Performers stranded at sea for 63 days during pandemic

By Janice Christie, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    
May 27 2020

SHEET HARBOUR – Sherrie Gold and Dan Goodsell, professionally known as 24 Karat, are in 14-day isolation in their home in Sheet Harbour after spending 63 days stranded at sea on a cruise ship off the coast of Sydney, Australia during the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Looking back on their experience, Gold explains what was most difficult for her, “It was an emotional rollercoaster. Feeling isolated from the world, forgotten and living in uncertainty with no end in sight.”

Gold read on Facebook complaints about having to stay home while that’s all she and her husband wished for. “The comforts of home with the freedom of your own eating schedule and eating fresh food. I would have given anything just to actually have a banana or having something to watch on T.V. … or better yet Netflix. Sleeping in your own bed, washing your clothes with real detergent and not having to ration toothpaste for fear of not having it. A trip to the grocery store would feel like Christmas as far as we were concerned.”

The singing duo have been performers on cruise ships in four-month contracts since 2017. Performing on cruise ships six nights a week with four 45-minute sets has taken the singers to ports throughout the world including Barbados, Hong Kong, Australia, Iceland, Scotland and more.

“Where we go is depending on the ship we are on. Every contract is different and starts in a different country. This past one our home base was Sydney, Australia and we traveled to the South Pacific Islands each week,” says Gold. “The ship we were on was The Carnival Splendor with a passenger capacity of 3012 and a crew of 1150. Life on board is good but it’s an adjustment.”

As in the rest of the world, the ramifications of COVID-19 were being noted on board in February. “Dan and I started noticing the news while we were eating dinner in the mess. A few of the headlines in Australia were about their first human-to-human contact.”

Soon many of the islands The Splendor went to regularly weren’t allowing them to dock. “Each week the ports of call would change and we spent more and more days at sea for lack of places to enter,” recalls Gold.

In late February new protocols were put in place for crew and passengers. Temperature checks were happening for all passengers boarding. For crew there was mandatory hand washing in the mess and everyone was monitored.

Changes were happening rapidly. “They had a lot of the food portioned and wrapped in separate bowls as well. We were instructed to not shake hands or hug the passengers anymore and as things progressed, we weren’t allowed in passenger areas at all unless we were working,” explains Gold. “We were told that the cruise lines in the US had stopped all cruising.”

The Splendor was directed back to port two days early to disembark their passengers as the Australian government ordered all cruising to stop effective March 15. “March 17th, all passengers were off by 9 p.m. that night and we went back out to sea. We weren’t allowed to stay docked in Sydney.”

Things started to get frustrating for the cruise ship and its crew. The Australian government was not granting permission to dock.

New protocols were put into place at sea. Crew members, except married couples, were put in separate cabins. Crew had to report to the department head each day and have their temperature monitored. Anyone exhibiting any symptoms of illness were isolated immediately. Crew were told they were being let go officially and were now considered passengers.

In the beginning, life on board, as passengers, seemed good. “We had all been working so hard for months that it was a nice break. They closed all the pools and most of the lights were off to save fuel, but they opened up the pizza place, the deli and the burger joint on top of our regular buffet meals so you could at least usually get food of some sort whenever you were hungry. It was a strange feeling to be on a ship without passengers. A little eerie at first,” Gold tells The Journal in an email interview.

While the Port Authority of Sydney wasn’t allowing the ship to dock, it and its crew sat anchored out at sea day after day. When provisions were getting low, they asked to dock to get supplies at Gladstone. “This made huge news in Australia that we were docked since ships weren’t allowed to dock anywhere.”

The blame for a high percentage of cases of COVID-19 in Australia was placed squarely on the cruise ship industry. The ship did get provisions in Gladstone and it was announced that the Australian government wanted all ships gone from Australian waters. “So...at this point Dan and I knew we were in for a long haul,” says Gold. “All the cruise lines were scrambling all over the world to get their crew off. Every country had its own laws and rules in place.”

