Life aboard a shunned ship


Couple was touring Asia during coronavirus outbreak

By Brenda Burns - Managing Editor



Larry and Sharon Johnson (center) are pictured with family members Dwight and Carol Holtkamp in Taiwan during one of the MS Westerdam’s last tour stops before the coronavirus outbreak caused other countries to shun the ship for fear of spreading the virus.

Larry and Sharon Johnson (center) are pictured with family members Dwight and Carol Holtkamp in Taiwan during one of the MS Westerdam’s last tour stops before the coronavirus outbreak caused other countries to shun the ship for fear of spreading the virus.


Submitted photos

Sharon Johnson of Urbana is photographed being tested for the coronavirus by Cambodian medics in Phnom Penh.


Submitted photos

Sharon and Larry Johnson are shown on the flight from Cambodia to Holland that stopped to refuel in Pakistan after officials in Turkey changed their minds about allowing the plane to land in Istanbul.


Submitted photos

Holland America’s MS Westerdam was a cruise ship without a welcoming port for days as it wandered around the South China Sea after the coronavirus outbreak.


Submitted photos

Larry and Sharon Johnson of Urbana were energized and ready to mark their 50th wedding anniversary in style with a special cruise vacation.

More than a month after embarking on the trip halfway around the world, the Johnsons have now arrived home with stories of adventures – and misadventures – about inadvertently traveling too close to the Asian epicenter of the recent coronavirus outbreak.

Despite a few harrowing detours along the way, the couple has returned to Urbana healthy and ready to cruise once again. The next time around will be courtesy of the cruise line Holland America, which will treat passengers who sailed on the diverted Westerdam to free cruises to make up for the health scares, medical tests, broken itineraries and grueling trips home all caused by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Unlike the much-discussed Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Japan under quarantine, the Westerdam never endured a quarantine. Neither the Johnsons nor their fellow passengers have tested positive for the coronavirus, despite one close call that turned out to be a false positive for a fellow traveler who flew from the Westerdam disembarkation in Cambodia through Malaysia. Simply as a precaution, the Johnsons will continue to monitor their temperatures twice a day now that they have arrived home and resumed normal activities. They are not restricted in any way, nor are they required to observe any isolation guidelines, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Embarking on a memorable anniversary

“We wanted to do something special for our 50th wedding anniversary so we booked a 30-day cruise with the cruise line Holland America on the ship the MS Westerdam,” Sharon explained, speaking on behalf of the couple. “The cruise was to start in Singapore and make its way northward finishing in Shanghai, China. On January 12, we flew from cold Ohio to warm Singapore.”

After spending several days in Singapore, the Johnsons boarded the Westerdam.

All went as planned during the first week.

“We had a wonderful time visiting ports in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam,” Sharon said. “On about our eighth day at sea, we began hearing reports from world news outlets that passengers on the cruise ship, the Diamond Princess, were suspected of having contracted the coronavirus. Our first hint that our cruise could be affected by the events of the Diamond Princess came when we were informed that because of the coronavirus outbreak in China, our stay in Hong Kong was to be shortened to one day and additional days in Vietnam would be substituted. By this time, the national news was filled with reports of the coronavirus affecting people not only in China and other Asian countries but many other places around the world. More alarming to us was that multiple passengers on the Diamond Princess were confirmed to have contracted the coronavirus.”

Japanese media erroneously reported that there was a coronavirus infection onboard the Westerdam, causing a string of port rejections for the Westerdam and what would become multiple attempts to reschedule flights home as the chain reaction of fear in Asia snowballed.

Suddenly shunned in the South China Sea

“By our first day out of Hong Kong we were told the Philippines had made a decision to bar our cruise ship from docking,” Sharon said. “We spent two more days at sea before docking in Taiwan. We were to spend three days in Taiwan ports but our stay was cut short as Taiwan made the decision that our cruise ship was a liability and ordered us to leave. This kicked off the start of an odyssey that no one could believe.”

Over the next several days, the Westerdam wandered aimlessly looking for a port to end the cruise. After having been denied by the Philippines and Taiwan, South Korea was the next to the bar Westerdam’s entry.

A decision was made to go to Guam.

“To the surprise of the Americans on board, Guam refused us,” Sharon said. “Finally, we had permission to go to Japan. The ship made its way northward for two days. Suddenly the ship, without explanation, turned completely around and headed southward in the opposite direction. Then the captain made the announcement that Japan had refused to allow our ship to dock. He said that the cruise line along with the governments of the United States, Canada, Australia, the UK and Holland were looking for alternatives.”

The ship conducted its first of many health checks to come. Each passenger had to report their state of health and submit to a temperature check as cruise officials sought permission to dock in a friendly port.

