Passengers are stuck on a cruise in Japan.
Passengers are stuck on a cruise in Japan.

Voyage of the damned: Life inside the quarantined cruise

It's a grim scene alongside the quarantined coronavirus cruise ship Diamond Princess.

The dock at Yokohama is a puzzle of emergency service vehicles, military trucks and ambulances that are busy ferrying new cases to hospital.

Through a gangway covered by a blue tarpaulin, more than 200 infected people have been disembarked over the last 10 days. The luxury liner is at the centre of the largest coronavirus outbreak outside China.

About 3500 passengers and crew remaining on board expected to finish a fun-filled two-week cruise that took in Japan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Taiwan at the start of this month.

Instead, they're on day 11 of enforced confinement on what's being called a floating Petri dish.

 

Masked passengers are seen on the deck of the cruise ship Diamond Princess. Picture: Sadayuki Goto/Kyodo News
Masked passengers are seen on the deck of the cruise ship Diamond Princess. Picture: Sadayuki Goto/Kyodo News

 

The Diamond Princess has been docked at Yokohama Port, near Tokyo. Picture: Sadayuki Goto/Kyodo News
The Diamond Princess has been docked at Yokohama Port, near Tokyo. Picture: Sadayuki Goto/Kyodo News

 

"You feel a bit like you're in prison," said Australian Ellis Vincent, 76.

"At mealtimes you feel like rattling the bars," laughed the retired airline freight executive.

He and his wife Kimberly are maintaining good health and humour, so far. Others are not doing so well.

 

Spanish meatballs, served for lunch. Picture: Kareem Abdelmaksoud
Spanish meatballs, served for lunch. Picture: Kareem Abdelmaksoud

 

Sausages and eggs for breakfast. Picture: Kareem Abdelmaksoud
Sausages and eggs for breakfast. Picture: Kareem Abdelmaksoud

 

 

Queensland passenger Deb Winkler reports she and her husband were woken on Thursday morning by someone screaming in distress 'What did I do wrong? I just want to go home!'.

 

Medical workers in protective suits walk on the cruise ship Diamond Princess. Picture: daxa_tw via AP
Medical workers in protective suits walk on the cruise ship Diamond Princess. Picture: daxa_tw via AP

 

Jeff Soh with son Xander Soh and daughter Kaitlyn Soh are in lockdown. Picture: Supplied
Jeff Soh with son Xander Soh and daughter Kaitlyn Soh are in lockdown. Picture: Supplied

Mrs Winkler also likens her situation to prison, "but in prison you get more time outside", she said.

Princess Cruises, along with the Australian government, is offering telephone counselling services to help those in trouble.

 

 

Mrs Winkler's cabin has no windows, so "we don't need a counselling number, we just need more time in the sun," she complained.

Japan slapped a two-week quarantine order on the Diamond Princess on February 5 when it became clear there was an outbreak on board.

 

Aun Na Tan, with son Xander Soh and daughter Kaitlyn Soh. Picture: SUPPLIED
Aun Na Tan, with son Xander Soh and daughter Kaitlyn Soh. Picture: SUPPLIED

 

Aun Na Tan and Jeff Soh on the Diamond Princess. Picture: Supplied
Aun Na Tan and Jeff Soh on the Diamond Princess. Picture: Supplied

 

The first few days were particularly difficult, with severe shortages of medicine a concern for many seniors. Mealtimes were sporadic as was the flow of information.

The Australian Embassy in Tokyo has set up a situation room to handle the flood of inquiries it is receiving from worried passengers.

 

Deb Winkler has been stuck on the cruise. Picture: Kareem Abdelmaksoud
Deb Winkler has been stuck on the cruise. Picture: Kareem Abdelmaksoud

 

There were 223 Australians on board the original manifest, and among them there are now at least 16 coronavirus evacuees, spread out in hospitals in greater Tokyo.

Ambassador to Japan, former Western Australia premier Richard Court, put his name to an email update this week that paid tribute to the Australians who are sick or in lockdown.

"Your patience and resilience is impressive," he wrote.

