ONE OF THE EARLY news items about Covid in 2020 was the nightmare tale of passengers on a number of large cruise ships who were confined to their cabins for several days at a time. I forget the details now, but I recall someone calling cruise ships ‘petri dishes for transmitting the virus’. That would certainly be a reasonable description if the normality of relaxed life on a cruise ship still obtained. But now it is all very different, as I witnessed recently on board the Hebridean Sky, a well-appointed ship that normally has about 90 guests, but on this occasion had kept the numbers down to 67.
My cruise on its twin, the Island Sky, from Oban to Iceland, and round Iceland, starting on 1 June 2021, was, of course, cancelled, just as my cruise on it round the Black Sea in September 2021 has been cancelled. Instead, Noble Caledonia has been rerouting its ships and making a host of new land destination arrangements around Britain. I transferred my Iceland booking to ‘Summer in the Isles’, visiting the Channel Islands, Lundy and the Scilly Isles. Not long before our departure, at the beginning of July, the Channel Islands decided that they didn’t want diseased people from the mainland visiting and infecting them, so they barred us. Noble Cal rearranged this seamlessly so that we took in Dartmouth and Fowey on the south coast, with three days planned for the Scillies.
Safety was paramount in the organisation of life on board the Hebridean Sky. We were told to take a lateral flow test within 72 hours of embarkation, and we were tested in the cruise terminal at Portsmouth before being allowed to board. We had another test four days later, and every day a crew member would pop up beside me and take my temperature. Staff constantly cleaned hand rails and surfaces, and, before entering the dining room, we used hand sanitiser (as usual) and were told to dry our hands in a box with a purple light in it, which broke down half way through the week. We had, of course, to wear face masks when moving around the ship. There was a particular urgency about following rules to the letter because of the very real possibility of a spot-check by inspectors.
It is normal on these ships to have ‘open seating’. This means that you can sit where and with whom you like, although the maître d’ gives a helping hand where needed or desired. This time, we were told that tables would take no more than four people and that we would be assigned a seat which would be ours for all our meals for the duration of the voyage, with three others. I was sent to table four, where I met Isobel, John and Joy. We each sat rather awkwardly at the corners of a table normally intended for eight. I’m sure the other people on the ship were perfectly pleasant – those whom I met were – but I was so lucky in meeting these three. We were very different, from Wales, Lancashire, London, Scotland, yet we struck up a friendship that delighted us all. After we had been tested mid-cruise, we were allowed to sit closer together, which made conversation easier.
Social distancing was observed throughout the ship, with seats bearing a big X to keep us separated in the lounge, the Club (bar) and the library. Covid also meant that the two computer terminals in the library had been removed, as had all of the books that normally adorn the shelves.
The ship’s hotel management valiantly tried to continue normal service, but under difficult circumstances. Most of their normal expert staff are from the Philippines, and there they remained because of Covid. Noble Cal had managed to hire alternatives who were very pleasant but whose command of English was limited. I neither read nor speak their (Asian) languages, so I do not say that in a spirit of criticism. Rather, it was simply a fact that there were misunderstandings from time to time. The hotel manager had arranged for menus to itemise the dishes on offer, followed by a simple description, e.g: ‘Slow-cooked duck leg. Meat. Fried plaice fillets. Fish’. Happily, the senior bar steward knew what a margarita is and turned out to be an expert at making one.
Normally, the daily briefings are held for the entire company in the lounge, but social distancing meant an alternative arrangement. Those with cabins on even-numbered decks were dubbed ‘Egrets’ and those on odd-numbered decks ‘Oystercatchers’. On alternate days one group attended the briefing in person while the others watched it on the TV in their cabins. It was quite convenient to be able to change for dinner while watching and listening to the briefing. Even the safety briefings were held in the two groups.
