Review: ‘Cabin Fever’ captures the horror of COVID cruise

“Cabin Fever: The Harrowing Journey of a Cruise Ship at the Dawn of a Pandemic” by Michael Smith and Jonathan Franklin (Doubleday)

Imagine stepping off a dock in Buenos Aires in early March 2020 to board a ship with 1,242 fellow passengers and 586 crew members for a cruise around the tip of South America. You’ve heard about a virus making people sick in China and Italy and Spain, but it’s thousands of miles away. The prospect of touring the Falkland Islands, climbing Machu Picchu, and getting up close to a penguin colony in Chile far outweigh whatever dread you feel about global news.

That’s the starting point for a new nonfiction book called “Cabin Fever” by investigative journalists Michael Smith and Jonathan Franklin. They tell the story chronologically, starting March 6, 2020, just two days before the Holland America cruise ship the MS Zaandam leaves port in Argentina. Days later the World Health Organization formally classifies COVID-19 as a pandemic and for the next 25 days, the Zaandam is adrift in international waters, denied safe harbor in every port as COVID breaks out across the world. It’s not until April 2, 2020, that the ship finally docks in Port Everglades, Florida, with three bodies in its morgue and hundreds of other sick passengers on board.

The book opens with a cast of characters — brief bios of the people on board who the journalists talked to to reconstruct the narrative. In addition to Dutch Captain Ane Smit and a few of his fellow officers, there’s a pair of retirees from Missouri hoping to cross Machu Picchu off their bucket list, two men from Nashville celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary, and the manager of the ship’s massive laundry operation, Wiwit Widarto, who has spent 30 years working on cruise ships to provide for his family back home in Indonesia.

Over the course of the book’s 250 pages we learn their stories, with a focus on their experience aboard the Zaandam. Smith and Franklin eschew the Bob Woodward approach, writing in the omniscient third-person, not trying to recreate dialogue. Each dispatch is dated and time-stamped as we read about the characters’ journey from “everything’s going to be all right out here in our adult playground on the ocean” to knocks on doors as trays of food are dropped outside cabins by crew members wearing hazmat suits. The result reads like the longest newspaper story ever written mixed with the requisite dramatic flourishes required to keep readers turning pages. “One additional traveler was aboard the ship,” ends chapter one. “The crew was unaware of its presence. It was never cataloged or ordered and had not purchased a ticket. This stowaway, likely hiding in the lungs of a passenger or perhaps a crew member, was microscopic in size yet capable of overwhelming this gargantuan ship.”

The Zaandam’s journey, of course, was well covered by the media. It was one of more than 100 cruise ships at sea when COVID broke out. Thanks to social media and wi-fi, passengers shared their misery in real time. But putting it all together in a format like this gives it the proper context. It’s easy in hindsight to think it wasn’t that bad. At least six Zaandam passengers ultimately died, but the death toll in the U.S. alone has now exceeded one million people. Smith and Franklin’s riveting recount of the cruise take readers back to a time I’m sure many of them would like to forget — when fear trumped everything and nobody knew what the future looked like. It’s an impressive example of narrative journalism. Perhaps too soon for some, but a worthy addition to the historical record.

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