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Ocean Liner History and Stories from the Sea, Past and Present. With an In Depth focus on Holland America Line

04 December 2019; San Juan, Puerto Rico.

San Juan is one of the more exciting ports for the guests to sail into as you sail past the old town with Morro Castle right on top of the entrance. It is also exciting for the captain as it can be a very difficult port to sail into if there is a strong wind blowing. A strong wind can push up a strong current as well and suddenly your ship is not going where you want it to go, if you are not paying close attention. That situation gives rise to discussions among the captains about do we pick up the pilot outside or inside?  If you pick up the pilot outside, then you get extra experience on board and extra local knowledge and that is good. But the San Juan pilot station is right in the final approach to the entrance and thus you have to abort your approach, make a lee, pick up the pilot, speed up again and try to find back your balance on wind and current and that is not good.

Luckily when it is really windy the pilots do not like to come out as they know that it is very difficult for the ships to make a good lee and then get in the leading lights again for the sail in. So then they wait inside where there is no swell. If a captain requires the pilot to come out, then the ship most likely will have to make a 360o turn and sail further out to line itself up again in the leading lights with a drift course that counter acts the off-set caused by wind and current. I personally prefer to pick up the pilot inside as I have been many times to San Juan and I hate this messing around at the pilot station and trying to get lined up again. If you pick up the pilot inside, then you can “charge in” with a speed of 12 knots (good for the stabilizer operation so the ship does not roll on the swell) and then while slowing down in the turn in the channel, the pilot can hop on board in smooth waters.

The leading lights into the port of San Juan. You can see them about 3 miles away outside and thus you have time to find a nice balance on the wind and the tide for a steady course line into the entrance.

Today the captain did not have to worry as there was hardly and wind, just little bit of swell and the ship could just pick up the pilot while in its approach. When the ship arrives in San Juan around 13.00 hrs. then it boards the pilot at 11.45 hrs. and passes Morro Castle at noon time. The captain always announces this and I find it very interesting to see what will win the contest.  The contest between having food in the Lido or going outside and see San Juan in all its glory as with a noon time arrival the sun in the south shines directly on the City. I was a bit disappointed today to see that the food was winning from the culture option. Maybe because Holland America has such a good Lido system. My wife and I cruise with the competition and we see good and interesting things there but I have not seen a single company yet which can beat the Lido operation that we have.  So today picturesque San Juan did not stand a chance.

Morro Castle basking in the noon day sun. There are not many ports that can offer a similar view. This picture was taken when we made the 2nd turn in the port.

The port of San Juan is a large Laguna or estuary. And if this port would have been connected to a larger hinterland then it would have been a very large port as it is so sheltered. The island is already called Puerto Rico = Rich Port but it being an island limits its growth and has only turned it into being the main port of the island. There is a second port, Ponce to the south west but that port cannot compete with San Juan. It can take the small cruise ships and it is fun to go there with a small size ship but with the bigger boys San Juan is the only option. And the big boys were in today. Symphony of the Seas, Us and the Carnival Breeze, all happily docked next to each other. As the Nieuw Statendam does not call here every week, we get the dock furthest out, Four East, although further out is relative. We are talking 500 yards compared to the Symphony on Berth 3. For the crew four East it is a good dock as it is the closest to KFC so we got our priorities right.

Our approach diagram.  Inside the port there is a maximum speed of 6 knots but you have the whole entrance channel to show down.

We stay in San Juan until 11 pm. in the evening and it is by far the nicest port to do so. We are docked right in downtown, it is a safe place to go out in, in the evening and it has a very romantic sail away after sunset. Most of the Trade winds that blow here are pressure winds and those pressure differences are generated by the sun. Hence the fact that the wind starts blowing harder and harder during the day. Then when sunset arrives to the East of the Caribbean in the Southern part of the North Atlantic Ocean that pressure difference reduces and results into wind still conditions by 11 pm in the evening. So under normal trade wind conditions the ship sails out on a completely smooth water surface in the port which makes the moon and the lit up buildings beautifully reflect in the water. If we are going to have that tonight I do not know as there was a small weather front moving in today from the Tropical Forest area to the south of San Juan. And that caused the wind to change from North East to due south and that might bring rain if the wind keeps blowing from the wrong corner.

St Thomas is just around the corner and only 90 miles away the long way around. As the crow flies (or the pigeon) it is only 70.   Thus the weather will be the same and we looking at another warm day with 86oF / 30oC with the odd chance of a shower depending if the wind re-settles in the East or stays in the south.


  1. Michael Caldwell

    December 6, 2019 at 12:59 am

    If the captain has to go back out to pick up the pilot , wouldn’t he have to do a 180 degree turn, go out, and then do another 180 and come back in? Picky, Picky, Picky.

    • Captain Albert

      December 6, 2019 at 7:34 pm

      Yes, he would have, and that is why we do not like it. It takes a lot of time, plus if it is inclement weather which necessitates making a lee, then the ship might start moving more as we have to retract the stabilizers and that is not good for the guests.

      thank you for reading my blog

      Best regards

      Capt. Albert

  2. peter van der ent

    December 7, 2019 at 8:42 pm

    Kapitein ik herinner mij van de eind jaren 60 aan boord va de as Rotterdam dat bij het aanlopen van de haven een wrak lag met de masten nog boven water zo te zien een Victor ligt dat er nog steeds? en het moro casltle is prachtig goede reis en behouden vaart.

    • Captain Albert

      December 7, 2019 at 8:51 pm

      Mijn dank voor de opmerking.

      Toen ik voor het eerst in San Juan kwam in 1982 lag het wrak er nog. Daarna zakte het langzaam weg. Het is mogelijk dat het er nog ligt onder water, of dat het weg gehaald is want in the laat jaren 80, is de haven ingang wat verbreedt.


      Capt. Albert

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