International News from World: The three last cruise ships still sailing with passengers will dock today – and one has had quite the odyssey. The MSC Magnifica left Europe in January, and was in the other corner of the world when ports began to close.
With nowhere to go, the Swiss-owned ship started the long journey home. Its passengers, used to a new port every few days, last felt land six weeks ago.
On Monday those passengers will finally get off in Marseille, having last disembarked in Wellington.
Their voyage has included political storms, presidential pleas, one death, and – despite it all – plenty of fun.
When the Magnifica left Genoa, Italy, on 5 January, the world looked very different.
The “unknown pneumonia”, as it was called, did not have a name. No one had died, the World Health Organization said, and just 59 people were infected, all in Wuhan.
It is safe to say most of the Magnifica’s 1,760 passengers – mainly Italian, French, and German – had not heard of the virus. And so, as they watched the sunset from the boat’s Bar del Sole, or ate in the Quattro Venti restaurant, spirits were high.
At the helm was Captain Roberto Leotta, from the small town of Riposto in Sicily. Captain Leotta has worked on cruises for 32 years, after three years on tankers and one in the Italian navy.
Like many people from Riposto, his father and grandfathers were sailors. “It is something that is in my DNA,” he tells the BBC.
After leaving Europe, the ship stopped in Cape Verde, off the west coast of Africa, before heading across the Atlantic. By the time they docked in Brazil on 19 January, the virus had left China, and Captain Leotta had noticed.
“We were always in contact with all the local authorities,” he says. “[But it was] after South America the situation became more concerning.”
The ship left Chile on 21 February, reaching Pitcairn in the South Pacific three days later. By now, cruise ships were in the news.
Ports were closing their doors. Passengers from quarantined ships were dying. And the Pacific island of Aitutaki – just east of the International Date Line, population 2,000 – was worried.