- VOLCANOES AND VIRUS
Story written by Rick Archer
In early May 2010,
SSQQ Travel completed its seventeenth cruise trip. This particular
adventure took Marla, Rick, and 34 other SSQQ passengers to Norway,
France, Ireland, and Scotland.
Thanks to Marla's Travel Magic, I had the privilege to see four
completely new countries in one trip. What an exquisite pleasure!
As wonderful as it was to explore these new and exciting areas of
the world, our trip was not without its share of problems. Just when
you think you have "seen it all", our group ran across two totally
new headaches - Volcanoes and Virus.
THE EYJAFJALLAJOKULL VOLCANO
Two weeks before our May 5th departure date, Marla poked her
nose into my office to tell me some volcano in Iceland might
present a real problem for us. I immediately dismissed her
fears as complete nonsense. "Don't be ridiculous, Marla. How
silly. Some stupid volcano in Iceland is not a problem. The
airplane or the cruise ship will just take a different
route. Don't give it a second thought."
I would soon come to regret my words.
That 'stupid volcano in Iceland', Eyjafjallajokull, the one
that no one can pronounce, turned out to be a major threat
to our plane trips. For the next two weeks, Marla and I were
on pins and needles with worry over whether our travel plans
would be disrupted.... or possibly even ruined.
While the Tale of
the Volcanic Ash Cloud unfolded, I could not help but recall "Rita
Rhapsody", the name we gave to the fits caused by Hurricane Rita
back in 2005. Five years ago, Marla and I shared the bitter
experience with this dangerous hurricane that ended up completely
disrupting our travel plans.
Now as we studied the problems caused by the ash clouds, both of us
were reminded of that nauseous "Rita Nightmare" feeling again.
Veteran Houstonians will remember watching the dangerous Hurricane
Rita back in 2005 slowly approach our shores with Houston directly
in its bulls-eye.
As a jog to everyone's memory, earlier that same summer the killer
storm Hurricane Katrina had absolutely flattened New Orleans and
Mississippi with its powerful winds and flood waters. And now a
second hurricane - Rita - was not only MORE POWERFUL than Katrina,
but it seemed hell bent on striking Houston smack dab on the nose.
Although Hurricane Rita did make a miraculous last second veer to
the right, it did considerable psychological damage to Houston. Rita
basically scared everyone out of their wits. With the images of what
had happened to our neighbors in New Orleans just one month earlier
fresh in our minds, the entire city went into a deep panic. Everyone
decided at the same moment to flee while they still could. Who can
forget that Rita's threat caused the biggest traffic jam in world
Once we saw the TV images of all those poor people stuck in traffic,
Marla and I chose to stick around and ride it out. Both of us felt
like we were taking an enormous risk. I can personally vouch for all
the nausea I felt as this scary Hurricane approached. I have never
before been so scared of a Hurricane!
By coincidence, Marla had a cruise scheduled to go out the same day
that Rita hit. Although the Hurricane spared Galveston, it didn't do
us much good. Galveston was a ghost town. There was no one left in
the city to service the Rhapsody Cruise Ship. It took three more
days before the city began to function again. Consequently our trip
was cut in half, a major disappointment to everyone... and a massive
headache for Marla.
Known as "The Rita Rhapsody" trip, our seven day cruise became a
four day cruise. Marla nearly had a nervous breakdown trying to deal
with all the problems caused to her cruise trip.... Many fears, many
cancellations, total indecision, and much complaining. What a mess.
Marla said she NEVER wanted to go through that again. So as the E-15
Volcano spewed its ash cloud across Europe and grounded planes in
the process, Marla was seriously worried that Mother Nature had
stepped in once again to ruin our trip. Marla was born to worry.
Rita Rhapsody taught her that yes, things CAN GO WRONG on her
carefully planned trips. This ash cloud seemed just as ominous to
Marla as the hurricane storm clouds had been five years earlier.
After the volcano began spewing significant amounts of ash on April
14, air regulators throughout Europe reacted to this unusual threat
by closing 80% of their airspace.
Marla and I were in a fix. Ironically, the same woman who advises
everyone to buy Travel Insurance for their cruises had forgotten to
buy Travel Insurance for our own very expensive cruise. If we
couldn't make it to the ship, tough luck. There wasn't much sympathy
on the cruise line's part - "that's why we advise buying Travel
Insurance". Use it or lose it.
If we couldn't get to Oslo on time, our entire trip was down the
drain. The irony was not lost on us. Considering I had just retired
from the dance studio, this didn't seem like a very good omen for
our one remaining business. Our secure world didn't seem quite so
secure any more.
Unable to shake her morbid curiosity, Marla sat there for hours on
end with her eyes glued to CNN. Marla was disgusted as she gloomily
checked the status of Europe's airports. Mind you, I wasn't spared.
Marla refuses to suffer alone. Since I had made the serious mistake
of making fun of Marla's ash cloud fears, this entire incident was
now officially "My Fault".
Marla ordered me to watch the unfolding images and suffer right
along beside her. And suffer I did. This incident was the most
bizarre nightmare I had ever heard of!
I mean, as Volcanic explosions go, this wasn't exactly Dante's Peak.
After all, no one's life was in real danger. In fact, rather than
running for their lives, true to their Viking heritage, many
Icelanders ran towards the volcano just to get a better look.
However, those ash clouds contained a sinister threat that came as a
complete surprise to me.
As we all learned, there were several well-documented instances of
damage to jet aircraft as the result of an ash encounter. These ash
clouds were a legitimate threat to air safety. At least three
jetliners had nearly crashed in recent decades after flying near
large, actively erupting volcanoes similar to E-15.
