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How freedom and frivolity gave way to fear and loathing onboard the Ruby Princess

TALES OF 2020

Each day this month, we will publish Tales of 2020, the stories of ordinary Queenslanders enduring an extraordinary year. Today, Andy Mills shares his recollections of an unforgettable cruise – and return to Sydney – on the infamous Ruby Princess.

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A Wild Ride Around New Zealand

We went for a cruise around NZ in March. The cruise ship was departing Sydney, visiting seven ports in NZ, and then returning to Sydney.

As first-time cruisers we were very excited and a little nervous as to what to expect. We were particularly looking forward to cruising around Milford Sound and Fjordland, seeing the amazing scenery. We also planned to visit friends in Wellington and Auckland during the stopovers in those cities.

A few thoughts come to mind after the experience: It was a wild ride. Best cruise we ever went on. Worst cruise we ever went on.
We didn’t know it was an adventure cruise.

Three days before sailing we received an email from the cruise company: “Due to Coronavirus, if you are on a cruise starting 9 March, you can cancel for a full refund if you are uncomfortable cruising at this time.”

Our cruise started on 8 March so what use was this to us? Besides, NZ had no cases and Oz only had a dozen. The ship was coming from a previous trip around NZ. No worries, right?

Two days before sailing we received another email from the cruise company: “If you have recently visited, China, South Korea, Japan, or Iran, don’t bother turning up for your cruise. Be assured no new crew members are joining the ship from those countries.”

OK that’s good. No problem there. Upon landing at Sydney airport on the morning of the 8th, feeling sleepy but excited, we received a text message from the cruise company: “Due to 4-hour delays in New South Wales Health clearance for the incoming ship, you will now be boarding at 5 pm instead of 1pm.” Ok that’s a bit of a concern.

We arrived at the Overseas Passenger Terminal at Circular Quay in Sydney, to see the enormous white ship. Just then we received another text message: “Please drop your baggage at the check-in and go and have lunch at our expense. Boarding will commence at 5pm.”

We walked around Circular Quay and stopped at a restaurant near the Opera House for lunch. Chose a table near the water’s edge and looked back at the majestic cruise ship with the Harbour Bridge as a backdrop. Proudly emblazoned on its flank was its name ‘RUBY PRINCESS’.

After lunch we wandered around The Rocks, visited the markets and after a bit more time spent wandering around, we  joined the queue to board the ship. An hour and a half later we finally got past customs and passport control, boarded the ship, and headed for dinner. The ship finally left the quay at midnight, 5 hours late, and we sat at the stern by the pool and watched the city lights as we steamed down the harbour and out of The Heads into the open ocean.

The next two days were spent crossing the Tasman Sea and, although a little rough, everything seemed calm and relaxed on board. We were looking forward to getting to NZ as we headed south, and the temperature steadily dropped.

• The only hint of anything unusual were the enhanced health precaution instructions:
Wash your hands regularly for 20 seconds.
• Try to avoid using the public toilets.
• Preferably use the ones in your state room.
• Avoid touching handrails and hard surfaces.

This all made sense in any case as cruise ships are notorious for flu transmission and the like. What I didn’t realise before boarding is that being in my mid-sixties, we would be in the youngest percentile of the passengers on board. Indeed, many were significantly older and more frail than ourselves.

The following day we awoke at dawn to find ourselves approaching the coast of NZ. The skies were crystal clear; seas were calm. A perfect day for exploring Fjordland. We rugged up and went to the top deck vantage points to view the scenery. An hour later we were in Milford Sound. Fantastic! And the weather stayed like that for the next six days. We moved on to Dunedin, Akaroa, Wellington, and Napier.

One of the highlights was sharing eight-seater dining tables, providing the opportunity to meet and socialise with other guests. We were in close contact with people from North America, Europe and around Australia Social distancing was not a recognised ‘thing’ at that time although shaking hands was out of fashion. Every evening we attended the usually packed onboard theatre to sample the entertainment on offer. A great time was had by all.

After Dunedin, the Aussie comedian on the entertainment staff went unexpectedly missing. The Cruise Director announced that the Polish magician would be filling in for him. Then, a message from NZ border control: “Any passenger on the ship, who has recently visited China, South Korea, Japan, Iran, Italy, or West Coast USA must identify themselves.”

