- Captain Albert's Blog -

Stories from the Sea, Past and Present

15 February 2019; At Sea.

Today we had our first sea day with beautiful weather and it looks like it will remain so. The frontal system of yesterday dissipated and the next one coming will only bring thunderstorms on Monday and we will be in Ft. Lauderdale on Sunday. And that should be a warm day as normally between systems the wind dies down. The route we are taking runs roughly along the east coast of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Mexico before we reach Cuba and the Straits of Florida.  I use the word roughly as it is not a straight course.

Roughly our route along the east coast of Middle America.  As you can see from even this scale chart there are a lot of shallow areas  (white) and this course is much less straight than what I have drawn

There are a lot of reefs and shallow banks on this route and thus the course line is not as straight as we would like it.  Also there is a lot of current in this area and what we do is then let the current push us a little bit off course  (to the West) until we come out of the current and then adjust the course again. This can be over a distance of some 20 miles while we are set to the West but then by catching the flow of the Gulf Stream (going North East) we come back on track again and even gain some miles.  And in this day and age of saving fuel, every mile counts. So why fight the current by trying to stay on the dotted line, while the current later on pushes you back again anyway?

The shops were quiet today with the displays screened off: waiting for the grand re-opening.

We have on board something unusual going on: our shopping mall is closed. Normally on the last two sea days, the guests shop to their hearts content, especially if Curacao and Aruba did not give enough satisfaction or souvenirs for the family at home. The guests had been advised of this at the beginning of the cruise, so I hope they all took pre-emptive measures.  But there is a good reason for this. Holland America is changing its concessionaire.  Shops, Casino, Art and also BB King and Lincoln Art are a form of concessions with which Holland America has a contract. They do not belong to the company itself.  For years and years we had a company called Starboard, there roots lay (really in the mists of time as we are writing 1960’s here) in an English company called Alders. They were then absorbed in an outfit called Greyhound and they became subsequently part of this company called Starboard.

There are several of these tax free cruise ships concessionaires out there and every so often the contracts are renewed for another period. I am not privy to what these contracts entail but I know it is a mixture of what revenue part goes to Holland America but also if our guests enjoy the products which are sold on board. On one side that is hard to achieve as the complaints will always be that the prices are too high, on the other side the guests have a picture in in their mind of what they think they will find in the shops when they come on board.  And as Holland America carefully notes what is in the comment on board forms, the opinions of the guests = potential shoppers = is carefully taken into account.

For reasons unknown to me, the contract has now changed and hence by Fort Lauderdale we will have a new shop organization. No doubt they will be carefully watched by our guests and the products intently scrutinized. I am regularly exposed to this process when my wife and I are making a cruise with another company and her Ladyship descends on the shops for an in-depth review.  Thus I have learned that different concessions do different things and thus I hope that this new company (it is called Dufre) will bring merchandise on board the ship which will please the guests.  Only downside is, I will never get my series of ship magnets complete now. Have to keep an eye on eBay for the missing ships.

A bit of nostalgia. The shopping mall on the ss Rotterdam from 1958. Named after its namesake in Rotterdam the Lynbaan.

What most guests do not know is that the shops originated from a private side line by the ships barbers around 1900. Gentlemen would complain that they had forgotten something or the other, while being shaved, and the barbers saw a nice bit of extra income there.  It was not long before the company’s saw options here as well and by the 1920’s there were complete shops on board and on the larger ships even mini shopping malls. Normally done by the company’s themselves. That started to change in the 1960’s when it was realized that economies of scale could reduce cost and thus offer better prices to the guests (or more profit for the company) if larger numbers of ships were involved. And thus we now have shopping malls on the larger ships, run by various outside companies, and at least one mini-shop on the boutique ships.

Tomorrow we have our 2nd day at sea. With again good weather and calm seas. The guests should be happy, even without a final shopping experience.

Weather situation of today.  No rain where we are going, and no rain expected until Monday in Ft. Lauderdale. (Courtesy The Weather Channel)

14 Feb. 2019; Puerto Limon, Costa Rica.

Puerto Limon is one of the two major ports in Costa Rica. There is a 3rd one Porto Moin but I have been told it is too obscure for cruise ships.  One port is located on the west coast, Puerto Caldera with attached to it Punta Arenas cruise terminal and on the East coast there is Puerto Limon.  Limon is not really much of a port. It is just a corner of a large bay with a cargo pier at the north side and a newer pier with two berths next to it. The cargo dock is lying inside the natural sea wall and that is not for nothing. The coast here is a real surfer’s paradise with swells that built up very high and then roll freely into the bay. Very exciting for surfers who come in droves to this coast to ride the waves.

The country of Costa Rica with its access ports.

