In the community that comprises onboard life, Iris MacBeath is a dual member: first, she is a longtime crew member on various ships for a major cruise line ship; she recently started a new role as a Media Manager. Before her new position, Iris worked in a series of youth activities positions. Secondly, Iris is what is known in cruise ship parlance as a “traveling spouse,” or a “Spouse-On-Board,” which is the term used by her cruise line. Specifically, Iris’ husband Stuart is a ship officer, and Iris has lived on the ship with him for a total of around 350 days. Those distinct vantage points afford Iris a unique perspective of onboard life, and she chronicles that on her blog, Life of Iris. …Life of Iris was conceived in early 2020 as a way for Iris to document her reflections as a Spouse-On-Board on the Grand World Voyage on which her husband Stuart, a 1st Engineering Officer was assigned. “I wanted to keep track of what we were up to; basically, because going around the world is pretty cool.”
Iris surmised this was a good time to dive into this endeavor—three months of sailing around the world and not having to work. It was a good time. The Grand World Voyage had started uneventfully, departing Port Everglades on January 4 for a four-month voyage that was meant to visit 48 ports in almost 30 countries that was to be highlighted by stops in Rio de Janeiro, Tahiti, Antarctica, Singapore, and Kenya and returning to Port Everglades. Iris and Stuart boarded the ship before Tahiti in Lima, Peru. Their travels to get to Lima had been fine; Iris recalled they were questioned en route as to if they had been to China in the past 14 days. There had been rumblings about some virus, but it was confined to China.
As the ship made its way across the Pacific Ocean, there were reports that ships from various lines were being diverted from some Asian ports. Then Iris learned that a ship in her
cruise line fleet was getting turned away from its Asian ports. After 14 days of the sister ship trying to dock, Iris’ cruise line canceled cruises on that ship for a month. Iris and the crew members were aghast. “We are like ‘A month? That’s a lot! What’s going on here?” In the cruise industry in normal times, if a cruise line has a choice between a nine-day dry dock and a ten-day, they want nine days because they want a ship to be out of service for as few days as possible. So, for them to cancel a month of cruises….”
The crew members rationalized that the disruptions and cancellations were in the China region, and the rest of the world was normal. They were still cruising along in an entirely conventional fashion. “We went to Tahiti, New Zealand. Then there started to be some modifications to our itinerary. Seychelles was one of the first countries to decide not to let cruise ships dock. Our itinerary kept changing; it was like we are just going to adjust and keep sailing.”
I asked, “At this point were the passengers mindful at all that something was going on?”
“Yes. The ship had access to the BBC and MSNBC—they are the main television news channels. So, we had access to the news. We saw other cruises were getting canceled. But we just adjusted. We had to avoid some ports, but we thought that we would be able to get to enough places that would comprise the rest of the cruise. I think everyone accepted that the rest of the cruise wasn’t going to look the same, but it seemed like there was going to be a remainder to the cruise.”
“I think it was March 6 and 7, we were in Sydney, Australia; we were there for an overnight. Everything is open. I get off the ship, I go to the Sydney Opera House. l take a ferry across to a nice little beach area; everything is still normal. Then the next day it started to change, and it progressively changed very quickly. Countries were just turning cruise ships away. A couple of days later it was announced we would be done as a cruise.”
On March 12, 2020, the cruise line announced a suspension of sailing, and a week later the ship Iris was on disembarked all passengers in Fremantle, Australia as cruising globally ground to a halt. The Grand World Voyage had traversed half the world.
“While we were making our way to Perth, Australia, to the harbor at Fremantle, and we’re working frantically to get all the passengers flights home from Perth, Australia suddenly was saying they are closing. ’But you told us we could disembark there!’ There was so much information, and misinformation whirling around. Sometimes the information was valid, sometimes it was a rumor that had gotten exaggerated. Like so many countries around the world, Australia was nervous; I think they had some cases. Luckily, the issues were worked out and we were able to dock in Fremantle and disembark all the passengers.
I asked Iris to talk about what transpired after the ship disembarked all the passengers. I assume the crew had jobs to do. I asked her to talk about what that time on the ship was like for her.
“I was on board with my husband and all the crew, just sailing back and forth across the Indian Ocean trying to find a place for crew members to go home. I did this until June, so I was stuck onboard with all the crew members for the first three months of the pandemic. I stayed for 100 more days after we disembarked the passengers until I flew home from the Philippines in June.”
“It certainly was a very different cruise experience. On one hand, even though the ship went from having a few thousand people on board to only having 600 crew, you had everyone that kept going with their normal jobs: engineers, deck officers, and most culinary/housekeeping. Then you had people from the shore excursions and the entertainment team—they went from having passengers to serve to having no passengers to serve. So, you had a crew that was still working their normal jobs, and then you had others that were hanging by the pool each day because they didn’t have to do that much for their jobs. It made for a very interesting social experiment. For everyone, it was challenging; no one knew what was going on, no one knew when they were going home. And then on top of that uncertainty, the entertainment, shore excursion and most of the hotel department didn’t know if they would lose their jobs. There were a lot of unknowns floating around, and you kept hearing that another country had closed. When we left Australia, we thought we were headed back to Florida—that was the goal. We had the passengers luggage on the ship, so when we got to Florida, we were going to ship it to their homes. Then we heard that the CDC had closed off the States to cruise ships—it wasn’t an option for us to go back there.”
What a way for the Life of Iris blog to present itself to the cruising community.
Read the rest of Iris’ story in The Joy of Cruising Again, including how she went from the biggest crisis of our time, the dawning of Covid-19, to the poignant story of her intimate involvement with another crisis—Ukraine.