“Our company, Carnival, was hopeful and decided to start cruising their people home so 625 of us were moved with all our luggage to The Spirit, a sister ship, via tender boat on April 11th.”

The American, British, South African, Canadian, Indian, and all European crew members were now travelling to the Philippines to repatriate the Filipinos. The hope remained the rest could fly out from there too. “We were given the impression that we would be able to go home once we reached the Philippines…until the day before we arrived.”

Crew had to isolate on board the ship after the government checked the facilities and allowed the start of a two-week quarantine. “By the time we left, there were 24 ships sitting in the harbour and that’s not counting at least 75 cargo ships we could count. It was quite a scene. Security guards were also on high alert for piracy.”

Gold speaks to the mental stress the crew members were experiencing. “As the days go by, we are now reading about more and more crew members (on other cruise ships) who have committed suicide. Some of these ships were on complete lockdown where the crew were only allowed out once a day for 45 minutes due to having the virus on board.” She felt that these staff, many of whom were still just kids, felt isolated from the world and had no hope. “Not in our waters, but there were five suicides in seven days! The depression kicked in for some and they just couldn’t take it.”

“Everyone was frustrated and just wanted to go home. We put on a brave face, but it was wearing on all of us. Especially once we started running out of food and things were rationed. Often the raw veggies were rotten, fruit was becoming rare and we no longer had bottled water.”

Gold and Goodsell were running out of the basic necessities of life. While people on land were hoarding toilet tissue during the pandemic the couple was running out of toiletries. “We didn’t have detergent to wash our clothes in, so we had to use shampoo. Toothpaste was also not available anymore. Thank goodness a friend of ours had an extra tube because we did run out of our own supply.”

In May people were starting to get plane tickets sent via email. A number of crew from the UK, South Africa, America, and Europe were supposed to get off the cruise ship on May 5; but there was no news for the Canadians. “Carnival was working tirelessly to get the Filipino government to allow our crew off...there was no way, and they closed the airport till May 9th for unknown reasons. So many had their hopes up, just to be let down again.” 

At this point the couple was feeling helpless and forgotten. “Two days prior I had registered with the government again. We had a video chat with our friend Kyle Hagerman and he had written to his local MP Chandra Arya to find out if the Canadian government could help us. It definitely felt better knowing that we had a contact now.”

On The Spirit an announcement was made for British passport holders as the government said they wanted their people off the ship on the 14th of May. “I wrote to our connection Chandra Arya as I was worried that the Brits were the only ones who were going to be allowed to get off on the 14th. Chandra was all over it and sent emails to other government sources as well.

“Finally, we got the word that we could get off the ship. We stepped on land in the Philippines, surrendered our passports while surrounded by coast guards with machine guns. They were all very nice though,” says Gold adding that after departing the ship, she and Goodsell sat on a bus delayed for three hours waiting for processing at Filipino immigration.

By the time they got to Heathrow Airport, Air Canada refused to board them saying the five-minute delay would affect connecting flights. The exhausted couple spent an extra night in London before landing in Halifax after their long ordeal.

“The uncertainty we went through! Our biggest issue is that Carnival was constantly jumping through hoops and it was obvious after being together after the first two weeks, let alone 60 days, that we didn’t have COVID on board The Splendor or The Spirit.” Gold poses the question, “So, why were these countries treating us this way?”

“We were fortunate to have wonderful captains on our ships and they communicated daily even if there wasn’t any real news to report. The captains, hotel directors and HR were available for all questions. Being informed was the key that kept our morale up. They were honest but frustrated when things weren’t going as planned. I am very appreciative of them as they carried a huge burden trying to get everyone home safely.

“Never knowing when you were going to get home was depressing. It’s a bit different when you have a date and you can count down the days, but when you don’t know if it’s going to be months...depressing. Carnival took good care of us considering all the limitations they had,” Gold says.

Pulling into their yard at home this week in Sheet Harbour was a feeling like no other for the couple. “It actually did feel like Christmas when we walked in. Thanks to our wonderful friends for setting us up for isolation. We are loving it.”