For example, shortly after the Galunggung (Indonesia) volcanic event
in 1982, a British Airways flight flew directly through an ash
cloud. To the pilot's dismay, all four engines cut out! The plane
had no power! Thankfully, the plane was able to survive. The plane
descended from 36,000 feet to 12,000 feet where the engines could be
restarted. Although everyone lived to talk about it, as I remember,
the pilot retired shortly after. Who could blame him?
In December 1989, a KLM Boeing flying from Amsterdam to Anchorage
encountered similar problems near Mount Redoubt in Alaska. Once the
plane landed, they discovered 170 pounds of volcanic ash in each
turbine. That's correct. 170 pounds of ash in each engine. It took 3
months of work to repair the plane. The damage was 80 million
dollars, a very costly lesson.
Those near-disasters shaped Europe's zero-tolerance policy towards
flying airplanes through ash clouds. As the ash cloud soared into
the same upper stratospheres shared by airplanes, soon all flights
in Europe were grounded. This was a problem on a scale that the
airline industry had never faced before. No official wanted to be
the one to authorize a deadly flight.
During this process, for an entire week, more than 100,000 flights
were grounded. 10 million passengers stranded. Millions of lives
were seriously disrupted by this strange quirk of nature. The
airline industry suffered tremendously, losing over 3 billion
CNN images of grounded planes, endless lines of customers sleeping
on airport floors, and the helpless looks of frustration convinced
both Marla and me that we never wanted to participate in this kind
of suffering if we could possibly avoid it.
Fortunately for us, the ash cloud began to dissipate after a week of
complete human misery. Fool that I am, I assumed the coast was now
clear. I made the mistake of telling Marla not to worry any more.
Dumb move. When will I learn?
Sure enough, for the second time my words came back to haunt me.
Just a couple days before we were ready to leave, that damn volcano
began spewing out a new round of ash. Airports in Ireland and
Scotland were forced to close again. Heathrow, the famed London
airport that was our initial destination, was located a bit more
south and stayed open. However the airport posted warnings it was
considering closing. Marla glowered daggers at me.
For the next couple days, it was touch and go. Heathrow did close
for a day, and then magically reopened. We were the lucky ones. Our
flight was good to go.
However, I wondered if we really were safe. I will admit I probably
had the same thoughts as all the other millions of people who chose
to fly... am I on the flight that will make aviation history as the
first plane to crash due to the ash cloud? Not the most pleasant
I wasn't the only person in our group worried.
One woman in the group was
convinced flying was not a good idea and chose to stay home. Her
decision cost her a $900 cruise trip... and a lot
of fun too. If we had crashed, I
suppose she would have had the last laugh.
As it stood, our group did make it safely
to Oslo. Thank goodness
Marla and I encountered a strange
disruption at Heathrow. Wendy Weston,
another group member, said she ran into a similar problem.
We believe our problem was caused by a mysterious incident
that occurred on May 4 at Bush Intercontinental,
the same day as our flight. Several
SSQQ people had their flight delayed thanks to a bomb threat.
Apparently a luggage handler saw smoke coming out of a suitcase and
called the bomb squad. Soon the airport was crawling with feds. It
turned out to be nothing more than an aerosol spray can that chose
an unfortunate moment to get overheated.
However, just a couple days earlier a legitimate bomb threat in New
York had been accompanied by smoking fumes as well. The coincidence
was unfortunate, so no one can fault the luggage handler for being
careful. These days, we have to take everything seriously.
Unfortunately, the exploding hair spray can had consequences for
Marla. When we landed at Heathrow, this incident at Bush was
simultaneously taking place. No one at Heathrow knew the incident
would turn out to be harmless. Instead, all airports were on
heightened alert status. In particular, all flights coming from
Houston were probably being singled out for added scrutiny...
especially women carrying deadly hair spray!
And guess who had a can of hair spray in her carryon? Marla was made
utterly miserable at Heathrow.
As background information, Marla's biggest fear was being separated
from her luggage and her precious makeup. The fear of going on a
nine-day cruise without makeup was too much to bear. So Marla made
sure to carry her complete makeup kit with her. I guess you have to
be a woman to completely understand this concern.
Now, as a point of personal disclosure, let me say that I myself
brought no makeup on my carryon. Nor hair spray. I preferred to save
my space for cashews, Reese's peanut butter cups, and old Steven
Seagal movies to watch on my portable movie box. It's a long flight,
While Steven Seagal made it past airport security with no problem,
Marla was stopped on two different occasions at Heathrow for lengthy
It didn't help that we had only moments available to catch our
connecting flight to Oslo. Marla was frantic to traverse the giant
airport and catch her plane. I suppose her look of desperation
didn't help matters. Once they spotted her expensive makeup kit
complete with deadly hair spray, Marla was a marked woman.
Of course, at the time these problems developed, we had no idea
about the bomb threat back in Houston. It wasn't until the next day
that we were able to put two and two together. All we knew is that
something weird was going on where Marla was concerned.
First Marla was stopped at an initial checkpoint, a delay that cost
us 5 minutes. The man pulled Marla aside and emptied her entire
pocketbook and her entire carryon for close inspection. I raised an
eyebrow. I myself have been stopped a couple times, but I have never
seen Marla stopped before. Furthermore, this kind of intense
scrutiny was unprecedented. This was very disconcerting not only for
my wife, but for me as well. Something was going on here.
Finally the first guard decided everything was kosher and waved us
on. We walked down the hall until we reached the line for the metal
detector and the X-ray machine.
When it was Marla's turn, the security guards jumped on her with a
vengeance. She was immediately singled out for special treatment. I
was actually surprised with the energy that they displayed. I
wondered to myself if the previous guard had warned them to take a
closer look because they wasted no time working Marla over. I was
The poor woman had to practically strip naked. Take this off. Take
that off. Next she was subjected to a vigorous pat-down. Nor was
this done in private; it was conducted right in front of the metal
detector with dozens of spectators. As you might imagine, there were
some much appreciative male travelers who carefully watched this
particular scenario unfold. I of course did NOT dare grin, but this
was welcome theater to the highly amused men.
