Mariah Brush never thought she would work on a cruise ship let alone get stranded on one amid a global pandemic.

After graduation from WSU Tri-Cities, she inquired about the shipboard job through a friend. Before she knew it, she was four contracts into working for Club HAL, the youth activity center of the Holland America Line.

Mariah Brush wearing a mask on cruise ship in 2020
Courtesy Mariah Brush

“I didn’t expect for my life to take such a random turn,” she says. “As a student at WSU, I did a lot of event planning and marketing for events, so I was still able to apply a lot of those skills with the job on the ship. It was really great. I went to Europe last year, the Caribbean, and then this year, did some Mexico runs and went to the Panama Canal.”

In March, Brush (’18 Busi.) and fellow crew members found themselves among thousands stranded at sea on cruise ships amid the COVID-19 pandemic. At first, they thought most people had the common flu. They were asked to socially distance, but still enjoyed a relative range of freedom. They were able to go on deck and tan, watch movies on the main stage, and access regular food resources. They even had a crew party. But that soon ended.

After one of her friends on board the MS Oosterdam was among the first to test positive for the novel coronavirus on the ship, she says, “I got a call from medical stating that we needed to lock ourselves in our room right away. I freaked out, and yelled down the hall that we all had to go into lockdown. I didn’t know it was going to be for so long.”

Brush and her crew mates were stranded aboard ship for 56 days. At one point, they started to run out of food and water. What started off as normal meals quickly became fish heads and rice, literally. Morale also started to dwindle.

“It felt like a prison,” she says. “I had my phone, but the internet was terrible and expensive. … They would give us our food and walk away. Medical would also come by every day to take our temperatures. But for the most part, we saw no one.”

Brush and her fellow crew members spent the days trying to entertain themselves. She says she was luckily; she had bought a Nintendo Switch, which helped pass the time. Crewmates would also call each other from their room phones and fortunate to have moved to rooms with balconies, which was a huge mood booster.

On day 14 of their quarantine, they were allowed out of their rooms. They were permitted to leave their rooms for one hour every meal time. They had 30 minutes to get to the lido deck, then another 30 minutes to walk around and get back to their rooms.

A few days after that, they transferred ships, but still weren’t allowed to dock on U.S. soil. They went back returned to Mexico, where they transferred some crew members and went back on lock-down after a sick crew member was reported.

They were hoping they could disembark in Los Angeles, but then were told by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that wasn’t possible—even after their company bought them all plane tickets home.

Meanwhile, Brush says family members back home were making frequent calls to the governor’s office, the CDC, senators, and U.S. representatives. Seemingly, there wasn’t anything anyone could do. They just had to wait it out.

Then, the phone call came. Brush and crew were told May 7 they could get off the ship and return home. They received plane tickets at 8:30 that night.

“It honestly didn’t feel real,” Brush says. “There had been a few times where we got our hopes up that we were going to get to go home, and then those were dashed away. When it became a reality that we were going to go home, we were all so relieved.”

Now, back home in Tri-Cities, Brush says the experience still feels surreal. She says she sometimes wakes up in the morning thinking she is still aboard the ship. But she does have a newfound appreciation for home and for basic freedoms. “I can walk through the grass, see my family,” she says.

Surprisingly, Brush doesn’t count out working on a cruise ship again. She hopes to get a job in travel tourism or marketing after the pandemic is over. One thing she says she realizes, though, is that the travel industry is likely changed forever.

“Things are likely going to be very different from here on out,” she says. “It’s going to be interesting to see how things change, and probably for the better.”