Coronavirus: 'I still get flashbacks of being on the cruise'

By Will Leitch

John and Hilary Gourley
Image caption,
Hilary and John Gourley recall their four weeks on a cruise amid the coronavirus crisis in a BBC interview at their Belfast home

It was meant to be the holiday of a lifetime.

A two-week cruise around South America in the Coral Princess, taking in Chile, glaciers, Cape Horn, the Falkland Islands and Argentina.

But the two weeks Belfast couple John and Hilary Gourley had planned to be at sea turned into almost four, with five days shut inside their own cabin.

Three of their fellow passengers were to die from coronavirus.

As late February drew on, the Gourleys began to worry if they should still go on the trip but pressed ahead as the cruise was still running.

“Everything went fine until the Falklands on 13 March,” explains Mrs Gourley.

“That was the last time we stood on dry land.”

Refused permission to dock

An announcement on board told them cruising operations were being suspended for 60 days and the Coral Princess made for Buenos Aires in Argentina.

The ship docked there just as the country was about to lockdown.

After a two-week voyage to Fort Lauderdale, the ship was again refused permission to dock, and made for Miami.

Image caption,
"For me, the worst thing was the not knowing what was going to happen" - Hilary Gourley

The ship did dock there but for the last five days, passengers had to stay in their cabins, because some of them had now taken ill.

“We had our good times and bad times” recalls Mr Gourley.

“Thankfully, if I had a good day, Hilary was down, if Hilary had a good day, I was down.”

Then the news came at the end of March that two people had died on board.

“At home we had family, friends, sending articles, pictures, messages of support," says Mrs Gourley.

“And it was the prayer that went up from our church family, our minister, our small group, our bowling fraternity.”

In their cabins, the focus for passengers was now how to get home.

Image caption,
"I still get flashbacks of being on the cruise" - John Gourley

They talked to the cruise company, ambassadors and emailed their MPs at home.

In the end, passengers returning to the UK were given a US police escort to Miami airport and two chartered jets took them to London.

'I still get flashbacks'

The Gourleys are now in isolation at home in east Belfast.

“For me, the worst thing was the not knowing what was going to happen” says Mrs Gourley.

“Four times we were going to get off the ship and then we weren’t."

“I still get flashbacks of being on the cruise,” admits Mr Gourley.

“I woke up this morning, in the middle of the night, and I thought I was still in the cabin.

“After a couple of minutes I realised, no, I’m not, I’m at home, and I’m safe.”