MIAMI – When they first boarded the Norwegian Escape a week ago, passengers knew exactly where they were going. Now they have no idea.
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The cruise ship, with about 4,000 guests on board, departed from Miami on Saturday, Sept. 2, and was scheduled to return a week later, after making stops in Honduras, Belize and Mexico.
The boat made it to the Honduran island of Roatan on Monday and Belize the following day. But on Tuesday, passengers were told that their ports of call at Mexico's Cozumel island and the Costa Maya had been canceled.
The dangerous and powerful Hurricane Irma, which had carved a path of death and destruction across a string of Caribbean islands, was headed straight for Florida, home to a fair number of passengers on the ship. Many of those passengers had already switched from relaxation to disaster-preparation mode, and were eager to get home to secure their belongings and ensure the safety of their pets.
Michael Davis, who lives near the water in St. Augustine, Florida, was one of them.
"Once they said, 'We're heading back,' then the mood shifted from vacation time to, 'Alright, let's get home and get it taken care of,'" said Davis, 42.
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But there was only a short window of time to drop them off before it would be too dangerous to dock in Miami. So the ship arrived in port Thursday afternoon, two days early, allowing hundreds of passengers to disembark.
Hundreds more had no reason to get off, however, and knew that competing with Florida residents evacuating the state ahead of the storm for rental cars and flights was a losing proposition. So they chose a second option: a "cruise to nowhere."
The Escape headed back out to sea Thursday evening, with a new manifest of about 4,000 that included both some of the original passengers as well as some fellow travelers who disembarked early from a separate ship called the Norwegian Sky. They, too, had decided to prolong their seagoing adventures.
The cruisers have no idea where they are headed or when they will return. A lot of it, they were told, would be up to Irma: which path she decides to take and how long she will linger.
"We said to guests that we cannot confirm when or where you'll be coming back, but obviously we'll make every effort to return the ship to port as soon as it's safe to do so," said Norwegian Cruise Line spokeswoman Vanessa Picariello.
Picariello said the ship "is heading west," but she did not have a more precise route. She said the ship will try to make a port of call if it's safe to do so "but if not, guests will enjoy a cruise to nowhere and be able to be safe and out of the storm."
Picariello added that the ship plans to return to Miami, but that cruise officials will look into alternate ports if the one in Miami is damaged by the hurricane.
Margaret Cunningham of Battle Ground, Washington, said she decided to stay on board with her husband, Mike, after the captain assured them the ship could avoid Irma and even outrun a hurricane.
"They've been very clear that they're not going to run out of food. They're not going to run out of water. They're not going to run out of booze — very important — and so we're just going to stay on and enjoy the ride," said Cunningham, 65, who is recently retired.
Barbara Engel, who could not get a flight home to Dallas, said she believed staying on the ship was her best option.
"I've got everything here and more than I would want, and we can run" from the storm if necessary, Engel, 49, said shortly before the ship pulled into port in Miami on Thursday. "So really, all told, I think I'm in the best place I can be at this time."
Debbie Kendrick, of Courtland, Ohio, said she has enjoyed the cruise, even if she hasn't slept quite as well because she doesn't know when or where it will end.
"I appreciate that the cruise line wants to keep us safe," she said. "They're not just dropping us off."
Associated Press Airlines Writer David Koenig contributed to this report.