A year ago, Suzi and I stood on a long line to check in for the MS Amsterdam 2020 Grand World Voyage — in a closeness that would horrify us today. The line was kind of a reunion. Many of us had taken the Holland America world cruise before. We were chatting, hugging, and taking selfies with friends who we met, head on, a dozen times as the line snaked back and forth between fabric tape.
A surprising number of the 1000 passengers do this every year. Others, every other year, even yearers and odd yearers. We’re a subculture. This was our second, even year, world cruise. Two years ago, I felt like we were crashing a private house party. There was a meet and greet for first timers and we didn’t fill the piano bar. But soon we became part of the subculture.
A snap by the ship’s photographer showed a smiling couple happy to be back on board. A banner hanging on the side of Amsterdam read “Welcome Home”
Through January the voyage went as expected. But in Early February we were not allowed to call at the Palmer Antarctic Station for fear of the Coronavirus spreading to the researchers. After that, the virus became the elephant on deck. As we headed west across the Pacific there were whispers about the virus, then stories about a plague ship in Japan. Someone started a betting pool on what ports we would skip, then in what port the cruise would end. Leaving Tonga Captain Mercer told us we would be rerouting. Out of Sydney more rerouting and out of Caines he told us the cruise would end in a port we weren’t originally expecting to visit, Fremantle, Western Australia.
A week of chaos and anxiety, fanned by conflicting emails from our travel agents and press releases from Holland America, followed as we all scrambled to make reservations home and to remake them when flights were canceled. For a while we wondered if we would even be allowed to land in Fremantle. Holland America told us that we could leave baggage on the ship and it would sail, with the ship, back to Fort Lauderdale and then transferred to our homes via FedEx. The chaos and angst helped bind us together.
So, with non-social distanced hugs and a few tears we left the ship, many with reservations for the 2021 or 2022 circumnavigations, telling each other we would meet again on the Amsterdam. Once home kept up with each other on the Cruise Critic message board and through a couple of a Facebook groups. We kept track of each other’s health, our journeys home, and the fate of our luggage.
Amsterdam started a slow Indian Ocean crossing to Durban South Africa, running with reduced lighting, air conditioning and speed to save fuel to make the crossing in one go. Ports were rapidly closing because of the virus. At Durban, the Captain learned he would not be allowed to land in Florida, so Amsterdam turned around headed back, with our luggage, across the Indian Ocean. Cruise Mates with good internet skills tracked the ship’s progress to Malaysia, where it refueled, to Indonesia where some crew were let off and on to the Philippines where more were repatriated. Cruise mates posted maps and web cam pics. Crew members messaged us on Facebook and posted pictures of their voyages and homecomings. We saw the Marriott hotel in Jakarta where the Indonesian crew quarantined and followed the Filipino crew’s quarantine on the ship as it anchored, with other ships, off Manilla. We tracked Amsterdam as she left her station off Manilla to the open sea to make fresh water, we followed her as she went back out to sea to weather storms. In Manilla, the relief captain came on board and Captain Mercer left the ship for retirement with a salute from the ship’s horn, and the horns of the other ships anchored off Manilla.
MS Amsterdam left Manilla after letting off all but a skeleton operating crew and picking up Indonesian crew from other Holland America ships to deadhead back to Indonesia on her way to Singapore where our baggage was offloaded to a tender and packed into shipping containers. (Thanks to the crew for pics.)
Our stuff got off just in time because HAL sold the ship, with all its fittings, to Fred Olsen Lines, although I don’t know what Fred Olsen would do with my wool socks or neckties. Most of us had expected to meet again on this ship and were somewhere between sad and angry. As a community we petitioned Holland America to reclaim one of the bits of art on Amsterdam, the art deco “Four Seasons” which was originally on the classic 1937 trans-Atlantic liner Nieuw Amsterdam. A few weeks later we got a nice letter from the president of HAL saying they had saved the piece.
Our Facebook groups were now following two ships, Amsterdam across the Indian Ocean, for a third time, for delivery to her new owners and the container ship, Gulf Bridge, carrying our luggage from Singapore, to Viet Nam, Hong Kong, and who knows where else, across the Pacific, through a tropical storm, through the Canal, skirting a couple more tropical storms, into Miami where our bags sat in Customs for a month.
When they cleared customs, we posted our FedEx tracing pages mapping our bags’ strange routes home. Ours went from Florida to Alabama to Tennessee to Mississippi, back to Tennessee and then split up to three to Anchorage and two to Seattle. FedEx told us our bags would arrive on November 2. They came early on Oct 28 and 29th. They were fairly bashed up but the insides were ok.
Members of our subculture got to know each other better on Facebook than we had on the ship. And even though the Amsterdam now has a new name and livery, and our bags (I hope) are all home, we keep in touch, posting pictures, blog posts, articles, and thoughts. We had a group Zoom just this morning. We’ve became a tighter community.
HAL canceled the 2021 World Cruise and shifted the itinerary to 2022 and a different ship. On-line and on zoom we are wondering if will really go and if so, where it will really go? One cruise mate said, “I’ll go where the Captain goes, it works better that way.”
The bonding, on the ship and on-line makes Suzi and me more inclined to do it again. We are booked on the 2022. With all the compensatory cruise credits we have from HAL, it even kind of makes sense.
One of the virtual discussions the sub-culture has had is whether we would like to “live” on a cruise ship, like Dolly, who lived on Amsterdam, cruise after cruise, until the final cruise ended. Some posted articles about people who have done that.
I wouldn’t like that. The great pleasure of a long cruise is that you can abrogate responsibility for a couple of months. I don’t have to worry about where we are going, where we’ll eat or what we’ll do. I have choices, of course, take an excursion or just wander around, steak or pasta, song and dance or piano bar, fiction or non-fiction. But these choices are of no real consequence. I even stop reading the news for the duration, abrogating the responsibility of being an informed citizen. It’s easy enough to catch up when I get home.
But I need home, to be part of a community where I have a role and responsibility, where I have a lifetime of investment. I love the long break that a long cruise affords, but something in me needs to come back to serve on that board, to do that radio show, to report that news story, and to assume the role of community elder.