Sometimes it is nice to do more than one cruise at a time. These cruises are called back to back – or B2B for short. In the summer of 2019, long before the first reports started coming out of China of a new virulent virus, we had noticed that SS Braemar, one of Fred Olsen’s fleet, was doing fly cruises in the Caribbean. There was the Western Caribbean leg, boarding at Barbados and sailing through the Caribbean Islands up to the Dominican Republic, where this cruise ended and the next began. This sailed via Mexico and Central America back to Barbados. Then, as we were looking at the end of the Caribbean season, the Ship would have a third sailing from Barbados back to Southampton. Interest rates were at rock bottom at the time, so we decided to spend some of our savings and booked all three legs.
December 2019 came and the first reports of this new virus broke, but I was not concerned because our government wasn’t. Then came February and the first reports about a cruise ship in Japan, that had been quarantined and people were dying on board, came out. This should have been a red flag I suppose, but as we had paid a lot of money for our cruise, we were not going to cancel. At this time, the government were saying that everything was fine, so the Insurance companies would not pay out if we cancelled and the cruise line was definitely not cancelling. So off we went to a crowded Manchester airport and flew to Barbados. It was great. The Sunshine, the beaches – there was not a cloud in the sky. On we went through Tobago, Curacao, Bonaire, Grenada, St Lucia, Antigua, St Kitts, St Maarten and Tortola. The novel viruses were the last things on our minds.
We were now heading for La Romana in the Dominican Republic to offload all the passengers who were just doing the first cruise and to replace them with the next set of happy cruisers. We had heard through the on-board grapevine that a couple of the guests and a few crew members had gone down with a “bad cold” but they had been isolated and were getting better. We were not too bothered, but when the Dominican authorities saw the ship’s health declarations they went ape.
We arrived in the port to be met with armed guards on the quayside and an absolute determination that no one was leaving the ship and the plane loads of passengers in the air would have to be diverted elsewhere. A long tense standoff ensued. We heard that negotiations were going on at government level but apparently these were hampered because it was a Sunday and the appropriate Dominican minster was out of office and no one could make a decision. Then, at around 17:00, the dockside party had had enough, they just threw our lines into the harbour and we slowly drifted off our berth. The Captain hurriedly started the engines and we sailed off in to the dusk.
We now headed back towards St Maarten because the Captain reasoned that as we had been there 2 days earlier and nothing had really changed, then they would let us back in. To pacify the upset passengers (who should have been on their way home) everyone was given access to free WiFi and all bars were thrown open for free drinks. When 1000 people try to go online at the same time over a Maritime Satellite System, it crashes. Add in an alcohol fuelled desperation to contact home, and you have a ship full of very unhappy people. Not to mention those who were on the diverted planes.
The next day we settled into a sea day routine passing distant Islands on our way to who knows where. We had a couple of announcements of the “we don’t know anything, but we are trying hard” school of placation.
To solve the Wi-Fi problems, the Captain sailed to Martinique, this island is classed as part of mainland France, so EU phone rules applied and European roaming worked. We sailed in close to pick up the phone signals, and circled the Island, so most of us were able to phone home and get out emails. We sailed round and round in circles for the day.
It took another day before the authorities on St Maarten agreed to let us do our changeover and in the end we sailed back into Philipsburg, offloaded one set of passengers, embarked a fresh set and we were back in action.
Since we had lost three days we now had a new schedule. We were going to go to Jamaica to refuel, miss out all our Mexico and Belize ports then re-join the old itinerary in Costa Rica.
Some hope: the authorities in Jamaica had been following our progress and now were getting cold feet. So, once more we were sailing around just off the port, waiting for a civil servant to make a decision. Eventually, late that afternoon, the desire to get tourist dollars and fuel revenues won and we were allowed into Port Royal. There was not much time left to do anything but go ashore on the dockside where they had set up a load of tourist stalls to sell us rum and T shirts. The steel band was good though.
At 16:00, a very annoyed Captain came on the tannoy to announce that the tug needed to get us off the berth was not going to arrive for the foreseeable future, so there would be another delay, except he was going to try a “stuff you” attempt to get off under our own power. He powered up the thrusters wriggled the ship back and to a couple of times and away we went. We started heading towards Central America, full steam ahead to try to get back on schedule.
So on we went, racing across the Caribbean to find the jungles of Central America and the Panama Isthmus.
Tune into the blog next Tuesday for part two of Roger’s struggle with Covid on board..