Chess, squabbles aboard cruise ship cast away by coronavirus fears

By James Pearson and Juarawee Kittisilpa

HANOI/BANGKOK, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Angela Jones is on a cruise to nowhere.

For nearly two weeks, the business consultant from the U.S. state of Georgia has been at sea on board the MS Westerdam, a ship of healthy passengers which has been turned away by Japan, Taiwan, Guam and the Philippines over fears that someone on the cruise may have the coronavirus.

The latest country to shun the ship, which has 1,455 passengers and 802 crew on board, is Thailand, where the health minister has publicly refused to grant the Westerdam permission to dock.

"We try to stay hopeful, because that's all we've got: to be hopeful. But each day, that becomes a little bit more difficult when country after country rejects us," Jones told Reuters in a video recording.

Like many on board, Jones had embarked in Hong Kong for a much-anticipated cruise through the region in early February. It was scheduled to be a two-week cruise, but with that period running out this week, there are worries about fuel and food supplies.

Many on board are elderly and could be running out of medicines.

"We are hoping that just any country will see us as ... many human beings from many countries around the world that literally are at your mercy to let us go home," said Jones.

To kill time on board and break up the monotony of endless ocean scrolling past cabin windows, the ship's crew have organised dozens of activities to keep people occupied, tourists on board the vessel told Reuters.

People could be seen playing chess and doing puzzles on Wednesday, in some of the first pictures published by media of life aboard the ship as passengers pass the time awaiting news of how and when they might get home.

Other activities on offer include colouring-in for adults; teeth whitening; poker tournaments; whisky tasting; even a lecture on modern China which delved into the economics of collective farming, according to passengers on board and a copy of the ship's activity programme seen by Reuters.

Story continues

"The staff has tried to bolster spirits but you can only play so many games of trivia," said Jones.

"I've asked others who say they are napping a lot".

BANGKOK DOCK BLOCK

Passengers on board the ship have been subjected to regular health checks, according to ship operator Holland America, a unit of Miami-based Carnival Corp. There have been no reported cases of the coronavirus on board.

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Stoking fears is the ongoing quarantine in Japan of the Diamond Princess cruise ship, also managed by a unit of Carnival Corp. A total of 175 out of the 3,700 people on board the Diamond Princess have tested positive for the coronavirus.

"We are isolated, we have been isolated for two weeks and so we would probably be the best bet as far as no (infections)," Jones said.

Still, that does not appear to have been enough to convince Thai officials to allow the ship to dock in Bangkok, although the World Health Organization and the Southeast Asian country's deputy transport minister has indicated that Thai health authorities could board the ship to conduct health checks and replenish the vessel with supplies.

By noon on Wednesday, the Westerdam was 280 kilometres (175 miles) from the Thai coast and on a heading for Bangkok, according to data published by the Maritime Traffic ship tracking website.

It was still not clear if the ship would be allowed to dock there.

20-year-old Maria Angus, a student from New Zealand travelling on the cruise with her parents, said the ship's captain notified passengers on Wednesday morning that they were seeking help from other countries.

"The highest level of several governments including the United States, Canada, Britain and the Netherlands are closely following the Westerdam's situation and these governments are interacting with Thai authorities and the World Health Organization to ensure all of our needs are met," said Angus, citing the ship's captain, Vincent Smit.

The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok said they were closely monitoring the situation.

"The State Department is working with the ship's operator and governments in the region who might be able to assist," spokeswoman Jillian Bonnardeaux told Reuters.

Despite Bangkok's reluctance to grant docking permission, crew members staged a farewell ceremony for passengers on Wednesday morning, singing to the tune of the 1979 hit "We Are Family" by Sister Sledge.

Elsewhere on board, the patience of some passengers was beginning to be tested, Jones said, as some people pushed and shoved for access to one of the ship's only available computers and printers, to re-book flights home.

"Hard to imagine these senior cruisers coming to blows but guess that happened," said Jones.

"It's funny and sad at the same time". (Reporting by James Pearson in Hanoi and Juarawee Kittisilpa in Bangkok Additional reporting by Matthew Tostevin in Bangkok; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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