By Jennifer Hoff
Cruising is supposed to be fun, the ultimate escape, not an occasion for disaster! The downward spiral started soon after I boarded a glitzy cruise ship in Sydney for a dream voyage to Bora Bora, Moorea and Papeete. The cruise wasn’t all self-indulgence. I had two future projects in mind: Gauguin’s time in Tahiti and Robert Louis Stevenson’s life in Samoa. (Our ports of call included Apia and Pago Pago.
For the first week we lived the 5 star dream: perfect weather, calm sea, a balcony stateroom and 24/7 activities. Mindful of my writing duties, I kept a journal, a reference for future stories. Cracks appeared in Elysium when three ports refused us entry. A new infectious disease. ‘Never mind,’ our stalwart captain assured us, ‘we can divert to other ports.’
Noumea was fiercely hot with the ramshackle charm of vintage South Pacific, and Lautoka enchanted us with pretty villages, exuberant hospitality and lots of kava. Word on board spread about Covid-19. We moved on to bustling Suva, more of Fiji’s luxuriant beauty, more kava and friendly locals. Then we were told Samoa had closed its ports. Goodbye Apia, Pago Pago and Mr Stevenson. Hello trouble.
Passenger reactions varied with every new snippet of news—anger, frustration, uncertainty, fear. My journal entries recorded onboard dramas, gossiping and speculation. Moods lightened with expectations of Dravuni Island, reputedly magical and unspoiled. We crossed our fingers. Would we make it? Would Dravuni let us in? Islanders smiled and waved while they set up their souvenir stalls as we were tendered ashore to paradise—cute wooden houses, lush gardens, palm trees, empty beaches with turquoise water and coral. No one wanted to leave.
On board again, we heard the dreadful news: Bora Bora, Moorea and Papeete refused to let us land. Goodbye Paul Gauguin and romantic fantasies. The mood on board became universal gloom tinged with panic. My journal entries recorded angst as my projects went up Ship Creek.
Where to next? We were potentially marooned. The Pacific, tranquil, blue and gorgeous, became a very large and empty ocean. ‘New Zealand,’ announced our captain. ‘We disembark at Tauranga so book your flights home.’ Cheers all around! Now I recorded mixed feelings among cruisers: relief, disappointment, confusion. ABC television coverage recounted the rapid spread of Covid. The world was in trouble and so were we.
Our beautiful Jewel powered west toward Tauranga while passengers ate, drank, sunbaked around the pools and swapped notes about outrageous airfares. My journal entries were full of seabirds swooping over the ship, playful dolphins, and tropical sunsets over the ocean. Everyone made the most of our disappointing cruise.
Close to Tauranga, the wheels fell off. Our captain announced ‘New Zealand has closed its ports.’ The ship turned 180 degrees. Where to now? A new shipboard hygiene policy was imposed. ‘Washy washy, happy happy’ we sang outside the dining rooms, cruisers were squirted with sanitizer, and the diligent crew washed down every surface daily. No library books, no deck games, no luxe facials and massages, no contact activities. We were marooned, unwanted, alone.
Passengers clustered to exchange the latest gossip. We were healthy but starved for reliable news. The ship might make Suva again. Fiji had closed its ports. Sydney? Too far away. Jewel headed for Hawaii. Would the US Government let us in? ‘Of course,’ said the more confident cruisers, ‘most of the passengers are American.’ We had no choice because Australia closed its borders.
My literary talents were helped along by Mai Tais, Pain Killers and various Cocktails of the Day. (Not before breakfast!) How enticing could I make descriptions of flat sea, blue sky and distant storm showers? Our captain, notably less cheery now, announced the ship was diverted to Pago Pago for re-fueling. Samoa! RL Stevenson and his tropical island adventures! I was the only wildly excited cruiser on board.
Samoa was everything I had imagined and more—reef-fringed, rugged, forests spilling to foaming breakers. I scribbled notes, took photos and breathed its humid air, recording page after page of impressions.
Reality hit at Pago Pago when the ship moored at an angle to the dock. Locals wore masks, police cars waited at intervals along the shore. No one was going to swim ashore including me. By dawn next day, I was still taking notes—turtles floating in deep harbor waters, magnificent peaks and ravines thick with jungle, persistent roosters crowing from every garden. One of my projects could be salvaged after all. Our ship headed east again. Goodbye Samoa, what next?
Mateship flourished among the Australians on board and the militant faction took over the library with daily meetings. How could we leave the ship? Was anyone infected? Who was refusing to apply for ESTA? Various mutinous plots were hatched, I renamed my husband Fletcher Christian, and journal entries described wild gossip, outrage, threats and tantrums. I had no idea human behavior was so interesting.
Final calamity—one of the ship’s two engines broke down. We sat looking over the stern glumly nursing our Cocktail of the Day and watching the lopsided wake trailing behind our limping vessel. We were surrounded by empty ocean. The captain announced we were heading to Honolulu for repairs. Jubilation, celebratory drinks, bonhomie, smiles all around and rushes to phones and computers for ESTA permits and tickets home.
The mountainous backbone of Oahu appeared over the horizon as we approached the splendor of Honolulu—bright sunshine, surf rolling to glittering sand, high-rise along Waikiki with Diamond Head the perfect backdrop. Something was very wrong: no city noise, no traffic, no crowds and no surfers.
We stared down at the silent container port in growing disbelief. Surely Covid-19 hadn’t reached Hawaii. The captain’s voice instantly silenced our noisy dining room. ‘The Governor of Hawaii allows repairs but forbids passengers disembarking.’ Groans of disbelief. We were imprisoned in downtown Honolulu!
The spirit of Long John Silver infected the ship and Aussie Mateship triumphed. Aussie passengers could rush ashore en masse and no one could stop us. Who needs ESTA when we could charge off the ship? Before our militant band of Aussies could raise the Eureka flag, the crew locked the library. My scribbles gave way to late night emailing, queuing for a computer, daily walks on the promenade deck, and staring mournfully at the cloud-wreathed peaks of Oahu and mynah birds in the container port.
The grand finale swept over us like a chorus in Wagnerian opera. The Governor relented, a Qantas aircraft arrived to evacuate us, and we touched down with Border Force waiting. By now my entries were a jumble of misspelled words with days and dates crossed out after four Dateline crossings. I wanted to sleep. I wanted to forget fantasies of Samoa and Tahiti. I wanted to go home and pat my cat. Our plane rolled to a stop outside the terminal. Qantas staff read out a letter from the Federal Government: two weeks in quarantine for us.
But that’s another story.