SeaDream Yacht Club's first cruise out of Barbados to the Grenadines on November 7 ended abruptly when a passenger tested positive for COVID-19 on the fifth day of the voyage. The ship, SeaDream I, returned immediately to Barbados, passengers confined to their cabins, the party over.
A total of seven passengers and two crew would eventually test positive. The small luxury line has canceled sailings through the end of 2020, although it's still selling Caribbean cruises from January to April 2021.
We were onboard, reporting live as events unfolded. Here's our take on what the cruise industry can learn from the event.
SeaDream touted its multiple-testing program, one that was designed to create a cruise ship "bubble" of COVID-free passengers. Each passenger had to have two negative tests before boarding the ship.
One, of a standard approved by the Barbados government, was required to enter the country and had to have been taken within 72 hours of landing. SeaDream also performed its own tests, conducted by the ship's doctor, in full PPE, on the quayside, before boarding. The line has three Abbott ID Now machines onboard that can process a nasal swab in 15 minutes. We were also due to have a third test on day five of the voyage to allow us entry back into Barbados at the end.
The process worked effectively for the passengers who were on the line's transatlantic sailing -- and seems to be doing the same on lines in Europe that mandate pre-boarding tests. But even multiple tests didn't prevent an outbreak once new passengers had joined in Barbados. COVID-19 can take several days to incubate and show up on a test. Even if a passenger is fine when they board their flight to Barbados, they can pick up the virus on an airplane or by tacking on a hotel stay in a different city before arriving.
The only thing that could create a true bubble might be a quarantine in the departure port city before being allowed to board the ship.
SeaDream is essentially an outdoor experience. All meals are taken outside, and the main bar is al fresco. Balinese beds are spacious enough for couples to lounge on without being in direct contact with their neighbors. The pool area is large enough with the smaller capacity, and watersports took place off the back of the ship every day during the first half of our voyage.
With the ship less than half full, we had a good environment for a socially distanced vacation. The only time spent indoors was dinner on the first night, in the restaurant, which was only half full, and pre-dinner drinks in the Main Salon for the cruise director’s nightly briefing. This was a seating only area, with waiter service. In the Top of the Yacht al fresco bar, every other bar stool was blocked off and tables spread out.
One thing that SeaDream ships do not have, however, is balconies. So our time in the great outdoors came to an end once our quarantine began. Lockdown would have been far more palatable if we had had a balcony and on any other ship, I’d go for a balcony cabin.
While there was a sense that we were guinea pigs on this first cruise, with excursion plans changing daily, one thing was clear: the local authorities, and SeaDream, were treating our social "bubble," such as it was, seriously.
There were no normal excursions, and we were not allowed to wander around and mix with local people. We were supervised by local police on a beach in St Vincent and allowed to go snorkeling in Tobago Cays. Transfers in Barbados were in government-approved cars, driver and passengers wearing masks, and we sat at the back of our van to socially distance from our driver. Because we were technically in transit in Barbados, there was no contact with local people there.
I accepted this and in a way, knew it was coming, It helps not to take the itinerary too literally. The first day, for example, said “Kingstown, St Vincent” but this was a technical stop for clearance, not an opportunity to go ashore.
Later that day was the supervised beach excursion. I certainly missed the chance to interact with local people and wander around towns, but I hadn’t expected anything “normal.”
The times we did get off the ship were highly enjoyable. When big ships start in the Caribbean again, private islands and resorts will come into their own, as it's a protected environment that can keep the bubble intact.
Everything moved fast once the positive case had been confirmed. There was no time to reflect; the captain made the announcement around midday Wednesday, as we were anchored off Union Island in the Grenadines, that one passenger had felt unwell and had tested positive that morning. We were told to go straight to our cabins and remain there. Captain Lund turned the ship around and headed straight back to Barbados.
The ship's doctor immediately ran tests on all crewmembers, which later that night, according to Captain Lund, were all negative. The contacts of the original patient were tested and five of his family group of six were positive. One other couple also tested positive, bringing the total to seven passengers.
The Barbados authorities boarded the ship late at night and conducted their own tests on the crew, which also came back negative and compatible with the ship's rapid tests. Two crewmembers would subsequently develop COVID-19 a few days later (again showing that it can take time for positive results to show up).
Passengers were tested on Thursday, first by the ship's doctor and then the Barbados authorities. There were no positive results.
As we were stuck in quarantine, a system for feeding us swung into action. A menu would be pushed under the door. We'd check off what we wanted, push the menu back and food would arrive, all wrapped in cellophane. It would be left on a tray for us to take. We'd then put our used dishes outside the cabin and they would be collected.
Crewmembers in masks also came around with fresh towels each day. Two in full PPE also appeared daily to take our temperatures and oxygen levels with a pulse oximeter. The crew were calm and efficient, despite the fact that this was a new situation for them.
Understandably, SeaDream tried to keep a little of its magic going, even though we were in lockdown. We’d missed the line’s trademark Champagne and Caviar Splash beach party, which had been due to take place on a beach in Mayreau on the Thursday. So when glasses of champagne and little bowls of caviar were delivered to the cabins, passengers were delighted by the gesture.