Very exciting as well for the captains of the cruise ships as cruise ships are not meant to surf and if they try it then they most likely bash into the pier or are lifted on top of it. So we do not like swell rolling into ports. And Costa Rica has this feature both on the west coast as well as on the east coast, although Puerto Limon is normally worse than Puerto Caldera.  Thus they built the cargo pier in the lee of the beach to make it possible for cargo ships to dock and lay relatively still alongside while cargo operations are going on. The pier next to it is for cruise ships and that pier is much more exposed to the swell than the cargo pier.  The only option would be to extend the sea wall / breakwater much further so that the swell does not reach the docks anymore. I have not heard about any plans to do so, so in the meantime the captains worry.  Cancelling Puerto Limon is not an easy decision as there is no plan B available. The nearest port is Colon in Panama and we have come from there. Any other port cannot be reached with a sort of regular schedule unless you make it a night call.

The port itself. This is a stock photo from the internet showing a MSC cruise ship also on a quiet day, otherwise she would be nose out. The best dock is the cargo dock but with only two berths it is always occupied with cargo ships.

Thus the captains worry but today is all worked out. The swell never reached more than 2 feet and thus the gangways did not move very much and it was safe to step on and off the ship.  The Island Princess who has been following us since Cartagena was on the east side and because of the swell she docked nose out. If the swell would hit the ship, the bow would cut the wave and there would be less movement. If the wave would hit the blunt stern then there would be a fair chance that the wave would lift the stern up and that makes the ship move.

Very nice. The Island Princess acting as a wave breaker so we could slide forward and nose in. This photo was taken from the forward mooring deck. Hence you can see  all the ropes and heaving lines hanging out.

We docked on the west side and because the Island Princess was now acting as a sort free-of-charge swell stopper we could go nose in as that is easier for the gangway setup on the Vista Class ships.  As usual the port has a small tourist market, what we would call a Flea market. But since the 80’s I have not seen any 2nd hand stuff anymore at these markets and thus the word ”tourist market” is better in my opinion. In the good old days, these markets were indeed flea markets as apart from fleas being sometimes present in the blankets; there were often also 2nd hand items and simple antiques for sale.   

We call at both ports of Costa Rica for the Eco tours and for visiting the Capital of San Jose which is a two hour drive up the mountain.  Because of the tropical rain forest, there is a lot of rain and that results on a regular basis in mud slides that block the roads and then the roads have to be dug clear to allow traffic to continue. Then there is the creative interpretation of the Traffic Regulations by the locals and that often results in the roads being blocked by assorted piles of metal, which then have to be cleared. Thus the ships seldom leave from these ports on time, as the returning tours are often delayed because of this. Luckily there is always some leeway in the cruise schedule, so the ship can catch up if we have to stay another hour or so.

After Puerto Limon we will have two full days at sea, before we are back in Fort Lauderdale which is the end of the cruise. The weather looks good, at least for the first day. There is a weather front laying over the Bahamas and tomorrow we will have more insight if it will affect us much or not.   

A cold front laying over the Bahamas. The name cold front is relative as it only means a few degree less in temperature than without the cold front.  (Courtesy: The Weather Channel, Caribbean Weather Maps)

13 February 2019; Panama Canal and Colon.

The Zuiderdam has been sailing on this service for quite a while and hence the Captain and his team have become experts in dipping into the Panama Canal and out again.  So today was pure routine, although it was a hot routine. Although it was somewhat cloudy at times, the sun burned down upon us all day and there was not much wind to help cool things down a little bit. That was a pity; but on the other hand it is also good as a cool breeze gives the impression that it is not so warm and then the next morning you find out that it was very warm and sunny when you start to imitate a well-cooked lobster.

Believe me, much closer it not an option. It was still a bit overcast at sun rise but it was not before long that the sun burned it all away,

We do what we can to help with the battle against the glaring sun and we put tents on the forward mooring deck, where most guests want to be, to see the ship being pulled into the locks with the locomotives. The Zuiderdam is a Panamax ship which means it has the maximum hull seize that fits into the old locks.  And because we fit in the old locks, we do not go into the new locks as that would be wasting fresh water. Thus only the very big boys are assigned to the new locks and hence the old locks are (still) much busier than the new locks. Many a cruise company has already asked if things could not be combined and do both  size locks but the Panama Canal Authority is concerned about the fresh water consumption and thus the new locks are only used when needed and not for cruise fun.

At the anchorage. The tenders shuttle the short distance to the shore and with two landing spaces we can get a 1000 people ashore in an hour. The guests then walk under a covered walk way up to the coaches for their tour.

It was a bit of a quiet day in the Canal and thus we were early, which is good. Normally the Zuiderdam arrives at the anchorage inside Gatun Lake at 09.00 hrs. but now we were already in tender operation by that time. Thus we finished early as well and then this afternoon we ended up in Colon by 15.00 hrs.  The captain is normally already a happy camper if the ship is alongside by 16.00 hrs. but there are cruises that it goes past 17.00 hrs. or even later. Then the guests coming back from the overland tour have to wait until the ship has come in and the gangway is out.  And there is nothing worse than 800+ hungry guests who are afraid to miss their dinner. When coming back they still have to go through ships security and scanning and that does not do anything either to stop the moaning and the groaning. But this time there will be no problem as the guests can roll straight off the coach back on board. Although the terminal here in Colon has some shops and restaurants it is not big enough to make 800+ guests happy while waiting. Hence the Captain tries his best to get there as early as possible but it is all decided by the dispatcher and the lock master who decide the locking sequence. Luckily today we were very early.

