After three days of back and forth between Croatian and Australian authorities, we finally got the green light to leave the country and fly out to join the yacht.
The airport was eerie: empty aisles, masks, and sanitizer. Everyone around seemed afraid of the unknown and any slight cough was stifled. Karla and I took all the precautions, wiping down seats and surfaces and regularly washing our hands.
The first leg, from Melbourne to Doha, felt somewhat safe and easy. With hardly anyone on the plane, we were all smiles but, once we arrived in Doha, the trip took a turn for the worse. The flights were full, few people were wearing masks, and social distancing was not physically possible. Three crowded flights and 30 hours later we arrived in Croatia, thanking our lucky stars for the safety of our hotel room.
Our management company had placed a mandatory requirement of two negative Covid-19 tests and seven days quarantine for crew arrivals. The first three days were fine, sunshine, a good book, plenty of laughs, Pilates, and sundowners.
When I woke up aching on day four, I figured it was down to exercise the previous day.
After the aches, the fever followed. And then the fear. I tried to laugh it off, what were the chances?
After I tested positive for Covid-19, my spirits dropped, and my world crumbled. Merry-go-round inner thoughts ensued; I am 35, fit and healthy - surely this can't affect me?
My thoughts turned to my travel buddy, cabin mate and good friend, Karla. Is she sick too? Have I infected her? What happens if it hits her worse? I tried to stay calm and keep my usual positivity, but I was frightened, and felt very alone in a hotel room far from home in a foreign country.
It became real when the epidemiologist arrived to discuss contact-tracing and gave us government directives. The Australian embassy phoned and told us to stay put and our agent informed us that we were on Croatia’s travel red list and could not leave.
My thoughts then turned to the hotel staff; I knew they were scared too. Had I infected them somehow? Did any of them have underlying conditions? And what about the flight crew and the other passengers? I was torn between guilt and gratitude for having Karla next door. She was my rock and my saviour, but she was facing her own battle of fears.
The virus itself was debilitating. On most days I could not move much, it was a rollercoaster of symptoms from headaches and shortness of breath, to swollen eyes and loss of speech. Some days I seemed fine and I would pull it together, and on others I was unable to get out of bed.
The nights were the worst, an extremely lonely time and when my symptoms were at their most awful, I was truly uncertain if I would wake up in the morning. It was a mental battle full of uncertainties.
One day, which I will remember for the rest of my life, I woke up with my head and chest thumping. My head felt like someone was hammering a nail into it. The constant coughing made me feel as though I was drowning, I was dizzy and in and out of consciousness. My eyes were so swollen that it hurt to open them, and I could barely see. By the time the ambulance turned up, I could not breathe.
The paramedics were speaking Croatian and wearing hazmat suits. I felt out of control, my heart was pounding out of my chest and I felt an overwhelming surge of panic. I begged and pleaded not to go to hospital, and after multiple phone calls and assistance from many, I did not go that day, a decision I later came to regret.
The heaviest symptoms continued for 19 days when I was finally allowed to re-test. I tested negative, but I had to remain in the hotel for a further 15 days. Overall, I quarantined for 36 days making the journey from home to the yacht a total of 42 days.
The lingering symptoms were the scariest part; had I done irreversible damage to my brain by not going to hospital? I was often dizzy, the heart palpations did not stop, neither did the headaches or the brain-fog. It hurt to think; to speak. It was terrifying and, unlike a visible injury, it was hard for those around me to fully understand.
I was finally repatriated on the direction of the neurologist, declared unfit for work at sea.
The whole experience gave me plenty to think and I questioned a lot of things. As a purser and someone who has been in the yachting industry for over 13 years, I have seen a lot of bad health decisions on board - crew continuing to work with broken bones, outbreaks not being taken seriously, mental health issues left unaddressed. We have many vessel safety systems in place but, as crew, we tend to push ourselves to the limit. We think about the here and now, wanting the best for our guests and not wanting to let the team down. Being sick is only for the weak.
But there is life beyond yachting. We need to take care of our health in order to protect our futures and, as leaders, it is our responsibility to ensure this. We need to remember the bigger picture and ensure this is instilled in our crew. Proper medical insurance is also vital, it is there to support our crew, and there should not be stigma for needing to use it.
Today is 21 September, 95 days since I tested positive and I still feel the effects. I hope with time that the dizziness fades and I can resume my fitness and my busy life once more. In the meantime, I will continue to be an advocate for safety and innovation within the industry that I love, from the warmth of my home in sunny Melbourne, Australia.
On a positive note, while I was still unwell and sitting at my desk on board prior to my departure, it really became clear how my role as a purser is already virtual and could be managed from a desk anywhere in the world. At the same time, across all industries, the virus has forced us all to adapt to a more digital and virtual world, and demand for remote assistance is on the rise.
After much research and planning, and lots of encouragement from our peers in the industry, I’m immensely proud that together with my friend and fellow co-worker Dominique Smit, we’ve launched our new business, Virtual Pursers, and the future looks bright.
You can read our story here.