Desperately seeking a port

Westerdam’s captain made an announcement that the cruise line and U.S. State Department were working with two governments for entry. As the ship changed course away from Singapore and toward Bangkok, Thailand, passengers were certain they were finally headed home.

“Our certainty was confirmed by a letter delivered to our state room that Holland America Cruise Line would be arranging for our flights home from Bangkok,” Sharon said. “We began looking at airline tickets.”

Then things got downright frightening.

“We were within a few hours of Bangkok when a Thai warship pulled alongside,” Sharon said. “It was so close that we could see its guns as we sat dumbfounded on our cabin’s balcony. In the distance another ship pulled into the path of the Westerdam and once again, more violently than before, the Westerdam did a 180-degree turn.”

An announcement was later made that the Thai government had changed its decision, citing too much risk.

“Here we were after being at sea for days, after being rejected by the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan South Korea, Guam, and Singapore, we were now rejected by Thailand even though all the health checks indicated that there was no coronavirus onboard. We had exhausted all Asian ports with major airports,” Sharon said.

Finding refuge in Cambodia

An unexpected country with an international airport several hundred miles from the coast heroically stepped forward: Cambodia.

“In an unprecedented decision, the prime minister of Cambodia graciously rescued passengers of the Westerdam and allowed the ship to dock in the port city of Sihanoukville,” Sharon said. “A health screening of every passenger by a Cambodian medical team determined that the Westerdam passengers were healthy and all of us were finally free to leave the ship.“

In a gesture of goodwill, Holland America declared that it would arrange and pay for all flights back home. Passengers with plane tickets began to leave the ship and depart from the small airport at the port. One passenger, an 83-year-old woman, was stopped by officials at the Kuala Lumpur airport in Malaysia because she had a temperature and respiratory problems. She was detained and tested for coronavirus. The initial test showed that she was positive for the coronavirus triggering a new round of concerns, but a followup test of the woman found no coronavirus.

The false positive started a worldwide panic that passengers leaving the Westerdam could be spreading the coronavirus around the world. Suddenly all passengers who had left were being identified in transit and being detained. Passengers trying to leave Cambodia were being turned back because the connecting city would not accept the passage.

“We remained on the ship waiting for a plane ticket that would take us through a connection where Westerdam passengers were not being denied,” Sharon said. “On February 15 we finally received airline tickets that would take us home. Because so many countries were denying Westerdam passengers passage, we were routed from Cambodia to Malaysia to Qatar to Chicago to Dayton. In total it would take 48 hours of flying and layovers to get home. Our first flight was to Phnom Penh airport on a chartered plane. We gathered 30 days worth of luggage and got in a long and hectic line to get our boarding passes and start our way home on Qatar Airways. While waiting in line for several hours, we learned from an embassy official that no Westerdam passengers were going to be allowed to fly out of Phnom Penh. With that, Holland America arranged for buses to take all of us to a luxurious resort on the Mekong River. We were greeted by members of the U.S. embassy and eventually by U.S. Ambassador Patrick Murphy. Embassy officials set up headquarters in the hotel and worked with passengers tirelessly.”

The Johnsons said they made the best of their stay by using the pool and eating in the resort’s fine restaurants. They were told each day to have their bags packed. The cruise line was able to find some routes to fly passengers out of Asia to the Middle East and then home via very circuitous and grueling routes, Sharon said.

Even still, many passengers were being detained at various airports around the world.

“After three days at the hotel, we were asked to submit to coronavirus testing,” Sharon said. “We found ourselves in a long line waiting for Cambodian medics in haz-mat suits to stick swabs up our noses and down our throats. The procedure was quite painful. All passengers tested negative for the coronavirus. Even so, we were barred from Asian airports.”

Then after so many failed spurts of hope, all the waiting finally became a hurry-up and get packed moment.

“For us, after five nights in Phnom Penh, we were told in a 9 a.m. meeting that Holland America had found a solution,” Sharon said. “We were given 15 minutes to get our bags and be on a bus. Because of so many false starts, we were caught so off-guard that we were not dressed for the trip nor were our bags fully packed. In 15 minutes, we showered, dressed, and gathered items from our drawers by the handful and crammed them into our overflowing suitcases. We caught the next to last bus leaving. We were taken to the Phnom Penh airport where a Turkish Airways jetliner was waiting for us.”

A total of 303 passengers plus Holland America officials boarded a flight to Istanbul, Turkey, where connections would be arranged through Europe and back to the United States.

“During this whole affair, our temperatures were taken numerous times to assure the country of Turkey that we were all healthy,” Sharon said. “We were finally headed home – or so we thought – but a big surprise was in store for us.”

Good morning, Pakistan?

