'A floating prison': How man's luxury cruise ended in nightmare

David Abel’s 50th wedding anniversary luxury cruise began with him eating his fill and enjoying the sights of East Asia.

It’s ending with him quarantined in his cabin aboard the Diamond Princess, as it stays in the port of Yokohama outside Tokyo, for two extra weeks, eating a “lettuce sandwich with some chicken inside” and watching as officials in hazmat-style suits escort dozens of infected people, some of them hiding their identities under sheets, off the ship to hospitals for treatment of a new virus. 

Officials said Friday that 61 people from the ship had the fast-spreading coronavirus.

“It’s not going to be a luxury cruise; it’s going to be like a floating prison,” Mr Abel wrote on Facebook. 

He is among thousands of people on two cruise ships in Japan and Hong Kong who are facing quarantine because of the virus.

The Diamond Princess anchored at Yokohama Port. Source: AAP

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced Thursday that Japan will deny entry of foreign passengers on another cruise ship heading to Japan — Holland America’s cruise ship Westerdam, on its way to Okinawa from Hong Kong — because of suspected coronavirus patients found on the ship.

The new immigration policy takes effect Friday to ensure border control to prevent the disease from entering and spreading further into Japan, Mr Abe said.

As Japanese officials loaded the Diamond Princess with supplies to make the quarantine as bearable as possible, passengers took to social media to highlight kindnesses by the crew and to complain about dwindling medicine, the quality of the food and the inability to exercise or even leave their cabins.

Their photos and videos showed the vessel that once had 3,711 passengers and crew is now a ghost ship of deserted reception areas, swimming pools and hallways. Babies on the Hong Kong ship were reportedly running out of diapers and milk.

“I think for many passengers, it’s going to be absolute boredom,” Mr Abel said in a separate interview. 

He considers himself lucky that he has a cabin with a balcony. 

David Abel is one of many passengers in quarantine. Source: Facebook/ David Abel

“The people I feel really sorry for are those with inside cabins who’ve got no natural light, no fresh air. It’s going to be pretty grim for them for two weeks.”

Grim is one way to describe the virus and the fear it’s created. There have been more than 31,000 cases confirmed, and it’s spread to some 24 countries. Still, fear has spread faster than the disease. Masks and hand sanitiser are sold out in many areas of Seoul, Tokyo and Bangkok. Health workers are striking in Hong Kong and anti-Chinese discrimination has been seen across Asia. Taiwan has banned international cruise ships.

On the Diamond Princess, there were signs people were trying to make the best of a bad situation.

Yardley Wong, a passenger from Hong Kong travelling with her husband, son and her parents, said on Twitter that the crew gave her son playing cards, colouring pens and other gifts “to kill off boredom”.

Australians Paul and Coralie Williamson said their cabin was smaller than a motel room and they had heard complaints from others about not having medication, or enough information.

Passengers stroll on the deck of the ship. Source: AAP

But, after 34 years of marriage, Ms Williamson said if she’s going be stuck in a room with anyone, “I would rather it be Paul than anyone else”.

“So it’s OK. We will need to go for a long walk on the beach when we get home,” she told the ABC.

People posted photos of breakfast, a bowl of fruit salad, boiled eggs, juice and a croissant. One passenger celebrating their ninth wedding anniversary got a “happy anniversary” card from the ship staff.

“We’re here for a long haul. I think it is going to get a little bit testing, obviously. But I don’t know. What do we do? We couldn’t jump out of the boat; that’s a bit cold,” Jacqui Fidrmuc from Cairns told Nine News.

Japanese health officials told reporters that a medical team and supplies were being sent to the ship. At the port where the ship dropped off infected patients and loaded up food and supplies, a person in a hazmat bodysuit entered the ship carrying two boxes labelled “thermometers”.

On the World Dream ship quarantined in Hong Kong, its more than 3,600 passengers and crew were being screened because eight passengers on an earlier voyage had the virus. Hong Kong officials said more than 5,000 passengers on three voyages beginning January 19 may have been exposed.

Hong Kong lawmaker Jeremy Tan said a woman on board called him Wednesday night to say she and some other mothers were running out of milk powder and diapers for their babies. 

He said he believed there were five or more babies on the ship, and that he delivered the essentials to authorities Thursday.

An ambulance parked near the quarantined ship. Source: AAP

Life on the Diamond Princess in Yokohama, “has changed beyond recognition to what you would call a luxury cruise”, Mr Abel said. 

One meal was just a glass of orange juice, a yoghurt and a bit of melon. Another was a “lettuce sandwich with some chicken inside” and a dessert.

When masked crew members hand over and pick up the trays of food, he said, “it’s very brief. There’s no physical contact apart from touching the tray”.

Even though the sick people have been taken off the boat, there was still unease.

 “We’ve been breathing the same air as those that have been removed,” Mr Abel said.

“How do we cope with it?” he wrote on Facebook. 

“We can either be creative and thinking positive things or we can be dragging ourselves down into the gutter. I certainly won’t be doing that.”

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