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Cabin Fever: Trapped on board a cruise ship when the pandemic hit. A true story of heroism and survival at sea

Michael Smith, Jonathan Franklin

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Travel & holiday

The harrowing story of the Zaandam cruise ship, which set sail with a deadly and little-understood stowaway - Covid-19 - days before the world shut down in March 2020. A story of human kindness, peril and bravery.

In early 2020, the world was on edge. An ominous virus was spreading and no one knew what the coming weeks would bring. Far from the hotspots, the cruise ship Zaandam, owned by Holland America, was preparing to sail from Buenos Aires, Argentina, loaded with 1,200 passengers - British, American, Australian, European and South American tourists, plus 600 crew. Most passengers were over the age of 65.

There was concern about the virus in the news. But that was oceans away, and escaping to sea at the ends of the earth for a few weeks seemed like it might be a good option. The cruise line had said the voyage would go ahead as scheduled and it would be safe.

Cabin Fever is a riveting narrative thriller, taking readers behind the scenes of the ship's complex workings, and below decks into the personal lives of passengers and crew who were caught unprepared for the deadly ordeal that lay ahead.

Among the passengers, there is a retiree on a dream vacation with his wife of 56 years, on a personal quest to see Machu Picchu. An Argentine psychologist taking the trip to celebrate her 64th birthday with her husband finds herself fretting in her cabin on day one, trying to dismiss her fears of what she's hearing on the news. There is an Indonesian laundry manager who's been toiling on Holland America cruise ships for thirty years, sending his monthly pay check to his family back home.

Within days, people aboard the Zaandam begin to fall sick. The world's ports shut down. Zaandam becomes a top story on the news and is denied safe harbour everywhere. With only two doctors aboard and few medical supplies to test for or treat Covid-19, and with dwindling food and water, the ship wanders the oceans on an unthinkable journey.

Cabin Fever is a story layered with moments of peril, perseverance and kindness. A remarkable tale that is filled with individual acts of heroism, the struggles and the tragedies of the crew and passengers.

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Michael Smith

SUNDAY TIMES journalist Michael Smith was the defence correspondent of the DAILY TELEGRAPH for many years. He is a former member of the British Army's Intelligence Corp and lives in Henley with his wife and family.
Michael Smith is the Defence Correspondent of the Sunday Times. A former member of the Army Intelligence Corps, Smith has reported on all Britain's recent wars and broken a number of important stories.

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