This is a stock photo from the internet. Colon has two cruise ship terminals and as the port is getting more and more ships in, they are now building more port facilities to right which is still brown wasteland in the photo

When we are in the Gatun Lake we drop anchor as close as possible to the shore side tender pontoon to shuttle the tour guests ashore as quickly as possible. It is only a run of 1500 feet between gangway and shore. So the ship is brought as close as is allowed, the anchor goes down and then the Azipods and thrusters keep the ship on location as close near the shore there is no room to swing around. There was even less room today as the Island Princess parked itself next to us two hours later. She had also sailed two hours later from Cartagena.  We could also have stayed purely on the engines, with the anchor housed, but then the Panama Canal pilots have to stay on board as the ship is – technically spoken – sailing in the Lake, even if it does not move.  So we drop the hook and the pilots go home happily, to be replaced later on by new ones for the reverse part out of the Canal again.

This is a very early day for the guests as the ship is at the pilot station at 05.00 and the Panama Canal narrator started making noise at 05.30. It is still dark then but the lighting of the Canal is so good that the narrator can still point everything out that there is to see and to explain about the workings of the Canal.  And because we were early the guests saw the inbound part of the journey through the locks before it was getting really warm

So today was a good day, although it was a very warm day, after the sun had established itself firmly above the horizon.

Tomorrow we are in Puerto Limon, Costa Rica. The challenge with this port is the swell, which can run straight into the harbor and build up to quite a high amplitude. It is not uncommon for cruise ships to cancel as they simply cannot stay alongside.  For the tomorrow is looks quite good, the predicted swell outside is only 6 feet and the angle is not pointing directly into the bay around which the port is located. But that is a prediction so we will see what we get when we get there. What will be certain is that we will have another tropical day. Partly cloudy with temperatures of 28oC & 8oF and 72% humidity.


12 Feb. 2019; Cartagena, Colombia.

When there is bad weather in the offing, then as a captain you always have to decide: how much are you going to tell the guests, how much detailed information to be given, what is enough to prepare them without confusing the message. Once you have done that, the waiting game starts until the bad weather comes through and you can find out how good your predictions were and if real life –ship in storm- equates to the guests perspective. The understanding achieved by the warnings given. There is no captain in the world who minds to be called a liar if the weather is less bad than he/she predicted but at the same time there is the nagging feeling of will they believe me next time or will they just think that I am always exaggerating.

That was also the situation last night. The ship moved considerably about between midnight and 3 am. but it was not as bad as expected as the waves were just a little bit lower than expected and more important, the angle was just a little bit better that predicted and thus the stabilizers could do a better job.  In the early evening we had guests on the outside decks “waiting to see the bad weather” and if course there was no bad weather, just a bit more wind and the predicted swell which should have caused a lot more movement than it did. But when you do not know what is exactly going to happen it is better to batten down the hatches and come through unscathed than to go the other way and have broken legs (and worse) all over the place.

Meet and Greet on the pier. This is something the company has been experimenting with. Due to the high workload of the Sr. Officers  it is hard for them to be in the ship all the time. The guests want to see the captain but he is busy with clicking away 400 emails or worrying about the weather. So now we do gangway meet and greet. This is today on arrival with Captain, Hotel manager and other Sr.Hotel staff engaging with the guests, while they are coming off the ship and are waiting for the tours.

Most of the guests were in bed anyway as we had an early arrival today, as Cartagena is a short stay with a full focus on the special tours here. That is what all the cruise ships are coming for, thus also the Norwegian Star and Island Princess were in port with us today.  So a good 8000 guests and crew could go ashore but as the stay is not a full day, it was mainly the tour people who were going off. For shopping Curacao and Aruba, our two previous ports are much better then Cartagena, but the ECO tours are very good. And then we also now have a hop on hop off bus for those who have done the tours already. The ship sells tickets for these tours and it gives the chance to do some sightseeing on your own, while still being back on board on time.

The route to Cartagena.  If they were just willing to cut a small hole in the causeway at the North West side, that would save us an hour in and an hour out  in sailing time.

For us as sailors there is a good thing and a bad thing about Cartagena. The good thing: it is a very sheltered port so we can always get in and safely dock. The bad thing: it takes such a long time to get in and back out again. Outside we have to sail all the way down the coast to the entrance which is called Boca Chica, and once inside the Bay, we have to sail all the way up again as the port of Cartagena is located at the top end of the inner bay.  It could go much faster if they would cut a channel through at the northern end but they do not want to do that as it would mean digging a tunnel for the traffic and less space to build more Escobar towers. (Local name, not mine, for apartment buildings built with the proceeds from………………) So we have to sail all the way around the area with all the apartment buildings and expensive shops, what they call the Golden Mile.

