Cruise Control

REVIEW: ‘Cabin Fever: The Harrowing Journey of a Cruise Ship at the Dawn of a Pandemic’

The Zaandam cruise ship prepares to come into Port Everglades on April 02, 2020 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
January 22, 2023

In 2019, 29.7 million people went on a cruise vacation, according to Statista. The question is why? There are rough seas (imagine a whole day of air turbulence), lackluster ports of call (Royal Caribbean touts the "pristine sands" of Labadee, which happens to be in HAITI), and outbreaks like norovirus, not to mention the considerable expense (that excursion to Machu Picchu could cost an additional $4,000).

On the other hand, the vastness of the ocean is awe-inspiring, there’s nothing lackluster about the Greek Isles, hand-sanitizer stations can deter gastrointestinal threats, and interior cabins can be quite the bargain. Sure, those 200-square-foot windowless rooms might be a little cramped, but with all those bars, restaurants, and a casino, plus a wraparound deck to take in the fresh sea air and nonstop activities, how much time do you expect to spend inside your cabin?

For passengers aboard Holland America’s Zaandam, which left Buenos Aires on March 8, 2020, the answer is two weeks—and a total of one month at sea. It’s the story of Cabin Fever, the gripping account of the ship’s fateful voyage in the early days of the pandemic. With no one yet certain how COVID-19 was spread, ports on two continents refused entry to the vessel and its 1,243 guests and 586 crew members, many of whom were getting sick. As authors Michael Smith and Jonathan Franklin observe, "For the first time in memory, the world had turned its back on a cruise liner in distress."

The reason was fear. In Punta Arenas, Chile, "You could feel people staring, wanting us out. It wasn’t pretty," one passenger recalled. (That turned out to be the last stop on the cruise.) In one Chilean seaport, "an angry crowd began to gather. … A few protesters arrived carrying clubs, sticks, and rocks." When the ship finally received clearance to pass through the Panama Canal, the local pilots who navigated it through the locks were "donning blue plastic gloves, baggy gray booties, and a white jumpsuit (complete with baggy hoodie)," all of which would later be incinerated. The Zaandam’s own tender operators "looked like they were heading to inspect a contaminated nuclear power plant. Nobody knew if the virus was everywhere or nowhere. Did it live on surfaces for days? Was it safe to touch anything?"

What’s interesting was the initial approach taken by Holland America’s parent company Carnival: Give the guests more things to do, such as a poker tournament and a Formal Night. But on March 22, with a growing number of passengers and crew falling ill, Captain Ane Smit made the announcement: "Out of an abundance of caution, we must ask that you return to your staterooms as soon as you are done with lunch, where, regrettably, we are going to have to ask you to remain."

The kitchens, which once provided lavish celebrity-chef-inspired meals, were now serving up "watery eggs, pastries, and cereal for breakfast and a lot of noodles, rice, and chicken for lunch and dinner." (As the authors point out, the ship was never meant to deliver room service to 1,200 passengers three times a day.) This was the only time a guest was allowed to open the door—to bring in the food tray. (Well, that and the temperature checks.)

Solitary confinement, even on a cruise ship, can be trying. Guest relations received calls from couples at each other’s throats. Some passengers feared COVID was entering through the vents. Not convinced the workers did enough sterilization, one guest washed her utensils in bath soap. "When the soap ran out, she switched to shower gel for the glasses and edges of the tray."

A few passengers were allowed to spend some time outside, though the authors fail to specify why some had this privilege and others didn’t. But even that was a strictly controlled experience: "Staff members wrapped in masks and gloves had chaperoned them, instructing them not to touch anything, not even the handrails, to stay six feet apart, and to keep quiet. They’d moved in unison, a silent column, no talking, no touching, like prisoners being led to the yard."

And yet such draconian measures did little to stop the contagion from spreading. According to Smith and Franklin, at least 250 crew and passengers were diagnosed with COVID and 3 had died (there’s a morgue on the ship—it’s also where they keep the fresh flowers).

The authors credit Carnival’s chief maritime officer William Burke for swaying public opinion. A former nuclear submarine commander, Burke pleaded with Broward County officials to let the Zaandam disembark in Port Everglades, Florida. "People were dead; others were dying. Burke’s warning was clear: The ship needed to find a port before the situation spiraled out of control."

Cabin Fever reads like a thriller—or a horror story. It includes the heartbreaking tale of Wiwit Widarto, who oversaw laundry operations and refused to take rest as the virus overwhelmed his body. As others fell ill, he and his dwindling team continued to provide clean sheets and towels to 716 cabins. He finally succumbed to the virus in an Orlando hospital, thousands of miles away from his family in Indonesia, having literally worked himself to death.

But there are amusing anecdotes as well. Once the passengers were unloaded in Florida, the crew had the Zaandam to itself as it floated around the Caribbean. "Romantic interludes exploded as a pent-up fury of hormones turned the ship into a sexually charged tinderbox."

Cruise travel plummeted in the wake of the pandemic. But by the end of 2022, it not only rebounded but exceeded the 2019 total with more than 30 million cruise goers worldwide. Carl Zehner and Leonard Lindsay are among them. The couple were aboard the Zaandam in March 2020. Carl even managed to survive being in an induced coma. The two are part of a class-action suit blaming Carnival and Holland America for negligence and "faulty medical screening." At the same time, they can’t resist the siren song of the cruise life. Maybe it’s the Caribbean weather (David Foster Wallace called it "uterine"), the many restaurants and bars, or all those fun activities. Either way, they booked an eight-day cruise. On the Zaandam.

Cabin Fever: The Harrowing Journey of a Cruise Ship at the Dawn of a Pandemic
By Michael Smith and Jonathan Franklin
Doubleday, 253 pp., $30

Victorino Matus is deputy editor of the Washington Free Beacon and a veteran of three Holland America cruises. He was most often found at the Ocean Bar.