Marla's ordeal was not over. After the provocative pat-down, the
security lady decided Marla was still under suspicion. Now the woman
started opening Marla's makeup bottles one by one. She peered in,
smelled the makeup, stuck her finger in and licked the makeup to
taste it. Then she shook the bottles for good measure. The guard
still wasn't satisfied. Now the woman subjected Marla's makeup to an
on-the-spot chemical analysis. She got out Q-Tips, took swabs to
place on small glass slides, placed drops of special chemicals on
top, and then placed the samples under a powerful microscope to see
if there was an ominous reaction. They had a complete field
Almost immediately the woman started to nod as she peered into the
lens... poor half-naked Marla turned pale white with worry as she
watched in horror. What did the woman see that was so interesting?!
I've heard that a woman's look can kill, but I had never realized
that it was the makeup that made women so dangerous.
The security guard was a frowning, humorless woman who clearly took
her job seriously. She thoroughly tested several different bottles.
The security guard spent nearly ten minutes with the field analysis.
Marla was fit to be tied as the precious moments ticked off the
clock. I am sure the worried expression didn't help make her look
Finally the woman decided the makeup was harmless. She placed the
dozen bottles of makeup back in Marla's bag. In the meantime, Marla
had almost finished getting dressed. She had tucked her shirt back
in, put her belt back on, put her sweater back on as well as her
windbreaker, plus one of her boots.
Marla was still hopping around on one foot trying to get the other
boot on when she looked up and saw the security woman start to toss
her makeup bag into the trash can! Marla screamed, "You can't
do that! That's Lancome!"
The woman gave Marla an uncomprehending stare. It wasn't a hostile
look, but rather a confused one. That's when I got it. This woman
wore no makeup. She had no idea what "Lancome" meant. Meanwhile
Marla was practically on her knees begging for makeup mercy. Please
Please Please don't throw that bag away! That makeup is
irreplaceable! Marla was nearly in tears.
The woman hesitated, thought about it for a moment, and then finally
relented. She returned Marla's makeup bag with a slight bemused
Marla was a puddle of nerves. She hugged the makeup bag protectively
to her chest with one hand, put on the boot with her other hand, and
let out a huge sigh of relief. The ordeal was over.
Suddenly to my surprise, Marla turned her head abruptly and took a
hard look at me. Speaking of looks that can kill, I barely had
enough time to wipe the grin off my face and replace it with a
marriage-saving expression of deep concern.
Whew. That was close.
Then I opened my mouth, a problem I have from time to time.
I cheerfully suggested, "Why don't you and
the security guard kiss and make up!?"
She didn't speak to me on the next flight to Norway.
THE PLAGUE SHIP
As Marla and I prepared to board the Vision of the Seas, we
were handed an odd piece of paper. It was a health
questionnaire asking us if we were sick. I had never been
asked to sign a document like this on a previous trip, but I
could see they weren't kidding. Without a signature, I would
stay on shore.
Fortunately, I wasn't sick. Neither was Marla. In fact, we
were both feeling pretty good.
Last year's big adventure had been our Barcelona 2009
cruise. Although that trip had been a slam dunk success, the
Continental plane flight over the Atlantic had been
extremely unpleasant. It was a small plane that gave a six
foot man like myself no room to move. My knees felt like
they were in my chest. My shoulders spilled out into the
aisles. All night long, people brushed up against me as they
made their way through the narrow aisles. I got no rest at
all. The ten hour flight left me with more aches and pains
than I have ever experienced before. I was miserable. Nor
was Marla spared. She said she was just as uncomfortable the
whole night long.
Live and learn. So
for this 2010 flight, Marla had decided to give British Airways a
first try. Good move. The plane was much more spacious. Huge
difference! I was so comfortable that I slept for practically the
Plus Marla had
decided to fly us in a day early to help overcome jet lag. As a
result, we were both feeling pretty good as we prepared to begin our
cruise trip. We weren't sick so I signed the document without
hesitation. However, I was on guard now. There had to be a reason
behind this health declaration.
Sure enough, I was right. Marla and I had just climbed aboard a
take us long to figure out something was wrong. The Vision of the
Seas was fighting a serious outbreak of Norovirus. Our first clue
was the fact that we were not allowed to go to our cabin
immediately. I had never heard of this before. I had no idea what
the reason was for the delay. As Marla and I strolled around, we saw
Annie Fletcher and Richard Byrd at a table. We sat down to say hi.
That's when Annie leaned over and whispered that she had heard a
rumor of a Norovirus outbreak. They were still trying to disinfect
the cabins at this very moment.
I frowned. Norovirus is often referred to as "The Cruise Disease."
It is a gastrointestinal illness that usually lasts for one to two
days. Apparently cruise ships are very vulnerable to outbreaks
because everyone is confined to a limited space, making it easier
for the virus to spread. Other environments that see Norovirus
outbreaks include prisons and hospitals, but for some reason only
the cruise ships get the publicity. If forced to guess, we all have
sympathy for anyone who gets very sick on their vacation, no matter
how brief the illness. Vacations are supposed to be immune from
life's problems; otherwise they aren't a vacation.
All the unwelcome publicity aside, Norovirus is hardly limited to
cruise ships. I am certainly no stranger to this disease. I was sick
with the identical problem after eating tainted Mexican food a
couple months back. My painful memory told me this was one illness I
definitely wanted to avoid if I could. However, putting things into
perspective, this was not bubonic plague, ebola or ecoli we were
talking about. Noro is no picnic, but it isn't fatal and it doesn't
last very long.
