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Maui man who traveled on Westerdam returns home

Health officials say coronavirus risk low; quarantine not needed

Robert DeVinck of Wailea (left) enjoys Gala Night with friends Estelle and Barney Pearlman of West Palm Beach, Fla., aboard the Westerdam earlier this month. DeVinck and the Pearlmans were among the hundreds of passengers who were stuck aboard the cruise ship after five ports denied the vessel entry over fears of the coronavirus, though none of the passengers had tested positive for the disease. Photo courtesy Robert DeVinck

When Wailea resident Robert DeVinck booked a 30-day cruise through Asia one year ago, there was no way he could’ve known that the outbreak of a virus and the quarantine of a cruise ship would coincide precisely with his vacation.

But now here he was, stuck on another cruise ship that no country would accept and turning on the news every morning to find them smack dab in the spotlight.

“We were being talked about around the news while we were out in the middle of nowhere in the South China Sea,” DeVinck said.

While none of the passengers aboard the Westerdam had tested positive for the novel coronavirus sweeping through mainland China, the growing epidemic had stoked enough fears that five different ports had denied the ship entry — and it became increasingly unclear when the 1,455 passengers and 802 crew would get to go home.

“For healthy passengers on a boat, we were just looking for a savior out at sea, and Cambodia ended up being that savior,” DeVinck said.

The MS Westerdam is seen docked in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. The feel-good story of how Cambodia allowed a cruise ship to dock after it was turned away elsewhere in Asia for fear of spreading the deadly virus that began in China has taken a turn after a passenger released from the ship tested positive for the virus. AP Photo

DeVinck returned to Maui on Sunday, two days after Cambodia allowed the Westerdam to dock and disembark its passengers. However, an American woman, who was on the ship, later tested positive for the disease.

Hawaii health officials have said that the risk is low for the other passengers of the Westerdam, at least four of whom are Hawaii residents. Of the four, DeVinck is the only one from Maui.

“DOH was advised that the situation is low risk for all passengers because the individual developed symptoms after leaving the ship,” said Janice Okubo, spokeswoman for the state Department of Health, on Wednesday. “DOH was provided contact information for the four passengers and is contacting all of them. As more information becomes available and if federal guidance changes, we will adjust our approach.”

DeVinck booked his cruise a year ago and had been looking forward to it. The first two weeks, starting in mid-January, couldn’t have been better as they toured famous landmarks and temples throughout Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia.

Then Westerdam docked in Hong Kong to pick up another round of passengers for the second leg of the tour, which was supposed to last from Feb. 1 to 15 and end in Shanghai, DeVinck said. Unfortunately, the new round of passengers “never touched land again until we got to Cambodia.”

Robert DeVinck dines in the Pinnacle Grill alongside a waiter, Frank. DeVinck said the crew and passengers grew close throughout their time at sea. On Friday, they were allowed to dock in Cambodia and disembark. Photo courtesy Robert DeVinck

The novel coronavirus, now known as COVID-19, had only started to become a global problem once DeVinck was on the ship. China had reported its first death from the new disease, which broke out in Wuhan in Hubei province, on Jan. 11, shortly before millions would travel across the country for the Lunar New Year. By Jan. 30, the World Health Organization had declared a global health emergency.

On Feb. 5, the Diamond Princess cruise ship was quarantined off of Yokohama, Japan, following a two-week trip through Southeast Asia. Growing numbers of passengers began testing positive for the virus in what became the largest cluster of people infected outside of mainland China.

All this set the stage for how countries would receive the Westerdam.

After the cruise ship canceled its Shanghai plans, port after port turned it away. The captain would be told one day that they were going to dock in one place, only to be denied and forced to turn around. Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, the Philippines, Guam — all said no. Flights home were constantly booked and canceled.

“It was such a roller coaster for the passengers, and I’m posting all this stuff on Facebook,” DeVinck said. “One day I’m saying, ‘Hallelujah, we’re coming home from Tokyo,’ the next day, ‘never mind.’ Tomorrow’s post is ‘now we’re flying home from Bangkok, God bless the Thailand government.’ It was a constant drama for everybody involved — those that were watching from home and those of us that were on the ship.”

As ports continued to deny the ship, the Westerdam became the increasing focus of media attention. DeVinck would wake up in the morning, turn on the news, and find out things about the ship before the captain came over the intercom. People were already on edge about the Diamond Princess, and it didn’t help that the media “married our stories together.”

“In the articles that were being written, they would one minute be talking about the Diamond Princess that was quarantined with actual people with coronavirus on that ship, and the story would slowly meld into the Westerdam and how we were being turned away by countries,” DeVinck said. “Unless you’re the most astute reader in the world . . . it’s all sounding the same to you, and I think these countries were like, ‘We don’t want cruise ships no matter what.’ ”

But, DeVinck and his fellow passengers realized there was little they could do, and all things considered, “we had what I call Cadillac problems.” They still had morning massages, ate surf and turf for dinner, enjoyed shows and karaoke at night and gambled in the casino. Passengers and crew grew close, and anytime DeVinck felt sorry for himself, he thought of one Filipino crew member who was trying to get off the ship to see his newborn baby, “and realized our problems were small compared to this poor Filipino crew man.”

“The crew did an amazing job of keeping the spirits high, and overall spirits were high,” DeVinck said. “But it was disconcerting. I’d be lying to you if I said it wasn’t. Then we started slowly running out of supplies.”

One day they were out of ketchup. Then Budweiser. Then honey.

“But then we had lobster for dinner,” DeVinck said. “So we don’t have ketchup, but we still have lobster. Again, they’re Cadillac problems.”

But many passengers were elderly and anxious to get back home. So when Cambodia finally allowed them to dock in Sihanoukville, the crew and passengers held an emotional celebration at the ship’s bow the night before disembarking.

“The emotion in this room, the sense of thanksgiving coming from the passengers and the visceral emotion, the crying of the crew members who were just so thankful for the relationship, this fraternity, this camaraderie we share now,” DeVinck recalled.

On Friday morning, DeVinck walked out onto his veranda to the sight of the Cambodian prime minister’s helicopter landing next to the ship to greet the passengers with flowers, a welcome sight for the Westerdam but a controversial move to many countries who worried about the continued spread of the virus — especially after the discovery that an American passenger who had flown to Malaysia later tested positive.

DeVinck, who disembarked Saturday and flew home Sunday through Seoul, Tokyo and Honolulu, emphasized that they were checked numerous times on the ship, and that all passengers with cold-like symptoms were tested with negative results for the virus. He also had to pass through temperature scanners on the ship and in South Korea and Japan. Holland America later said that, per the Cambodian Ministry of Health, 781 Westerdam guests had tested negative for COVID-19.

“I understand the fear. I understand it entirely. But again, I can only speak for myself, and I was 100 percent healthy the entire trip,” DeVinck said. “I was tested multiple times myself, as we all were.”

DeVinck said he knows there will be some stigma now that he’s back on Maui, but that “he can’t help that” and is just following Health Department instructions. He does not have to be under quarantine but must report his temperature twice a day to a health official. He’s been allowed to go out in public with his children and grandchildren, who are visiting Maui on a previously planned trip.

DeVinck, who is also known as “Papa Lopaka” during the seven years he spent doing readings for kids at the Kihei Public Library, wears many hats as a retiree, author of “The Pono Principle” and principal investor in Ekolu Kitchen 1279 in Kihei.

He said he doesn’t plan to stop going on cruises and has already booked another 30-day trip to South America next year with the refund and discounted price Holland America offered passengers.

The name of his next cruise ship? The Westerdam, again.

“God has got a sense of humor like nobody does,” DeVinck said.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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