(updated 1:30 p.m. EST) -- It was supposed to be a "Barbados bubble."
At least that was the thinking when I travelled from the U.K. to the Caribbean last Saturday to board SeaDream I on its first full Caribbean cruise.
The sailing was meant to herald a new era of safe Caribbean cruising, with multiple COVID-19 tests for passengers and crew, strict health protocols on board and shore excursions focusing on private beaches and water sports, instead of mixing with the masses. And for a few days, it felt exactly how a luxury cruise cocoon should feel.
But on Wednesday after just five days onboard, our bubble burst when a passenger fell ill, visited the ship's doctor and tested positive.
On Thursday afternoon, we were told that a group of five -- a family of six Americans traveling together -- have tested positive. Another person, not with the group, tested positive as well, along with his wife, for a total of seven cases. One person was been removed from the ship to a shoreside medical facility for observation, while the rest remained isolated in their cabins.
After the news came out, we spent several days quarantined in our cabins, with the ship back at the dock in Barbados. We were tested multiple times, received gourmet meals and took one brief fresh air break on deck.
Finally on Saturday, the Barbados government gave the go ahead for those of us who tested negative to fly home. Those who were ill -- seven passengers in total-- were placed in isolation faciltiies in Barbados (although members of the original group that tested positive ended up taking a private jet back to the U.S. A crew member has also tested positive and is at isolation facilities in Barbados.
I'm now back safely in the U.K., and hopefully will remain COVID-19 free.
Here is how the week unfolded.
Getting into Barbados no matter if you're in the U.K. or the U.S or any country, is complex. The country requires a 'fit to fly' certificate of a negative PCR COVID test, taken a maximum of 72 hours before arrival. This cost me £170 at a private clinic in London.
The certificate then has to be uploaded to a Barbados track-and-trace form, which generates a bar code that is scanned at Bridgetown's Grantley Adams airport when you arrive. Coloured wristbands await every single passenger, bearing the name of their accommodation or in my case, ship. No wristband and you won't even get through immigration.
Because I was joining a ship, I counted as an 'in transit' passenger and didn't have to quarantine in Barbados. I was whisked to the port in a government-approved taxi, which SeaDream arranged for $99.
There are more formalities at the port. We presented our check-in and health declaration documents, and yet another track-and-trace form. Then came our second COVID-19 test, conducted in a tent on the dock by SeaDream I's doctor, who is clad in full PPE., Then it's a tense 15-minute wait for the result, which is processed by the ship's rapid results machine. Once to the 'clear to board' has been announced for each passenger, you present your bags, with a sense of relief, for fogging, which takes seconds.
Everyone who boarded the ship in Barbados went through this exact procedure. With two tests taken, it's hard to figure out how a virus case slipped through. The only real speculation we have at this point is that the passenger who tested positive was somehow exposed in the 72 hours between their first test and their flight. The virus can take several days to incubate, which is why it might not have shown up on this dockside test.
Health Protocols Onboard
Despite the current situation, I've been impressed with the health protocols that the line took with the onboard experience.
Social distancing is required and every other stool around the Top of the Yacht bar is taped off. There are are only 53 passengers on board from Europe and the US, so there's space for everybody. The gym is open but you have to book your slot in advance. Hand sanitiser is everywhere.
In addition, we have to check in at Reception every day to log our temperature. The crew do the rounds of the cabins in the evenings with UV lights, treating each room for 15 minutes; these lights are used in hospitals and kill 99.9 per cent of germs, including viruses. Five days into the cruise, there would normally be another COVID test -- the third for most of us -- so passengers can re-enter Barbados on Saturday with a clean bill of health.
Much debate has ensued over SeaDream's mask policy. At the beginning of the cruise, masks weren't required as we were supposed to be a secure bubble; on webinars this fall, cruise line executives said they felt that masking would mar the luxury experience. Masks were not required when the line did its successful summer season in Norway or its more recent transatlantic. The crew did wear masks in 'red' zones, such as at embarkation.
That changed late Monday when SeaDream's shoreside medical team told the company all passengers should wear masks when social distancing wasn't possible, and all crew. A letter to the cabins said: 'Situations, regulations and protocols tend to change daily and here at SeaDream, we want to be completely compliant.' Most passengers were completely understanding, although a pair who had been on board since the ship left Portsmouth nearly a month ago were clearly disgruntled.
The switch to masks may have inhibited any spread of the virus from the passengers with the positive test, however. So while the debate over the masks has been heated on social media, in the end the change may have been better late than never.
The First Few Days
On the first day, it became clear that this was not going to be any ordinary itinerary as both SeaDream and the local authorities were still feeling their way. We were not allowed ashore to mix with local people so all the stops have involved empty beaches or snorkelling tours.
We swam off the black, sparkling Mount Wynn beach on St Vincent, supervised by police in a RIB. We also enjoyed a day at the very swanky Shenanigans Beach Club on Canouan, which was exclusive to SeaDream. In the Tobago Cays, I paid $99 for the day's excursion, a catamaran cruise to the marine sanctuary for snorkelling.