Once we got in our cabin, we turned on the TV. To the ship's credit,
they came right out and admitted the previous trip had seen an
outbreak of Noro. Using a taped message from the Captain, he
explained the illness.
Symptoms typically begin between 24 and 48 hours after infection
with the virus. Sudden onset of nausea is usually the first sign of
infection. The first stage includes about six hours of periodic
vomiting and diarrhea. Stage Two usually involves 12 to 18 hours of
bed rest. The victims often experience a mild fever, aching limbs,
and headaches. Symptoms typically disappear after a day or two.
The Captain recommended we wash our hands at every possible
opportunity. He also said to avoid raw, unwashed foods during a
norovirus outbreak which was kind of odd since someone had just
delivered a plate of fruit to our cabin. How were we supposed to
know if it was safe or not? The Captain concluded his message by
assuring us that today's thorough ship-wide disinfection process
should prevent a similar problem on this trip. I crossed my fingers
and hoped that he was correct.
I had heard that Noro was a problem on some cruise ships, but I had
never been on a ship with this problem before. I went to the
bathroom and washed my hands, then put the problem out of my mind.
On Day Two, a day at sea, I encountered no problems with Noro.
Day Three was our trip to Paris. For some reason, Marla was
mysteriously irritable. She assured me it wasn't anything I did. She
just didn't feel good. We ate lunch at a lovely outdoor café. I
wolfed my delicious sandwich down with a passion, but Marla said her
food tasted terrible. She was so disgusted with her sandwich that
she only ate half of it.
Nor was her complaining limited just to this café. All year long
Marla had talked about French croissants. However, the croissants
she purchased today did nothing for her. In fact, she said she had
no appetite at all.
That night at dinner Marla barely touched her food. Then she looked
at me and said she needed to go back to the cabin. I nodded and said
I would catch up to her in a moment.
Sure enough, as I entered the room, the festivities had just begun.
Marla was very sick; she definitely had Noro. Yuck. I can't say for
sure, but for the rest of the night Marla seemed to make about one
trip to the restroom every hour. She was in a lot of pain during
these episodes, but the pain would soon subside after the deed was
done. Mostly Marla was exhausted and full of aches.
On Day Four, we were scheduled to go visit Omaha Beach, the site of
the most difficult D-Day Landing. Marla told me she wanted me to go,
but that she preferred to stay in the cabin and rest. The worst was
over. If necessary, she could make it to the phone. Besides, my trip
was only half a day. Marla figured she could spare me that long.
What do I tell our friends? Marla said for now it would be easier if
I told them she had a headache. That would buy her some time to see
how this illness progressed.
Marla's biggest fear was being quarantined and forced to stay in the
ship's hospital for several days. If she was going to be sick, she
preferred to at least be sick in her own room. In her experience, it
was much easier to get the needed rest in her quiet cabin than
having hospital people bugging you all day long. I said I completely
When I returned that afternoon from my trip, Marla was feeling much
better. In fact, she was ready for her first big meal of the day.
Marla wanted a smoothie. I laughed and immediately went about
procuring one for her. Marla absolutely loved her smoothie. She took
little sips all day long. Marla was so cute about that drink; for
the rest of the trip she complimented me on being kind enough to go
get the smoothie for her the moment she asked. Good grief.
Personally, I felt guilty throughout the previous night because I
didn't know enough about medicine to alleviate her pain. It is very
difficult to see a loved one suffer, even when you know it isn't
For the rest of the afternoon, I quietly laid on the cabin couch
reading a book on D-Day while Marla slept. I wondered how long it
would be before it was my turn.
When dinnertime came along, Marla said she was strong enough to join
me, but preferred not to go lest she infect someone else. Besides,
all she really wanted to eat was soup. Room service could handle
What should I tell our friends? Marla smiled. Tell them the truth.
No point in hiding it. I nodded. I agreed with her.
Of course everyone was worried about Marla. They were all
sympathetic. They were also clearly worried. Marla was the first
person from our group to drop. Would there be more?
Yes, there would be more. By the time the trip ended, Marla
speculated that seven different people out of 36 had fallen prey to
the Norovirus. In addition there were several more people who had
experienced problems, but preferred to blame their woes on
seasickness, not the virus.
As it turned out, the Norovirus was a frequent topic of conversation
for the rest of the trip. Every night as our group ate dinner, we
would compare notes. We would share what we had learned that day and
idly speculate what was really causing this outbreak. In a way, it
was kind of funny to be talking about such a disgusting topic right
in the middle of dinner. On the other hand, we were all so
comfortable with each other that no one seemed to mind.
I have to be honest. As grim as it was to learn that my friends had
gotten sick, I was fascinated by the medical aspects. It was a huge
mystery. We all wanted to be the ones to discover what was causing
so many people to get sick.
This was probably the first time in my life where I could see why
the practice of medicine could be so fascinating... and frustrating
too. This event was occurring right in front of my eyes. Maybe if I
paid close attention, I could figure it out.
In fact, my own wife had gotten it. I had been right at her side the
entire trip before she got sick. Why did she get it, but not me?
Right from the start, Marla had announced she was determined not to
get sick. She washed her hands constantly. In addition, she refused
to use the public toilets. When she walked the stairs, Marla held
her hands in the air lest she touch something.
As the days passed, I was baffled by the fact that Marla had gotten
it and I hadn't. I wracked my brains to retrace our steps in Day One
and Day Two. What had Marla done that I hadn't? Had she eaten
Looking for more clues, I started to make friends among the ship's
crew. They were more than willing to discuss the problem. At every
opportunity, I would pump them with questions about the virus. To my
surprise, they said very few of the crew got sick.
