but were still looking forward to our newly amended and extended Hawaiian itinerary.

However, being very active on social media and avidly following the travel news I was already seeing that i) many Hawaiian residents were publicly calling for all cruise ship visits to be cancelled ii) that a couple of major cruise lines had just announced that they were suspending all operations for the next 30 days.

It therefore didn’t come as a huge surprise (although a massive disappointment) when just a couple of hours after leaving Rarotonga Captain PJ then had to announce that Holland America Line along with several others were deciding to also suspend operations for 30 days and that our cruise would therefore be ending on 20th March (7 days ahead) and all passengers would be disembarked in Hilo which is on the Big Island of Hawaii.

I’m still not sure when HAL made the decision to take us there and basically dump 800 passengers in the middle of the Pacific. It was slightly easier for the Australian and New Zealand passengers to get home, but over 600 of the 800+ passengers were American and Canadian, many of them elderly and frail and this naturally meant not only an extra flight for them, but an extra flight when Coronavirus was spreading like wildfire throughout the world and meant everyone standing in long check-in and immigration queues where social distancing was non-existent. I was already seeing scenes of the queues forming in the American airports and they looked horrific, not to mention terrifying. I knew 100% I did NOT want to take an 8 year old child through that, especially as he had been critically ill ‘just’ with flu less than 12 months earlier.

Social Media showing the 6hr immigration queues in San Francisco

We were not planning to be back in the UK for several weeks anyway so I wasn’t in any rush to get home so almost instantaneously made the decision that we would either stay in Hawaii for a few weeks or get a flight back to Auckland, rent an apartment there to quarantine there for 14 days and then stay until all of this had blown over.

For many passengers on board though they didn’t have access to wifi and did have any idea how to change flights. HAL were happy to help the passengers who had their flight booked with them but the rest of us were on our own. The next few days I helped several of the older passengers in re-booking flights online, sending emails to their travel agents and being a bit of a conduit of getting messages and information to families back home. I was truly happy to do it and it was lovely not only to get to know some of those passengers really well but also their families who were communicating with me via social media.

For the next 7 days we sailed on towards Hilo. Our ship, the Maasdam is smaller than many other of today’s super liners which meant there was less entertainment and facilities than on other ships. To add to this, many of our entertainers and guest lecturers had left the ship in Raratonga and those due to join us in Papeete had not been able to do so.

Our small ship MS Maasdam now with only 800 passengers, against the towering Ovation of the Sea which we sailed on last year with more than 4000 passengers.

As a result of having limited entertainment onboard we pretty much made our own. Thomas our cruise director was quite phenomenal, a fantastic entertainer and an all round great guy. He brought us all together and found out who had what talents, interests, skill sets etc and who may be interested in leading classes and workshops etc and then made sheets for other passengers to sign up to. We had language classes, ballroom dancing, geo-caching, astronomy to name but a few. I myself volunteered to run a travel story telling group in the crows nest in the evenings and met some amazing people with some fascinating stories to tell. (Hello to Rosemary if you are reading this!) The story of Rosemarys travels to trace her Aunts WW2 service is told in her book: A Bletchley Park Wren Overseas https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1999678893/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_i_ZBhLEbW9S4E6R

Passengers without doubt became closer during this time and some many lovely friendships were made. For me there was Pete; the only other single traveller on the ship of the same age group and mentally – ‘The Maasdam misfits’ as we called ourselves! Before anyone asks, no there was absolutely no romance, but Pete became one of the best friends I could ever wish to find. He, Cameron and myself quickly became a little surrogate family unit onboard, making the best memories along the way. We shared so much time together under increasingly stressful circumstances but didn’t stop laughing the whole time; sharing meals, endless conversations, late night dancing, sunsets and nights under the stars. They say ‘your vibe attracts your tribe’ and that was certainly true in our case. We may live opposite sides of the Atlantic but I have no doubt whatsoever that we will be friends for life and have already kept in touch every single day since we returned home.

‘Ship family’ – I’m not quite sure why Cameron was pulling that face??!

Despite the disappointment of missing so many islands, we enjoyed our leisurely sea days with our new friends and certainly never felt bored. I was so proud of Cameron because were were not only on a ship where there was no kids club but he was the only child onboard. Not once did he moan, and whilst ‘yes’ he did have a lot more time on his ipad than I would have liked, it was difficult to deny him such with some many hours to while away. He cherished his many adult friends and he lavished in the attention of both the crew and his new surrogate grandparents.

I had been reading online that many Hawaiian did not want our ship to disembark there, not the Norwegian Jewel which was due to follow us in a day or two later. In fact I had seen people calling for small boats to all come out to create a flotilla to block our entry into the Harbour. It seems harsh in many ways but I could also fully understand why they wanted to protect themselves, after all it was westerners who had brought leprosy and war time atrocities to these islands, why would they want to risk coronavirus as well, when it would be so easy to lock down their borders.

Once again however it came as no huge surprise when Captain PJ came on the tannoy and said that the Hawaiians had cancelled our stop in Hilo and we would instead be disembarking in Honolulu on the alternative island of Oahu instead, but still on the same date of 20th March.

