The bizarre story of the last 8 cruise ship passengers still at sea

Apr 22, 2020

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At this very moment, as you read this, there are eight people who are in the midst of what may be the most bizarre cruise experience ever.

They are the last passengers on a German cruise ship, Artania, that’s been trying to get home to Germany ever since the coronavirus outbreak began exploding around the world in mid-March. Almost overlooked by North American media, the ship’s story is one filled with weeks of drama. And it might not be over soon: The passengers may face another five weeks at sea.

A number of media outlets in recent days have run stories on the “last three cruise ships at sea” to finally find a home, referring to MSC Cruises, Costa Cruises and Princess Cruises ships with passengers on board that finally were able to dock after weeks of being turned away from ports.

But they overlooked the plight of the Artania, a 1,188-passenger vessel marketed by German cruise seller Phoenix Reisen.

Visit TPG’s guide to all coronavirus news and updates

Artania was in Sydney, Australia in March when ports around the world began shutting down to cruise ships. It was then that what may end up being an 11-week odyssey for the eight passengers still on board the vessel began.

On March 15, with ports closing, Phoenix Reisen gave the ship’s mostly German customers the opportunity to fly home from Sydney, and 199 took the company up on the offer. But 832 passengers decided to stay on board as Artania tried to work its way home to Germany.

It turned out to be a bad decision. On March 18, Artania left Sydney for Fremantle, Australia, where it planned to make a quick fuel stop before continuing across the Indian Ocean to Africa, the Suez Canal and Europe. But along the way to Fremantle, passengers began falling ill.

Related: 9 ways cruising will be different when it starts up again 

By the time Artania reached Fremantle a week later, seven people on the ship had tested positive for COVID-19, which resulted in the ship being quarantined in the city for two weeks. Testing eventually showed several dozen more with the illness, and they were taken to local hospitals.

Luckily for many of the passengers on board, Australian authorities allowed those who were healthy — around 800 in all — to fly home from Fremantle on chartered aircraft. But not everybody could go, as some who had tested positive for COVID-19 remained in quarantine.

The ship finally was allowed to depart Fremantle on Saturday with the eight remaining passengers, all of whom either couldn’t or wouldn’t fly. Several other passengers who were caught in the quarantine were allowed to fly home Sunday from Fremantle on another chartered flight. A few passengers remain in Fremantle under quarantine.

Artania had become such a fixture in Fremantle that some locals came down to the inlet to the city’s harbor to wave it off. Others tweeted photos and video clips.

In an unexpected twist, Artania now plans to return home to Germany via Bali, Indonesia and the Philippine capital, Manila, where it will drop off the majority of the 403 crew members who remain on board. A large portion of the ship’s crew are from Indonesia and the Philippines.

Only then will Artania begin the long voyage home to Bremerhaven, Germany, in earnest. Along with the eight passengers, it will sail with a skeleton crew the company says will number around 75.

In a statement on Monday, Phoenix Reisen said it didn’t expect Artania to reach Bremerhaven until May 31 — more than five weeks from today.

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Artania’s stopover in Fremantle was controversial, with some locals opposed to letting it dock.

It also was filled with both tragedy and unexpected joy.

The company said two passengers and a crew member died during the ship’s quarantine due to COVID-19. And two crew members who found love on board were married along the wharf in Fremantle before the ship departed.

In a video message posted Saturday on Twitter as the ship was about to depart Fremantle, Artania captain Morten Hansen thanked the people of the city for their assistance in caring for the ship’s sick passengers and helping to get passengers home.

“Thank you from my heart for all your effort to help me in this very difficult situation,” Hansen said, before alluding to fear among some locals that the ship had brought illness to the city. “I cannot say anything else. It was unfortunate. I am sorry that we have been scaring you … I hope we can be here again in Australia under other circumstances. We love you!” 

TPG was unable to reach any of the eight passengers who remain on board Artania. But, given they will be among fewer than 90 people in total on a vessel designed to hold more than 1,700 passengers and crew, we’re sure they’re in for an unusual experience.

More than 750 feet long and 106 feet wide, Artania has eight passenger decks, meaning each of the eight remaining passengers can have an entire deck to themselves. They also could in theory spread out among dozens of cabins a piece. The ship has nearly 600 cabins.

Princess Cruises fans may recognize Artania. First unveiled in 1984, it originally sailed for many years as the line’s Royal Princess. It was transferred in 2005 to the P&O Cruises fleet, where it sailed under the name Artemis. It joined the Phoenix Reisen fleet in 2011.

The ship is known in cruise circles for having one of the most famous original godmothers of the modern era of cruising: Diana, Princess of Wales.

Additional resources for cruisers during the coronavirus outbreak:

Featured image courtesy by Paul Kane/Getty Images.

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