Frequent sailor points don’t count for much when you’re caught on the high seas during a global coronavirus pandemic.
Calgarians Ruth and Graham Derby found themselves in the heart of a crisis during what was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime.
Three weeks into their four-month excursion on the MS Pacific Princess, the soon-to-be history making COVID-19 pandemic quickly stopped being someone else’s problem.
“We knew about corona before we left. We knew it was a problem in China and Italy, and to my knowledge, it was somewhat contained. So, we didn’t think it was something that would affect us,” said Ruth.
“We were looking forward to missing the winter.”
South East Asia cancelled; cyclone warning
Their 111-day excursion left Los Angeles on January 20, scheduled to make 42 stops in 26 countries.
They would spend three weeks traveling to Hawaii, then New Zealand, eventually dropping anchor in Sydney, Australia.
“The part of our trip that would take us to Singapore and Thailand was cancelled due to COVID 19 concerns, but at the time, we were more concerned with a tropical storm that was preventing us from making all our stops in New Zealand,” said Ruth.
Princess compensated the passengers for the missing stop by adding four new stops along the Western coast of Australia.
“I’d never even heard of these places before, but in the end, each city we visited was an absolute treasure.”
Problems before the crisis
Activities taking place on land are known as “shore excursions,” which passengers can select and pay for in advance of boarding the ship.
The Derbys spent a year planning their excursions, unaware that certain factors could get in the way of some of the activities.
“I think the average age of all the passengers was around 85. Out of 650 passengers, we were some of the youngest aboard,” said Ruth.
Ruth said she didn’t anticipate that the majority of the passengers would be seniors, or that excursions would be cancelled due to lack of participation.
“Nobody ever said a thing to us about that. Most of the people we met were lovely – truly incredible people with incredible stories. But we never thought to ask if the other passengers were fit to leave the boat,” Ruth said.
One cancelled excursion in particular, a trip on a submarine to explore a coral reef, happened to be one of the events the Derbys were most looking forward to.
“A lot of the passengers couldn’t even climb down the ladder into the sub,” said Ruth.
“The surprising thing is that the submarine trip was booked at all.”
Almost being denied to dock
In the fourth week of their trip, the Princess set sail from Australia to Sri Lanka, an eight-day voyage across the Indian Ocean.
During that time, the Sri Lankan government began the process of closing their borders, leaving the Princess in a tough spot.
“At first, they told us ‘You’re not coming here. We don’t want any of the virus,'” said Ruth.
“But we’d been at sea for eight days, so we hadn’t stopped at any ports where we could have picked up the virus.”
Ships are on scheduled to restock food and fuel at certain ports, making it critical that they don’t miss those ports.
“The captain told them we have to stop here. We need fuel, and we need food. So they let us dock, but nobody was allowed to leave the ship, ” said Ruth.
Armed guards patrolled the dock at all times, and news of other ships began to circulate through the Princess’ passengers.
‘The captain told them we have to stop here. We need fuel, and we need food. So they let us dock, but nobody was allowed to leave the ship.’ – Ruth
“We started to hear of stories about the Indian Ocean, where ships would dock and passengers would get off. The passengers were being stoned or yelled at by the local people who were afraid of getting the virus,” Ruth said.
The wifi wasn’t reliable. Ruth said they’d hear stories people pulled off Twitter or Facebook, but always questioned the reliability of the information.
“Being on the ship, you’re kind of cut off from the rest of the world,” she said.
Denied port in the Maldives
Once food and fuel was replenished, the Princess set out for the Maldives, but were denied access there, as well.
“The thing that most people don’t know about cruises is that you have to dock at the right time, and you have to leave at the right time. It is not negotiable.
With nowhere to dock, and the COVID 19 situation escalating, the captain had no choice but to cancel the remainder of the trip.
Coincidentally, they’re next shore excursion was a third attempt at a submarine dive.
“Graham and I looked at each other and said, ‘God obviously doesn’t want us to go on a submarine, so we’ll take it as sign,'” said Ruth.
Eight days later, the Princess was back in Australia, releasing its passengers in Perth to catch their flights home.
‘Graham and I looked at each other and said, ‘God obviously doesn’t want us to go on a submarine, so we’ll take it as sign.’ – Ruth
It would be another three days before they would arrive in Canada – with few answers along the way.
“We were shuffled around; we were given a pack of Ritz crackers and a bag of chips to eat. Nothing else,” Ruth said.
“I had to find a fridge to put my insulin in. The airport staff were kind, and they were doing their best to help people, this whole thing was just unprecedented. “
‘I just wanted the four of us to be on the same continent.’
Despite their circumstances, Ruth and Graham kept level heads amongst the confusion, and are grateful for how things turned out.
“We were lucky. Our flight home was fairly straight forward, but some people had extraordinary routes to fly home. Some people had six or seven layovers to deal with,” said Ruth, noting one elderly couple that had been booked on different flights. They depended on one another for care.
“Seeing the panic on their faces was heartbreaking.”
During this time, their son Logan was travelling overseas. Their daughter Greer was awaiting word back in Calgary.
Greer said the uncertainty of her parents’ safety was mirrored by the chaos going on at home.
“Being so far away from my immediate family while life around me crumbled was incredibly hard – I just wanted the four of us to be on the same continent,” Greer said.
“There are still so many unanswered questions about the things that happened on the ship.”
Experience hasn’t soured them on cruises
The majority of the Derby’s cruise was cancelled due to world events. They’re expecting to receive a refund for the portion of the trip that was missed.
In total, the trip cost them roughly $120,000.
“We’re still in talks about how they’re going to refund us, exactly. Part of it will be a refund of money, and part of it will be in credits towards another cruise,” said Ruth.
Graham and Ruth said the experience hasn’t soured them to cruises. To them, it was its own kind of adventure.
Graham said the only real loss he felt was discovering his hard drive had malfunctioned. He thought he’d lost the photos he had been waiting for years to take.
“I was really disappointed, I brought the drive in to a guy and he couldn’t figure out how to fix it. But then he called me today and managed to not only get the photos from the trip off it, but photos that go back an entire year! So that made me really happy.”
The return to familiar friends
Ruth and Graham said they often think about the backpacking trip they took around the world when they were younger. It was before they had kids and before the invention of the digital camera.
“Back then, they only had film cameras. So we had a budget of five pictures per day,” said Graham.
“So being able to travel the world and take as many pictures as I want was my motivation. I can’t speak to other people’s motivations for taking a cruise, but that one is mine.”
Between the time changes and the exhaustion, Ruth can’t remember exactly how long the flight back Canada took. But, when they returned, there was a gentle reminder of that backpacking trip from decades ago.
After an exhausting 60 hours to get back home, it was a sight for travel-weary eyes.
“We were very lucky. The friends who came to the airport 40 years ago and picked us up from our backpacking trip, also came to pick us up at the end of this trip,” said Ruth.
“So we got into their car, kept as far away from them as we could, they had already picked up groceries for us, and they took us home.