Much of our current understanding about novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) comes from hospitalised patients. However, the spectrum of mild and subclinical disease has implications for population-level screening and control. Forty-nine participants were recruited from a group of 99 adults repatriated from a cruise ship with a high incidence of COVID-19. Respiratory and rectal swabs were tested by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). Sera were tested for anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) and microneutralisation assay. Symptoms, viral shedding and antibody response were examined. Forty-five participants (92%) were considered cases based on either positive PCR or positive ELISA for immunoglobulin G. Forty-two percent of cases were asymptomatic. Only 15% of symptomatic cases reported fever. Serial respiratory and rectal swabs were positive for 10% and 5% of participants respectively about 3 weeks after median symptom onset. Cycle threshold values were high (range 31–45). Attempts to isolate live virus were unsuccessful. The presence of symptoms was not associated with demographics, comorbidities or antibody response. In closed settings, incidence of COVID-19 could be almost double that suggested by symptom-based screening. Serology may be useful in diagnosis of mild disease and in aiding public health investigations.