When Kiwi theatre star Cassandra McCowan decided to jump ship from the ultra luxury cruise liner she'd been working on, she wasn't even sure where home was.
After a series of starring roles in London's West End, the Auckland-born entertainer had been working on the Seabourn Quest, one of the world's most luxurious cruise ships.
She hadn't called New Zealand home for more than six years.
But in March, that all changed almost overnight. As cruise ships went dark around the world, the Kiwi entertainer had to think fast.
Since the outbreak of Covid-19, a worldwide suspension on cruising has been declared by cruise lines and the Centre for Disease Control (CDC).
Although passengers have long since disembarked, the CDC estimates there are at least 100 ships and 80,000 workers stuck at sea in the waters surrounding the United States. 300 of them are Cassandra's former colleagues.
The Kiwi entertainer was the only cast member from the Seabourn Quest to make it off. Now she finds herself in Katikati - on the opposite side of the world to her apartment in London - and her colleagues have spent 76 days at sea without a clear way home. As workers' contracts expire well before the no-sail order ends, many find themselves being held on ships they no longer work for, unpaid.
"The attitude was that as long as they were fed and somewhere to stay, they could tell crew to 'stay put and deal with it'. That is why I decided to leave," says Cassandra, speaking from Katikati, where she is sheltering with family.
Having just finished a two-year tour with the musical School of Rock in London's West End, McCowan's decision to take the role was a change in direction but not a surprise. Cruise ships now employ more performers and technicians than the arts districts of either London or New York. The Royal Caribbean cruise line alone runs 50 theatres at sea – nine more than Broadway.
"It was my first job on a cruise and it was a bit of a crazy one," she says.
"I went from doing eight shows a week for three years, to three 45-minute shows a day."
However, the biggest surprise on the job description was time allocated to "socialising with guests".
Her ship was the Bahamas-flagged luxury vessel the Seabourn Quest. The 229-cabin ship billed itself as the "world's finest ultra-luxury resort at sea" and she was part of a cast of six entertainers – four singers and two dancers.
"There were amazing 'guest privileges'," says McCowan. These included freedom of the ship and being able to dine in the same restaurants and social areas as passengers who were paying around $23,000 for their trip.
On top of shows, she was expected to host dinner tables in the evenings. She said part of that meant interacting with guests, making sure they were content and having a good time. This part of the job became far harder on her final sailing as the ship was inundated with daily updates of travel restrictions and border closures.
Finally, on March 13, guests were told they would not be able dock in Montevideo, Uruguay, for their final port of call. The country was now closed to cruise traffic and they would have to find transport home from Argentina, before the border was closed to them there.
"Most guests understood the situation," says Cassandra. "They knew they were lucky to be aboard a ship where food and accommodation was taken care of."
However, that didn't stop the final days becoming a mad rush as 400 passengers and staff who could leave tried to find new flights home from Buenos Aires. Cassie secured a seat on flight to Auckland.
"I've lost a bit of money but at least I'm not still onboard," she said thinking of her crew mates and fellow cast members.
"I'm done. I'll never cruise again"
Performer Ryan Driscoll was one of those who narrowly missed out on a flight. Like Cassie, he complains there has been a lack of communication between the cruise line and its employees.
"Why would you offer us the opportunity to leave in Buenos Aires if we would be breaking our contracts?", he says.
As a US citizen, he was unable to travel back to Nevada and has now spent more than 70 days at sea.
"They [the cruise company] are responsible for us getting home but don't want us getting stuck somewhere. It's just a mess."
He's aware that some crew that left in Buenos Aires are now stuck in Peru. Some of his colleagues' contracts are already expired at sea and are no longer being paid.
Ryan's own contract was shortened and finished several weeks ago. He says the cruising industry is not built to cope with such periods of inaction. Previously the company has coped with rough patches by simply ploughing on through.
"I've been with the company for four years," he says. "Some of my colleagues have been with them for 15. It's really unprecedented. We've dealt with Zika, swine flu, all of which hurt the cruise industry, but they were able to carry on."
On March 23, the staff were confined to cabins and Ryan was moved on to a sister ship - the Seabourn Odyssey - along with crew from the US and Americas.
From the Odyssey, he has been relying on ship wi-fi to keep in touch with crew members and the local embassy to find a way off the ship. He has even found time to make an appearance on a video call to a school class in Auckland last week.
"I've been recording to keep my voice agile and not too stagnant, but also just to stay sane," he says.
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Ryan officially loses his mind while stuck on the cruise ship, bringing a whole new meaning to "singing in the shower"... . . . . . #cabinfever #stuckonaship #covid19 #wanderlust #coronavirus #cdc #cruiseship #crazy #insane #cruiseshipsinger #carnivalcruise #seabourn #singer #actor #performer #entertainer #crooner #lasvegas #vegas #castawaycrooner #trump2020 #famous #headliner #vegasstrong #vegasstrip #vocalist #jazz #michaelbuble #joshgroban #franksinatra
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However the biggest occupation is planning a future once he gets off the ship. The entertainment industry in Ryan's home town of Las Vegas has been badly affected by the public health measures.
"Live sport and entertainment will be some of the last things to recover," predicts Ryan. "I'm applying for delivery driver jobs, pool maintenance – anything I can find from the ship."
Asked if he'd consider returning to performing on ships, he has made his mind up.
"I'm done. I'll never cruise again," he says. "Not because of this experience but four years is a long time to be at sea."
He says that up until now Seabourn had treated him and his colleagues well, but every departure including rehearsals was a nine and a half month period out of life.
"I've missed a lot of things. I've now got nieces and nephews. My parent are getting older," he says.
The last time he had an audience was for a classical duet with Cassandra, which may be his last public performance for some time. The highlight of their programme – the classical Sail Away was their showpiece. "Perfect for the demographic of our Seabourn guests, they really got it."
"At that point we knew our next sailing was cancelled, so it was definitely the last show for 24 days. But with news coming in by the hour – we knew that would be it."
Cassandra doesn't regret her decision to return to New Zealand.
With her family in Katikati, she is finally enjoying some of the freedoms of level 2 -something that would still be very far off had she returned to her flat in London.
"I've been lucky. I've been working solidly and have some savings. But nobody's casting new shows. Most of my Kiwi friends in London have gone home if they can," she says.
"If I was there now I'd be sitting in my empty apartment paying London rent not able to work or go out."
The views of the harbour and sea from Katikati remind her she has a lot to be grateful for, and how the split-second decision to return to New Zealand has paid off.
Seabourn says they are committed to getting their team members home to their families and that they will be covering the cost of repatriation for all officers and crew.
"Team members who are no longer working, but have not yet been able to be repatriated, are being provided with food, lodging, medical care, access to communication, as well as the same ship privileges as their peers on board," the company's director of global public relations and strategy Brian Barura told the Herald.
All team members are being kept under appropriate social distancing and health protection measures and the cruise line has "policies in place to maximise their comfort as well as their health and safety" during the long suspension of sailing.
"We are continuing to develop future plans for our ships. A group of crew will be on board to keep vital ship operations running during the pause period, which extends through June 30, 2020."