The Captain And The Crew In The Cruise of Hope

A true story of how the captain and crew of a cruise ship went beyond their calling to help another ship that was stranded on international waters during the worldwide lockdown. Chef Shyam Kumar who was on board the ship during this noble mission talked proudly to Explocity about the rescue mission 

The cruise ship MS Zaandam was on a cruise around South America when the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic on March 11. The Zaandam cast off from Buenos Aires, Argentina, on March 7. Four days later, the World Health Organization designated the coronavirus a “pandemic.”

Conditions on board started getting dire as passengers started to exhibit “influenza-like symptoms”. Four passengers died on board.

Understandably, there was clamour to get off the boat. But no port was allowing the Zaandam to dock and let the passengers off. They were stuck with no clear direction on what they could do next.

The Captain And The Crew In The Cruise of Hope

One news site reported, “But still, as days drew on and the journey around South and Central America continued without a clear destination, the lighthearted spirit onboard evaporated. It was as if the Zaandam had become some modern equivalent of a medieval plague ship.”

There were other reports of distress and a fading sense of hope on board the Zaandam. 

Yadira Garza, a newlywed who was on the cruise with her husband spoke to a section of the press. “We are stuck on this death ship,” she is reported to have said. “We are freaked out and terrified that we will be infected too. It’s just a matter of time if we stay on the ship.”

The story of the “death ship” as Zaandam was being called already made headlines across the world — the story of a ship on the seas being of ghoulish interest to everyone. But the story ended well for the survivors with another cruise ship, MS Rotterdam, coming to its rescue.

While the story of the death ship is well known, one little known fact is that one of the key players on the MS Rotterdam was a resident of Chennai, Shyam Kumar. He was in the thick of the action and gave Explocity several behind the scenes nuggets.

Shyam Kumar, Chennai resident, was working as a chef on board the cruise ship, MS Rotterdam, when confusion descended upon the high seas.

The pandemic was spreading across the world and leaving not only death and destruction in its wake but also misinformation. One of the first stories of people getting infected with the virus came from a cruise ship.

The connection between cruise ships and coronavirus is well known.

On 1 February 2020, a passenger from the now infamous Diamond Princess cruise ship in Hong Kong tested positive for coronavirus. On 3 Feb, Diamond Princess was quarantined. Over 3500 passengers and crew members on board.

According to news sources, over the next month, more than 700 people on board were infected — including a nurse — and for weeks the ship was the site of the largest outbreak outside China.

In March 2020, the CDC (Centre for Disease Control and Prevention) had just asked that cruise ship operations be shut down immediately.

When news of the shutdown was being relayed to the ships. MS Rotterdam, had just finished its Mexican Riviera cruise, and had dropped anchor at Puerto Vallarta.

While Holland America Line — the owner of MS Rotterdam — was busy ensuring that guests were able to reach their homes safely, it received a call for help from the MS Zaandam. 

The Captain And The Crew In The Cruise of Hope

According to Shyam Kumar, the reason the ship was being turned away was because the authorities said that they suspected its passengers to be COVID positive; “suspected” because MS Zaandam did not have any testing kits to run COVID tests on its guests. So they could not confirm that its guests were not covid positive.

In the absence of testing, everyone went by symptoms and what constituted “suspicious symptoms” was based on what the CDC sent from time to time.  This was also a time when little was actually known about the virus or how it spread; hence, there was much speculation. People were largely left to gossip and Google to figure out what was going on.

As always, in the absence of news, rumour rules. And this resulted in ports refusing to admit MS Zaandam for fear of not knowing what was on board and what would come off the ship. 

What was happening on board the ship was a growing sense of nervousness. Supplies were dwindling. And some of the passengers were in failing health. Understandably, there would have been a growing sense of dread.

The Captain And The Crew In The Cruise of Hope

Dwindling supplies and the failing health of its guests compelled MS Zaandam to ask for help.

But most ships refused to help. Crews of other ships were unclear about what was expected of them and what were the risks involved. 

At first, the captain of MS Rotterdam would have been chary about jumping in to help, but for an incisive question from their management, “If you had your family on board MS Zaandam, wouldn’t you want to help?”

That was all it took. MS Rotterdam was all in. They decided they would be angels to the rescue. Given the risks, joining the rescue mission was voluntary. The crew was asked and they responded with a majority of them joining this mission of mercy.