Other than that, I've been swimming off the ship every afternoon, from the watersports platform. To me, as a keen swimmer, this was a great workout and a decent alternative to swimming off a beach. Some passengers took out the kayaks, dinghies and SUPs as well. But if the sea is too choppy, there are no watersports so I would say the watersports platform is a bonus, but not a complete alternative to beach stops.
Apart from the first night, all meals have been taken outside in the balmy Caribbean air -- the ship is built for passengesr to spend a lot of time outdoors. It has all been extremely pleasant -- which makes being stuck in the cabin now all the more poignant.
When It All Went Wrong
On Wednesday, we were lounging by the pool when Captain Lund announced that a passenger had felt unwell and had tested 'presumptive positive' for COVID-19. The ship would turn around and head straight back to Barbados. All passengers and non-essential crew were to isolate in their cabins immediately.
That was it; the vacation was over. The mood was one of shock, disbelief and then disappointment.
I've been in my cabin ever since -- two full days now, with no interaction with other passengers other than via Twitter messages. Friend and family back home are watching with trepidation. TV stations and newswires from around the world have been asking for interviews. Everyone is hungry for news but the fact is, this is a slow-moving situation.
SeaDream I is an older, if luxurious ship and there are no balconies. I'm longing for fresh air. All I can see is two container ships, and I can feel the heat of the sun on my window.
What The Ship Did During Quarantine
During Wednesday afternoon, all crew were tested by the ship's doctor and all were negative.
We were served a lavish lunch; a menu is pushed under the door and you check off what you want and push it back. The meal is served by crew in masks. I've seen a fair few buckets of wine being ferried along the corridor on deck 4, where I am. Alcohol flows as freely as you want it to; I had a gin and tonic last night and am rewarding a hard morning's work (and alleviating boredom) with a glass of rose at lunch.
We arrived in Barbados at 10.45 pm on Wednesday and a medical team boarded to re-test the crew, as well as the presumed positive passenger and his group. As of Thursday afternoon, we learned that five people in the group have tested positive for COVID-19 while another has antibodies signfying a recent infection. One person not with the group has a preliminary positive test as well on Thursday.
The doctor made rounds to test all passengers. The ship has three Abbott machines that produce results in 15 minutes so I am hoping for the all-clear later. Then, the Barbados authorities tested us again.
On Friday morning, we learned that the sixth person who was presumed positive was confirmed as having COVID-19. His wife also tested positive. That made a total of seven cases onboard.
Captain Lund phoned each guest personally to discuss the situation. He sounded sympathetic and upbeat. We were able to get out for a much-needed "fresh air break" on deck (with masks and social distancing in place) on Friday.
Leaving The Ship
On Friday, the group of six and the couple who had tested positive departed SeaDream I, transferring to an isolation facility at Harrison Point on Barbados. The ship’s crew later told me that the group of six, including the man with the original Covid case, had returned home to the US by private jet, five of them having tested positive. In total, ten people left the ship on Friday; one British couple had booked a villa on Barbados where they intended to quarantine and then see out the UK’s lockdown.
Crewmembers began to move into vacated guest cabins, which makes sense, given that single occupancy of cabins is better for social distancing. Ship rumors flew fast, including one that a crew member tested positive; this has been confirmed as true. There was yet more gossip that the original COVID-19 case had felt unwell before boarding – but after getting through two negative tests, was free to sail. This is pure speculation, but having to rely on passengers’ integrity could be the weak link in the chain, as cruise lines plot their return.
We remained isolated in our cabins until 2 p.m. Saturday, when most guests departed for the airport in the same government-approved transfers as SeaDream used for arrival. Our flight wasn't until 9 p.m. but any thoughts of booking a day room in an hotel had been banished; the government seemed to want us on the ship and then straight to the airport, rather than wandering around Barbados. This seems reasonable, as community spread would be a disaster for the island.
The remaining 12 or so passengers were, however, allowed on deck in the afternoon for some much-needed fresh air. The mood was upbeat as we knew we were going home – although one couple, who had been difficult throughout, were still complaining loudly. I doubt they will be back.
I still wonder why we were allowed to leave Barbados rather than made to quarantine, but the official line was that we had all presented two negative tests, one government-approved, and were free to go. My opinion is that they wanted us off the island as soon as possible.
And for all the effort that both SeaDream and Barbados made to handle this situation, the final scene at Grantley Adams International Airport made a mockery of social distancing. We were made to use buses to travel the short distance from the gate to the British Airways aircraft and there was a virtual stampede as passengers jostled to board a busy flight, crammed into each bus shuttle, some with masks dangling off one ear and one even drinking rum punch out of a plastic cup.
What has become clear to me: Cruise lines can put in place all the protocols you want, wherever you are, but ultimately, human behaviour is what will cause COVID-19 to spread.