Stuck on a cruise ship!
Claudia Pereira landed a dream job as a singer/dancer on a cruise ship. Then the pandemic struck.
My 10-month contract with the Celebrity Eclipse was my first professionally paid contract after graduating in 2018 from the Queensland Conservatorium of Music. The gig started with two months of rehearsals in Miami, Florida, before we travelled to Vancouver, Canada, where the cruise ship was docked. Our itinerary was incredible and we were lucky enough to have regular port changes – either every two weeks or each month – so we never saw the same place more than twice. We travelled to Alaska, Hawaii, California, Mexico, Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, Antarctica to Brazil and back down the South American coast to Chile, where we finished our trip.
We would usually perform two shows every second night. Sometimes a matinee. Guest entertainers performed on the alternate nights. This meant we had every second day off to rest, go to the gym, explore the port we were docked at and prep for the next show. On the show day we would either rehearse at 10am or 2pm and perform at 7pm and 9pm. Breakfast and lunch were in the crew mess: dinner in the guest buffet after the 9pm show.
I was lucky enough to have my own cabin to myself. Though it was small and had no porthole or window, some dancers had to share smaller cabins with a small shower over a toilet.
The Celebrity Eclipse is huge – it can carry 2852 passengers as well as a crew of nearly 1300. We performers were made up four vocalists, eight dancers, two singer-dancers and four aerialists.
We first heard about the virus in mid-February. At this stage I had been on the ship for seven months. News takes time to filter through to cruise ships, as we’re quite removed from the rest of the world. We were not told of guests cancelling or of people told not to travel from a virus hotspot such as China, but we did hear about it through word of mouth. The general operating of the ship, such as the scheduled itinerary and hygiene measures, didn’t change until the end of March. We were sailing around Argentina, and the virus was nowhere near South America, so “technically” we were safe. A new group of guests embarked in Buenos Aires on March 1 – little did they know they would be staying with us for a whole month, not just their planned two weeks’ holiday!
My flight home was organised for the morning of March 15, my original sign-off date. My two suitcases containing all my possessions were already at the gangway on the night before and I was expecting to leave the ship at 8:30am to travel from San Antonio, Chile, to Santiago airport. There was no indication this wasn’t going to happen until an announcement from the bridge at 6am on the day of my expected departure: “San Antonio has refused entry. We are working with port authorities … I will update you in two hours’ time.” It was only when I looked out the porthole in the crew meeting area and saw no land in sight that I realised how serious the situation was. I was not going to make my 1:30pm flight!
That night all of the cast was informed that we would probably have to remain on the ship until April 11 “at the latest”. We were all in absolute disbelief – shocked, frustrated, confused and upset. We had already been away from our home countries for 9.5 months and for some this was officially their last contract on ships or as performers. Most of us had thrown out clothes, activewear and make-up. After three days waiting outside the San Antonio port it was announced we would be sailing to San Diego, in California, 10 days away.
It was decided we needed to come up with some new entertainment for the guests, as they had already seen all our shows. We had a Beatles tribute band as guest entertainers, so they performed on the first night and we had 24 hours to throw a show together.
The singers, including the singer-dancers, went for the quickest and easiest option, a singing concert with the Eclipse band. I sang “Hopelessly Devoted to You”, with a piano accompaniment – luckily we all had songs from our repertoire books prepared. The highlight and the biggest challenge of the extended time on board was creating our own show. We called it Synergy – a fusion of choreographed group numbers, reused and repurposed costumes, breathtaking aerial routines, beautiful pop song covers and epic lighting, and we put it together in under a week. We spent every day in the gym learning and perfecting dance routines. As a singer-dancer I had performed mainly as a singer in the production shows, with limited dancing moments, but in Synergy I was slotted in as a dancer.
During the first rehearsals it felt like a chore and more hard work than we really needed to do but we pulled together as a team and worked our butts off – it was a fantastic distraction from the uncertainty ahead. I realised this might be the last time I would perform for a very long time, so I should enjoy it while I had the opportunity. Looking back, I now realise it was an amazing experience.
Cast members on the ship were allowed to use the guest gym, so other than rehearsing I did my daily workouts and used the machines as much as possible. There were no restrictions during this period other than more regular announcements to sanitize.
As we approached San Diego, some of us received emails giving us new flight details for March 30, but had not been told when we would disembark the ship. Two days before arriving in San Diego we were told only US crew would be allowed to disembark, along with the guests. Even though I had a B1/B2 Visa, so could travel in and out of the US, the San Diego Center for Disease Control (CDC) wouldn’t allow non-US crew to leave the ship. As announced, 2300 guests and US crew disembarked. It was only that night we heard that a guest was rushed to hospital and straight into ICU reading positive for COVID-19. Suddenly everything changed drastically.
The next day we were handed masks. We were only allowed in the crew area – which included the crew mess, bar and lounge – located on deck 1 and 2 – and the crew open deck for fresh air. Curfews were also put in place – we had to remain in our rooms from 10pm to 6am. Performances stopped. This was the beginning of lockdown.
While docked, Celebrity Eclipse refuelled and restocked. We were docked opposite the Disney Wonder cruise ship, while another ship, the Celebrity Millennium, floated outside. As only two ships could fit at the port, every few days we would sail outside the port to recycle wastewater and allow Celebrity Millennium to dock.
For the first four days of complete lockdown the Guest Relations team started transferring crew members in shared cabins to empty guest cabins with balconies. On day four the cast and myself were finally allowed to leave our cabins and move to designated guest cabins. I had not felt fresh air or sunlight for four days straight! I was lucky with my single cabin, but I had no room to stretch, workout or move my body in any way. I found myself just sleeping in between breakfast, lunch and dinner. This was the hardest part of the lockdown period. Also, to top it off, during that time I was told I would be disembarking, only to again be told: “All flights tomorrow are cancelled.” Not again! The US CDC had just decided crew members must travel from the US on a chartered flight – organised by Celebrity – not through commercial companies such as Qantas.
The guest cabin with a balcony was much better – I could breathe in fresh air and feel the sunlight, and I had enough room to stretch, move and do daily workouts. Honestly, having the space to move my body was the biggest part in helping me stay sane, feel good about myself and work towards something. Thankfully we were provided with free wifi for the two week lockdown so I was facetiming Mum, Dad, my partner and friends back at home. I had a TV in the guest cabin with updated movies and the news. The food service and quality also improved – we received food three times a day to our cabins.
I was alerted to five proposed flights home via email over the five week period I was “stuck” on the ship. The fifth one was the lucky one! Celebrity had arranged a charter flight on April 18 to London. By the time we disembarked it had been 36 days since I’d stepped on land. It felt so good to be on solid ground!
Buses took us to LA airport for our flight to Heathrow. I then had a connecting flight via Doha to Sydney but I missed it because of a delay with our chartered flight, so spent the next two nights in a transit hotel. It was distressing to miss the flight and have to stay in a COVID-19 hotspot country. But at last I was on board the Australian leg of my journey! The good thing about social distancing was I could stretch out over three seats! I was then transferred to a quarantine hotel, the stunning Sheraton Grand Hyde Park. I was so relieved to be back, on solid ground, eating fresh food and staying in a luxurious 5 star suite.
This article first appeared in the September/October/November print issue of Dance Australia. NEVER MISS AN ISSUE!
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