I thought that was an odd thing to say since Jasmina, our group
liaison, had been sick with it on the second day of our trip.
Obviously the ship's staff wasn't invulnerable.
I also learned from my chats that our current trip was the THIRD
TRIP IN A ROW with the problem. I later learned that this same ship
had a huge problem with the norovirus earlier in the year back when
it was stationed in Brazil.
I often wondered if someone among the crew was responsible for the
continued outbreaks. After all, once the passengers left the ship,
they took the virus with them. So what was getting the NEXT CROP OF
Once I discovered that FIVE DIFFERENT VOYAGES on this ship had
experienced Noro, I began to wonder if there was a Norovirus
equivalent of Typhoid Mary on board this ship. Typhoid Mary was the
first person in the United States to be identified as a 'healthy
carrier' of typhoid fever. In 1906, she played a big part in
spreading the disease throughout New York.
Over the course of her career as a cook, she was known to have
infected 53 people, at least three of whom died from the disease.
Her notoriety is in part due to her vehement denial of her own role
in spreading the disease, together with her refusal to cease working
as a cook. She was forcibly quarantined twice by public health
authorities and died in quarantine. It is possible that she was born
with the disease, as her mother had typhoid fever during her
No one on the ship believed my "Noro Mary" theory. The staff members
didn't think they were responsible. The ship's personnel liked to
blame the outbreak on the passengers. One person lectured us on the
poor hygiene of the Scandinavian people. Yet another person said in
the city of Santos, Brazil, a mediocre water supply was responsible
for spreading the disease throughout the town. People from Santos
then brought the disease on board. This happened back in March.
My favorite waitress was Michelle from Brazil. She said typically
she was as strong as a horse. However one night in the dining room,
a man stumbled trying to sit down. Just as she reached to steady
him, the man coughed directly in her face. The next day she caught
Although the research suggests that the virus is not transmitted by
air, it is quite likely that Michelle received a droplet of infected
saliva in the cough spray. Therefore her story makes complete sense.
One of my favorite
people was Erik from San Diego by way of Las Vegas. Erik, age 26,
was the bar manager. He was also the most informed person I talked
to about the problem. Erik explained he had acquired his vast
knowledge in college. He said his graduation research paper for his
hotel management degree had been specifically on the topic of
Erik told me a bunch of good stories. He said back in the Eighties,
a Norovirus outbreak had occurred among players and spectators after
a football game between the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell.
Researchers eventually determined everyone got sick from ice that
was contaminated with norovirus.
Erik said this ice story showed just tough this virus is. It is the
second most common virus after the cold virus. In fact, more
dangerous viruses like hepatitis C and HIV can't survive being
frozen and will die soon after they're out of the body. This
explains why you are unlikely to catch the HIV or Hep C from contact
with a surface touched by an infected person.
Unlike these two more dangerous viruses, the norovirus is so tough
it can linger on surfaces like a hand rail for a long time waiting
for an unsuspecting person to come along and inadvertently touch it.
So who puts the virus on the hand rail to begin with? Upon my
questioning, Erik took a deep sigh. He didn't really want to say
this out loud, but I told him to go ahead. He said the virus is
contained in both fecal matter and vomit. Erik said I could only
catch it through direct contact. Let's say an infected person
forgets to wash their hands properly after a bout with diarrhea,
then wanders out on the ship. All it would take would be just a thin
film on the finger that touches a door knob or the handle on a
toilet. The next person who touches that same spot can pick up the
Erik wasn't finished. He said that even if a person DOES INDEED
TOUCH AN INFECTED SPOT, THEY STILL MIGHT NOT GET SICK. Erik said the
person would also have to then touch their mouth, their nose, or
their eyes for the virus to enter the body.
That is why people should wash their hands constantly. In this way,
their hands would be purified before they accidentally touched their
Before we finished our talk, I asked Erik point-blank if the disease
was airborne. Erik shook his head no. Absolutely not. It is
transmitted strictly by touch. Okay, if you say so (let me add I
later found no professional article that disagreed with Erik's
After my conversation with Erik, I thought about what he said about
not touching the face. I found myself watching everyone at dinner
that night. I was amazed to see EVERYONE at the table touched their
face with their hands at some point in the meal. They didn't even
realize it. One person rubbed their nose. Another person touched the
corner of their eye. Several people scratched their face. One person
licked some spilled soup off their finger without even thinking
Later that same night, I went back to the cabin. Having trouble
turning a page in my book, I licked my finger in order to help turn
the stubborn page. I groaned to myself. I was determined not to get
sick and yet I had just violated Erik's Golden Rule #2: Don't touch
I didn't catch the Norovirus, but it wasn't because I was tougher or
smarter than anyone else. I made the same mistakes as everyone else.
Apparently I was just lucky not to have touched a hot spot shortly
before touching my own face.
There are certain universal precautions that are even more important
when you're aboard a ship. As important as washing your hands, you
have to learn to KEEP YOUR HANDS AWAY FROM YOUR EYES, NOSE AND
MOUTH. This is a normal human condition. If you sit at a restaurant
and watch people eat for five minutes you will see what I mean.
Many people think that shaking hands is the problem. Erik said this
is a misconception. Most viruses are not spread by hand to hand
contact alone. They are spread by hand to hand to mouth (or eyes or
nose). If you had the virus ONLY on your hands, you wouldn't get
sick. You still have to touch your face before you wash your hands
to complete the nasty transaction.
I might add as I reread my text on this part of the story, I just
caught myself with my fingers touching my mouth. It seems impossible
not to touch our own face. We touch our faces all the time before we
can even think about it! Habits of a lifetime cannot be changed
overnight, which explains why this nasty little virus keeps finding
Speaking of finding new hosts, as the cruise progressed, people were
dropping like flies. One night at dinner we heard 'Alpha Alpha Alpha
west corner of the dining room'. Someone had a virus-related
accident right at the dinner table somewhere else in the room. Yuck.
