Zaandam: An oral history of an infected cruise ship

The cruise ship Zaandam is nine decks of escapism, stretching 781 feet bow to stern, with a casino and spa, a steakhouse and two swimming pools. Its walls are mounted with signed guitars from Iggy Pop and Eric Clapton. It was christened 20 years ago by Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, who wore matching nautical suits. On March 7, four days before the novel coronavirus was classified as a pandemic, the ship set sail from Buenos Aires for its routine trip around Cape Horn. It carried more than 1,000 passengers from around the world. They were hoping for an unforgettable journey. They had no idea.

Three weeks later, all of Zaandam’s passengers were quarantined in their cabins. Four people had died. Dozens were reporting symptoms consistent with covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Port after port had denied entry to the ship, which is operated by Holland America Line, a subsidiary of Carnival. There was nothing to do but float on a beautiful vessel that had become a beautiful prison – one beset by illness and the presence of a potentially deadly virus – and hope for deliverance.

Stranded on the water, the cruise became a microcosm of what’s happening on land, with the pandemic upending daily life in an uneven way. Some people were living in a nightmare, sick and scared. Some people were living in odd inconvenience, doing jumping jacks on their balconies and watching movies. The crew, depleted by illness, had to work overtime – like other essential workers on the mainland. But all were in the same boat, so to speak: on an anxious voyage back to a changed world, unsure when they’d return to solid ground.

This is their story, as told by passengers of Zaandam through phone interviews, social media posts and email correspondence. Some quotes have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

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