What it's like to be in lockdown on a cruise ship

Sat onboard the N5 bus, I took in the London I had come to call home, so familiar yet completely different.

The landscape was unchanged but the usually bustling streets stood empty, save for a few people hovering outside Tesco in surgical masks.

After working onboard a cruise ship, it felt like my boyfriend, David, and I had returned to a budget simulation of our capital city, without enough money for actors and sound engineers.

Just four months ago, we’d left our satisfying careers, cosy flat and amazing friends to work on a cruise liner. After almost a decade in London, we wanted a new adventure and a chance to travel.

After weighing anchor in Southampton we quickly became immersed in our new lives, eating in the ship’s mess, sleeping in our cabin and working 80 hours a week in one of the multiple onboard shops. 

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With 3,000 people onboard, including 2,000 staff, the ship was like a floating hotel resort, with its own gym, cinema and restaurants. However, as ‘shoppees’ we didn’t get to enjoy any such facilities – we were too busy selling sandals, chocolates and fridge magnets to the wealthy pensioner passengers.

Sea-life was beyond labour intensive, but the upside was the few snatched afternoons spent on land in the various ports. We walked the streets of New York, marvelled at Lisbon’s Convento Do Carmo, touched the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and met kangaroos in Sydney, albeit extremely fleetingly. 

The whispers about coronavirus only felt real when we docked in Dubai at the end of January. There were recorded cases in the city, so the ship upped its sanitisation procedures and screened any new passengers for symptoms.

Then in February, all our visits to Asian ports were cancelled. David and I were devastated, but couldn’t question the captain’s decision to prioritise everyone’s health. The passengers were disappointed, their frustration heightened because there was no one to blame. 

As per the British Government’s advice, social distancing came into effect. Our shop hours became shorter and only three customers were allowed in at a time. Otherwise we were stocktaking, unloading and sanitising, and were only allowed to eat or take some air at allocated times.

It was impossible for David and I to socially distance as we shared a cabin, so we were mortified when we were issued a written warning for kissing on deck.  

The mood on the ship became one of increasing panic mixed with a certain sense of security in being safe on board.

This duplicity was well demonstrated by the passengers who mumbled ‘we understand’ and ‘safety first’ platitudes in the shop, but then held secret meetings about not getting what they’d paid for. Cruisers brandished their diamond encrusted walking sticks as they discussed lawsuit proposals and rioting.

It felt completely surreal, but we mostly laughed it off and tried to stay positive. We couldn’t imagine these pearl encrusted pensioners laying siege to the ship and we weren’t the ones they were threatening to sue, so we continued with our work.

Luckily, a high seas rebellion never came, as in mid-March the captain announced the rest of the voyage was cancelled. The majority of the passengers had to disembark from Australia and be repatriated while the vessel’s status was downgraded from a passenger to a cargo ship.

However, a large number of our passengers declared themselves unfit to fly or barricaded themselves in their cabins. The ship’s doctor and nurse couldn’t insist on people disembarking if they claimed health problems, so we still transported some 300 passengers back to the UK

A number of these passengers showed Covid-19 symptoms and were placed in isolation. When we were 12 miles off the coast of Durban, a medical team in full hazmat suits arrived by helicopter and took swabs as the entire ship chewed their nails down to the bone waiting for the results.

Thankfully, all the tests came back negative and so we continued our 25-day voyage back to the UK onboard the ship, which was our temporary floating haven. 

We knew the ship was a corona-free zone, so we were in a protective seaborne bubble. Because there were still paying passengers, we were still working and the days were spent keeping our heads down and trying to fend off the growing sense of anxiety about what lay in wait for us back on dry land.

This all changed when a week before we reached the UK, all shop staff had their contracts terminated. This meant we would be thrown back into a locked down London minus two month’s pay and with no jobs or home. Still, I count ourselves amongst the luckier ones.

Our first voyage had been a disaster on both a personal and global level, but we chose this path for an adventure, not a career. Many of our colleagues committed fully to sea life, having been on different ships for over a decade.

There are many people out there right now, waiting with baited breath for the cruising industry to reopen, knowing no other way to make living.

Unlike most of our crew friends, we couldn’t return to family as I am from the Czech Republic, whose borders are closed. David is from France, which is accepting nationals, but then we’d be split up.

We began contacting everyone we knew back in London where we had lived before, begging for sanctuary in their garden sheds. Thankfully, a friend of ours who is quarantining with her boyfriend said we could use her empty flat.

As we were no longer staff, for one glorious week we got to experience cruise ship life, splashing in the pool, goggling in the cinema and planetarium, scoffing buffets in the King’s Court restaurant and having Monopoly tournaments in the Queen’s Room. 

We were all determined to make the most of our remaining time with our maritime pals, so the atmosphere onboard was upbeat tinged with sadness at the upcoming parting of ways. 

Now we are back in the city where we first met, feeling like we’re on the set of 28 Days Later. After four months of having every minute of every day decided for us, we suddenly regained all our freedom. But not really.

Now we are faced with having to find jobs and accommodation in a city under quarantine, and the joyful reunions with our London loved ones have taken place over FaceTime.

We have applied to the French consulate to let me join David in France so we can stay with his family for a while, and in the meantime, we are frantically applying for jobs as we have no money.

However, if there is one thing that our doomed voyage has taught us, it is adaptability. Coronavirus may have rocked our boat, but it hasn’t dampened our spirits.  

As told to Gillian Fisher

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