On another night, I looked around and wondered where everyone was. I
realized the room was only half-full. Did this mean what I thought
Rumors pegged the total number of cases around 300 passengers. Now
before you get too alarmed, remember that I have been on eighteen
cruises and this was the FIRST TIME I have ever encountered Noro. In
addition, I have the same chance of the getting the virus at various
Houston restaurants. As long as we wash our hands before and after
dinner and don't touch our faces between hand washing, theoretically
we are safe.
On the other hand, 300 is an awfully high number. Out of the total
ship population of 2000, I would speculate that several hundred more
people who caught it didn't report it. I mean, Marla caught it and
she is not part of that total because she didn't report it. A couple
other people in our group didn't report it either. So maybe 500
people caught Noro ... one in four.
They said it was not spread through the air. Are we to believe that
all 500 people simply failed to wash their hands? Marla for one
washed her hands constantly and she still got it. That is why I
wondered if there was a better explanation, perhaps something in the
food and water.
When I returned home, I reviewed several Internet
articles on Norovirus.
I thought this blog was interesting:
think a cruise ship is a prime location for any type of
contagious illness to spread - so many people in a confined
Air-conditioning has to take its share of the blame - all that
recirculated air, recirculating all the germs too just in case
they passed you by the first time round. And if it's not the
air-conditioning, then it must be the heat in the general areas.
That is bound to cultivate bugs.
My main suspicions though lie with the passengers (yes, I do
include myself in that category!).
If these ships are scrupulously cleaned and they certainly
appear to be, then somebody must be taking this bug on board. We
are all asked at embarkation whether we feel/have been unwell
etc. Now can you tell me hand on heart that if you had booked a
cruise and been looking forward to it for six, twelve or
eighteen months, would you honestly answer 'yes' to those
questions and risk being turned away, just because your tummy
felt a bit icky? Maybe therein lies your answer - human
selfishness. But how the cruise lines ever stop people from
lying - well, I can't answer that!"
Then I ran across
an Internet article that stated the Food and Drug Administration
points to contaminated water as one of the most likely causes of
norovirus. I couldn't help but think of Erik's frozen ice story when
I saw this.
The FDA report said that "water is the most common source of
outbreaks and may include water from municipal supplies, wells,
recreational lakes, swimming pools, as well as contaminated water
stored aboard cruise ships".
Well, I drank the ship's water throughout the trip. So did Marla.
She got sick; I didn't. One woman at our table who purchased bottled
water every night got sick. Draw your own conclusions, but I don't
think it was the water… at least not on this trip.
Another weird feature is that within our group, only two men got
sick while 7 to 10 women got sick. Everyone thought this was
significant, but no one had a theory to explain the disparity. I
didn't dare suggest my secret makeup theory.
Besides the water, I wondered if perhaps the food supplies might be
contaminated. The same FDA report suggested that "shellfish and
salad ingredients are the foods most often implicated in norovirus
outbreaks. Ingestion of raw or insufficiently steamed clams and
oysters poses a high risk for infection with Norwalk virus. Foods
other than shellfish are contaminated by ill food handlers."
It would be interesting to determine the job positions of the crew
members infected with norovirus. For example, I read a CDC report
that sixty-nine crew members were reported ill on another recent
cruise with a large outbreak. How many of these crewmembers were
cooks, waiters or food handlers?
On the other hand, there are experts who discount the food and water
theory. One article I read said this:
confirm that norovirus on cruise ships is not generally sourced
from food or water, but rather from direct contact with a person
with the "stomach bug." It is also passed along indirectly on
objects or surfaces previously touched by someone with norovirus,
such as handrails or elevator buttons."
Personally, I don't
agree. Assuming that this virus cannot be transmitted via the air -
the most common method of spreading disease - then I lean towards
the contaminated water and food theory. I doubt seriously there are
enough contaminated surfaces on that ship to explain the large
number of sick people. You have no idea how hard the ship's
personnel worked throughout this cruise. Every day I saw dozens and
dozens of crew members spraying disinfectant on every possible
public surface in sight.
Those people worked themselves to the bone trying to rid the ship of
this virus. For example, my Brazilian friend Michelle the waitress
and her partner Caroline both told me they were required to come to
their station an hour earlier than usual every morning to scrub down
their dining room area of responsibility.
The ship was trying as hard as it could. For example, the day Marla
got sick, I asked for a refund on her trip to Omaha Beach. The
ticket clearly said "No Refund". Nevertheless, when I explained to
the man how sick she was, he gave us a credit with no further
questions asked. I was impressed.
Another woman in our group got sick about the same time as Marla.
However, unlike Marla, she bravely trudged down to the ship's
hospital. They gave her a free shot and some free medication, sent
her back to her room and told her to rest. The lady reported almost
instant relief from her problems. When Marla and I heard this story,
we both looked at each other. Too bad we were so suspicious. Marla
might have cut her suffering in half.
In my opinion, the ship was bending over backwards trying to
alleviate the suffering.
I realize there is a natural tendency to blame the ship, but after
watching the superhuman efforts to clean the bathrooms and cabins on
this infected cruise ship, I have to say the ship personnel were
doing everything they had any control over.
Let me add that my Internet research revealed that norovirus happens
to every single cruise line.
So rather than blame the ship, Marla and I both adopted the attitude
that we were all in this virus problem together. I talked with every
staff member I met hoping to come up with the key to the puzzle, but
in the end I came up empty. My first case as medical detective was a
When I got home, my daughter asked me if my fear of this illness
would stop me from taking more cruises. I told her no.
