Our South American Cruise during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Doreen Ames and Alan Galley

Our Holland America cruise around southern South America was something both of us had looked forward to for a long time, with one of the highlights being a trip to Cape Horn. Cape Horn is one of those places sailors read about but only the most experienced blue water sailors would attempt to sail there due to its tendency towards very rough weather.

Street in La Boca neighbourhood, Buenos Aires near the old port

We joined Holland Americas MS Zaandam on March 7 in the port of Buenos Aires, Argentina for a 14-day cruise to end on March 21 near Santiago, Chile. This is a mid-sized cruise ship with capacity for 1400 passengers and around 700 crew, our trip maxed out at 1243 passengers and 586 crew. Before going aboard we spent 4 days touring around this fascinating city. It has a very young, vibrant and friendly feeling, with great music and food. And, of course, you can’t go to Buenos Aires without going out to a night of Tango! We had fun while eating a late lunch alfresco in the funky neighbourhood La Boca, with tango and guacho (cowboy) dancing on the outside patio.

Learning to tango (message from our son “That’s not my mom”!!)


MS Zaandam. Our cabin was just below the middle life boat

Leaving Buenos Aires involved travelling down the Rio de la Plate, which is a river wide enough at the city to hide the opposite bank. The next morning we arrived in Uruguay’s capital city of Montevideo, situated at the mouth of the river and the Atlantic Ocean. After a day of touring the city of Montevideo we headed out into the South Atlantic. Other than Cape Horn, we looked forward to watching and identifying new seabirds including the elegant shearwaters, petrels and albatross (picture here). Bird watching kept us amused for the two sea days cruising along the Argentinian coast to the Falkland Islands, our next stop. The four of us travelling together booked a Peter Watts tour to visit a couple of penguin rookeries and had a good background tour of part of the East Falkland island and the capital of Stanley, on East Falkland island. The Gentoo and Magellanic penguin colonies were fantastic! We saw them along the coast in fields, in their burrows, waddling across the beach to the sea, swimming and one was chasing a turkey vulture. The chicks were just moulting and getting ready for their life at sea. Of course the day ended at a café in Stanley with a Rockhopper Ale brewed on the Falkland islands accompanying Kingclip fish and chips.

Magellanic penguin colony on East Falkland

It took two sea days of moderate weather before entering the Magellan Straits on our way to Punta Arenas, our first port of call in Chile. We arrived at the entrance to the strait near dusk, and were surprised by the number of oil producing platforms that the ship had to weave through.

By the time we arrived at Punta Arenas the news over the past few days made it obvious that we were headed for a full-blown global pandemic. From Day 1 the captain and crew bent over backwards to emphasize the need for very high levels of hygiene throughout the ship and throughout the day. Hand sanitizer stations with monitors, were liberally spread about the ship. At the entrance to the various eating areas and bars were Purell stations that we monitored  by staff to ensure that all passengers used them. When leaving and returning to our cabins (plus, plus) we were strictly adhering to a 20 second hand washing with warm water and soap.

A tour of the small city of Punta Arena was memorable for the level of damage evident from the recent riots that had swept Chile. All financial institutions and many stores had had their windows boarded from being broken and buildings were covered with graffiti, giving the place a very solemn and unsettled feeling. Oddly enough the opera Madame Butterfly was played over loudspeakers all over the main park. After a day touring the city we were to set off along Tierra del Fuego towards the Argentinian city of Ushuaia. As we left Punta Arenas ,on March 14th, the captain announced that Argentina had closed all its ports to cruise ships. And so it began….. the “Mystery voyage” on the Flying Dutachman.

The Captain decided to bypass Ushuaia and head straight for Cape Horn. At 11 pm Saturday March 14th as we transited the Cockburn Channel on our way to the Horn, the Chilean government gave the ship a warning to return to Punta Arenas before 8 am as the Chilean ports would be closing. The Chileans gave little time for the Zaandam passengers to prove that they had plane tickets out of Punta Arena, pass a health check, pack and leave. After a delay for much of the second day (March 15 and 16th) the Chileans changed their minds and closed the port before we could disembark.

Farthest south we got on the voyage

The Captain (Ane Jan Smit) decided to make our way up the Chilean coast through Patagonia and the Chilean fjords to the ports of Santiago (San Antonio and Valparaiso), rather than wait off Punta Arenas as the Chileans suggested. His announcement came late Monday afternoon much to the relief and cheering of the passengers who were not looking forward to heading home from the bottom of Chile (End of the world). Three days of cruising through Patagonia, the Chilean fjords photographing glaciers, birds and catching a few games of bridge.

 The ports remained closed to us, but the ship was finally allowed to anchor off of Valparaiso on the weekend Mar 19-21st to take on provisions and refuel. On a beautiful evening we weighed anchor, and for the last time watched the sunset from the panoramic lounge overlooking the ship’s bridge, with 3 weeks of food and 7000 nm of fuel. The next afternoon (Monday) the captain called from the bridge sending all passengers to their cabins as  people had come down with flu-like symptoms . All passengers were confined to their cabins for the remainder of the voyage in order to avoid further spread of the flu.