About six hours into a nearly 11-hour flight, somewhere over the area of Afghanistan, the plane made a sudden 180-degree turn and began to retrace its path. Some passengers panicked, envisioning past jetliners being shot down over Middle Eastern war zones.

After flying backwards for 300 miles, the pilot and the Holland America officials on board informed passengers that in mid-flight Turkey had reversed its decision to allow the plane to land.

“We later learned that diplomats around the world were working together to find a place for our plane to land,” Sharon said. “Finally, we were told that we had been given permission to land in Karachi, Pakistan – but only to refuel. We sat in Karachi while diplomats worked out a plan. After four hours on the ground, we were told that Amsterdam, Holland had accepted our plane.”

Nearly 23 hours after the plane had departed Phnom Penh, Cambodia, it finally landed in Amsterdam where arrangements had been made for the Johnsons to return through London to Chicago and, finally, to Dayton.

“In total, from the time we left Ohio on January 11, we were finally making our trip home by a complete circumnavigation of the earth,” Sharon said. “The rest of the trip was uneventful except we left our winter coats at the gate in Amsterdam. We were greeted by winter weather in Chicago when we had to walk out of the international terminal to catch a bus that took us to the domestic terminal but we were grateful to be on U.S. soil for the first time in 41 days.”

Despite the days upon weeks of drama, the Johnsons have only the kindest words for Holland America.

“Before we end our story, we would like to comment on what shipboard life was like while we meandered with uncertainty. As soon as it became apparent that there were problems, Holland America Cruise Line could not have been better to its passengers on the Westerdam,” Sharon said.

“On the first negative announcement, the captain opened all the lounges and drinks were free. Each night at dinner, we were greeted with champagne or wine with our meals. Entertainment was expanded to afternoons and there were constant updates of our situation. It was apparent that the cruise line was doing all it could do during this unprecedented event. Those who have cruised before know that being stuck on a cruise ship can be a wonderful experience. Every day we had gourmet meals with white-glove service. When we returned to the cabin, we found a freshly made bed, a clean bathroom with new towels, chocolates on the pillow and a towel animal on the bed. We went to Las Vegas-quality entertainment each night in the theater and enjoyed individual acts in the lounges. We entertained ourselves in the casino and swam in the pools. While it was disappointing not to have toured China, South Korea and Japan, we still had a wonderful time and made a lot of what are likely to be lifetime friends. Will we go cruising again? Most certainly. Because of the problems encountered, Holland America refunded the last half of our trip and awarded us a future 14-day cruise, in addition to paying our way home.“

About the Johnsons

Larry and Sharon Johnson have been living in a home on Clearwater Lake southwest of Urbana on Old Troy Pike for the past 20 years.

Larry worked most of his career in the pharmaceutical industry before finishing his career as attorney for Champaign County Job And Family Services.

Sharon is retired after 23 years as president of a national distribution and mail order company located in Madison County.

Larry and Sharon Johnson (center) are pictured with family members Dwight and Carol Holtkamp in Taiwan during one of the MS Westerdam’s last tour stops before the coronavirus outbreak caused other countries to shun the ship for fear of spreading the virus.
https://www.urbanacitizen.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/36/2020/02/web1_foursome.jpgLarry and Sharon Johnson (center) are pictured with family members Dwight and Carol Holtkamp in Taiwan during one of the MS Westerdam’s last tour stops before the coronavirus outbreak caused other countries to shun the ship for fear of spreading the virus. Submitted photos

Sharon Johnson of Urbana is photographed being tested for the coronavirus by Cambodian medics in Phnom Penh.
https://www.urbanacitizen.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/36/2020/02/web1_coronatest.jpgSharon Johnson of Urbana is photographed being tested for the coronavirus by Cambodian medics in Phnom Penh. Submitted photos

Sharon and Larry Johnson are shown on the flight from Cambodia to Holland that stopped to refuel in Pakistan after officials in Turkey changed their minds about allowing the plane to land in Istanbul.
https://www.urbanacitizen.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/36/2020/02/web1_airplane.jpgSharon and Larry Johnson are shown on the flight from Cambodia to Holland that stopped to refuel in Pakistan after officials in Turkey changed their minds about allowing the plane to land in Istanbul. Submitted photos

Holland America’s MS Westerdam was a cruise ship without a welcoming port for days as it wandered around the South China Sea after the coronavirus outbreak.
https://www.urbanacitizen.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/36/2020/02/web1_westerdam2.jpgHolland America’s MS Westerdam was a cruise ship without a welcoming port for days as it wandered around the South China Sea after the coronavirus outbreak. Submitted photos
Couple was touring Asia during coronavirus outbreak

By Brenda Burns

Managing Editor

Reach Brenda Burns by email at bburns@aimmediamidwest.com.

Reach Brenda Burns by email at bburns@aimmediamidwest.com.