Thomas Bywater recounts being left high and dry on a Chilean pleasure cruiser

The local Chilean newspaper praised the brave residents in turning back the passengers of two ships that arrived at the port of Punta Arenas.

Less enthusiastic about this reception were the passengers, who were met by the blockade of small cars, stones and laser pointers. This hysteria and angst surrounding the illness proved far more effective than any top-down decision to close the ports.

"So, my dear guests, as you will notice outside you have a mass of the citizens of this beautiful city," said the expedition manager, summoning a meeting. "We will all be staying here at least one more night."

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The Chilean authorities were discussing measures to halt the movement of foreign nationals and the coronavirus pandemic by stopping shipping, but it was the people who decided it.

Any port: Punta Arenas is a popular stepping off point for ships of all sizes. Photo / Thomas Bywater
Any port: Punta Arenas is a popular stepping off point for ships of all sizes. Photo / Thomas Bywater

From the top deck of the ship, I watched a coachload of passengers return from the harbour gates and reboard the Stella Australis. It was clear then we could be here far longer than the night.

The large white ships were a visible emblem of the panic caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Even our small sight-seeing vessel the Ventus Australis could not dock without drawing suspicion and provoking the worst fears of those onshore. The port was forcibly closed and taxis firms, hotels bombarded with threats if they served tourists and crew disembarking ships.


Most ships waiting to dock in Chile were served a two-week quarantine. Ships in Valparaiso, and San Antonio were either held at bay or let sail on to any other country that would take them. The 1400-passenger ship the Zaandam was turned away from Punta Arenas, deciding instead to take the week-long journey north to the United States.

However, as two of the passengers on this sailing, we found ourselves in an unique position: docked and unable to sail, we had little else to do but watch the outside world and hope it would let us return.

The Zaandam was refused berth at the port of Punta Arenas. Photo / Thomas Bywater
The Zaandam was refused berth at the port of Punta Arenas. Photo / Thomas Bywater

All 110 cruisers and 65 crew members had been cleared by the health board, with a full bill of fitness on arrival. This meant we had full freedom of the ship, even if we couldn't leave. But what to do with this freedom?

Let's be clear: no one had coronavirus on the ship. But cases of "cabin fever" were widespread.

Coping techniques were as varied as the passengers. On a ship holding 14 nationalities there were many different ways of expressing boredom, humour and angst.

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Port authority workers borded the vessel off of Punta Arenas. Photo / Thomas Bywater
Port authority workers borded the vessel off of Punta Arenas. Photo / Thomas Bywater

Angst was obvious. As passengers watched borders close, escape routes become blocked and flights dry up, there was a feeling of powerlessness as booked flights were missed, and airports closed.

Then there was the absurdity of our privileged circumstance. Watching the world fall apart, while stuck on a pleasure boat with regular meals and an open bar was a surreal position. Every want was cared for, except a way out. We could hardly complain. Some did.

"They've closed the border! They've cancelled our flight! They're no longer letting us transit!" "They" was the conspiratorial tone taken discussing the pandemic around Pisco sours.

From the sublime to the alarming: Views from my cabin varied greatly. Photo / Thomas Bywater
From the sublime to the alarming: Views from my cabin varied greatly. Photo / Thomas Bywater

Then there was the position of the crew, tour guides, ship's pilots, baristas and cooks. It's one thing to be stuck at sea on holiday, it's another thing to be handed 140 hours of overtime.

As the local health board and the cruise company negotiated somewhere in the port, off-duty crew and passengers could only speculate on travel plans and possible early ends to quarantine.

"We'll be on the coach to the airport by this afternoon."

"Adios!" kitchen waiters would reply ". . . but just in case: what's your order for dinner?"

Herald Writer Thomas Bywater was amongst passengers blocked out of port by protests

Mornings would begin with passengers doing varied exercises on deck. The 10m or so of open decking became a claustrophobic jogging track. One couldn't walk into a public space without tripping over a Pilates class.

A survey of talents was taken onboard. Time was passed at salsa lessons, learning Spanish idioms and the odd game of bingo.

Zodiacs: A fleet of dirigible launches provided no way off the boat. Photo / Thomas Bywater
Zodiacs: A fleet of dirigible launches provided no way off the boat. Photo / Thomas Bywater

Film screenings about Shackleton's crew arriving in Punta after a stranding in Antarctica took on a new layer of irony.

When things got really desperate, Sergio Ruz, the ship's boatswain led a multi-lingual course on nautical knot tying. Like a balding Chilean snake charmer he held passengers transfixed with floppy ends of rope and double entendre-laden explanations so potent, they made our translator blush. Actually, few needed translation.

However, we knew no length of knotted rope would help, as we drifted in the Straight of Magellan. We were in for the long haul.

It wasn't wholly an extended holiday. Having spent the week in remotest Patagonia we had emerged bleary-eyed into this new reality of problems spiralled out of control. Arriving in the steely port of Sandy Point, we were met by a grey navy gunboat.

The view: Bed linnen is delivered. Photo / Thomas Bywater
The view: Bed linnen is delivered. Photo / Thomas Bywater

Finally, in port, my window on the bottom deck gave me an eye-level view of the gangplank. I saw harbour workers in masks and hazmat suits, delivering bedding. Food and supplies were winched onboard.

Firstly there was a hold-up. Then a delay was announced. Finally, we were told we would be under "quarantine", but for "no more than 14 days".

Each time a PA announcement would begin, there was an audible intake of breath from passengers. The goalposts for getting off and finding flights out of the country were regularly moved.

Eventually, the ship was piloted further offshore. From there we watched and waited as airlines pulled flights and countries closed their borders.

Kitchen staff worked tirelessly to fill the days with food. Photo / Thomas Bywater
Kitchen staff worked tirelessly to fill the days with food. Photo / Thomas Bywater

"I've never seen anything like it in my 20 years," said Emilio, the ship's hotel manager.
As plates kept coming out of the kitchen at regular intervals, passengers had taken to counting meals as a way to gauge time. It was a less depressing than the other measures and pieces of news that would arrive on the boat with fits of sporadic mobile connection.

A lot had changed in the 11 days since getting on the boat. It had begun as a four-day sailing, back when coronavirus sounded like something exotic and improbable.


I couldn't forget the face of a bemused backpacker who we had met on the way back from the closed Argentinian border. Having spent the past month hiking in the fiords, he couldn't tell if it was all some kind of elaborate joke.

There at the foot of the sublime Patagonian glaciers, news of a virus "shutting down borders and international travel" sounded alarmist – even as we described it.

I hope he took our advice.