Holland America Line cruise ships Zaandam and Rotterdam passed through the Panama Canal under cover of darkness with all lights and windows blacked out due to local protests by citizens against the ships’ passage. (Photo: Maggie Tilley)

Cruise ships, one with COVID-19 on board, carry Canadians covertly through Panama Canal

Zaandam, Rotterdam pass through canal under cover of darkness in face of local protests

A Nanaimo couple stranded aboard a quarantined cruise ship since mid-March are closer to coming home after making it through the Panama Canal under a ‘cloak of darkness.’

Maggie Tilley and David Andrews began a voyage aboard Holland America Line cruise ship Zaandam from Buenos Aires, Argentina, March 7, but have been stuck aboard the vessel with more than 1,200 passengers and nearly 600 crew since March 14 when South American countries started closing their borders to control the spread of the coronavirus.

Days later, passengers and crew came down with illness and four passengers died. Two people aboard the ship tested positive for COVID-19 and the cruise line brought in the Zaandam’s sister ship Rotterdam to rendezvous near Panama City, Panama, to evacuate healthy passengers and bring supplies and medical teams aboard the Zaandam.

Tilley reported to the News Bulletin over the weekend that she and Andrews transferred to the Rotterdam after passing a medical check. She said a second couple from Nanaimo, Elizabeth and Robin Pack, also transferred to the Rotterdam.

Panama had not allowed passengers to disembark there, nor had authorities allowed the ships to transit the Panama Canal to complete their journey to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. In a press release issued by Holland America Line on Sunday, the company said permission had been granted for passage.

“We greatly appreciate this humanitarian consideration and the compassion shown for our guests and crew by the government of Panama and the Panama Maritime Authority,” noted Holland America. “We are also thankful for the support of the various embassies that are partnering with us to help get their citizens home as quickly as possible.”

READ ALSO: Nanaimo couple caught aboard cruise ship with four dead and COVID-19 present

Monday morning, March 30, Tilley reported both ships had passed through the canal overnight.

“We went through the canal in a cloak of darkness,” she said. “We were ordered to turn all balcony lights out, draw the blackout curtains and stay inside the cabins. No crew or passenger was to step out until after we transitioned the entire canal system … We were in the new canal and did the whole transit in 3.5 hours instead of eight, I hear. They really booted us through, because of the protesters and backlash from Panama citizens. Not sure how we could infect them from a boat.”

She said the Rotterdam was in the process of catching up to the Zaandam and said it was her understanding that medical supplies would be air-dropped.

“Sounds scary and worrisome. There are Canadians on the Zaandam still. People I met and had dinner with,” she said.

READ ALSO: Passengers from Nanaimo now on ‘mystery cruise’ after Chile calls a state of catastrophe

Holland America Line said it is still finalizing the details for where and when its passengers will disembark, and is asking for the same compassion and humanity to be extended for the ships’ arrival.

Holland America said as of Sunday, 73 passengers and 116 crew on Zaandam had reported flu-like illness symptoms. There are 446 passengers and 602 crew remaining on Zaandam and 797 guests and 645 crew aboard Rotterdam. Guests have not been ashore since March 14 in Punta Arenas, Chile, and have been self-isolating in their staterooms since March 22.

“The two ships will remain together for the rest of the journey,” Holland America Line said in the release. “Guests on both ships will remain in their staterooms until disembarkation and all necessary precautionary measures are being taken on both ships that have been developed in conjunction with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

A spokeswoman for Global Affairs Canada said Monday no COVID-19 cases have been confirmed among Canadian citizens who were on the Zaandam.

-files from Canadian Press



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The Holland America Line cruise ship Rotterdam transferred hundreds healthy passengers aboard Saturday. (Photo: Maggie Tilley)

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