To make the day even more exciting, I threw one of my special drills to start prepping the crew for the coming inspections. They always know what to do but it helps to refresh the details. The ships like to score 110%, not 100%. Part of a fire drill is saving a casualty and we have a real life dummy, that floats (costs $ 1800 to buy) and is close to life like in weight and stiffness when moving it. And thus Medical loves it as they can do CPR and a lot of other medical things with it without having to worry about cracked ribs or complaints. Holland America dummy’s do not complain. If they did, then we give them to another company………

The medical team looking after our dummy. All the equipment comes out and is used, and real CPR and oxygen is applied as if it was a real person.

The short stop means a 13.00 hrs. sailing time in order to get to Panama on time. We are always scheduled for a 05.00 pilot time as we do a double call tomorrow. First show the Panama Canal approach and the Locks between 0500 and 0900. Then disembark approx. 900 guests on tour while in Gatun Lake, and then back through the locks and hopefully be docked at Colon at 16.00 hrs. The last part we never know if we will make as the locks are controlled by the Panama Canal Authority and not by Carnival. (Maybe something for them to invest into in the future) So if the Lock Master prefers another sequence of ships to reduce water consumption then we might not make 16.00 hrs. and be there later.

Weather forecast for Panama: Tropical, sunny 29oC / 85 oF. and very little wind in the morning.  It is going to be a sun block 50 day with gallons of fresh water needed.


11 Feb. 2019: At Sea.

11 Feb. 2018: At Sea.

Yesterday I boarded the ms Zuiderdam in Willemstad after having been on vacation since December 18 after leaving the ms Nieuw Statendam when it ended its maiden voyage in Ft. Lauderdale.

During my vacation time, the IT gurus of Holland America have been moving my blog to a separate server for operational reasons.  It should not have affected anybody as I am still linked through via the HAL blog but you can also reach me via www.captainalbert.com.

Never a dull moment when you work for Holland America.

I will be on board the ms Zuiderdam for three weeks to help with preparing for an upcoming audit and to spend some time with new officers, to teach them a few tricks of the trade.

ms Zuiderdam making 10 and 11 day cruises to the South West Caraibbean and Mexico and Costa Rica.

The ms Zuiderdam is making 10 and 11 day “sunfarer” cruises to the South West Caribbean and Middle America. (This is Panama and Costa Rica, as they are officially not part of the Caribbean. At least that is what geographers tell me) so I jumped onto the ship in the middle of the cruise by coming on board yesterday in Willemstad. Main reason for that is, is that KLM has a direct flight from Amsterdam to Willemstad and that omits the need to fly via the USA. Which would not only be a longer journey but also would have meant going through American immigration. This normally means waiting in line for an hour. American airports have not progressed yet to having the option that you can travel through while staying in the international zone. I believe that Minneapolis was going to experiment with this but if it ever started, I do not know. So all flights from anywhere that go to and Hub airport in the USA result in seeing CBP regardless if the USA is your final destination.  And if CBP is busy with too many flights coming in at the same time, you can miss your connecting flight.  Thus KLM non-stop to Willemstad was in this case a much better option.  By 1900 local time I was sitting on my balcony watching the Caribbean sun setting in the sea and all was well in the world.

ms Zuiderdam at Sea
Holland America Line (courtesy Holland America Line)

The good ship Zuiderdam is under the command of Captain Bart Vaartjes (see bio on the blog) who also happens to celebrate his birthday today. And he is doing that by rocking the boat as we are expecting some turbulent seas this evening.   What is going on is, that the normal Trade Wind is a lot stronger than usual.  We are on the way from Willemstad to Cartagena and for that we have to sail north of Colombia. That is the South West end of the Caribbean Sea and when looking from here to the North East it is one open sea surface all the way to St. Thomas. Thus the Trade winds can freely push up the waves to a maximum.  Every ship which sails on a SW course towards Panama or veers south to Cartagena will get this wind and swell in the stern. And this under a ¾ angle of the stern. That creates a corkscrew motion with the ship, which is very hard for the ships stabilizers to deal with. As it is not rolling (= where we have stabilizers for) and it is not pitching (bow / stern go up and down for which we can slow down or speed up) thus the ship will move whatever the captain tries.

The swell/surf diagram for tonight. Green is to 12 feet, yellow  goes over 12 – 15 feet. So not too bad as there is no red in the picture but the waves are still high enough to make it wobbly.

Now the last few days a cold front has been coming in which has enhanced this trade wind considerably and has pushed the waves up from about a normal 10 feet to 15 feet. Any wave height of over 11 to 12 feet makes a ship move. Now we get 15 feet and add to that the normal corkscrew motion and the ship “rocks”.  Thus we will not have particularly bad weather tonight but the moving ship really makes it feel as if it is.

The captain warned all the guests and crew, and advised to stow everything safely in the cabins, to be careful walking around this evening; and hold on tightly to their glass of wine while sitting in the bar. You do not want to spill it, even if it is the 2nd glass during happy hour.

