So I am back on the blog. A blog which I had to stop as things were getting too confused and fast moving for me to relate correctly and with sufficient authority. If you look at the last blogs, I had mentioned already a few times that the company was moving faster than I could record it. Then throw the world stage, with all its politics into the mix, and I did not know any more if I was coming or going. So we stopped.
On 09 April the last guests left the ship, and then ship went into warm lay-up. Healthy guests but a few guests remained on board who could not leave as they could not get home for all the reasons that went with the current situation. Things on board are now returning to a sort of normal, albeit a new normal.
This blog is a compilation of the past period as seen through the eyes of yours truly and as I am not involved in politics (*) there is no opinion about why something happened, just what happened and how the ships made it work.
(*) Maybe Captains should all run for office, each in their respective country, I am absolutely convinced the world would have less issues.
My last blog ended while the Zaandam and Rotterdam were steaming towards each other at a rendez- vous point somewhere deep sea off Panama. For 3 days we raced towards each other and then met off the Panamanian coast. The ultimate plan was to meet up at Panama Roads but that was another night steaming and the Captain of the Zaandam needed help ASAP. His medical team was performing heroically feats with only 4 medical staff on board; 4 very tired medicals looking after a large number of affected guests and crew; and or guests and crew that were isolated as a precaution because they had been in contact with those who were affected. That was an effort that went beyond the call of the duty with the ever lingering thought present that they themselves could be affected as well while doing so. Thus the Rotterdam came to the rescue after collecting medical staff, supplies and oxygen from the Eurodam and Oosterdam, and there was the ASAP meet up off Panama. The location was decided by scrutinising the wave charts of the North Pacific and a patch was found where the swell was less than 1.5 meters (5 feet) so a tenders could be lowered on the lee side of the ship and medical staff and supplies safely transferred. By 22.00 hrs. both ships were in position and in the blazing flood lights the Rotterdam tender ran its errand of support. That relieved the pressure on the Zaandam for the night and the rest could be done the next day.
Then both ships raced towards Panama and dropped anchor there the next morning at 10 am. The Government of Panama had given permission for this humanitarian effort and after reviewing the company plans, as approved by the CDC and WHO, the ships were allowed to go the anchorage. To ensure it all went well they parked a navy skiff between the ships and the crew on board made sure that the tender operation was strictly between the two ships and we were not importing anything into Panama.
For the next three days the tenders ran between the ships. Luggage and 800 (Healthy) Guests went one way to Rotterdam and Supplies (Water, cleaning materials) went the other way to the Zaandam. Again in conjunction with the CDC/WHO a plan had been derived at for the best way to ease the load for the Zaandam. And that was to transfer as many guests as possible who could move easily and quickly, with priority given to those who were over 70 and who were in inside staterooms so they could move to rooms with windows or a verandah. Protocols were made and approved and a constant shuttle of about 30 guests for each tender crossing was put in operation. In an abundance of caution, all guests moved from the Zaandam had to continue to self-insulate in their staterooms on board the ms Rotterdam. Then as a company you can only try to make it as comfortable for them as possible.
The meals were a-la-carte and the drinks were free. Drinks were free………… I have never seen so much booze being delivered to guest cabins as during this period. The Men and Ladies of the Bar department had a full day job to keep up with demand. They say that alcohol does provide answers to any problem. That is probably correct but in this case it certainly helped to forget the reason why there was a problem. White wine, Red wine and six packs of Amstel Light all courtesy of the company.
What do captains do during a situation like this? Captain van Dreumel spent his days on conference calls to stay abreast of how the decision making process went forward and kept making speeches to guests and crew to explain, motivate and keep up the morale. Captains do not learn this at school but some have the talent and some develop the skill but in this case, a church leader would have been very jealous of what was coming over the P.A system. What did I do, as my regular work was now mainly on hold due to the situation? Talk to the crew, and help out where needed and try to be effective while at it. So among other things, yours truly was promoted to Tender driver and spent time ferrying supplies and guests to and from. Just walking around was important as well (hopefully) , as the same as on land, the crew was apprehensive about how this all was going to work and then to see me in the midst of it all might have done some good. (Plus messing around with boats is always fun)
What did the crew do apart from a constant room service relay and cooking up a storm (*). Clean, sanitise, clean, sanitise etc. etc. One way of keeping a ship clean and healthy is to assume that it is not as soon as you know the challenge is out there. So each time a group of guests came on board, Housekeeping still sanitised the tenders after each run, sanitised all the elevators and corridors after each group made it to the cabin and then sanitised all the area’s again where the rest of the crew, including the dining room stewards for the room service had walked and stood.
(*) With this whole crises the focus have been, quite rightly, on the Medical struggle. But as in so many situations, one of the most important ways to keep up morale is good catering. Thus unknown and not really recognised are cooks in the kitchen who now had to cater for room service for 800 guests which would normally have been dealt with in two sittings in the dining room. And according to the Exe. Chef the latter is a lot easier.