David Abel broadcasted Live from the quarantined Diamond Princess Cruise. Picture: David Abel
David Abel broadcasted Live from the quarantined Diamond Princess Cruise. Picture: David Abel

 

Many public areas are empty on the ship. Picture: David Abel
Many public areas are empty on the ship. Picture: David Abel

 

Mr Court's note stated diplomatic efforts have been focused on ensuring Australians have access to medical treatment and prescription medication, adding the embassy is seeking urgent clarification about what will happen when the quarantine period finishes on February 19.

 

An example of the menu on-board the boat. Picture: Kareem Abdelmaksoud
An example of the menu on-board the boat. Picture: Kareem Abdelmaksoud

 

Times when passengers can go on the deck. Picture: Kareem Abdelmaksoud
Times when passengers can go on the deck. Picture: Kareem Abdelmaksoud

 

In the meantime, the Diamond Princess captain Gennaro Arma and his crew are putting on brave faces as they deal with the unprecedented crisis.

Through a speaker in cabin ceilings, Captain Arma delivers updates every day, thanking his captive audience for their perseverance and patience.

 

"Casino closed. Staff cleaning the slots and seats" Picture: David Abel

 

Scenes from the ship’s Atrium. Picture: David Abel
Scenes from the ship’s Atrium. Picture: David Abel

 

A relentlessly cheerful cruise director, Australian Natalie Costa, is another familiar voice.

She outlines a series of daily activities designed to prevent cabin fever, some of which are presented on an internal television channel. Passengers can enjoy lessons in tai chi, dance, napkin folding and origami, or take part in trivia quizzes and learn the magic trick of the day.

They are also being encouraged to share their "positive energy" by tagging social media posts with #hanginthereDiamondPrincess.

 

Life on board the Diamond Princess in quarantine. Picture: Kareem Abdelmaksoud
Life on board the Diamond Princess in quarantine. Picture: Kareem Abdelmaksoud

 

"Diamond Princess family, we are here, we are with you, we care, and we will continue to do our best to keep you occupied during this unique situation," Ms Costa said during one of her broadcasts this week.

 

Aun Na Tan (glasses) with husband Jeff Soh, son Xander Soh (blue hair) and daughter Kaitlyn Soh. Picture: Supplied
Aun Na Tan (glasses) with husband Jeff Soh, son Xander Soh (blue hair) and daughter Kaitlyn Soh. Picture: Supplied

 

Aun Na Tan (glasses) with husband Jeff Soh, son Xander Soh (blue hair) and daughter Kaitlyn Soh are in lockdown on the Diamond Princess. Picture: Supplied
Aun Na Tan (glasses) with husband Jeff Soh, son Xander Soh (blue hair) and daughter Kaitlyn Soh are in lockdown on the Diamond Princess. Picture: Supplied

Passengers are receiving daily puzzle sheets with sudoku, crosswords, word searches, a trivia quiz, and a copy of English-language newspaper The Japan Times. They are also being encouraged to use their allocated deck time to get an hour's exercise, with videos posted on Twitter showing mask-clad power walkers.

 

Crab salad served for passengers. Picture: Kareem Abdelmaksoud
Crab salad served for passengers. Picture: Kareem Abdelmaksoud

 

Strict conditions for going outside include the wearing of protective masks, and there are rules about maintaining distance from other passengers and not congregating in groups.

That means that email and social media are a lifeline for those trapped on board, something that Princess Cruises recognised last week when it increased the ship's internet capabilities.

"I don't know what we would do if we didn't have Skype or the internet," says Mr Vincent's wife Kimberly, 73.

 

 

 

Paul and Jacqueline Fidrmuc on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship
Paul and Jacqueline Fidrmuc on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship

 

When she is not solving sudoku puzzles, she spends much of her day messaging with family and friends and says the communications help keep her spirits up.

The Vincents have a room with a balcony so they are not risking possible infection on the open decks. "All the passengers are getting a chance on a rotation basis to exercise for an hour a day on the decks, but Kim and I have elected not to do that because the easiest way to avoid getting this virus is not to mingle," Mr Vincent explained.

 

 

For people in windowless cabins, the deck time is a highlight. Mrs Winkler, who is aged in her 50s, has asked the Australian Embassy for help in getting an extension.

"An hour a day is not enough … it's just not enough time," she said.

Despite all the precautions that are in place, the outbreak worsens in number as each day goes by.

