As the calendar turned over to January 1, 2020, out on the world’s oceans, it looked set to be another glorious year for cruising.
Thousands of passengers were seeing in the New Year at sea, perhaps toasting the stroke of midnight – ship’s time – with a glass of champagne.
Many hundreds of thousands more, still ashore, were looking ahead to cruise adventures they’d spent years saving for.
Crew members readied for a year of working at sea, and those at the helm of the cruise industry anticipated another successful year, with profits sure to continue on an upward trajectory and bigger and better ships ready for launch.
Then, in the space of a few disastrous weeks, everything changed.
A travel pastime that sold itself on the gentle pace of its voyages began unraveling at breakneck pace.
February 4, 2020: Outbreak onboard
In early February, the coronavirus was making headlines around the world, but many viewed the infection as a regional problem mostly afflicting China, with a few other isolated cases.
One of those cases had been aboard the Diamond Princess – a 16-year-old British-registered cruise ship operated by Princess Cruises, a division of the Carnival Corporation.
When a passenger with suspected coronavirus disembarked the Diamond Princess, Covid-19 remained. By the time health authorities boarded in Japanese waters on February 4, 10 people on board were confirmed positive for coronavirus.
Amid fears many more among the 2,666 mostly Japanese passengers were exposed, the ship was quarantined in the Port of Yokohama. Guests were forbidden to disembark, told to wear masks and confined to their cabins.
As the world looked on in horror, the disease began to do its worst.
The ship quickly became a byword for the severity of Covid-19, a severity much of the planet was only just started to take in. When cases per nation flashed up on TV screens, the Diamond Princess had the highest number outside mainland China.
Later, over 700 passengers and crew on board the Diamond Princess would test positive, with 331 of them asymptomatic at the time.
The besieged vessel also offered the first inkling of just how badly cruise ships were susceptible to the virility of Covid-19 – and how cruise companies would struggle to offload people from their vast floating palaces into panicked ports.
But it was only February, and this was just one ship.
As the Diamond Princess remained in lockdown, other cruise ships continued their routes largely as planned. Many had already been in service for months, were the midst of months-long world cruises crisscrossing the Earth’s oceans.
Some itineraries were adjusted to avoid Asian ports, but even if passengers had concerns, they were often locked into concrete plans made months or years previously.
“We had hesitations,” said passenger Jay Martinez, who boarded the Norwegian Jewel along with his newlywed wife Carmen on February 28.
Changing plans, he told CNN, wasn’t an option offered by the cruise company.
“With us having so much money invested into our honeymoon, we had no other choice but to board the ship.”
Meanwhile, cruise experts offered reassurances. Everything, they said, was probably going to be OK.
But that’s not how it turned out.
March 13, 2020: The virus ships
As March rolled in, it was increasingly clear that the Diamond Princess disaster was no isolated incident.
Cruise ships carry thousands of passengers and workers in close proximity and stop in ports across the world. Their internal ventilation systems were already seen as possible propagators of infection. The vessels seemed to be unwitting Covid catalysts.
As parts of the world began to batten down the hatches against coronavirus, introducing region-wide and then nation-wide lockdowns and travel bans, cruise ships were pinpointed as accelerating the spread.
A report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that between February 3 and March 13, about 200 Covid cases in the US were linked to cruise passengers, including cruisers from the Diamond Princess and the Grand Princess, where 21 people had tested positive while the ship was docked in California.
At the time of the CDC’s March report, cruise passengers accounted for about 17% of the reported US Covid cases.
On March 13, influential industry body Cruise Lines International Association, which represents 95% of the global cruise fleet, made the decision to suspend operations from US ports of call for 30-day period.
A day later, the CDC issued a No Sail Order for cruise ships in the United States.
So began a global scramble for safe harbor, ships dotted across the world’s oceans had to make quick decisions on how best to get passengers and crew safely to land.
March 27, 2020: The scramble for safety
With the No Sail Order in place, some on board wanted to disembark right away.
CJ Hayden, a passenger on the Pacific Princess at the time, told CNN she feared being stuck at sea after the US closed its borders.
“The ship can’t go any faster,” she said.
But with cruise ships being viewed with increasing suspicion by many of the ports that once welcomed them, many vessels were locked into an increasingly desperate hunt for somewhere to berth.
The Norwegian Jewel – the 92,000-tonne pride of the Norwegian Cruise Line capable of carrying more than 2,300 passengers – was among those stranded at sea. Turned away by French Polynesia, Fiji and New Zealand, the vessel eventually opted for a long journey back to Hawaii.
On board, 20-something Jay Martinez became an envoy for less tech-savvy passengers who struggled to get hold of loved ones on land.
He tried to stay positive, bonding with passengers from across the world, sharing updates from their various home countries.
He was proud, he told CNN, of the “mini community” they had created on board the Jewel. He felt it showed how nations could come together in the face of the pandemic.
Still, he also felt keenly the “unknown and ambiguity of what our fate is going to be.”
Christine Beehler, 72, from New Hampshire, was on board the Coral Princess, a 2,000-passenger ship that was denied a port of call in Brazil, even for guests who had onward flight tickets home.
With no other option available, the ship headed to Miami.