We met our friends Sharon and Ray on the P&O Cruises ship Oceana several years ago when my husband still worked at sea. They were often the ‘most travelled’ passengers on board and it was always a pleasure to sail in their company. It’s always great to hear about their cruise experiences over email.
Sharon has kindly written about their recent experience on board Arcadia’s circumnavigation from Sydney to Southampton. The cruise had to be cut short partway through, due to the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) outbreak.
So if you have been wondering what cruising was like during the COVID-19 outbreak, before ships stopped sailing, then read on. It’s great to see a positive story about how P&O Cruises, and the hardworking officers and crew on board, handled a very difficult and unpredictable situation. I just hope that people don’t forget what a great experience cruising can be, as the industry has had so much negative publicity lately.
Arcadia’s Mystery Tour (with Captain Luko Vojvoda)
20th February to 12th April 2020 – ‘Sydney to Southampton’ by Sharon Williams
Ray and I left home on 17th February 2020 to go to Birmingham airport and join a flight to, first Dubai, and then on to Sydney. We had three nights in a hotel in Sydney, before joining Arcadia. We found rumours on the internet of changes to our itinerary, but found nothing definite. So on 20th February we joined the ship NOT knowing where we would be going but we soon found out: nowhere on our original itinerary, except Brisbane!
We were not medically screened to get on to the ship, only asked if we had stopped over in Singapore. Fortunately we had arrived via Dubai, so we were let on the ship without a problem. However, anyone who had travelled via Singapore were either refused entry, or could join the cruise at a later date. If they chose the second option P&O Cruises arranged hotels and flights for them.
The Far East ports and the Suez Canal were closed to us, but alternative ports had been found. We would be visiting 5 Australian ports and 2 ports in Tasmania. We were quite happy with that, after all, there was nothing we could do about it and we like Australia very much, plus Tasmania would be a first visit for us.
Life on board
Ray and I had an inside cabin which was in a great position, very quiet and towards the back of the ship where we like to be. We were next to a storage cupboard/utility area. During the third week the crew began working in that area, and due to on-going noise issues, we were upgraded to a window cabin (obstructed), which we moved into for the rest of the cruise. We were not expecting that! It was very nice.
After visiting the Australian ports, we left Fremantle unsure of where we were going next. Two days later we had exciting news – we were going to Durban for a day and an overnight stay in Cape Town. However, two days later, another letter and announcement – not only was Cape Town cancelled, but we would be calling at Durban for fuel and supplies only. It was hoped that any South African crew who wished to, could also leave.
This involved four days of being anchored off shore, waiting first for the arrival of a South African doctor to examine and test 13 sick people that we had on board. The captain announced that the doctor would arrive by helicopter, but said that he would be wearing full PPE.
The results, given the next evening, said that we were all clear and that we could go into port the next day. That did not happen and the captain said that he had been told to stay at anchor, but he refused and we sailed around for another day and night. When we did eventually dock, it took a full day to complete everything and we left Durban around 7.30pm. Some South African crew did stay behind. Interestingly, South Africa closed all their ports the night we left.
No more ports
We were told that there would be no more port stops and also that the cruise was curtailed! What did that mean? – everyone now HAD to stay on the ship and sail back to the UK. There were no flights home for anyone, but no one was expected to pay any more money for their cabins. Very few people seemed to mind and it was exceptionally nice for the people in the suites!
As a sign of goodwill every cabin was given £600 on board credit plus a 100% future cruise credit pro-rata daily cruise fare for the last 33 days of the cruise, to spend on a new future cruise. It could not be used for a cruise which was already booked.
So in effect the last 33 days were free and we had money to book a new cruise. This was considered very generous by everyone and many passengers went shopping mad once the £600 on board credit went into action!
Social distancing on a cruise ship
Then social distancing was enforced by the captain, as it had been made a requirement in the UK and we were told that we must follow those restrictions too, within reason. We had another letter! Overnight tables of six became four, four became two and everything became freedom dining. There were restrictions of only four people max in a lift, this proved very unpopular.
In the theatre and cinema ‘out of use’ cards were placed on seats to make spaces between passengers. Only a few couples at a time were allowed on the dance floor and ALL usual quizzes, deck sports were no longer run by the entertainment team – ‘what no stars??!!’… it’s true!! However…in truth, little changed!
Shows still went on, daily presentations by visiting speakers, all of the bands and duos entertained and in the pub we still danced, albeit 1 metre apart, unless you were a couple.