 

 

 

Japan's Health Ministry has offered a reprieve to some of the most vulnerable - people in their 80s or older who have pre-existing medical conditions and are in windowless cabins - that allows them to transfer, provided they do not test positive to coronavirus, to a government housing facility for the remainder of the quarantine period.

The Vincents were selected for a throat-swab test this week because of their pre-existing medical conditions, medication schedules, and age, but they are confident they haven't been exposed.

Mr Vincent is passing the time watching movies and reading some historical nonfiction titles he brought with him. He says he is unlikely to take up tai chi despite the on-board encouragement.

 

Many passengers are still waiting to be allowed off. Picture: Tomohiro Ohsumi
Many passengers are still waiting to be allowed off. Picture: Tomohiro Ohsumi

 

 

"I thought I was going OK but I was really down one day and slept half the day," he says of the unusual existence.

"For someone like my wife, she has to have everything laid out and everything in order and this is driving her mad."

After securing the prescription medication they need in a process that took some time, the Vincents' next concern is what the procedures will be when they are allowed off the ship next week.

They want to spend some time as tourists in Japan before heading home to Banora Point in northern New South Wales, but it is unclear if that will be possible.

While they seek clarification on that, their daily routine in what Mrs Vincent describes as a comfortable room features constant interruptions from intercom announcements about deck time, as well as valuable information from the affable captain.

Because half the passengers are Japanese, each message is repeated "and it seems like the Japanese interpretation takes about four times longer than the original message,'' said Mr Vincent of the Lost in Translation moments.

Something that many passengers look forward to in their confinement are meal times to break up the day. Some are documenting their culinary journeys on social media, posting

pictures of the on-board offerings.

A passenger gestures after hanging a banner reading please broadcast this on TV. Picture: Carl Court
A passenger gestures after hanging a banner reading please broadcast this on TV. Picture: Carl Court

Because everyone is confined to their cabins, passengers rely on a trolley service. "They knock on your door and expect you to have a mask on … they won't give you anything unless you have a mask on," explained Mrs Vincent.

In between meals, crew members are knocking on doors offering cans of Coca-Cola, cup noodles, and coffee service. Each room receives daily deliveries of bottled water.

While the food is no match for the exotic treats that were being served during the actual cruise, "there is no problem with it" says Mr Vincent.

 

The Diamond Princess is anchored off the Yokohama Port in Yokohama, near Tokyo. Picture: Eugene Hoshiko)
The Diamond Princess is anchored off the Yokohama Port in Yokohama, near Tokyo. Picture: Eugene Hoshiko)

 

 

 

Breakfast, served around 7am, typically comprises fresh fruit, yoghurt, eggs, sausages, juice and coffee. Dinner at 6.30pm is a three-course affair that passengers select the night before.

Options include shepherd's pie, stew, prawns, crab, chicken curry, turkey, Hungarian

goulash, and ravioli, served with salad and dessert. Alcohol is also offered including wine, sake and beer.

The ship's food and beverage workers are also seeking to offer better service to those with particular dietary needs and a questionnaire was distributed on Thursday asking people to tick the appropriate box if they were gluten-free, vegan, halal, dairy-free or sugar-free among others.

Passengers wash their hands on the cruise ship Diamond Princess. Picture: @daxa_tw via AP
Passengers wash their hands on the cruise ship Diamond Princess. Picture: @daxa_tw via AP

The Vincents have saved a bottle of French champagne that Mrs Vincent won in an on-board trivia game for Mr Vincent's 77th birthday on Monday, something else to look forward to aside from their quarantine release.

Princess Cruises are keeping passengers onside with a generous offer to refund the entire cost of the cruise-turned-confinement, as well as all associated travel expenses including airfares and accommodation.

And they've even given credits to everyone on board for another cruise of the same value for those willing to give it another go.

The case of the Diamond Princess already has people discussing movie rights, but it also has the potential to put a dent in the global cruise industry as travellers shy away from the risk of mass contagion.

Emergency service workers in protective clothing prepare to remove coronavirus victims from the Diamond Princess. Picture: Carl Court
Emergency service workers in protective clothing prepare to remove coronavirus victims from the Diamond Princess. Picture: Carl Court

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