Chef Shyam was one of the first to volunteer.

MS Rotterdam sent instructions to MS Zandaam to sail up to Panama — a convenient meeting point.

In Panama, arrangements were made to shift the guests from MS Zaandam to MS Rotterdam.

Chef Shyam told Explocity how the operation rolled out. The drama in his narrative was compelling.

He said that 16 motor boats were sent in rotation — four at a time — to fetch people from the Zaandam. Though each boat could carry 150 people, social distancing norms had kicked in and boats operated at a much lower capacity.

And then they had to gauge the health of those being ferried across. And this also impacted capacity.

Those who displayed no symptoms were shifted all together but those with any symptoms, mild to severe, sometimes had to be transported one at a time.

And then after every sortie the boats, the ship’s corridor, and the drivers themselves were sanitized, before they were sent for the next pick up.

Although the crews worked continuously, it took two days to get the almost 1000 guests on MS Zaandam on board the MS Rotterdam.

Not all of them came across. A few of the guests with critical symptoms decided to stay back on MS Zaandam with their travelling companions, lest they should infect the others.

The Captain And The Crew In The Cruise of Hope

The drama had only begun.

Shyam said that once the guests were accommodated comfortably, both ships, the MS Rotterdam and the MS Zaandam set sail to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Their journey included having to get across the Panama Canal. The crews had to engage in some subterfuge to do this.

Shyam said that normally, ships are allowed to cross the canal only during the day. However, news of the Covid conditions on board the ships made authorities worry that the locals might panic and raise an alarm.

So, they authorised both the ships to cross over during the night, and with all lights switched off, so as not to attract any undue attention.

The 14 days that followed the Panama crossing was anything but normal for MS Rotterdam’s crew. Firstly, each member of the crew needed to get accustomed to the hallmarks of the “new normal” i.e., the mandatory, twice-a-day monitoring of temperature and oxygen saturation levels.

Secondly, they had to get trained in the highest of self-hygiene practices, a key ingredient of which was wearing masks. 

At one point they realised that they did not have a sufficient number of masks on board. MS Rotterdam’s house-keeping team pitched in by stretching not only their call of duty but also handy materials to design and produce face masks. These masks were also distributed to other cruise lines operated by the Holland America Line. 

We asked Shyam about the kitchen.

Chef Shyam said the challenges “were manifold”. 

As a cruise ship that is designed to serve up a floating population, the MS Rotterdam was not sized with adequate crockery to offer room service to all guests.

So, initially, after every serving, the crockery was washed, rinsed, and sanitized, so it can be reused. But since this routine was delaying service, the kitchen crew thought on its feet and decided to use disposable crockery, wherever possible.

Also, just like any other cruise ship’s kitchen, the MS Rotterdam was largely stocked with expensive, gourmet ingredients — not the most appropriate things to serve guests in a pandemic.

Chef Shyam and his colleagues designed and delivered pared down menus that made the best use of available resources.

The cooking, the kitchens, adapting to conditions and everything that is the norm for any professional chef was in their wheelhouse, but the larger problem was not one of materials, but of the mind.

For example, the wait staff was afraid to serve infected guests.

So Shyam began waiting on the guests himself. Setting an example to the crew he made them feel confident and comfortable and that they were not alone.

Shyam said that this time of the ship was from the “lead from the front playbook”. Every manager on that ship — from the captain to the senior engineers to the other chefs — served the needs of the guests personally and they did this until their respective teams found the courage to follow.

These selfless acts of solidarity from their bosses made even those crew members who were initially on the fence — the 40% — to join in.  After Day Five on the Atlantic, and with the ship now almost fully staffed, the crew finally found its rhythm. 

The Captain And The Crew In The Cruise of Hope

Once both the ships reached Fort Lauderdale, they again had to deal with paranoid public and port authorities.

After they received permission to dock, they dropped anchor and disembarked the guests. Arrangements were made to transport the guests to hospitals, so they can be tested.

None of the crew members of the MS Rotterdam tested positive for any COVID symptoms; nor did the condition of any of the guests on board become any worse. That made everyone happy.

But what made them happier — and the risk truly worthwhile for the crew — were the happy faces that disembarked.

Not to mention the thank you mails that they still receive from these guests.

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