Something that became very important was fresh air breaks. We spend Wednesday afternoon and all of Thursday in our cabins. On Thursday, the highlight of my day was being allowed into the reception area for a COVID test.
By Friday, we were getting pretty desperate; remember, SeaDream’s ships have no balconies. We were allowed out for one hour per deck on Friday afternoon, although the pool was closed. To feel the sun and breathe fresh air was blissful – and seeing shipmates, albeit at a distance and in masks – was wonderful. Should this happen again, cruise lines need to factor in fresh air breaks as part of their lockdown system. It’s so important for morale and mental health.
Communication during the crisis for those of us onboard was generally very good and surprisingly personal. Captain Lund called me in the cabin every day and, I believe, answered my questions with complete transparency. Every time a general announcement had been made, a note came under the door with that announcement in writing.
There were, however, some long gaps between announcements. I appreciate that SeaDream was working flat out to resolve the situation and was in the hands of the Barbados authorities. But when you're sitting in that cabin for the third day running with no balcony, slow internet and a lot of questions and anxieties, the minutes do crawl by, and even a short message saying very little is better than silence.
Meanwhile, passengers booked on the November 14 sailing were waiting for the cruise line to make a call on that voyage – which would influence whether they should board flights and take scheduled COVID tests. It points to the need for cruise lines to act quickly with upcoming sailings too – and it’s likely that they might be forced to err on the side of caution, canceling to save upcoming passengers logistical headaches.
SeaDream had started the Caribbean season under the premise that masks would not be required onboard. In a webinar this fall, the hotel director was clear in stating that he felt masks were counter to the SeaDream luxury experience, which relies on bonding between the excellent crew and passengers.
The passengers on the three-week transatlantic crossing, which had preceded this first Barbados cruise, had not worn masks as they had been together for 21 days, isolated and regularly tested. The hope was that this policy would continue, thanks to the double-testing protocol for embarking guests. The crew did wear masks on the quayside and at any other time off the ship.
Three days into the cruise, SeaDream changed the policy for both passengers and crew. We received a letter saying that the instruction had come from the company's shoreside medical advisors. Captain Lund stood up at a socially distanced seated drinks reception one night and announced that the social media storm that had ensued from photos being published of the trip had nothing to do with the decision.
The ship is likely glad they took that measure, as it could have prevented COVID from spreading more than it did (although let's be clear: Mask policies don't keep the virus from getting onboard). And yes, in hindsight we should have worn masks from the beginning. Most people have no problem with this in the current circumstances of the pandemic, as it's something that is regularly required when you are at home in most countries and states.
If you're one of those who feel your vacation experience would be ruined by wearing a mask, you probably shouldn't be traveling in the current climate.
The Barbados authorities told SeaDream that all passengers with two negative tests (the ship's and the shoreside test) could leave as planned on their "in transit" transfers. The positive cases were transferred to an isolation facility. Anybody staying on in Barbados had to follow the standard protocols to stay on the island: five days in quarantine in an approved facility and a negative test before being allowed to roam free.
Everybody left the ship Saturday and most flew home on commercial flights. The decision raised questions about why were able to do this, considering that we had potentially been exposed to COVID. Perhaps the Barbados government should have isolated us on the island for five days, as they would other arriving passengers. Perhaps in future, this would be the protocol.
In any case, for all the strict protocols on the ship, boarding the aircraft for the return flight was a free-for-all, with a shocking lack of social distancing among those taking the flight as the airplane passengers scrambled onto buses, some people without masks.
I'm a little surprised at the lack of follow up so far. I, for one, would be interested to know if any fellow passengers had developed symptoms since returning home. I know that many have taken COVID-19 tests, as have I (still negative) and others are quarantining at home away from their loved ones. I have shared my own health information with SeaDream, but it's now up to the rumor mill to figure out who is still healthy and who isn't.
It turns out, though, that privacy laws prevent tthe line from revealing who is positive or negative. We checked with the line and were told that it is impossible for them to force people to give them medical information once they leave the ship. They are also not allowed to share the names of people infected onboard, merely contact trace and inform those who have direectly exposed.
The worst happened and COVID-19 slipped through the net, in this case. We don't know how and we don't know the circumstances of the original spreader. Clearly, the two snapshots of his health, one 72 hours before arrival and one on the quayside, did not pick up evidence of the virus. We all fill in pre-cruise health screening questionnaires. If you felt a bit sick, it’s imperative to answer honestly then to account for a potential lag between when the test picks up a positive case.
It's important to remember that SeaDream had operated a successful summer season in Norway, with more than 20 incident-free departures. Large ships with MSC, Costa and other lines have successfully resumed, reacting quickly when COVID-19 cases do come up.
Ultimately, successful cruising in the age of COVID is going to depend on many factors – just as it does on land. A vaccine, of course, but also quarantine and testing before boarding and perhaps increased testing on board. Individual responsibility. Taking careful consideration in who is welcomed onboard, in terms of COVID cases within countries. Watertight travel insurance.
And finally, an acceptance that there is always going to be risk involved in travel.
Updated November 18, 2020