Looking across cabin to our window on MS Zaandam

What came next was 12 days together in an 8X18 foot cabin with a bed, small couch and tiny table , a counter with a TV screen and a head. Luckily, there was also a large window looking out on the promenade walking deck and the ocean. The days went by quickly for us for a number of reasons. First and foremost, we very much enjoy each other’s company, even after 35-odd years, and so this made the time mostly enjoyable, and much of the time fun. We avoided watching too much news on TV in order to not get bogged down with the swamp of COVID news. Each morning started with exercises as we travel with tension bands and small portable equipment. For Doreen this included morning stretches, dancercise, and other fun classes on the shipboard TV by crew and entertainment staff, breakfast, answering emails (Alan) and social media (Doreen), lunch, reading, Sudoku and crossword puzzles, a nap, and then pre-dinner cocktails and a ongoing cribbage tournament. Dinner was 3 courses followed by an evening of reading, watching concerts (on shipboard TV) by the music groups onboard (a Tenor and 2 cellists that play in the style of the 5 cellist group Apcolyptica!) and/or a movie. Repeat 12 times!! The only exception was that we dressed in formal attire one evening and enjoyed a very nice dinner that we specially ordered at our small cabins table adorned with a white tablecloth  (handtowel). Our friends in the adjacent dinner joined us virtually for a toast and a few laughs.

Doreen reading at the window

Despite the depleted crew numbers due to illness (the crew was hit harder than guests) the Holland America staff took very good care of us throughout the voyage. The Dutch captain kept us informed 2 to 3 times a day, meals were wholesome and varied, and more than enough booze and desserts! That’s where the discipline had to come in!

Looking from the window towards the cabin

We reached the Panama Canal roads early Saturday morning, after our fourth day cruising north out of Valparaiso (and 3 days after our 2 week original cruise was to end). Just outside of Panama we were joined by the MS Rotterdam ship that came down from San Diego with more medical staff and supplies. They split up the passenger list to lessen the load on the already diminished Zaandam crew due to illness They had hoped to take over only healthy passengers (ie. no fever) but in the end over a dozen people apparently came down with the flu on our sister ship by the end of the cruise.  By this time, test kits were brought onboard in Ecuador and COVID-19 had already been identified and 4 elderly passengers had died.  Early on in the journey it became apparent that we would hear media news that wsan’t always correct. We relied on the Captains announcements as it was a very fluid journey.

Sea lion getting a free ride on the bow of our fuel tanker

Two days looking out the window on the Pacific side of the canal gave us plenty of time to count the ships in the line-up to go through the canal(43), watch flocks of cormorants and then pelicans diving for fish in a feeding frenzy each evening. Sunday morning the Captain announced that they still hadn’t received permission to transit the canal despite what news agencies were reporting. Finally, at dusk the Panamanian authorities gave both ships permission to go through together adhering to strict rules. At dark both ships slipped anchor, extinguished all lights, and on March 31 headed through the Canal to the Caribbean and at 3 AM the big rollers were rocking the boat!!. We were able to watch our transit through the lock system on the ships bow camera and out our window. Very eerie, with not a person in sight! The transit was a huge relief, as there was a worry we would not be allowed to go through to make our final destination: Port Everglades near Lauderdale.

The trip across the Caribbean Sea involved three days of building anxiety that we would not be able to disembark in Florida. The major worry was that a few other people had become seriously ill and needed immediate hospital care. In the end the Florida governor acquiesced and allowed the two ships to disembark passengers (without a fever) Friday April 3, but not those with symptoms or any of the crew. A well-orchestrated plan had us go through another health check and customs at the cruise port, and then whisked on to buses for the airport. We had around 20 motorcycle police stopping traffic for a clear route all the way to the tarmac, where a charter aircraft was waiting for us to take us to Toronto. The American officials were warm and welcoming, as were the bevy of Canadian health and Customs officials waiting for us at Pearson airport. Altogether, it was a pretty smooth running machine on both sides of the border.

The most amazing thing of our trip to the edge of the Southern Ocean was the day after day of calm seas and warm weather. Not at all what we expected from the books that we read about the windjammers heading into the roaring forties and fifties.

What were a few of the memories that we took away from the trip?  Buenos Aires and the friendly Argentinian people mark this as a place to go back to. The Falkland island nature, people and history was fascinating and a highlight (been there, done that). We encountered many amazing new vistas although being avid sailors the one disappointment was missing Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn. The strong daily support we had from friends and family, the Zen-like quality of time watching the unending ocean go by (with birds!), the professionalism of the captain and crew, the shock of having people die on board, and how much we enjoyed each others company through all the highs and lows. The human spirit is strong and enduring, which will get us all through this challenge. Stay safe and enjoy the small things!

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