The motion will last until we turn south towards Boca Chica, the estuary entrance to Cartagena. There we will be around 05.30 and then race into the port for a docking before 07.00 hrs. There are supposed to be two more cruise ships in port so it will be a busy day.

The weather is supposed to be nice tomorrow.  Warm with a gentle breeze, as the strong ocean winds normally do not reach the sheltered port of Cartagena all the way inside.

18 December 2018; Crossing the North Atlantic, Day 8 and Final Day.

Thus today we have the final day of our crossing and also the final day of our cruise. They say that all good things must come to an end unfortunately, and thus also this cruise. I think it has been a good cruise as the weather was very good for a December crossing and the guests all look happy and the comments are positive. So we can say without doubt that the Nieuw Statendam will be an appreciated new member of the Holland America family for many years to come.

The last remnants of the frontal system of yesterday passed by through the night and today we had a regular nice sea day with partly cloudy skies and pleasant temperatures. The storm chart only gives flat seas; the rain chart does not give any rain at all, except for the system we have already passed. Also Fort Lauderdale is promising to be a dry day. With 25oC / or 73oF. and very little wind.

The Radar chart with the cloudiness in the area. There are some rain clouds far away but they should only reach Fort Lauderdale after the ship has departed.

This evening at about 18.00 hrs. we will enter the Bahamian chain of islands and then sail through the North West Providence Channel towards Fort Lauderdale. For that we have to cross the Straits of Florida. As Fort Lauderdale and its port, Port Everglades, lies a little bit south of where we come out of the Bahama Banks, we have a South Westerly course to aim for. That course will become more and more south westerly as we have to compensate for the Gulf Stream which is pushing north. The Gulf Stream is our friend and sometimes our enemy. Depending if we sail with the current or against the current.

Now we are dealing with the current under an angle, so the navigator only has to figure out the right course to compensate for the drift. The second interest is to find out where the axis of the Gulf Stream is located,  there where the current is at its maximum velocity. This is called the Gulf Stream axis and if you can find it then you will get the benefit of the “big push” when sailing in the same direction. If you go opposite then knowing the location helps you with devising a course as far from it as possible. The NOAA normally publishes a 3 day update as the Gulf Stream moves on occasion in the Straits and that can really be from all the way up the Florida beaches to all the way against the Grand Bahama Bank. And nobody really knows when it moves and why it moves. If some clever clog would be able to figure it out, then we would be able to get much more accurate data than we have now.

So crossing the Gulf Stream is basically a task of keeping an eye on the ships position and the “set” of the ship to the north and compensate for it accordingly. Normally we are out of the Gulf Stream influence when we are about a mile away from the Port Everglades Sea buoy but I have seen it that the current ran full force just outside the breakwaters and that we went into the port under a considerable drift angle. So much that even the local pilot got nervous.  The simplest solution is then to go in a bit faster as that reduces the drift angle. Once inside the breakwater there is more than enough distance to slow down again. The harbor master likes 10 knots in the channel, but if the current or wind is strong, the ship will go a lot faster to reduce the drift angle.

For the purpose of sailing under an angle and remaining in the middle of the fairway, they have installed a set of leading lights to help. The only challenge is they sometimes have parked a tanker in front of it and then the lower light is obscured. When the light was put in, the tankers were not as wide as they can be nowadays. We will be lining up in those leading lights tomorrow around 03.40, a few minutes after we have boarded the pilot. From there it is only a short hop to the dock as the captain has decided to go alongside starboard side, nose in, at Pier 26 and thus we do not have to swing on arrival. Once alongside that whole circus will start which I described a few days ago. I will be helping out to make that all go smoothly by getting off the ship ASAP and thus ensuring that the zero count does not get delayed.

And that brings me to an end of my blogging period on board the ms Nieuw Statendam. I hope you have enjoyed my daily musings about the progress of the ship towards its completion and the first two cruises which proved that the ship is a great success and a genuine asset to the company.

In January my blog will be relocated to a new server. This should not affect anybody at all but in case there is a hiccup you might have to refresh your automatic link to the blog. My first ship in 2019 will be the Zuiderdam which is on the schedule for Feb. 10. and that is also the date that my blog will recommence.

Thank you for your interest and support and Happy Holidays.

This is the magical piece of Christmas nostalgia which the Pastry Department on board has created. This is only part of the whole display. It is about double the size, including two trains. Setup outside the Grand Dutch Café for all to admire.


17 December 2018; Crossing the North Atlantic, day 7.

Today we are exactly a week at sea and we are almost there. North West Providence channel is now rapidly coming closer and that is where we will see land again for the first time. Bahamian Islands to starboard and to port, visible to eye if the weather is clear.

Here at sea the weather was not very clear and Mother Nature had decided not to listen to what the meteo guru’s in their infinite wisdom had pulled out of their computers. On a wide open ocean, it does not take very much to change a regular pattern of weather. And that is what happened last night. I was bravely hoping for a real Caribbean day, with lots of sunshine, and what we got was still a Caribbean day but the rainy version.  A long band of rain had been laying over the east coast of Florida and it was supposed to come over tonight. No problem for us, everybody inside enjoying the music walk and the Bo ‘sun outside enjoying that his ship was de-salted free of charge.