Wayne Sleep was on the ship, having joined in Australia and his talks were most entertaining, just as he was. He was a delight to talk to and was happy to show off his dance moves everywhere around the ship. He was often seen teaching dance moves to the reception staff or passengers, while every morning at 9.15am the ukulele group started the day with music and songs. The choir still practised and performed, spread out, of course!
The spa did not close – no social distancing there. Massages and hair cuts were still available and with the £600 we all received, they suddenly became very busy. It also became clear to passengers that when they did get home, there were no hairdressers/barbers open. The spa had to start a hair waitlist during our last week… £25 for a man’s cut!
We had taken Ray’s hair cutter and word got round, so it became very popular. Jan, who played quoits, was a hairdresser and with Ray’s cutter she was happy to cut anyone’s hair. She thankfully cut mine, and before you ask – not with Ray’s cutter, two days before the UK.
Keeping busy on board
Deck sports continued too. Ray and I played quoits and shuffleboard. In both cases a passenger took charge. Shuffleboard numbers were low so that was easy to self distance, but approximately 25 to 35 played quoits. After two sessions the captain announced that social distancing in some areas was not being adhered to and although he didn’t want to stop anything, if necessary he would. We knew that it was the quoits that he was referring to. We needed discipline…and a plan.
I can proudly say that I came up with the answer. All the outdoor chairs that had been removed from the tables by the pools were fortunately on the quoits deck, so I suggested the we each had a chair, one metre apart and try (I do say try) to sit on it until it was our turn to play. Everyone thought that it was a great idea, so this is what we did – nothing more was heard from the captain regarding a failure to comply – sorted!!
Table tennis was easier to sort out. Unless you were playing with your own partner against other partners, then it was all singles. Two passengers took charge and handicaps were introduced, this seemed to please everyone.
Dance classes of all kinds continued, but only a certain number of people were allowed into the rooms e.g. just 30 people for line dancing. This was very strict with a count on the door.
Strangely formal black tie nights were stopped but no one knew why. Complaints were made, and by the last weeks of the cruise they were back on the agenda and the posh frock nights were back.
There was no ceremony involved in the crossing of the equator. The captain said that due to the virus and social distancing, he had asked King Neptune not to board the ship but had reassured him – we would be back! The captain was a delight. We rarely saw him, but his announcements were both informative and funny.
One day during his morning announcement he said that he had been told we all thought that he was funny, so he had agreed to do a live, one-off special stand up comedy show and we were all welcome in the theatre at 3pm that very afternoon.
On the same day we were also told that we could visit the ship’s dairy to see the cows and chickens…on deck 13…we only had 12 decks… perhaps that is why I never found it?
Yes it was a very strange day indeed … oh did I mention… it was April the 1st? Truthfully, about 60 people did really go the show…worrying eh!?
A memorable cruise
Three nights before the end of the cruise every cabin was sent a bottle of Prosecco and yet another letter (we had a lot of letters) this time from the captain. A very well received gesture, we drank it in the Crow’s Nest bar while watching the sun go down over calm sea.
For the latter part of the cruise every cabin received 100 minutes free Wi-Fi, and many passengers were very grateful to be able to get in touch with the family. Also if there was a real need, reception were giving free telephone calls or sending emails for passengers.
On a sad/disappointing note we had about 150 Australian passengers on board who had only visited stops in their country. I met a couple who joined in Fremantle and there were others who never had a port stop at all. It was only during the final days that they discovered how they were getting home. We left the ship on a Sunday but they were staying on the ship until the early hours of the following Tuesday morning, then being coached to Gatwick for a flight to Sydney. Once there, it was straight into a hotel room for two weeks quarantine and after that they weren’t really sure. It was very tough for them. We never heard one of them moan or complain about the situation, they were a really friendly bunch.
It certainly was a very unusual cruise, but like almost everyone we made the most and really did enjoy it. The seas and weather were perfect, all except for two days of rain and rough seas and we had one foggy morning in the Channel.
We met with ‘old’ friends and made new ones. Food was plentiful and the wine, although our favourite did run out, was good. The sports were just as competitive, regardless of there being no stars to win.
Ray and I felt that P&O handled everything very well and were as generous as they could be. The captain kept us updated at every point and was very fair about everything. It must have been very tough for him.
We will cruise again
The world that we have come back to is certainly not as we left it. A train station with only four passengers, an empty train compartment and queuing for milk was a shock. But we, like all of you reading this, are accepting it and live with the hope that we shall be free to holiday and cruise again soon.
We were truly lucky to have such a different but great cruise!
Stay safe and thank you for taking the time to read our story.Follow me on social media