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Aboard the ghost ship, from Rarotonga into the unknown

Saturday 11 April 2020 | Written by Jonathan Milne | Published in Weekend

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Aboard the ghost ship, from Rarotonga into the unknown
Paul and Azalea Diane Enderli remain upbeat as they steam across the Arabian Sea towards an uncertain future, on a ship they cannot disembark. 20040917-20040924

The passengers and crew of the MSC Magnifica have fond memories of Rarotonga. They were Cook Islands’ last cruise guests before the travel ban – and five weeks later, the sands of Muri beach are a distant memory of one of the last times they were allowed to step ashore.

It was billed as a world cruise on one of the most beautiful cruise ships on the seas. 116 nights, 43 ports, 23 countries.

“117 days to see the world, a lifetime to remember it,” the glossy marketing spiel said.

And as the passengers came ashore in Rarotonga last month, that was still the dream. “Rarotonga Cook Islands is one of the most enchanting of the South Pacific destinations,” said South African visitor Azalea Diane Enderli, still sparkling after the first of two days on the island.

“We spent the day at Muri lagoon fringed with coral reefs and calm warm water – this is the most beautiful island we have ever visited, a tropical paradise.”

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Her husband Paul was all ready to book them into Muri Beach Club resort to stay – “but with no change of clothes that was not going to work for me!”

They strolled along the main road, in the warm summer sun. Just a handful of cars on the road, she said, so there was no need for traffic lights. No McDonald’s, no tall buildings, nothing but warmth and friendliness.

“This little paradise captured our heart and we will plan to come back for longer than two days.”

That was the start of last month – but it feels a lifetime ago. Already, the coronavirus Covid-19 was casting a pall of anxiety over travel plans.

And that weekend, Aitutaki island leaders were granted a ban on cruise ships, to protect their island from contagion – the first such ban to affect the passengers and crew of the 95,000-ton MSC Magnifica.

The Aitutaki ban was why Azalea and Paul Enderli, real estate agents from Capetown, got two blissful days on Rarotonga, not just one.

They did not then know that even as the Magnifica powered up its five Wärtsilä diesel engines that evening, and steamed back out into the wide open Pacific, their horizons were about to dramatically narrow.

Five weeks later they would be on a ghost ship, one of the last of the world’s giant cruise liners still at sea, steaming across the Arabian Sea into the teeth of pirates as they sought a port – any port – to let them tie up and disembark.

Azalea Enderli now says they have been informed by their captain that they will be sailing through areas considered at risk of piracy over the next four days, relying on international navies to provide them safe passage. The passengers have been given strict safety orders they must abide by.

Covid-19, pirates and the risk that any port they sail to may turn them away. This is a nervous time for the passengers and crew of the Magnifica.

* * * * *

AFTER leaving Rarotonga, MSC Magnifica’s next stops were in New Zealand – and 10 new passengers boarded in Wellington. And then, as they crossed the Tasman Sea to Hobart, their captain, Master Roberto Leotta, made the tough and fateful decision.

"Early morning our captain announced all excursions were cancelled," Azalea tells Cook Islands News. "We would be allowed to go through immigration and immediately back to the ship due to the rapid spread of the coronavirus already in Australia. It was going to be very unlikely to continue with the existing world cruise itinerary without some changes."

There were too many Covid-19 cases in Tasmania. Nobody would be allowed to join the cruise there, lest they bring the virus on board. Passengers and crew would not be allowed to leave to see the sights of the historic state capital – or at least, they could leave, but they couldn’t board the ship again.

American crew member Roger Preston-Smith made that decision to disembark.

“They are just not letting people off if you are getting back on,” he told ABC. “They were afraid that they would infect people getting back on.”

He had lots of friends in Australia, he said, and would rather be out there, than cooped up with 2000 other people on a cruise liner.

“I don't want to be stuck on that ship, it's too stressful. They're just going to go out to sea and who knows how long it will sit there.”

They sailed the next day to Sydney, tying up by the Opera House at 7.45am. As they central Sydney’s skyscrapers and tower came closer, the passengers were all up early on deck with their cameras.

And there, passengers were gathered together for some jaw-dropping news.

Their world cruise was over. It was meant to go from January 5 to April 30 – but instead it was being cut short barely halfway through, on March 16.

Those passengers who wished to stay would be permitted to remain on the ship as it sailed across the Indian Ocean to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. From there the MSC cruise line would put them on planes home to Italy, Germany, France – and in the case of the Enderlis, to South Africa.

Azalea and Paul Enderli were among 1700 passengers who decided to stay onboard for the last leg to Dubai, after first making an unscheduled stop in Melbourne. Their, they tied up next to another cruise liner, the Golden Princess. There was a Covid-19 scare, a sick woman on board the Golden Princess. Only after her test came back negative, at 3.45pm that day, were that ship’s 2000 passengers allowed to disembark.

The remaining MSC Magnifica passengers and crew, though, were required to stay onboard, as they sailed around the south coast of Australia to Fremantle, in Western Australia.

