A Winthrop couple are back home after being stuck at sea on a cruise ship that was unable to find a port to let off its passengers due to coronavirus concerns.

Scott and Dona Ferguson of Winthrop are seen in front of Presidents Palace in Suva Fiji Islands. The couple was stranded on a cruise ship with 840 passengers for 17 days amid the global coronavirus outbreak. They were finally able to find a port to come ashore and have returned home. Photo submitted by Scott and Dona Ferguson

Scott and Dona Ferguson, and the other 840 or so passengers on the Holland America cruise ship, were finally able to make it back onto land late last week. They made port in San Diego, where they went straight from the ship to the airport for a nearly-empty red-eye flight home to Maine.

Other than to the grocery store to replenish their food supply, they have no other immediate travel plans after their ordeal.

“It was a bigger relief than we thought it would be,” Scott Ferguson said of finally returning to their Winthrop home late Saturday night. “Not knowing, ‘are we going to be able to get home,’ was very stressful and tense.”

He said the only screening they underwent before being allowed to disembark from the ship was to have their passports checked.

“All they did was check your passport, there were no health screenings,” Ferguson said. “I thought there would be something.”

He said the ship’s captain reiterated in multiple updates to passengers that no one onboard had any symptoms of the coronavirus, even as it was spreading rapidly across the globe.

“We were at sea for 17 days, so we were pretty much isolated anyway, in a bubble,” Ferguson said.

The couple booked their trip through the South Pacific on a cruise ship to celebrate their recent retirements and their return home to Maine.

But thanks to the spread of the coronavirus they ended up stranded at sea, with the ship unable to find a port willing to let them come ashore. That was despite ship officials saying no one onboard their cruise ship, the Maasdam of Holland America, even showed flu-like symptoms.

A different Holland America cruise ship, the Zaandam, had four passengers die onboard, two of them confirmed coronavirus cases, and is still at sea.

Scott Ferguson Photo submitted by Scott and Dona Ferguson

After the ship the Fergusons were on was turned away at three different ports the couple and other passengers stuck on board had planned to disembark March 20 in Honolulu, Hawaii. However the night of March 19 they learned the governor of Hawaii refused to allow any cruise ship passengers off in the state. A statement from the Hawaii Department of Transportation said the Maasdam would be allowed to dock to refuel and resupply, but passengers would not be allowed off.

So their time at sea continued for another seven days, as the ship headed for San Diego, California, where it arrived March 26. They were allowed off March 27, and taken to the airport by bus to catch a flight home.

They said they were not advised they needed to quarantine themselves. But other than the grocery store and a trip to pick up their cats, which were very happy to see them, from boarding, they’ve been staying home.

Dona Ferguson Photo submitted by Scott and Dona Ferguson

They boarded the ship March 1, in Auckland, New Zealand, for what was supposed to be a 15-day South Pacific cruise. The couple said they were aware of the spread of the coronavirus but were optimistic even though they realized the trip was a bit of a gamble. They said all passengers were screened for the virus when they boarded. And the couple packed their medical books with them for the trip.

Ferguson said they’ve since had some friends ask why they went during a pandemic.

But when they first left home for the trip, Feb. 24, Ferguson said there hadn’t been any warning of a pandemic, they were just warned not to go to China. He said there was no offer from the cruise company then to cancel the trip, and trip insurance “doesn’t cover this kind of stuff.”

“So we left fat, dumb and happy,” Ferguson said. “There was no one calling it a pandemic until we were already gone for seven to 10 days.”

He said he doesn’t regret going but: “If we knew this was going to explode like it has, would we have gone? No, of course not.”

Dona, 66, retired as a nursing professor at Columbus State University in Georgia and Scott, 67, retired from the United Way after 30 years, the last 12 in Columbus, Georgia, as president and chief executive officer. Upon their retirement they bought a house in Winthrop. Dona grew up in Leeds and Scott in Windham.

The couple aren’t sure whether the cost of the trip will be refunded but said the company did indicate it would cover airfare expenses to get home. For them that cost was substantial, because with all the false starts when they thought they’d be coming ashore only to be not allowed into ports, they’d booked six flights home they couldn’t make, totaling some $4,500. The couple plan to submit those receipts to the cruise line in hopes they’ll get their money back, or at least some sort of travel credit.

“We’d rather have the cash,” not a travel credit, Ferguson said. “We’re not looking to go anywhere for a while.”

He said the crew remained upbeat and did a good job with a tough situation, and entertainers were still onboard, so there were shows most nights. Otherwise they read a lot, played Scrabble and ate a lot of food.

Ferguson said he felt bad for the crew because they weren’t being allowed off in San Diego, especially the ship’s captain, who was on his last cruise.


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