Ely couple safe at home after nightmarish voyage
COVID-19 strikes to ruin 27 days at sea aboard the ill-fated Zaandam.
ELY, Minn. — As planned, Frank Sherman and Valerie Myntti boarded their cruise ship March 7 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and disembarked in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
But in the 27 days in between, the married couple from Eagles Nest Township — about 15 miles southwest of Ely — experienced COVID-19 symptoms aboard the ill-fated Zaandam, which became a floating infirmary for several weeks after being denied port by at least a dozen countries during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The whole world turned upside down during the time we left Ely and spent time on the Zaandam,” Myntti said by phone Wednesday, April 22, a day after arriving back home from a trip that began Feb. 19.
That’s when Myntti and Sherman left the winterized cabin they had retired to in 2017 to drive to Miami, where they stayed with friends for a few days before flying to Buenos Aires. After a few days of sightseeing in the Argentinian capital, they departed March 7 for a planned 31-day Holland America cruise around the tip of South America and back to Florida.
They were cognizant of the potential pandemic before leaving Ely, but had checked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. State Department and were told travel was safe. There were no positive cases in South America at that time and cruise ships were still departing. It wasn’t until the day after they embarked, on March 8, that the State Department warned against cruise ship travel and three days later when the World Health Organization decreed the disease was a pandemic.
“We made a miscalculation, for sure, in retrospect,” Myntti said. “We knew there was a risk. We thought we could be on the Ship of Fools or the Voyage of the Damned given the pandemic and that other cruises in Asia were experiencing difficulty.”
Lawyers in love
Sherman, who was born in New York City and grew up in Philadelphia, had never been on a cruise.
The 69-year-old had never visited Minnesota, either, before meeting Myntti in 1988, when both were practicing law in Philadelphia.
Sherman was a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s office, making stops in Philadelphia, Manhattan, Miami and Rochester, New York. He and Myntti married in 1989.
Myntti, 68, whose father attended Ely High School and whose mother was born in Proctor, was herself born in Duluth. She traveled all over the United States as a youth but made a yearly pilgrimage to the Iron Range.
The couple moved to Rochester and had a daughter, Rebekah Sherman-Myntti. Myntti was a stay-at-home mom for 10 years before becoming a teacher, and later head of her daughter’s school.
Myntti’s parents, Donald and Rita, were fans of cruises during their 72-year marriage and gave the couple the gift of a Holland America cruise shortly before Rita died in 2019 at age 92.
Sick at sea
Passengers filled out health questionnaires and had their temperatures taken before boarding the Zaandam.
“Theoretically, all the people who got on the ship were healthy,” Sherman said.
The first week of the cruise went as scheduled, with the Zaandam stopping in Montevideo, Uruguay; Punta Arenas, Chile; and the Falkland Islands.
But by March 14, the U.S. had declared a national emergency and countries began closing their borders.
At that point, desperate to find a port and fly the passengers and crew home, Holland America suspended the cruise in mid-trip. But the nearest country, Chile, refused to allow the ship to dock.
Negotiations went on between the cruise line, the State Department and the Chilean government, which again refused to allow a landing but did accede to bringing fuel, food and medical supplies to the anchored ship off the coast of Valparaiso.
From March 14-22, life aboard the ship remained normal with galas and activities for the approximately 1,200 passengers. But on the 22nd, Captain Smit first announced that passengers and crew were having flu-like symptoms and that everyone would need to quarantine in their quarters.
“From the 22nd of March until we disembarked on the second of April, we were confined to our rooms,” Myntti said. “We had one chance to go outside in small groups on the promenade with social distancing and masks to get some fresh air.”
By that time, Sherman had developed a dry cough, a headache and general fatigue. Myntti was nauseous and feverish with an excruciating headache and a tight chest.
“We were both starting to feel fatigued and achy with flu-like symptoms,” Myntti said. “But we did not go to the infirmary because we were told not to unless you had respiratory distress.”
Meanwhile, the couple’s daughter, a filmmaker, was safely holed up at home in New York City, the epicenter of the virus in the U.S.
“Neither of us panicked about ourselves,” Myntti said. “We were way more panicked about our daughter in Brooklyn.”
By March 29, the nightmarish odyssey aboard ship had regressed even further. The captain announced four passengers had died — ultimately three of whom tested positive for COVID-19 — and hundreds complained about being sick.
“By the 29th, the situation became dire,” Myntti said. “Luckily, the captain was a genius in terms of his crisis management and his crisis communication. He was calming, compassionate, sympathetic and honest to a certain degree, but he did not cause panic.”
The captain radioed as many as 12 countries, asking them to take the critically ill patients off the ship.
“There were dying people on the ship and 12 countries said no,” Myntti said. “The takeaway, in large part, is in these crises, you see the best and you see the worst in people.”
Cruising the Pacific side of Panama, the only route back to Florida was through the Panama Canal. But Panama’s government was steadfast in not allowing the stricken ship passage.
Another Holland America ship, the Rotterdam, came down to supply personnel and coronavirus testing kits. About 700 symptom-free passengers transferred from the Zaandam to the Rotterdam and both ships traveled through the Panama Canal in record time.
“Only after some very heavy negotiations (were we allowed to pass),” Sherman said. “Initially, they were not going to let us through. After a lot of negotiations with the State Department, Holland America and the Panamanians, they agreed to let us go through in the middle of the night as long as everyone stayed inside and we turned off all our lights. The Panamanians wanted to avoid having any demonstrations from their own population from having us go through.”
Likewise, Florida officials were hesitant to accept the ships’ entry into their port until Gov. Ron DeSantis eventually relented.
“We thought we were going to stay in international waters until there was enough pressure from the State Department and our elected politicians to make Fort Lauderdale let the ships dock,” Myntti said.
Sherman and Myntti disembarked with the Florida residents in the first wave of passengers being let off. They spent 14 days in self-isolation at an apartment owned by Frank’s brother in South Beach.
“We had a very pleasant 14 days on South Beach, and it was probably the nicest South Beach has ever been because everyone was locked down,” Sherman said.
The normally raucous tourist area was deserted.
“For a six-block radius there was nobody out except us. It was crazy,” Myntti said.
Upon finishing quarantining, the couple drove home — often the lone passenger vehicle on the highway alongside 18-wheelers — arriving back in Eagles Nest on Tuesday.
“It was truly ecstasy, we couldn’t wait to get here,” Myntti said. “There were posters on the way in saying ‘one more mile’ and ‘welcome home’ on our door. We’re ecstatic to be home.”
Myntti said they plan on getting antibody tests and, if found to have had the virus, they will donate plasma.
As far as the Zaandam and Rotterdam, as of Wednesday, both ships remained off the coast of the Bahamas with passengers and crew who have been unable to get home.
Sherman and Myntti said Holland America provided refunds and/or credits to passengers, but surely the former lawyers are done with the cruise industry, right?
Not quite. Six months before their recent fiasco, they signed up for a Mediterranean cruise in October and plan to go if cruises resume by then.