- Captain Albert's Blog -

Stories from the Sea, Past and Present

27 September 2007, Boston.

After another hazy night, we approached the Boston pilot station at 5.45 am in the morning. Ahead of us the Crown Princess who had to deeper into the port and somewhere behind us the Norwegian Spirit who for some reason came in quite late. This ship would later on have to pass the two of us to go to the first spot at the dock. The Black Falcon terminal is a “dead end” dock which means that ships have to go the same way out as they come in. Luckily there were no container ships in port today.These dock at the opposite side of the fairway, and when there, can make things a bit tight. With the container dock empty there was a bit of extra room for all of us to play around in.

We were docked nice and timely so that the guests could get off at a good time to enjoy the sights of Boston. Once again we had a sunny day and all was well. I was already looking at departure. It was going to be a tight run to our next port of call New London and it would help if I really optimized the schedule. Due to the one way in, same way out, the ship would have to swing into the fairway on departure and that normally takes a good 20 minutes. The basin is too small to just blast away from the dock and swing around with maximum power. Thus I opted for a portside – nose out- arrival. 20 minutes saved. Next step: trying to get off the dock as soon as the last guest would be back on board. All on board time is 30 minutes before the official departure time and if I could get off the dock at once, I would save another 25 minutes. So pilot, linesmen and longshoremen (for the gangway) were ordered for 16.15 with the high hope that all would go well.

Of course it was hoping for too much. For once the tours were back late and my 16.35 departure turned into 17.00 before the last bus had debarked on the dock. Then instead of racing out of the port, we had to go dead slow as a group of “Sunday sailors” had decided to anchor their power boat right in the middle of the airway. So with honking the horn we tried to alert them but to no avail. Only when that big Veendam bow kept coming closer and closer, a few lethargic movements were made to pull out the anchor and amble away from the centre of the fairway. Then we had to turn slowly, as they were only just out of our way and could still have been caught with the swinging stern. When that was done, I could finally crank the ship up and race to the pilot station.

What I call honking the horn, is of course in normal language, blowing the whistle. It is an important navigational or better said anti collision instrument but it can also be used for greeting. We use it for indicating which way to pass each other, (one blast is port to port, two blasts is starboard to starboard) or to overtake ships. Most often, especially here in the Canadian Maritimes we use it to let our presence known in the fog. Then the whistle is blown once every two minutes for as long as the fog lasts and for as long as visibility is less than three miles. The height of the tone of the whistle is regulated by the Rules of Road and the bigger the ship is in tonnage, the lower the tone. Thus a tugboat has a high pitched whistle and a 140.000 ton cruise ship a very deep toned one. The Veendam with 55000 tons is somewhere in the middle but I can improve on the effect by blowing two whistles at the same time. As a ships whistle is a navigational must, there is redundancy and we have one in the Radar mast above the bridge and a second one in the funnel aft. They operate on compressed air, although in the old steamships days, most whistles worked on steam.

To alert the world to a dangerous situation, there is the danger signal. Five short blasts. The idea is that everybody who hears this signal looks around and checks if his or her vessel is not causing any problems for somebody else. This normally works, except with Sunday sailors who in their blissful ignorance probably think that we are greeting them.

For greeting we have the tree long blasts on the ships whistle. Not to be confused with three short blasts which indicate that the ship is going astern. On departure Boston I greeted the American flag on top of Fort Independence that way and we also use it to greet other (company) ships. There used to be a protocol for this in the old days. The younger captain on the smaller ship would always greet first. Then the more senior captain on the larger ship would answer and then the smaller ship would confirm with one single blast. Nowadays junior captains can be on the bigger ships and the most senior captain on the smallest one so this whole idea has become obsolete. When I meet another cruise ship, I normally instigate the whistle exchange as I do not care at all about whether I am the more senior one or not. I just want it to happen as it is fun for the guests on board to hear the exchange. Some other company’s do the same thing and some of them don’t. I tried it in Halifax with the Norwegian Spirit but not a peep came back.

Tomorrow we are in New London. The weather forecast is not that great but looking at the weather chart, there might be a chance that the wind will just die off when we get there and that would mean that the rain will not reach the port. For the evening I hope that the wind will keep blowing, so that it keeps the fog away for the night. My wife made a reservation in our Pinnacle Restaurant for this evening as it happens to be my birthday.


  1. Happy Birthday! Thank you for taking us along in this blog.

    I know your days are quite busy, so thank you for taking the time to give us an insiders view.

  2. Capt. Schoonderbeek, thanks very much for answering my question. The meaning of the whistle blasts are much clearer now next time I hear the exchange between ships! 😉

    Hartelijk gefeliciteerd met uw verjaardag en nog veel meer jaartjes!/Happy birthday and many more! Enjoy your dinner in the PG tonight!


  3. Happy Birthday! And thank you again for your postings. We enjoy them a great deal….and I learn much from what you write.

  4. Capitan, Thanks for sharing this cruise with us and a very happy birthday

  5. Capt – Happy Birthday! You are the 3rd person in my little world whose birthday is today. And how wonderful that your wife was able to be with you. I didn’t remember you writing that she had re-joined you on Veendam.

    Thanks for the explanation of the ship’s whistles. I’ll remember to listen for the exchange between ships. Too bad the other lines couldn’t be bothered.


  6. I hope your birthday dinner was spectacular!

    Thank you very much for the ship whistle lesson. I am a railroad buff, and there are designated whistles for locomotives, too. An amazing tool of communication!

  7. I hope you had a very nice birthday celebration. I have been following your blog every day and enjoy all the information you share about the ship, the weather, the ports and all the other facts of shipboard life. It certainly makes me wish that I were aboard the Veendam too!

  8. Happy birthday. Thanks for the informative discourse on whistles. Who knew?
    I miss the bitterballen you had sent to us each evening when we were on board.

  9. A year later, so you have another birthday coming up.
    Thank you for explaining the tones of the whistles.
    I work in the old Army Depot building, between the Black Falcon Cruiseport and the Dry Dock, so I probably saw your ship at this visit.

    I wondered why the tugs maneuvering the MSC ships into the Dry Dock had such high-pitched whistles. I would still like to learn what they mean. I’ve seen teams of tugs carefully bringing the ship into the Dry Dock, and apparently coordinating each other with whistles.

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