Quiet times at Cape Hatteras. Patches of 12 feet of swell is really nothing compare to what it is capable of.

But the frontal system decided to speed up, most likely caused by the fact that it is unusually quiet at Cape Hatteras at the moment and the weather system was not pulled that way. So it came our way and all morning dark and gloomy clouds were surrounding the ship and on occasion also descending upon the ship. By lunch time it started to clear up but it will not be before tonight that it should all be gone. Unless the weather front decides to stall, then we will still have some of it tomorrow. But still, the seas are fairly calm, we just have some chop and wind caused by the weather front and the ship is riding nicely through it all.

And this is the rain picture we sailed today through the lower tail of the weather system. (Photo courtesy www. Weather.com)

A guest commented today, that he has seen so few ships since leaving Funchal, and he was correct. Although there are plenty ships out there the area is so vast that even if they go the same way, they might just be outside the range of the eye. The earth curves and thus you can only see so far. On the bridge which is about 75 feet above water, we can see between 10 and 15 miles depending on the clarity of the air and the size of the object. At night we can see ships about 6 miles away as that is the requirement for the strength of their navigation lights. On our commercial radars we can pick up a ship at 48 nautical miles and sometimes even up to 96 miles. The Navy has much better gadgets again and can do several hundreds of miles without any problem.

This is a shipping pattern that you can plot if you keep adding the transponder trails to the same route over a period of time. It shows most of the traffic near ports and a general trickle going South East of Freeport, there were we are coming in.

But the main reason for not seeing many ships is, that our route is not a main shipping route. There are not many ships who ply between Funchal and the Bahamas and thus we are really alone. This route only sees traffic in spring and autumn when the cruise ships are migrating. Most ships coming from or going to the American continent, follow the  Gulf Stream  and make an educated guess between sailing in the nicest weather (and making good speed) or  taking a bit of turbulence (and losing some speed) if in the balance they still make the best time. Cargo ship engines are the most efficient when going full speed. So those ships race full speed to their destination and when they arrive, drop the hook if they have to wait for a berth. Then the expensive main engine goes off and a small auxiliary or donkey engine provides the little bit of power that is needed to keep the ship going.  So for them it is not so important to have nice weather but combined circumstances that equate to the lowest fuel consumption.  The Gulf Stream in the back helps them save a considerable amount and thus they start their crossing most of the time just under Cape Hatteras. That does not give the best of weather but they will have following storms and that does delay a ship much less than have to battle against a storm.

A nice aerial photo which shows the Grand Bahama Bank, the islands and other sandy patches. (Photo courtesy NASA, so I assume this was taken from space)

Tomorrow is our last day at sea. Then in the late afternoon we will enter the Bahamas, between South Abaco Island to the North, and Eleuthera Island to the south. The body of water is called the North West Providence channel and are near the gap on the Abaco Island side is called the “hole in the wall” quite appropriately.

16 December 2018; Crossing the North Atlantic, day 6.

As promised by the weather forecast, the wind and swell out there indeed abated. The wind shifted from the West (the very last tail of the storm system) to the South East (the beginning of the Trade winds) and is now behind us but it is not blowing very strongly. Swell can only die down when the wind abates and when that happened in the early morning the swell came down as well a few hours later. Out there the ocean is still not flat (whenever have you seen an ocean that is flat?) but we are now down to the long low rolling low swell of a North Atlantic at its most tranquil.  We still see the occasional white cap, indicating that we have winds somewhere between 3 and 4 Beaufort and that is also normal North Atlantic weather. If you get real calm weather in this area, when the winds are completely becalmed and the seas look oily, then you better brace yourself as that indicates that “silence before the storm”.

The wave/ swell chart for today. Look at all that nice blue. As long as that green stuff near Cape Hatteras is not coming down we will have flat calm weather all the way to Florida.

There are areas around the world where it can be very wind still. But that is not normal for this area located just south of the North Atlantic storm fields. Here you always have a little bit of wind, either being remnants of storm systems, or the northerly rim of the Trade Winds. And we are coming closer and closer to the Trade Wind area. Most people identify the Trade Winds with the Caribbean Sea and that is not incorrect. But the Trade Winds are not there because of the Caribbean, the Caribbean area is simply in the way of the Trade Wind system.

The worlds wind system. As you can see it all curves west ward at the equator. Thank you NOAA.

But let’s first look at the bad weather and swells. Most people will have heard about the roaring forties, furious fifties and screaming sixties. Names out of the good old days of the Tall ship sailing. These names refer to the sea areas in the southern hemisphere between 40/50, 50/60 and 60/70 degrees Latitude. Here the vast open ocean spaces let winds build up unhindered and push the swells up very high and that could make life very unpleasant for the men of steel on their ships of wood. While there is some land in the North (Iceland, Greenland) to the south it is all wide open all the way to Antarctica. That is the reason that there are no cruise ships down there in the northern summer time (which is the southern winter time)

All this wind is blowing in area’s close and closer to the poles. Around the equator things are more benign and that is caused by the inter tropical convergence zone. This area around the equator is also known as the doldrums. The North East Trade winds and the south East trade winds cancel each other out. The old time sailors were not happy in the screaming sixties because the wind blew their sails to shreds, they were also not happy here as the sails did not catch any wind and they would drift around aimlessly. Sometimes for months if they were unlucky.

