TOKYO — Cracking jokes and delivering critical health information in his lilting Italian accent, the captain of the coronavirus-stricken Diamond Princess has soothed nerves and won plaudits for his leadership.
Gennaro Arma started his career with Princess Cruises in 1998 as a lowly cadet and rose through the ranks, taking the helm of the Diamond Princess in 2018, according to the firm.
"Born in the beautiful peninsula of Sorrento, Italy, Captain Arma has always been passionate about the sea," according to the company.
But he could scarcely have imagined a greater leadership challenge than he faces as captain of the Diamond Princess where more than 600 people have tested positive for coronavirus during a grueling 14-day quarantine on his watch.
His frequent messages to 2,600 passengers cooped up round-the-clock in sometimes tiny, windowless cabins have sought to keep them informed and raise their spirits, even as fresh positive tests emerge daily.
"A diamond is a chunk of coal that did really well under pressure," he told passengers, referring to the ship's name and urging them to read messages of support trending on social media under the hashtag #hangintherediamondprincess.
"I am confident that remaining united as a family, we will successfully complete this journey together. The world is watching us. This is an additional reason for all of us to show our strength."
On Valentine's Day, he sent chocolates and hearts to passengers with notes of encouragement and recited a passage about love from the Bible.
"Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."
'NEW GREY HAIRS'
As the torrid days of quarantine ticked by and nerves frayed, passengers came to rely on his soothing tone.
"One reason why a panic has not occurred among passengers is the captain's leadership," tweeted one person on board.
"Regular announcements of information, answering passengers' requests by consulting quarantine officers, walking on the deck, apologizing for delayed medicine distribution... I want this kind of man to be our country's leader."
Another said he reminded him of Captain Chesley Burnett "Sully" Sullenberger, who calmly piloted a stricken airliner onto the Hudson River in New York.
Arma frequently expressed appreciation for the many messages of support passengers had sent him -- one reportedly addressed to the "fearless commander" -- and assured them he was holding up under the strain.
"For all of you who are concerned about me, I'm extremely moved by your kindness and I'd like to reassure you all that I'm absolutely fine. I'm very much the same captain that I was 12 days ago, just with the addition of a few new grey hairs," he said.
Liberally sprinkling his messages with Italian phrases such as "arrivederci" (goodbye) to departing passengers or "buon appetito" (enjoy your meal), he bashfully apologized for his thick Italian accent when speaking English.
"One of my friends at home sent me a video of one of my announcements. I would like to apologize to all of you that I had to put you through this time and time again," he said.
Trust me, when I heard the sound of my voice, I was shocked by how terrible I sound. However, I'm blaming the mask and I'm sticking to that story."
At home, he has been hailed as "il capitano coraggioso" (Captain Courageous") and even the "anti-Schettino", a reference to another Italian cruise ship captain with a less stellar reputation.
Francesco Schettino was dubbed "Captain Coward" after he spent a night on a rock as terrified passengers threw themselves off his Costa Concordia ship when it hit a rocky outcrop off the island of Giglio.
Arma told La Repubblica daily that "there is so much to do on board. My only concern is looking after the passengers and the crew. Let's just hope it ends soon."
His wife Marianna said Arma was "calm, with a deep sense of his responsibilities".
"We are in contact but we try to do it quickly so as not to take up time for his duties which have to come first," she said.
Pietro Sagristani, the mayor of Arma's hometown of Sant'Agnello, said the whole community was following the news from Japan with concern.
"But we have confidence in him. He comes from a long line of seafarers and we know his courage."
"He'll be fine."
© Agence France-Presse