I think the persons with the most stress on their hands were the Hotel Director, the Executive Housekeeper as that is where most of the direct leadership of the Hotel Operation had to come from. During the process of getting guests in the cabin, keeping them there and keeping them there as comfortable as possible and then keep the ship as clean and sanitised as possible with all the movements going on. And then later on, getting them all off the ship.
There was crew working in the back ground working on things you do not realise. If you have a technical problem in your cabin, there is the Engine Department to repair it. But how to go about it, if a crew member is not allowed to enter a cabin because the guests are in isolation. PPE shall be worn and I observed the unusual performance of a plumber repairing a toilet with a coat hanger so he did not need to enter the guest’s bathroom. When I asked him what he was doing, the brilliant answer was: “Hallo Boss, I fix by remote control”. And it worked.
While the guests were cooped up in the cabins the focus was also on keeping the crew healthy. Once you know what is out there (Something the Zaandam did not know when it all started) then it is easier to put routines in place to reduce any exposure that might still be possible. Thus apart from PPE. (Personal Protective Equipment) in the form of gloves, face masks, coveralls, safety glasses and aprons, Social Distancing was introduced. When possible (and you can do it most of the time) stay at least 1.5 meters away from each other and 2 meters if space allows is even better. And you can do that, if you are willing to and management leads by making the arrangements. Apart from being good for the general health, it also produced the funny situation of a long line of crew, nicely apart, waiting in line for the Hamburger Bar as that was kept open as a special treat. From there separate tables were equally distanced. Did these measures work, yes, until April 10 no crew on the Rotterdam had fallen ill and no fevers had been documented.
Once we had all our guests on board, the question arose what to do with the two ships? Another intense round of international politics arose, involving the Dutch Government = Flag State, the US Government = Final home port, Panama = territorial waters, Carnival Corporation = Owner, Holland America Line =operator, CDC and WHO = Health Guru’s and in the end the plan was made that the ships would steam towards Florida by means of the Panama Canal.
To arrange this with the minimum of disturbance in the Panama Canal routine and a maximum of health safety, the ships would make the night transit and go through the new locks so there was no Panama Canal crew needed for the locomotives, as the new locks do not have them. Everything was done by the ships thrusters while in the locks. Only thing needed was one Panama Canal pilot, to guide the ship through. And so we went. Zaandam first, followed by Rotterdam.
Once through the Canal it was pedal to the metal towards Florida as arrangements were being made to land the guests. Again the political merry go around went into overdrive but in the end of the County of Broward indicated that they did have the capacity to help. New protocols were made up and that takes time as with each step other authorities are involved. Starting at the National Government level, down to State Government, down to the County and whole different entities who work under that umbrella, such as police, fire brigade, pilots, bus companies, CBP, port security and those are the few that were visible. When we arrived in the morning of the first of April we went into “donut sailing” while we waited until the man/ woman with the last authorising stamp had been found and all was approved.
Entering the port was a media affair of the first order with helicopters and boats swarming above and around the ship but it made the cadet happy, who I was teaching stations, as his parents saw him later on the Dutch TV as the arrival was live streamed. Thus he achieved his 2 seconds of worldwide fame. Once in port, first the urgent guests were taken off the Zaandam and then in the next two days most of the other guests followed. The CBP waived the regular immigration inspections provided that the coaches would go directly to the airport which was facilitated by the Broward Sheriff’s department who had 22 deputies (all on green Harley Davidson’s) lined up to lead the convoy safely and quickly to the airport. A truly impressive feat of coordination and organization.
Because of all the hard work of everybody involved Captain Bas van Dreumel flew the Flag Sign Bravo – Zulu, which in Nautical Code Language means “Job Well Done”The whole disembarkation took at the ship side also a large amount of organising. Guest Services under the leadership of the GRM had already worked night and day to get the 800 guests on board and in the right cabins (they all got a cabin similar to what they had on the Zaandam) and now, within a few days, the landing papers for Ft. Lauderdale had to be prepared. Normally that is a routine which can be spread over a large number of days, but when you do not know what port you are going to, and when and who might be allowed off and who not, the situation differs considerably. 800 guests in self-isolation do not remain quiet for very long and thus the Guest Services team had a constant flow of telephone calls with requests for information, and complaints and suggestions of how to improve the surrounding world and their personal situation in particular. Holland America shore side was dealing with all the air travel arrangements and the Captain announced that accordingly. But the calls continued, understandable if you are stick between 4 walls for an extended amount of time. Air /Sea our shore side ticketing department did an amazing job in getting all those tickets, and in a few cases with that ticket came a complete charter plane, and all that information had to be forwarded to the cabins.
