Recap: ‘Cabin Fever’ captures the horror of COVID cruising | health and fitness

By ROB MERRILL – Associated Press

“Cabin Fever: The Harrowing Journey of a Cruise Ship at the Dawn of a Pandemic” by Michael Smith and Jonathan Franklin (Doubleday)

Imagine leaving a dock in Buenos Aires in early March 2020 to board a ship with 1,242 fellow passengers and 586 crew members for a cruise around the tip of South America. You’ve heard of a virus making people sick in China, Italy and Spain, but it’s thousands of miles away. The prospect of touring the Falkland Islands, climbing Machu Picchu and getting close to a penguin colony in Chile far outweighs fears of global news.

That’s the starting point for a new nonfiction book called Cabin Fever by investigative journalists Michael Smith and Jonathan Franklin. They tell the story chronologically, beginning on March 6, 2020, just two days before Holland America’s cruise ship MS Zaandam departs port in Argentina. Days later, the World Health Organization officially classifies COVID-19 as a pandemic, and for the next 25 days, the Zaandam will drift in international waters and be denied safe harbor in every port as COVID breaks out around the world. It wasn’t until April 2, 2020 that the ship finally docked in Port Everglades, Florida, with three bodies in its morgue and hundreds of other sick passengers on board.

People also read…

The book begins with a cast of characters – brief bios of the people on board that the journalists spoke to to reconstruct the narrative. Alongside Dutch Captain Ane Smit and some of his fellow officers, there are two Missouri retirees hoping to tick Machu Picchu off their bucket list, two Nashville men celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary, and the manager of the ship’s massive laundry, Wiwit Widarto , who worked on cruise ships for 30 years to support his family back home in Indonesia.

In the 250 pages of the book we get to know their stories, with a focus on their experiences on board the Zaandam. Smith and Franklin eschew the Bob Woodward approach, writing in the omniscient third person and not attempting to recreate the dialogue. Each shipment is dated and timestamped as we read about the characters’ journey, from “everything will be fine out here in our adult playground on the sea” to knocking on doors when trays of clothed food arrive Crew members are dropped in front of the cabins protective suits. The result reads like the longest newspaper story ever written, mixed with the requisite dramatic flourishes needed to keep readers turning the pages. “Another traveler was on board the ship,” concludes chapter one. “The crew was unaware of his presence. It was never cataloged or ordered and had not purchased a ticket. This stowaway, likely hiding in the lungs of a passenger or perhaps a crew member, was microscopic yet capable of overpowering this gargantuan ship.”

The Zaandam’s voyage was of course covered extensively by the media. It was one of more than 100 cruise ships at sea when COVID broke out. Thanks to social media and Wi-Fi, passengers shared their misery in real time. But when you put it all together in a format like this, you get the right context. In hindsight, it’s easy to believe it wasn’t that bad. Ultimately, at least six Zaandam passengers died, but the death toll has now surpassed a million people in the US alone. Smith and Franklin’s compelling account of the cruise takes readers back to a time I’m sure many would like to forget—when fear trumped all and no one knew what the future held. It’s a stunning example of narrative journalism. Perhaps too early for some, but a worthy addition to the historical record.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission.

Leave a Comment