Off with a Bang! Well, I was actually off with many of the Bangs. It was my pleasure to have a long, and pleasant chat with Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines' Captain Leif Otto Bang, his wife of 25 years, Darlene Bang, and their youngest daughter Kiki.
Captain Bang comes from a multi-generational family of ship's captains. He began his sailing career 45 years ago, when he became a 14 ½ year old deck boy. He literally took a slow boat to China, and returned to Norway 2 ½ years later. Leif went back to sea shortly thereafter, and has been a sailor ever since.
It seems only natural that he met his wife Darlene on a ship. Darlene had reluctantly joined her sister Karen on a cruise that was a gift from their grandparents. At that time they were assigned seating separate from each other. Darlene was assigned a seat at the Chief Engineer's table, and her sister Karen was seated at the Staff Captain's table. The then Staff Captain happened to be Leif Otto Bang. As the cruise progressed Karen, Darlene and the Chief Engineer decided they would go out to a Flamenco dance show in San Juan. The Chief Engineer brought Leif along, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Following a long distance courtship, Leif's parents were scheduled to visit and cruise with him, so he told Darlene " My parents are coming over to visit, so, this would be a good time to get married". Members of both families, along with friends, were on the cruise, and Leif and Darlene were wed on the ship during a stop in Curacao. Darlene said " Leif planned the entire wedding, and now he hopes all his children will be married onboard ships." It would seem fitting, as all 3 children were conceived at sea.
Being the family of a ship's captain creates some unique situations both on and off the ship. The saying goes, "If you want something done, ask a Captain's wife to do it". Darlene says "The Captain's wife has to be independent, and my mother raised very independent women. The Captain's wife ends up knowing not only how to take care of herself, and the kids, but has to know how to buy the cars, negotiating to buy the house, and deal with family crises on our own. Most often we won't even tell Leif about a crisis at home because he's half way around the world, and there would simply be nothing he could do about it."
Leif says it's often difficult finding out about situations after the fact, but he appreciates his family's understanding of his job and his life. Darlene and Leif told me their neighbors don't even know what Leif does for a living. Every few months they see this man show up, seem to be just hanging around for awhile, and then disappear again.
The family cruises with Leif as often as possible. Daughter Kiki hadn't known too much of her father as she was growing up. After graduating from high school at 18, she joined him to spend a year and a half together. On the ship and off, they were nearly inseparable. Seeing them together, it's easy to spot the strong bond this time together has created.
When the family does join the Captain on the ship, he's still working, and working hard. During our visit with Leif and his family during an Alaska cruise, we learned the area is even more demanding on a Captain's time than say the Caribbean. Alaska with it's narrow passages, and inlets, changing weather, ice flow navigation, etc. calls for the Captain to be on the bridge many long hours, day and night.
I know, as I was on the bridge, with Captain Bang and Darlene after midnight and into the wee hours the second night of the cruise as we passed through Seymour's Narrow. That was my first meeting with Kiki, as she came onto the bridge in her pajamas to visit with her parents. This was just an example of how they spend their time together, if they want to see each other.
On formal night we passengers see the Captain enter the dining room with his family, and the other guests invited to dine with the Captain, and think how glamorous everyone looks. What we don't often see is the Captain on the bridge just prior to dinner, in his dress uniform guiding his ship out of port; following dinner, he returns to the bridge to work late into the night when the fog rolls in, or a narrow passage approaches.
I witnessed the long hours the Captain works and asked him for an estimate. He said "by my calculations I work approximately 1 ½ years of 44 hr. work weeks in a 6 month time period." However, "I really LOVE my job," he says.
We talked about amusing incidents at sea from both a family and Captain's point of view. While there are some funny stories I unfortunately can't share, here's a few vignettes. Darlene told us, " When Leif Jr. was a young child he was talking to some passengers and told them his father worked on the ship. They asked what his father's job was and his reply... he honks the horn".
When I asked Kiki what her favorite childhood memory onboard a ship was she said, "4:00 ice cream, and it still is". She also recalls that the Captain used to take afternoon naps between 1 and 3 PM, and that would be her pool time. I guess she went straight from the pool to ice cream like so many other children do today. One thing that makes her stand out from today's young cruisers -- she learned to close the fire doors on the ship by the time she was five years old.
Captain Bang spoke of something, that until now, I thought was just a Cruise Director's joke. He said " A number of times we've had passengers pack ALL their clothing in the suitcases and put it in the hall the night prior to debarkation as instructed, only to wake up in the morning with nothing to wear other than their nightgowns or pajamas, or even less". So the next time you're looking for your luggage in the debarkation warehouse look around for the people wearing raincoats that you'd expect to see on the bridge.
Captain Bang says he'll be retiring in a maximum of two more years. When asked if she'd be happy when her father retires from the sea Kiki said " NO, he's the best Captain there is!" and after being allowed to spend some time watching and getting to know Captain Bang, I must agree. And he has a very special family!