Our itinerary meant that the only port at which the ship moored alongside was Portsmouth, where we began and ended our voyage. In the Scilly Isles, we were obliged to use local tenders to travel from ship to shore, but the rest of the time we made the trip using the ship’s zodiacs (above), black inflatable craft with about eight separate compartments for air. Normally, there would be eight to ten passengers in a zodiac, plus the driver. But social distancing meant that our numbers were restricted to six. I rather preferred that. The drivers were expert, and did not feel the need to race each other. There perhaps wasn’t the scope for that that I recall from visiting Madagascar several years ago, when two boy racers ended up with three passengers falling overboard, including a then well-known TV journalist. We were fortunate that a similar race for the prize of a can of beer did not have a similar result in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, again several years ago.
One of the features of this voyage was the zodiac cruise. First came the River Dart (above), with an exploration of the river and its banks between Dartmouth and the open sea. This area has seen much naval activity through the centuries, including the Second World War, with Crusaders setting sail from Dartmouth in 1147 and 1190. In the fourteenth century, Edward III established the Royal Navy in Dartmouth, where the Britannia Royal Naval College trains officers of the Royal Navy. There are various small fortifications along the banks of the river. Later, we cruised up river to Greenway House, a Georgian mansion which was for forty years the holiday home of Agatha Christie and her husband, and is now owned by the National Trust. As one of the zodiac drivers said, ‘It’s full of stuff. Just full of stuff’. Our literature more kindly called this ‘an eclectic approach’ to the mass of pottery, ceramics, tapestries, glassware, paintings, watches, bookmarks….
The zodiacs also took us up the River Fowey (pronounced Foy) to the Lost Gardens of Heligan (above), a property that had fallen into disrepair after 1918 and been painstakingly restored some thirty years ago. I particularly enjoyed a secluded lawn where house martins darted about, no doubt in search of insects. There was a kitchen garden and an adjoining farm which raises traditional breeds of animal. There was also a well-stocked shop where I failed to buy anything because they would not accept cash. There was more zodiac cruising round Lundy, best known from weather forecasts. We spotted a great many seals (below), some basking in the sun, and also a variety of sea birds, including the elusive puffin. At least, I was assured that I had seen puffins there, which I had failed to do around north west Scotland in 2010.
The main activity in port was the walk – short, medium or long, depending on one’s taste. In truth, there was not so much to see. On Tresco, of course, the Abbey Gardens are a highlight, and on Bryher, a neighbouring small Scilly isle, there were attractive fields of wild flowers of all colours. But that was all we were destined to see on the Scillies. After a day there, the captain advised us that a severe storm had been identified in the Atlantic, and it was coming our way. His solution was to return to the south coast of the mainland, where, with more improvising, we visited Lyme Regis, famous for The Cobb, a stone breakwater along the harbour, which featured in Jane Austen’s Persuasion and also in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Lyme is pleasant town, which, in July, was just beginning to recover its tourist trade after Covid. The sea front was popular with visitors, but I did not see anyone actually using any of the brightly painted beach huts.
Our last port of call was Poole, or, rather, Brownsea Island in Poole harbour, a National Trust property. At breakfast, we were advised that the sea was somewhat lively and that only the most intrepid of us would want to venture out in zodiacs. Some did, and returned soaking wet, having had to lie on the base of the zodiac on the return journey, to balance it. I was glad that I had chosen the better part of valour, as Falstaff didn’t quite say.
The day after I returned home, 8 July, I was pinged by two emails and one text to tell me that I had had contact with someone who had contracted Covid, and that I should self-isolate for ten days… until 9 July. I deduced – no-one tells you even where this incident occurred – that that meant 29 June was the day of this ‘contact’. That meant that it was in one of the following: Edinburgh airport; a Loganair flight; Southampton airport; a taxi in Southampton; the hotel in Southampton in which I spent the night of 29 June. The tests in the terminal at Portsmouth and on the ship, and those I did at home after my return, were all negative.
It was worth going through all the hassle associated with Covid to have a pleasant and undemanding little cruise in excellent company on a fine ship. At least, that is how it seems in retrospect, even if some of it was tiresome at the time. But none of it was as tiresome as having to deal with Edinburgh airport, about whose irritations I have written elsewhere and still remain.
Photos courtesy of the author.