There, things were about to get worse. The firebrand State Premier Mark McGowan had got the wrong end of the stick. On the basis of a misunderstanding, he announced that there were 250 passengers on board with a “respiratory illness”. The ship would not be allowed to dock. Nobody was allowed off.

“What rubbish,” said Azalea Enderli. “Not one infected coronavirus case on MSC Magnifica.”

For two days, the Magnifica sailed in circles off the coast of Fremantle. A small barge brought out supplies, back and forth, back and forth for two days. A police boat stood guard to make sure nobody jumped ship and tried to swim for it.

And meanwhile, more bad news: United Arab Emirates announced they would not be allowed to disembark in Dubai.

"1700 passengers and crew, all clear of the coronavirus, took the option on staying on board cruising to the Mediterranean sea – not knowing which port would accept us," Azalea says. "The world is in lockdown so we might as well enjoy the luxuries that MSC continue to offer us."

Captain Leotta made the decision to head to Sri Lanka, and then through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean. Surely the ship’s home port of Genoa, in Italy, would allow them to tie up and return their passengers and crew to dry land?

* * * * *

IN THE bowels of the giant Magnifica, in the heat of the kitchens, was a 31-year-old Sri Lankan pastry chef named Anura Bandara Herath. And he’d had enough.

Here he was, on a ship about to tie up at home in Colombo – and he was not allowed to disembark.

He had loved the experience on MSC Magnifica – his third cruise working for the company. Peru had been magical. Easter Island was memorable.

Rarotonga was special. He and two of his friends on the crew had got big chocolate cookies in Avarua (“they were the best cookies we ate”) then headed down to Muri. There, they enjoyed the beach by Captain Tama’s. They took photos.

“I liked it there because it was like my own country. Because it was very quiet,” he tells Cook Islands News, by phone. “The people are good, I like that in Rarotonga. It rained every five minutes – but it’s similar in my country, it’s very nice.”

In Auckland, he bought a present for his 9-month-old niece Ayansa whom he was looking forward to meeting in Sydney. But by the time they got to Sydney, it was all over. If he disembarked, he’d have no money, no way of getting home.

He didn’t get to see his brother Ananda, a former crewman on the Magnifica, and his family. “Yes, it was sad but what to do, we have to face this situation to protect every one,” says Ananda now. “My brother’s an amazing human being. I believe that he got blessing from all around from Sri Lankans to come back home.”

So, as the Magnifica drew near Colombo, he made a plan early in the morning, while working his night-shift. On the new Huawei phone he’d bought himself in Auckland, he recorded an SOS message to the President of Sri Lanka, on social media.

“I knew my president. I knew he would make a fast decision.”

It went viral. And President Gotabaya Rajapaksa heard his cry.

Anura had never met the ship’s captain, Robert Leotta. After all, he was a junior night-chef in a crew of more than 1000.

So when he got a call from Captain Leotta to meet him at 4pm, he was terrified. He thought he would be disciplined.

Instead, Leotta had extraordinary news: “Thank you very much for your work, and sorry we couldn’t let you disembark earlier because of the lockdown – but now your government has asked for you to disembark,”

The cruise line had agreed to a request from the Sri Lankan government; Anura would be allowed to leave the next day.

Anura was too excited to rest. “That whole day, I couldn’t sleep,” he says.

And several kilometres off the coast from Colombo, the cruise liner was met by a navy patrol boat, as other navy ships circles, keeping watch.

On April 6, Anura stepped off the MSC into the grasp of marines in white hazmat suits. They placed a facemask over his mouth – and as he motored away, he waved back at the ship. “All the passengers were watching from the balconies. I felt proud by country could take me.”

* * * * *

AZALEA and Paul Enderli were among hundreds of other passengers up early to watch from the balconies and staterooms as this single person was allowed off the boat that had now become a luxurious prison.

A decision had first been made by Captain Leotta to keep the passengers and crew onboard in Hobart, for their own safety; now that had been turned on its head.

Fremantle, Colombo, Dubai, the world refused to accept the Magnifica and the nearly 3000 people she carried.

So by yesterday, the Magnifica was at sea again, sailing across the Arabian Sea from the bottom of India, nearing the dangerous Gulf of Aden. Passengers have been told they will be allowed to disembark in Marseilles, on April 20 – but nothing is certain in a climate of coronavirus.

"Spirits have been high with the passengers left behind feeling safe," Azalea tells Cook Islands News. "An amazing Captain and crew delivering outstanding service and enjoying every day the lifestyle on an amazing cruise liner."

Paul Enderli enjoys reading the news over a coffee, before he and Azalea headed to the ship’s gym for their daily workout.

In the afternoon they relax in the sun with books, before heading to the bar by the pool for a Campari and orange.

We are still being spoilt with the amazing dinners, writes Azalea, and posts a photo of a beautiful lobster starter.

That evening, they watch a stunning theatrical production set on a tropical island, in on which a shaman protects her people from pirates.

No doubt, it seems a little close to the mark.