As world health officials scramble to contain the fast-moving coronavirus, a Gorham woman has been stuck at sea along with thousands of other passengers as their Dutch-flagged cruise ship has been turned away from multiple ports out of fear that passengers were previously exposed to the contagion.

Opal Staudenmaier, a 48-year-old software developer for IDEXX, left Singapore on Jan. 16 aboard the MS Westerdam, a 951-foot Holland America cruise liner, for a 28-day getaway that was supposed to start in Singapore, loop around to Hong Kong and end in Shanghai after visiting a bevy of bucket-list destinations in between.

But since the middle of this week, as the outbreak continued to intensify around Asia, Staudenmaier’s ship has been in a holding pattern because officials in multiple countries have turned it away out of fear that passengers who boarded in Hong Kong on Feb. 1 may be at risk of carrying the virus that has claimed  more than 360 lives and infected over 17,000 people in China since late December.

As a result, the trip has been cut short and the ship – which on Friday evening was about 100 miles south of Taiwan – is searching for a place to safely dock.

As of Friday night, Holland America was in talks with two port cities, but neither destination had given the final go-ahead, said Staudenmaier, who answered a series of questions about her experience posed to her in an email.

“It’s been frustrating to hear a different disappointing bit of news every day, but the issues have not been in their control,” Staudenmaier said of Holland America, the cruise operator, which offered her and her fellow passengers a credit toward a future cruise to make up for the cancellation.


The Westerdam’s captain told passengers that no one aboard the ship has contracted the virus, and as long as that remains true, people aboard the ship are in a state of resigned disappointment, Staudenmaier wrote in her email.

“It’s a bummer, but there’s nothing anyone can do to fix it that isn’t already being done,” said Staudenmaier, who is traveling with a friend from Portland, Oregon. “We’re all just trying to go with the flow and enjoy being somewhere tropical even if it isn’t the destination we had in mind.”

The first sign of trouble came after the ship headed from Hong Kong to Manila, when the Philippine government refused to accept passengers from the ship who were not Philippine citizens. Instead, the ship’s crew steered to Kaoshiung, a massive port city in southern Taiwan, Staudenmaier said.

Taiwanese officials required the passengers to go through individual immigration checks and disembark so that all passengers could be paraded past an infrared thermometer to see if anyone showed early signs of sickness.

But by the next morning, when passengers were preparing to disembark for a day of sight-seeing, Taiwanese officials abruptly withdrew their approval, and the passengers of the Westerdam were thrown another curve ball. The ship headed back out to sea, in search of another port.

Their next attempted port was Ishigaki, a tiny speck of land in the Japanese archipelago that is less than 60 miles from the Eastern coast of Taiwan.


But Japanese officials decided to cancel their approval to dock – the port was too small and did not have the facilities and resources to handle the ship and its passengers. The Westerdam was barred from all Japanese ports, and Holland America, the cruise operator, informed passengers they would be terminating the cruise.

“We spent yesterday in a holding pattern while Holland America worked with various agencies and countries to find us a port where we can disembark,” Staudenmaier said. “They reportedly have involved the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Navy and the Dutch Government, as this is a Dutch-flagged ship.”

Staudenmaier said she and her fellow passengers have remained upbeat despite the disappointment that her trip had become a casualty by an international public health emergency. The food is still good, Holland America gave each passenger an extra $50 to spend aboard the boat, and no one has contracted the contagion.

“I’m chalking it up as an adventure. I’m going to bring back a helluva ‘I was there …’ story,” Staudenmaier wrote. “As long as we all stay healthy and well fed, I think it will turn out fine.”

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