A rather undignified way of landing a noble animal.

Did the men of steel from those days gone by also have a name for this as well: Yes, they called them the Horse Latitudes. Because when a sailing ship would be becalmed here for a long time and fresh water supplies would run low, the first things that would be killed off to reduce water consumption would be any horses that were on board, bound for the new world. And sailing ships used to carry a lot of horses for the armies in the new world. Some were even landed in the Caribbean. The main port of Aruba at Oranjestad is called Paardenbaai, or Bay of Horses, where they used to come ashore.

But very often horses went by box. an early form of containerization.

We are now just touching the Northern edge of the North East Trade winds and this is a planetary wind which means it blows all year around from the same direction. Where does this wind come from? Well the storm system that went past us to the north for the last few days is moving East pushed by the jet stream on the higher levels. But while doing so, it also displaces air ahead of it and that air/pressure is deflecting down, and then flows back West at a lower latitude. Hence the area we are now entering always has this wind coming from the Sahara area and ending up in the Caribbean.

Holland America Horses, seen here at Half Moon Cay, came the posh way. They walked ashore from a landing craft and live in their own hurricane proof horse shelter. The ship in the background is the ms Eurodam. (Courtesy Holland America Line)

That makes taking the southerly route in the winter so ideal. You avoid the North Atlantic storms, and you get some wind and current in the back while in the Trade Wind Area. Why do we like the more northern crossing in the summer? Unless the cruise schedule calls for Madeira or the Cape Verdes, it is a shorter route and we get a considerable push from the Gulf Stream.

Also we now get a nice push from the elements; I do not think our guests are in a hurry to get home early as the weather is now turning our Trans-Atlantic into a Caribbean Cruise.

15 December 2018; Crossing the North Atlantic, day 5.

We are running away from the nasty storm that passed us far to the north. But they say the sting is in the tail and the tail just got us. The wave field came down a bit further and because we were past it already, the waves were now coming behind us. When the swell hits a ship either on the port quarter or the starboard quarter, then it can develop a cork screw motion; so the ship starts to yaw. It is not a completely regular moment as it depends when and under which angle the following swell will catch the ship and lift it up or let it go down. How much the ship is affected depends on how much speed the swell/wave has and also how fast the ship travels. In principle the ship could go at the optimum speed and would ride the waves, or better said, surf the waves and there would be no movement at all. But as the velocity of the waves is seldom constant (normally there is interference from other waves) it is nearly impossible to make that work. But we are running away from the wave field and thus the ships motion already started to come down around lunch time, the accompanying wind, started to abate as well and we should really enter very quiet waters now.  As the captain said during the voyage from the bridge, this is very good weather for December, and I can only agree with him.

The wave picture of today. You can see how much the wave field has spread out, and as we were expecting a few days ago that we would just skirt the edge of it, we are now somewhat inside it. But it will not for long. (Courtesy www.stormsurf.com)

This means that the ship can count on a normal crossing for the remaining days and we are heading for a 03.30 arrival at the pilot station on the morning of the 19th. That is quite early and we will be together with the Caribbean Princess and the Costa Deliziosa. Around those three Queens of the Seas is a whole slew of cargo ships going in and out and then we had better be early than too late. On top of that we will have our first USCG inspection. Of those there are two each year but this is a special one as it is the first time as the ship is entering a US port for the first time ever.

The USCG inspectors will arrive at 08.00 hrs.  and will stay all day long until just before departure as they will also want to witness the Guest Boat drill. The ship will also have a full CBP crew inspection as it is also the first time the NSDM crew comes into an USA port. These full inspections take place every 90 days and require a face to face verification of crew member against passport. The CBP normally starts with a cruise ship inspection after 06.00 hrs. and thus it helps if the Nieuw Statendam is fully ready by 06.00 hrs. It will take a while for all 1000 crew to get through and in the meantime leaving guests will have breakfast and then disembark, the ship will have a turn over to get ready for the new guests and all the activities of a regular turn over day will take place.

Crew boat drill. All starboard side lifeboats are being lowered in the shipyard during trainings. The boats go down in alternating sequence so they will not sail into each other when sailing away. From the moment the captain orders “abandon ship” we have 30 minutes to get everybody inside and the boat into the water.