After Wellington we found out one of the onboard bands had gone missing and were dropped from the entertainment program. That’s a bit strange. Also, over breakfast the next day, whilst chatting to some Americans, we found out some of their compatriots had left the ship in Wellington to fly home, as they were worried about flights shutting down.

The two Californians amongst our breakfast companions wondered what the implications of identifying themselves were. The Italian Commodore came on the intercom in the evening to announce that NZ was banning cruise ships from the 17 March – three days’ time. We would be in Auckland then. Rumours and speculation ran rife.

Would we leave the ship in Auckland and fly home? Would the ship miss the Bay of Islands stop and head to Sydney?

We stopped at Napier, walked along the esplanade, and played putt putt golf. Had an ice cream and returned to the ship for a late lunch. In the afternoon, a group of a dozen locals in vintage cars and period dress appeared on the quay next to the ship and played ragtime music to the delight of the starboard side passengers.

Everyday life at all the ships stops in NZ was outwardly very normal. Only one case of Coronavirus at that time. But Coronavirus was on everyone’s mind. Back on board, having left Napier at 4pm, and after dinner, another announcement from the Commodore. All the passengers pricked their ears up at the sound of his accented voice.

We had learned that the Commodore’s announcements meant bad news: “Australia has just banned cruise ships except for those already heading for Sydney. Since we are already heading for Sydney, we will arrive two days early. No stopping at Tauranga, Auckland and Bay of Islands.”

A collective groan, but at least we would get home and not be stuck in a foreign port. We had reversed course and headed south, back through the Cook Strait past Wellington again.

Over the next two days we had multiple flyers pushed under our state room door. Australian Border Force: “You must quarantine for fourteen days. That period starts from the time you left the last port. That means four days is complete when you get to Sydney and a further ten at home. You can go to Sydney airport and fly home. You can take a taxi or bus to get home if needed. Princess Cruises will give you a 25% refund on your cruise and 25% discount on your next cruise’. Next cruise? Not in a hurry.

From the onboard doctor, the day before we arrived in Sydney: “If you have any flu like symptoms you must report to the onboard Medical Centre.”

The mood on board was happy but reflective wondering what things were like back in Oz which was just going into lockdown. All the guests plied the predominantly Filipino restaurant staff with questions. What would they do? Would they go home? Would the cruise company look after them? The answer was always: “We don’t know yet. We will have a big party!”

St Patrick’s day was epic. We had an Irish band on board and the evening’s entertainment was memorable (mostly). It was billed as the first and last St Patrick’s day party in the world. The Guinness flowed and the singing was riotous.

The morning before we arrived in Sydney the Commodore and his senior staff, including the South African doctor in charge of the wellbeing of everyone on board, hosted a farewell party in the ship’s Central Plaza. Passengers were crowding around the area, hanging off staircase balustrades and internal balconies to get a better view. No sense of social distancing or crisis from the ship’s senior staff as they made speeches and socialised with the passengers.

The afternoon before we arrived in Sydney, the Commodore came over the speaker system: “We have been given permission to enter Sydney harbour and the Cruise Terminal berth is free. We are speeding up to arrive early at 1am instead of 7am. We anticipate that, after NSW health has cleared the ship, disembarkation will commence from 7am.”

We got up and had a leisurely breakfast in the restaurant before disembarking at 9.30am. As we left the ship, many of the crew were on hand to cheer and clap us off. Everyone was in a jovial mood.

As we left the ship our passport details were checked and we went through customs, then jumped on a Princess provided bus to the Airport.

With our passport details contained in electronic lanyards worn by every passenger, disembarkation was simple. No passports required, very quick. We were however surprised that we were allowed off the ship with no personal health checks

The rest is history.

Andy Mills was born in the UK but “escaped” 21 years later. He is a member of the Ulysses Club and rids his motorbike wherever and whenever he can.

This article was first published in Stories from the Heart, an e-book edited by Dr Johanna Skinner and editor Jane Connolly, and is republished with their permission.  

 

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