For us personally this wasn’t a huge problem as we had already decided we were going to stay a while in Hawaii, but for the majority of passengers this meant changing their flights once again, hence causing a lot more stress and worry for many, and once again I did what I could to help, although by this time everyone on the ship had been given free wifi. We were also told that no one would be allowed to stay in Hawaii, we would only be allowed to disembark and would be taken directly from the ship to the airport and would HAVE to fly home to the U.K. This is really when the bubble burst for me, we still had weeks of travel ahead booked and paid for and our return flight was not due until 10th May after we had completed a second cruise in Alaska and returned back to Seattle. I got in contact with British Airways to try and find out where they could re-route us home from as I knew more and more flights were being grounded each day and there was no point in booking a flight from Honolulu to mainland USA until I knew which airport we could fly home from, so I just sat on it and waited for a response knowing that in the current climate B.A. were going to be exceptionally busy.

Then came the next turn of events (yet again not entirely unexpected). I had continued to read endless social media posts about Hawaiians not wanting the ships to dock and calling for their Governor to take action to block us. About 36 hours before we were due to arrive in Honolulu I saw a statement put out by the Hawaiian department of transport saying that both the Maasdam and the Norwegian Jewel would only be allowed to call at Honolulu to take on fuel and food (we were running short on both!) but would not be allowed to disembark passengers.

I immediately went to talk to the Guest Services desk to ask if it were true, I showed them the statement but they new nothing about it, they phoned up to the Captain and were told he apparently knew nothing about it either. So we waited all evening expecting the Captain to make an announcement.

When the announcement did come through, the Captain confirmed the information but said in light of the fact that passengers has already re-scheduled their flights twice, they were in negotiations with the Hawaiian Government and therefore all passengers should still pack and prepare for disembarkation.

We did exactly that. All of our bags were packed that evening and put outside of our cabin for the crew to collect ready to take down for baggage handlers. This was the only time out of the whole cruise that I wasn’t happy, I hated the not knowing and I hated the fact that we had to pack up 5 weeks of luggage of both myself and Cameron knowing it was unlikely to disembark anyway. My stress levels went through the roof that evening and I was very glad to have Pete with me to keep me calm, rational and still laughing.

Re-fuelling in Paradise

The next morning we woke up in Honolulu, the sea was pure emerald green, framed by palm trees swaying in the breeze, we could see the peaks of the lush mountains ahead of us. It looked pretty much like an invitation for a holiday in Paradise, especially given the fact we had just spent 7 days at sea. There was only one problem – we were not allowed off the ship. The fuel tanker quickly came aside to re-fuel us and all we could do was wait as the Captain told us there were negotiations going on at the highest level. It was clear at this stage that there was nobody there to disembark us, just a lot of Police and Port Officials. It’s important to note that no one on our ship had coronavirus nor was displaying symptoms.

Hostage in Honolulu!!

As time went on many passengers had already missed their scheduled flights which we had been told we could book from midday onwards. Finally the Captains announcement came and he confirmed that we would not be allowed to disembark and we would have to set sail once more toward the West Coast of America, but at that stage he didn’t know where and we couldn’t leave the current port until we had a destination to sail to. It must have been only about half an hour later when we heard the Captains voice again, this time a little out of breath as he said he had just run up the stairs to tell us that actually it wasn’t quite over yet and negotiations were back on the table. We understand that Mike Pence (Vice-President of the USA) was even involved by this stage.

Time ticked by and this time we heard Captain PJ’s final announcement of the day, that negotiations had failed and we would definitely not be allowed to disembark, instead we would be heading towards San Diego which meant yet another 7 days at sea! For Cameron and I that wasn’t a bad thing as mainland USA was a better option anyway and whilst I fully understand the Hawaiians wanting to do everything possible to protect their small islands from the virus we would still see dozens of planes landing there throughout the day and as we sailed off out back into the sunset there were a lot of very unhappy Americans absolutely furious at having been refused repatriation into a state of their own country and hence there were a few middle fingers and a couple of ‘full moons’ pointed back in the direction of Honolulu!

Leaving Honolulu and sailing back out into the sunset

So for the next 7 days we sailed on, we laughed, we shared, we had fun, our little Maasdam family became even closer. It wasn’t the cruise we had expected but in many different and unexpected ways it became a safe haven for us all as by now we were all self quarantined and the ship became on of the few places in the world where we knew we were no longer at risk of the coronavirus. The crew went out of their way to keep us all happy, healthy and safe, despite not knowing their future job security. I will never have high enough praise for Captain PJ, Thomas, our Cruise Director and all the crew. I am pretty sure they all knew how much we appreciated them.

When we finally sailed into San Diego it was to the sight of the sister ship the Westerdam already in Port, with all the crew standing on the top deck cheering and waving napkins to welcome us home. The Westerdam then giving 3 long blasts of her horn as we berthed. I shall never forget that moment for as long as I live, nor the emotion we all felt.

The next morning it was time to disembark. Cameron, myself, Pete and another passenger from New Zealand (also Pete) hired a car and drove down towards LAX. We dropped Kiwi Pete at the airport as he had the earlier flight and then the 3 of us stayed overnight in an airport hotel overnight. Pete has his flight back to Minneapolis early the next morning and Cam and I had a later flight home to London.

I was sad that our travels came to end several weeks earlier than planned but glad of the 9 weeks we had just had. The 4 weeks aboard the Maasdam may be unforgettable for many of the wrong reasons but when I look back to that cruise it will always be with a smile for the experiences shared and the friendships made.

Who knows at this time when we will be able to travel again. We had another 4 cruises already booked for this year which we will now not be able to take, but we now have refunds and several future cruise credits to use up so we will be sailing again at the first opportunity.

For now we are just grateful for the security of family and home.

To all of our blog readers, we thank you for following our travels thus far and we wish you all good health in these difficult times.

STAY SAFE – STAY HOME – SAVE LIVES

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