When MSC Magnifica left Genoa in Italy on 5 January, it was a very different world.
The so called “unknown pneumonia” did not have a name. The World Health Organization said no one had died and only 59 people were infected – all in Wuhan, China, according to a report in BBC News.
Very few of the 1,760 passengers on board Magnifica, had heard of the virus as they sipped their cocktails at the ship’s Bar del Sole to celebrate the start of their 117-day world cruise.
At the helm was Captain Roberto Leotta, a veteran mariner who has worked on cruises for 32 years. His father and grandfather were also sailors.
After leaving Europe, Magnifica stopped at Cape Verde, off the west coast of Africa, before heading across the Atlantic. By the time the ship docked in Brazil on 19 January, the virus was spreading outside of China. Captain Leotta was worried.
Magnifica left Chile on 21 February and reached Pitcairn three days later. By then cruise ships were in the news.
Ports were fast closing their doors. On the Pacific island of Aitutaki, just east of the International Date Line, the small population of 2000 was concerned. As the coronavirus crept closer, the people asked the Cook Island Government to ban all cruise ships.
Magnifica, which was virus-free, was not allowed to dock in Aitutaki and instead berthed on the main island of Rarotonga.
For the first time COVID-19 had changed the plans for Magnifica’s passengers.
Andy Gerber, then aged 69, from Switzerland, is a veteran cruiser having chalked up 19 voyages before Magnifica.
He had planned to celebrate his 70th birthday in Sydney where he had booked a steakhouse to celebrate his big birthday with friends, he told the BBC.
Until Australia, Magnifica’s itinerary had been a dream. In January when the coronavirus emerged in Asia, the ship was far away in South America. By the time the ship approached Tasmania on 14 March, the coronavirus had caught up with the cruise ship, the island had six cases and things were getting worse.
The ship had permission to dock in Hobart but Captain Leotta was not taking any chances.
“We decided it was much better for our passengers to remain safely on board,” he said.
By then, the world had become a much smaller place.
“It was clear, that there was basically nowhere to go,” Captain Leotta said.
When the ship arrived in Sydney, the Captain told the passengers, the world cruise was over – they were heading home. Ahead of them, five weeks of sea days, cruising 19,000km back to Europe.
Andy Gerber could not celebrate his big 70th birthday at the steakhouse as planned. Instead, he celebrated it on board the ship looking out on the tantalising lights of Sydney. So how did he feel?
“At first – terrible,” he said. “But after the shock, we were grateful the captain decided not to let us go ashore, as this meant we were 99.999per cent clean (of the coronavirus).
Life on board Magnifica for Andy Gerber was enjoyable, despite the lack of shore excursions.
“There is still plenty to do if you want. Gym, games, shows, dance classes. We have two pools and perfect weather, plenty to eat and drink and we have made a lot of friends – especially during all these sea days,” he said.
As Magnifica approached Fremantle in West Australia, it sailed into a political storm. The ship had planed to only refuel and resupply in Fremantle – not disembark.
But at a news conference, WA Premier Mark McGowan said: “We will not allow passengers or crew to wander the streets. This is a non-negotiable position.”
When the ship arrived in Fremantle, it was met by police and the border force to make sure that no one got off.
Magnifica said none of its passengers had respiratory or flu symptoms on board but WA Government accused MSC of “inconsistent advice” which MSC denied.
Early this week, Magnifica arrived back in Marseille as the last MSC cruise ship to come in. No one has been off the ship since it left Wellington on 10 March. None of the passengers or any of the 927 crew displayed symptoms of COVID-19 during the ship’s long journey home, MSC said.
As Captain Leotta said: “We found ourselves in a situation (globally) where COVID-19 has been isolating people and distancing people.
“Here was the opposite. We became like family – our guests and our crew together. The spirit has been beautiful.”