I said that even though I had my first cruise experience with the
virus, I also know that very few ships actually have the problem. In
my case, only one trip in 18 has had the problem. Those are pretty
Besides, every time I go to a restaurant in my hometown I am taking
the same risk. Do these people practice safe hygiene? Do they wash
their food properly? What about their silverware? How am I supposed
to know the truth about this restaurant until it is too late?
Usually when these problems occur, our only remedy is to say, "I'm
never going back there again." But in the case of a cruise ship,
after watching how hard they fight the problem, I would give them
Even if I do run into another situation like this, I also know that
if I am careful, I have a good chance of not catching it.
And if I do catch it, I am comforted by the fact that Marla survived
and was still able to have a great trip. I would do the same if I am
ever as equally unlucky as my wife.
Besides that, even in the presence of three straight outbreaks, the
ship's crew didn't seem worried or in any way panicked. That Captain
was still shaking every hand in sight the last time I looked.
So when I compare the slight chance of catching the illness and
weigh this against the benefits of having a wonderful time and
sharing experiences with family and friends, I have no fear.
If I had one suggestion, I think if I ran across another Noro
problem in the future on a cruise ship, I would wear gloves.
Although I am sure I would get disapproving looks or at least
get teased, this simple precaution might
not be such a bad idea. I would simply explain to people I am
wearing the gloves to remind me not to touch my face. I might add
the gloves would also protect me from
touching an infected surface.
Although I am sure the cruise ships wish to avoid the stigma of
posted pictures of travelers wearing gloves, there might be some
interesting benefits. What if everyone on board wore gloves and
people STILL GOT SICK? Then at least the medical people could
discard the Touch Theory and concentrate their attention elsewhere.
And what if everyone wore gloves and the problem went away? Once you
have three trips in a row with the same problem, you would think
they would consider a different approach towards solving the
In summary, I realize this has not been the most pleasant story I
have written, but I am sure you understand the purpose of sharing
this story is simple - forewarned is forearmed.
UP LETTERS TO RICK
From: Kathy W
Sent: Friday, May 21, 2010 3:02 PM
Subject: New Career
I really enjoyed reading your cruise article (all 15 pages of it)!
You really really really write well. You are amusing and
informative; straightforward and entertaining. I really think you
should submit some of your writings to magazines or even write a
travel journal. You certainly capture my undivided attention. You
have a gift and a unique connection with those you communicate with
(either by newsletter or in person). You really are special-- please
know this comes from my heart! Do consider writing more and sharing
more of your talent with others. You have a great way of looking at
life and the world!!
Please also tell Marla, I am amazed and in awe of her tenacity and
endurance of unpleasant occurrences. She is a really trooper and one
hell of a woman. The best to both of you.
Take care and may your "semi" retirement be a gift to you.
From: Jack B
Sent: Saturday, May 22, 2010 1:28 PM
To: Rick Archer
Subject: The dreaded norovirus, swine flu, any flu, don't get sick
Gald to see you are back safe and sound. Read your cruise
adventures, interesting as always.
About the norovirus, did you ever woinder why you did not get the
disease, yet Marla did and she was in the same room as you? Well
there is a reason and its simple once you know it. To not get sick
you must have proper concentrations of vitamin D in your body. Most
people are difficient in vitamin D and are very prone to getting
sick. If you get your vitamin D levels up to where they should be
then the chances of getting sick are very slim.
Vitamin D comes from sun exposure. Some quack dermatologist put out
the word that sun exposure is bad for you, ti causes cancer and
premature aging, now everyone is believing it (yes it is if you get
too much). But getting proper amounts of sunshine is vital, and not
just on the arms and face, it needs more body contact.
P.S. Vitamin D information is fairly recent, most doctors don't know
about it. Get the correct blood test done to determine how much
vitamin D you need before you go supplementing on your next cruise.
P.S.S. Any flu vaccine is bad for you. It is a good thing that Marla
did not get an injection on board
(Rick Archer's Note: Marla said a
Vitamin D deficiency is fairly common among women undergoing
menopause. Marla felt this suggestion about the Vitamin D
deficiency might have merit.
THREE - Richard and Annie from the
SSQQ Group writing about their trip
Sent: Saturday, May 22, 2010 3:39 PM
To: SSQQ Newsletter
Subject: Re: May 2010 SSQQ Travel Newsletter 3 - Volcanos and
Aside from being entertained by your witty
writing--especially about heroine Marla :), we pleasantly relived
all over again the exceptional moments on the cruise. One of them
was the Twist Off contest.
Richard said that he did not win the 60s and
the 70s Rock and Roll crown because he never did do the twist until
that afternoon. We came late to the Enchanted Evening Lounge and
did not know that there was a contest going on. Richard had a
couple of Caiparinha (a Portuguese rum cocktail from the Champagne
Bar where Norman the Filippino bartender works his magic) so he felt
no shame. We got on the dance floor and were having a good time
polishing the floor with our shoe soles. Suddenly, a Royal
Caribbean staff person stuck a RCC key chain in our hands. We
thought how nice of them to do that, and didn't know we were chosen
to be the semi finalists. Fear and inhibition washed over Richard,
who is by nature a quiet individual. I whispered to him, "Too late
to 'regrate'. Let's go for broke."
I could not tell if Richard heeded my words,
but I went for broke all right. We came in second while the sciatic
nerve by my lower back ceased up. And I was in pain for the next
two days. With the sick bay full of N. virus stricken passengers, I
hesitated about going there for some muscle relaxing medication
until the pain was so excruciating that I had to brave into the
danger zone. There were three patients in the waiting room, and one
in the examination room with the doctor. The harried looking nurse
spent no time dispensing me some drug after a brief consultation
with the doctor in the next room. And I made sure I touched
nothing except the medication envelope from the nurse. As I limped
back up into my cabin, I could not help thinking how they've managed
to escape being sick. Maybe they were infected many times over and
have developed an immunity to the virus.
