Linda Broyles often goes to the beach, just to look. “I see the cruise ships anchored there just a mile out to sea,” she says. “It looks romantic, but I know what’s going on. On each ship there are crew, stuck.”
Broyles is a San Diego ER nurse, but since 2016 she has been working at sea as a nurse on Holland America cruise ships, largely cruising Asia.
Until the end of 2019.
That’s when she was on the Westerdam, an 82,500-ton, 2000-passenger mega cruise liner built in 2003, and beloved by older, richer cruise passengers.
“I didn’t know that on the last trip, Coronavirus would hit, and keep me stuck at sea for five months,” she says.
Westerdam, the ship Linda Broyles nursed on.
Photograph by Master0Garfield
“January 31st was when things started to happen. We had been to Vietnam for Christmas, and then, for New Years, Thailand. We had also done an overnight in Shanghai. That was in December. And then we had gone to Ha Long Bay. On January 31st, we were meant to do an overnight in Hong Kong. But right then things were brewing. We were set to disembark 600 passengers and take 600 more on board. And we were scared. We screened passengers, but some got through the cracks. On February 3rd, we went to Manila, and we were turned away, because we had been to Hong Kong. So we went to Kaohsiung in Taiwan, and we didn’t have any trouble. Passengers went ashore, explored the town. But a cruise ship called the World Dream was berthed alongside us. And supposedly, in their health declarations, [some of their passengers] were not completely forthcoming. And the next day, our passengers wanted to get off the ship again, and they were denied, because they had discovered infected people aboard World Dream. And it was assumed that we did the same. And it was all downhill from there. They told us we actually had to leave. So we left, and then got turned away from port to port to port all through Asia.
“The passengers at that point were getting very anxious. Rightfully so. Things were starting to erupt. People called home. One crew member on another ship hung a banner that said, ‘I’m from the US. I’m being held hostage.’ An Australian couple on board were doing regular video reports back to their home TV network. People were becoming desperate. But our Dutch captain, Vincent Smit, was great, and kept us all informed. The US embassies in the different countries were in touch, and the company guaranteed full refunds.”
Finally, on the 13th of February, Cambodia let the ship dock and let the passengers disembark, until one tested positive. “Everything stopped,” says Broyles. “Then it proved to be a false positive. So we finally got the last of the passengers off on February 19th. And the crew was tested, and nobody had the virus.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Broyles says there had been no panic among the passengers. “Most were retired Americans. Everyone was very civil.”
The captain told Broyles and the rest of the crew he had decided to head back across the Pacific to the US. They refueled and provisioned in Honolulu, and authorities even let the crew ashore for one night.
“So we sailed on, heading for San Diego. And I thought that was it. I could come ashore, see my family, contract over. But in San Diego they said ‘Nope.’ As a nurse, I was ‘essential personnel.’ We still had crew to look after. And the CDC was being strict.
“We’re now talking mid-April. This was a long time together. Of course, relationships developed. There were certainly a few pregnancies by then. We hoped we’d get to port before they started having births on board. But we were one big family. And this was with 70 nationalities among the crew. Romanians, Chinese, Jamaicans, South Americans, Filipinos, Brazilians, Indonesians, Malaysians, Mauritians, Sri Lankans, Dutch, on and on.
“I mean, when they said I couldn’t go home, I could see Coronado! From the ship! My husband Rob and my two boys Andrew and Lucas could practically see me. On the phone, Rob said, ‘Just barge down the gangplank, push past the security and run like hell. Port police will catch you, but I’ll pay your bail.’ But I knew I was no match for security. And then they made the ship leave San Diego again. So, back to Mexico. Mexico wouldn’t let us off the ship either. Except, when we got to Puerto Vallarta, they let one guy from our casino leave, because he was Mexican.”
Could it get any worse? Well, yes. The company decided to send the Westerdam back to Asia, complete with Broyles as nurse, to ferry the different Asian crews home.
Incredibly, Broyles told her boss she was okay with that, even though there was no guarantee if or when the Westerdam would be coming back.
But finally, the company found a replacement for Broyles. In a bizarre gathering of the clan, half a dozen cruise ships anchored in the waters off Ensenada and effected an exchange-by-lifeboat of crews. It took two days. Asian crew were shuttled to Westerdam and one other ship for the long voyage home. Broyles was taken aboard the Koningsdam.
Just over a week later, May 8th, the Koningsdam pulled into San Pedro. After more than five months at sea, Linda Broyles walked down the gangplank onto dry land.
“I felt elation. I couldn’t believe it. To have solid ground beneath my feet. And no-one running up and telling me, ‘You’ve got to go back!’”
But she has regrets too. “I felt I was leaving ‘my’ ship, the Westerdam, before she had completed her mission. I told my boss I felt I was leaving the job undone. They still had to return the Asian crews to Asia. And there are still so many stuck on other ships out there. And these are people who are usually not sailors. They are onboard shop concessionaires, spa masseuses, nannies, casino blackjack operators. Many aren’t being paid. It has been months! I know three different crew members have committed suicide recently. And suicides continue. Like this Ukrainian girl who jumped overboard. She was booked on a charter flight to go home, and apparently it got canceled. I think that was aboard the Regal Princess.”
After all this, would she go to sea again? “Well, I’ve been told I’m too old. So I guess I’ll have to hang up my sea boots. But absolutely. I’d go in a heartbeat.”