Jack Knox: Marathon at sea ends for Islanders stuck on ship

Update: The Kirkhams are being flown back to Canada on flights chartered by Holland America. They expect to return to Victoria at 9:40 Friday night.

Finally, some good news for the Vancouver Islanders stranded aboard a pair of cruise ships.

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After initially being refused entry to Florida, both Holland America vessels were allowed to dock near Fort Lauderdale on Thursday, bringing relief to people who had been stuck at sea for more than two weeks.

“It feels like we’re in the last 100 metres of a marathon,” Metchosin’s David Kirkham said as his ship neared port.

Holland America said most of the 1,200 passengers were expected to disembark by tonight, with most being bused straight to the airport for charter flights home. Among them are 247 Canadians, including David and Norma Kirkham, a couple from Sooke and some passengers from Nanaimo. “If all goes according to plan, one would think we should be back in Metchosin sometime on the weekend,” David Kirkham said.

It has been a long haul for those who sailed out of Buenos Aires aboard the MS Zaandam on March 7 for a cruise around the southern tip of South America. Since then, 250 of the ship’s 1,829 passengers and crew have come down with flu-like symptoms. Four men over age 70 died.

With a succession of pandemic-wary countries shunning the ship, no one has set foot on dry land since the Zaandam docked in Punta Arenas, Chile, on March 14. All passengers have been confined to staterooms since May 22, when the first people reported ill. The lockdown continued on board the Zaandam’s sister ship MS Rotterdam, to which healthy passengers, including the Kirkhams, were transferred a week ago.

The Kirkhams have remained resolutely upbeat throughout, but it must have been rough being the guinea pigs in what turned into a social science experiment, one that tested the moral fibre of people who were in a position to help. Those on the two ships — 2,436 people in total when the Rotterdam crew was added — had no idea when or where they could land.

“We are dealing with a ‘not my problem’ syndrome,” wrote Holland America president Orlando Ashford on March 30, decrying the way those on the Zaandam and the Rotterdam — as well as 9,000 other passengers stuck on a dozen cruise ships around the world — had been left to fend for themselves.

“The COVID-19 situation is one of the most urgent tests of our common humanity. To slam the door in the face of these people betrays our deepest human values.”

That came as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis balked at taking in anyone but the 49 Floridians on the ships, saying he didn’t want the state’s resources strained by “foreign nationals.”

It may actually have been U.S. President Donald Trump who turned the tide. “We have to help the people — they’re in big trouble no matter where they’re from,” the president told a news conference. “We have to do something; they’re dying and the governor knows that, too.”

Whether or not it was Trump who made the difference, at least his sentiment was right.

No one says politicians should expose their citizens to health threats, or that safeguards against infection should be dropped just to get travellers home. But neither is it OK to simply say “you’re on your own” and walk away from people in need. It’s a litmus test that can be extended right down to the individual level; once the pandemic is over, we’re going to remember who helped and who hoarded.

In the end, Holland America said those most in need of care would be treated in Fort Lauderdale, while those with milder symptoms would be kept on board until healthy.

Thursday, David Kirkham was just happy to see the Rotterdam break free of a holding pattern that saw it “circling and circling, burning fuel and burning off time” while waiting for permission to land.

By afternoon, most of their luggage had been taken away. Passengers were told to keep just one small bag with enough clothing and medicine to last for two days. The Kirkhams expected that after health screening on shore, they would spend one last night on ship before being taken straight to the airport and a charter flight to Canada, presumably Toronto. Holland America was arranging to get passengers to their homes.

What’s the first thing the Kirkhams plan to do once back in Metchosin? “Just enjoy our little piece of heaven on the top of the rock,” David said. Stare across Juan de Fuca Strait to the mountains of the Olympic Peninsula. “We’re going to soak that in, rain or shine.”

There’s plenty to occupy them during their two-week quarantine. The garden will need work. David might make another batch of beer. Staying put sounds good. “I think we can probably put cruising on the back burner for a while.”

jknox@timescolonist.com

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