I guess you can call my condition as a twist on
being sick during this cruise.
Thanks for the memory of the most unusual
cruise we have ever gone on.
Thanks for the dance classes, too. For a
couple hours each time, we were transported back home to SSQQ as we
were stepping out to your calling. There will never be an SSQQ like
the one we knew.
Annie and Richard
(Rick Archer's Note:
Here is a chain of letters discussing Norovirus on the SSQQ sailing
from May 6 through May 15. As you will note, 300 is the
accepted number. However I contend the correct number is more
May 7th, 2010, 05:21 AM
Cool Cruiser Join Date: Feb 2008
Location: Sussex, England
My wife and I were on the affected Vision cruise this past week, and
despite the relatively low numbers of people isolated the problem
was much more widespread.
We saw one lady openly vomiting in to a plastic bag in the
Centrum while bar staff looked on! We saw
sick being cleaned up in a number of stairwells despite
exceptionally calm seas. Other people we spoke to had one guest ill
in the room, but for fear of their whole party being isolated did
not report their symptoms.
My wife and I both returned from Oslo yesterday and since yesterday
morning (departure morning) we have both been suffering with stomach
cramps, diarrhea and nausea. We have been to the doctors this
morning who confirmed Norovirus.
It's a bit like crime statistics, the number of crimes reported and
recorded are much, much less than the crimes actually committed.
Just because such a low number were isolated does not mean that the
outbreak wasn't significant.
I don't understand what Royal Caribbean can do to stop this
happening, the ship was clean from the outset with hand sanitizers
everywhere, but we both became infected after all the extra
precautions were put in place.
May 11th, 2010, 05:12 PM
Cool Cruiser Join Date: Apr 2009
then it happened again. Aprox. 146 got ill
May 16th, 2010, 05:14 PM
Cool Cruiser Join Date: May 2010
And again!!! (15th of May)
300 sick this time on the Cruise that ended 15th of May.
The boat was then cleaned and left from oslo on a 4/5 night
Cruise the same day.
Im not surpriced if xxx ppls get sick again..
Im leaving from Oslo on a 7 day Cruise 12.06 and im a bit sceptic.
#7 May 19th, 2010, 02:07 PM
Cool Cruiser Join Date: Apr 2009
one professor in micro biology suggest to gas the whole ship to kill
#8 May 19th, 2010, 05:51 PM
Cool Cruiser Join Date: Nov 2006
Location: Owings Mills, Maryland
Originally Posted by NordicPrince
94 of 2100 does not a major event make. That's only about 4.5 % of
the passengers plus 800 crew not included.
Much ado about nothing.
I doubt you would say that if you contracted
noro on a cruise.
#9 May 21st, 2010, 11:08 AM
Cool Cruiser Join Date: Feb 2010
Location: Southern Ontario Canada
My husband and I were on the sailing on May 15. We were not happy
when we were told of the situation on the cruise prior to us. RCC
was suppose to have done a complete cleaning of the ship before the
next batch of vacations were boarded. We were not allowed to board
the ship until4:15 that afternoon and it was a drizzly and damp
afternoon. When we got to the pier after walking around a few hours
I told the one employee I was not going to go back out into the
drizzly afternoon for another hour or so and wait until they were
done cleaning the ship. She turned to a co-worker and said to find
us 2 umbrellas. My reply was "not". She informed us that it was our
travel agents responsibility to notify us of what was going on.
Funny thing was that we booked the cruise online at RCC and they
were our travel agents. I had my blackberry with me in Oslo so there
was not one excuse for them to not contact me. We would not have
checked out of the Grand Hotel until later in the day if we had
known. You could tell that RCC was doing everything in its power to
try and prevent this from happening on our cruise. We were not even
allowed to pour our own coffee or get our
own food in the windjammer cafe. I do have to commend them for
trying to make it better even though our ship also came down with
the virus. This definitely will not stop me from cruising with RCC
as i do feel they have done such amazing things to prevent this from
happening, but maybe a complete fumigation is the answer.
I will keep my fingers crossed for the cruise that departed from
Oslo yesterday that they stay healthy as they were also being
detained at boarding so the ship could do a complete cleaning again.
#10 May 21st, 2010, 01:56 PM
Cool Cruiser Join Date: May 2000
Location: North Carolina
I was on the May 15th sailing too. When I arrived at my hotel
(booked thru the cruise line) a letter awaited notifying me of the
delayed boarding. RCCL provided a hospitality room at the hotel with
water, tea, coffee and sandwiches for us to wait in.....the RCCL
person told us of two more delays while we were waiting. So we
didn't leave until it was almost time to board the ship.....thank
goodness as there were not enough seats in the arrival tent.
#11 May 22nd, 2010, 12:59 AM
Cool Cruiser Join Date: Aug 2009
Location: Phoenix, AZ
Originally Posted by Bridallady
... but maybe a complete fumigation is the answer.
We were on the May 6 sailing. We were told that 340 people had
contracted the virus. We were also told that we were being "kicked
off" early and the subsequent boarding was delayed because they were
hiring a company to fumigate the ship. I guess they didn't do it.
#12 May 22nd, 2010, 03:29 AM
Cool Cruiser Join Date: May 2000
Location: North Carolina
The May 15th sailing had everyone off by 7:30ish
in the morning I think.
#13 May 22nd, 2010, 09:06 AM
Cool Cruiser Join Date: Oct 2003
Location: Killeen, Tx
Always a problem when you stick a bunch of people is such a small
area. You have to take steps no matter where you are to keep this
stuff at bay. Happens on land all the time, just doesn't make the