Gresham couple recount 'cruise to nowhere' during pandemic
One Gresham couple experienced the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic while stuck on the high seas seeking refuge in the Pacific Ocean.
Brigitte and Huan Luu were two of more than 2,000 passengers aboard the Norwegian Jewel, operated by Norwegian Cruise Line. They spent almost a month dealing with the fears surrounding the novel coronavirus while attempting to find a way home and stay connected with loved ones in East Multnomah County.
What was supposed to be a fun island hopping adventure they had anticipated for months, turned into a much more stressful affair. Through it all, Brigitte kept a trip report primarily for her grandchildren, ages 3 and 11, so they would know why their grandparents were gone for such a long time.
"In spite of everything that happened, Huan and I feel very lucky and grateful for the experience," Brigitte wrote. "We learned to be patient, tolerant, humble and to not take anything for granted. Together, we survived the ordeal."
The Luus began their journey in Sydney, Australia, the point of departure for the NCL Jewel. They checked in on Friday, Feb. 28, and settled into their cabin on deck 10, mid-ship. It was a great location — two decks below the card room and the fitness center, and only three away from the sports court.
"The view from the promenade deck was amazing," Brigitte wrote, marveling at the Sydney Opera House and the Harbor Bridge.
The next day they set sail.
The beginning of the trip was a blast. Their days were spent exploring harbor towns, meeting others aboard the ship, watching shows, eating good food and enjoying each other's company.
Ports of call during the cruise were across the Pacific, including New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa, French Polynesia and others. The first week lived up to the promise of a delightful adventure, with the couple exploring new islands and making friends throughout the ship, including several couples from Oregon.
But as time passed, COVID-19 slowly began rearing its head.
On day seven, German and a few other European passengers were not allowed to disembark in Noumea, New Caledonia. On day 11, in Lautoka, Fiji, a visit to a clothing store had them notice a shop owner wearing a face mask to ensure he would not catch any disease from the cruise visitors. On day 14, the cruise ship library stopped giving out books, and all activities involving hand contact were canceled. The next day, Thursday, March 12, further sanitation measures were implemented. No more self-service in the dining spaces.
Then, on Saturday, March 14, 16 days into the cruise, an announcement from the captain led the passengers start saying they were on a "cruise to nowhere."
The captain informed them that all French Polynesia ports were closed to cruise ships. The NCL Jewel was going to cut things short and sail to New Zealand, where passengers would be responsible for obtaining transportation back home. But things continued to go awry, as New Zealand quickly followed suit by denying cruise ships to enter their port.
"What happened from this moment onward was a combination of confusion, panic, chaos, and a deep feeling of uncertainty," Brigitte wrote.
International news on stateroom televisions showed the devolving situation around the globe. Most passengers began exhausting their WIFI minutes as they attempted to learn more and secure ways home.
As a solution, the cruise line announced it would provide unlimited free internet and phone calls from one of the meeting rooms on deck six so passengers could make travel arrangements. But it was first-come, first-served, and securing time was difficult. Eventually, time limits were put in place — 20 minutes on the internet and 15 minutes on the phone per passenger each day. But still, Brigitte said she had to face long wait times, including 4 hours to get on a laptop.
Brigitte was able to connect with her son, James, who helped his parents secure two one-way tickets home from Fiji on March 18. The solution was expensive, but temporary, as the captain announced that Fiji was no longer accepting cruise ships.
The NCL Jewel again changed course toward American Samoa. The local government was allowing a stop at Pago Pago for the ship to refuel and restock, but nobody was allowed to disembark.
"From the upper deck, after being at sea for five days, everybody was excited to see land," Brigitte said. "As the ship approached the dock, we noticed two police cars and officers in uniform wearing face masks."
She speculated they were there to ensure no one jumped ship.
At this point, the NCL Jewel didn't have a destination in mind, so the plan was to head east toward Hawaii and the friendly port of Honolulu. The estimated arrival date was March 22, though rumors were swirling the city would also block cruise ships. Morale was low among passengers, and the seas were rough crossing the Pacific.
Tuesday morning, March 24, the couple was finally able to leave the ship in Honolulu and make their way to the airport. It was the 27th day into the trip and almost two weeks since they had last been on land. Thankfully, no one aboard the ship tested positive for COVID-19 or showed signs of symptoms.
The Luus were back home the next day, happy to see loved ones.
"Seeing the grandkids sitting in the back of the SUV with a big smile on their faces was endearing and nearly brought tears to my eyes," Brigitte wrote. "(We) arrived in Gresham around noon — totally exhausted and sleep deprived but happy to finally be home."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.