And then as soon as all the disembarking guests are off, the famous moment of the zero count, the USCG will want to see a full emergency drill, Fire, mustering, and abandon ship; all the legally required routines. So the turn over activities will dramatically slow down while all 1000 crew will be on hand to show the USCG that they are fully proficient in their duties. I will not be involved as I have to “help” with the zero count. Because I hop from ship to ship, traveling over USA soil (most of the time crossing the dock from one side to the other) I have a special Visa that allows me to do so. Normal crew has a visa that just allows them to travel to ship – straight in, and then leave the ship—straight out. That does not work for me, so I have another sort of Visa which allows me the freedom to travel from ship to ship inside the USA. But that Visa means that I am not regarded by the CBP as a crew member, I am considered a non-revenue Pax. And thus I have to disembark with the Guests in the morning, so the ship can reach the zero count as quickly as possible.

Holland America has being doing boat drills for a very long time. This is a drill on board the ss Statendam (I) around the turn of the century. We had the lifeboats so we exercised but in the days before the Titanic the rules were not so strict, hence it was not required for the crew to wear life jackets, or safety harnesses against falling over the side.  (Own collection)

After the drill, the USCG inspectors will want to see all the safety equipment. See if all watertight doors are closing and if all the fire screen doors are closing etc. etc. And that will take all day. For a big ship, there is normally a group of about 8 or more who will attend. They are very good in working with the ship to ensure that the guests can still sail on time and normally that works out very well. So behind the scenes the crew is preparing and refreshing their memory from the pre sailing drills in Italy and all will be ready.

But we still have 16, 17 and 18 December to go and the last few days of the crossing promise to be very good. But then the past 5 days since we started the crossing from Malaga have not been bad either; certainly not for December.

14 December 2018; Crossing the North Atlantic, day 4.

Today we have another nice day at sea. The weather followed the weather forecast and the bridge reported that indeed some rain did fall. But in accordance with our wishes did fall during the night and today is another dry, nice and partly cloudy / partly sunny day. The “swell tail” of the storm system did come down a bit more to our location and the waves increased in a few feet height. But the direction of the waves also turned more towards the bow and thus we now have the occasional pitch. Although it is still very minimal for the time of year. So we are still lucky and the weather forecast looks very good. The nasty storm system is moving rapidly north and nothing new is brewing, as of yet, off Cape Hatteras so we can expect seas to smooth out and winds to abate. Who would have expected that in the middle of December?

As you can see they were having a nasty day in Ireland. The wave front came a bit further down than expected but we are sailing away from it. (Diagram courtesy www.Stormsurf.com)

The day at sea continued with all the regular ships activities. A few highlights:

09.30 Coffee with the Ladies at Sea. Our crew is made up of about 30% female crew members.

10.00 EXC talk: Cuba, then and now, with a guest speaker.

11.30 Get creative in the Microsoft Studio. (= learn to impress your grandchildren)

13.00 America’s Test kitchen

15.00 EXC talk: French, Canada to Colonial Empire, with a guest speaker

Trivia games in the morning and afternoon

16.30 Tiny Little Big Band plays.

19.00 Pool movie & Music Walk gets going.

All comes in the daily program called When & Where and which has recently been revamped again to a nice format that fits in the pocket.

And then I do not mention what shops, Spa, Casino, Art, wine, and other interesting things are taking place. And today there was also the Mariners lunch……… which must have been busy as we have a very high number of Mariners on board.

The When & Where. It can be folded like a Harmonica along 4 folds and fits then perfectly in the pocket.

My highlight of the day was checking seaman’s books. The Dutch law has some very strict criteria about controlling seaman’s books and compliance with certification and once during my tenure on board a ship I go through all of them, to ensure that the Crew Office has it all complete. If something is overlooked, then we still have time to correct it before we arrive in Fort Lauderdale. The basic things every crew member needs are: Health Certificate, Labor contract, a safety certificate, and then it goes up by the seniority and the severity of function. Especially the Deck and Engine Officers bear the brunt of those certification requirements as they have to be proficient in firefighting and in safety training and have to have their licenses to do their job. Last time I counted I had 23 certificates of various standing, either legally required or required by the company. Our company has a whole training system via computer learning to ensure that crew members are aware of the latest company requirements and are knowledgeable in everything that goes on.  Courses in ethics, basic safety, Noro virus, are related to all, and then specialized trainings such as wine courses for the BLD department. Of all those licenses the COC or Certificate of Competence is the most important one. This indicates that the flag state has recognized that the bearer of a COC had all the underlying certificates required and is qualified to carry out the function he/she has been appointed to. All compulsory certificates have a 5 year renewal date and thus much to our regret we lose every year 14 days or so from our vacation time to go on refresher courses.  The company also has a slew of required or desired certificates but most of the time they can be refreshed on board.

This is my driving license, my Certificate of Competence, for any ship in the world as it is without limitations. But the Flag State might require some additional things for special ships such as tankers.

So the good ship Nieuw Statendam is sailing with the nice speed of 16 knots towards Fort Lauderdale and we have another four glorious sea days to go. The guests seem to be very happy, although I had one guest asking if there was any option to do a bit of sightseeing while on the way, so there was something else to see than just waves. I promised him that I would take it up with the head office and that we would do our best to have a large mountain on the route, next time we come this way.

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