So each department in its own way had to step outside the box to provide the best results possible. A situation that none of us had ever been in. Normally guests move around. They go ashore and you can do maintenance in the cabin. They will come to the food and the drinks in the restaurants and Bars, now it had to be provided on a cabin by cabin basis. And then they had to be disembarked under very special circumstances. Stepping back and seeing it all in perspective, one can only have respect for what was pulled off on the Rotterdam, and especially pulled off by the crews on the Zaandam and the Westerdam (remember they sailed with guests from China in February along the pacific rim until they reached Cambodja for final disembarkation) who faced a much more complicated job. And that is then only our little Holland America world. The newspapers show what the rest of the cruise fleet is facing and unfortunately there is little praise in those reports for the crew who have to deal with it. Deal with it, with very limited resources in very uncertain circumstances.
Those still left on board after the 2nd day in Fort Lauderdale, where those who were still under observation or those who could not get off because their home country was in complete lockdown. Which was also the reason why the drama with the Zaandam hard started in the first place. Certain countries had closed their border 100% regardless of the consequences. And then by April 09, the last guests went home. The company had organised charter flights for this purpose and as the HR department had figured out there was still space, I was put on the charter flight to London.
The Zaandam sailed in the evening of the 8th. And went to anchor off the Bahamas where part of rest of the Holland America Line fleet is located and the Rotterdam stayed for one more night until flights has been secured for the remaining guests, then she also sailed.
With the cruise ships being already or going into warm-layup, the company has now started to look at reducing the crew on board. Some were due for leave, some had by now expired visas, some have expired physicals and the plan is to go down to a limited number of crew only as required for safe manning. Only those will stay on board who are needed to keep the ship running and in good shape. Out of 800 crew that is about 200 crew members. I was now considered part of the latter and as there was seat on the charter plane free, I got my marching orders.
We now have to wait and see how Holland America and every other cruise company is going to handle this. Roughly 20.000+ officers, staff and crew, at a minimum, have to be repatriated and that is a big logistical challenge. As most governments worldwide are enforcing –essential travel only- rules, the new crew will only come out when the green light for normal life and travel is given again. That is already involving ships (see ms Amsterdam) and will involve a lot of creativity from the company but also from the whole Maritime and Airline Industry.
Thus the same will go for me. I arrived home on the 10th, and I have put myself in self isolation at home in the 2nd bed room which also has a 2nd bathroom. My wife is very happy that I am home but most likely did not realise that I now need Room Service. So I ordered Surf and Turf for dinner and I got a Ham Salad……………..
My thoughts go out to all the teams at sea. They can only be relieved when there is the moment they can sign off and the others, in the essential functions, when their reliefs can make it to the ship. And we do not know yet when that will be. With Skype and other communication options, the crew can see and talk to family and keep up the morale as best as possible. Some people missed important dates in their life such as our Environmental Officer who was supposed to be home for the birth of his first child but now just had to hope for the best. Luckily all went well and he is know the proud father of a beautiful baby girl. Name yet unknown as there is are two Grand Mothers in the equation.
Then we have the medical departments on all the cruise ships but especially those on the Zaandam. Those who were there from the beginning and those who transferred over later to help out. Cruise ships are set up to control medical emergencies for the short term and to deal with regular G.P work. Now they had go way beyond that normality and deliver. And I think they did and even delivered much more then we could have ever have expected.
Our Rotterdam Sr. Doctors name is Socrates (as his parents expected him to become a teacher) or Doctor Soc for short, but he should have been called doctor Hippocrates as he and his team and all the other medical teams stepped up to the challenge with a professionalism that this Greek Doctor would have expected when 2000 years ago he devised the early code of the medical profession. Due to social distancing I did not see them at all, but next time when I meet them, there will be a bottle of champagne on my account. Winston Churchill said in 1940 during the Battle of Britain about the RAF pilots: “Never was so much owed by so many to so few. I think that applies to our Medical people as well in this case.
And now the blog will stop for the time being. I will have no personal experiences to relate and what happens here in England is no different than in the rest of the world. When will I return? No idea, it all depends on how fast the Covid-19 threat will diminish and victory is secured. Thus until then I will be at home working on my Honey Do List, my work for the apartment building, and on HAL History, which I will continue to upload. For those of you interested in this, I just uploaded the next captains biography; Captain Stuut. Quite an unusual career.
To help the fight:
- Wash your hands frequently with water and soap for at least 20 seconds and do not forget to rub in between the fingers. 20 seconds is the time it takes to sing “Happy birthday” twice.
- Wear a face mask if you are in situation when you cannot exercise Social Distancing.
- If you can stay at least 1.5 meters away from each other. (One meter is the suggested minimum, distance; 2 meters is better)
- Stay at home, unless the world needs you to help keep the world going.
- Keep up morale: It is always 5 pm. somewhere in the world so have a cocktail and remember, a glass of wine should always be half full. If it is not get another bottle.
Stay well and healthy and thank you for your continued interest in my daily adventures. I will be back in due course. When that will be is any-bodies guess. I suppose as soon as we are bringing the ships back to full crew status.