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Old October 23rd, 2008, 03:18 PM
kryos kryos is offline
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Join Date: Sep 2005
Location: Philadelphia, PA
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Default Heading Home from Nuka Hiva -- First Four Days at Sea

Sorry I haven’t been updating this blog in the past couple of days, but I’ve been quite busy.

Most people mistakenly assume that a day at sea means nothing going on at all. Well, that’s actually wrong. There is always something going on, even if that means spending a day just being lazy ... and there’s nothing wrong in that. But others fill their days with shipboard activities, so that they remain pretty much on the go from morning until night, even on a supposedly lazy day at sea.

I started my day off with a leisurely breakfast in the Lido -- the spot where I’ve taken every breakfast since day one of this sailing. Normally I eat light, but today I had the works – pancakes, breakfast meats, bacon, juice, and two nice big cups of java. On the subject of the java -- while I wouldn’t call HAL’s coffee delicious, I do have to say that it has improved some since my last cruise on the Veendam in April of 2007. There it was absolutely horrible, to the point that I had to stop drinking it and switch over to specialty coffees from the Explorations Café. Here on the Statendam, however, it seems to be a bit more drinkable, and with a couple of packets of sugar, it isn’t too unpleasant to ingest. I guess shipboard coffee will never be entirely good, but at least the Statendam tries.

After breakfast we lounged around in the Ocean Bar with the “Breakfast Club.” That’s a group of smokers that have taken to congregating there in the morning for conversation, to read a good book, or just to relax.

The big event of the day, however, was something we asked for, but I never believed we would actually manage to get -- a private tour of the Statendam’s bridge by one of the watch officers; the navigator on duty, which was arranged for representatives of CruiseMates and Cruise Critic. At the appointed hour, Trisha (Cruise Critic), her husband – Virgil – our official “photographer” (yes, he is the only one among us who has the fancy camera equipment and the brains to know how to use it), and myself met at the front desk for our escort up to the bridge. I’m just thinking to myself “we’re going up into rarified air – onto the Navigation Deck – where the “rich” folks live.

We were greeted by the officer of the watch who explained that he was the Navigator on duty. He showed us each section of the bridge and its extensive array of equipment, explaining what it is used for and its purpose for ensuring safe passage on the high seas. He showed us the thruster controls, the large computer consoles from which the bridge can gather various weather information, as well as data regarding the ship’s positioning on the high seas. For example, one computer display provides a running estimate of when the Statendam will get to its next port – in this case, sadly, San Diego (and disembarkation) based on real time data concerning the ship’s speed. This display is constantly updated so that the bridge officers can make adjustments to the ship’s speed – perhaps slowing the ship down to save fuel if it appears the ship will arrive in San Diego too early for disembarkation.

We also saw the controls for the stabilizers and the radio systems that allow the officers on the watch to communicate with lifeboat captains in the event of an emergency requiring us to abandon ship. We also saw an emergency telephone system that can be used even if the ship loses all electrical power.

We saw the paper navigation charts that the officers use to plot our course. While computer overlays are also used to ensure the paper charts have the latest information, it is not considered good maritime practice to rely primarily on any computer-generated charts. Paper charts are always the primary ones, and these are prepared anew for each cruising using the most updated information regarding hazards, shallow areas, reefs, etc. It was explained to us by our guide that he does two watches each day; one for about four hours and one for two. During this time he mans the bridge, monitoring all of the equipment and keeping a watch over our current position. He also updates the ship’s log periodically; recording information about anything of note that occurred during his watch. During other hours, however, he also works in plotting the charts for the Statendam’s upcoming cruises. For example, right now he is preparing the charts for the upcoming cruise, one that will take the Statendam through the Panama Canal and to Fort Lauderdale.

There were only a few officers on the bridge at the time of our visit, and these are called the officers of the watch. We were told that this complement is doubled at night, with even more on duty during certain critical periods, such as when arriving in port. There are also at times some cadets working on the bridge. I was surprised to learn that these cadets are merely observers, as they are still maritime academy students and thus can’t be given any real duties onboard the Statendam (they are not yet licensed). Their purpose is to spend a short period of time onboard, learning and observing under the watchful eye of deck officers – sort of like “interns” – and then they return to their classrooms at the maritime academy to complete their formal schooling.

At the time of our bridge tour, the Statendam was running on auto pilot, just as a jumbo jet would be, with the officers just monitoring her progress through the seas and keeping watch for other vessels. Since we were out in the open ocean, with a long way to go before arriving at San Diego, there really wasn’t a whole lot to do, but officers are always on watch – generally two during the daylight hours, with a minimum of four during nighttime periods.

An interesting tidbit. A question was brought up about the “first water.” This is apparently a tiny jar containing a sample of the first water to hit the ship’s hull as the dry dock in which the ship was built is flooded with ocean water at the completion of construction, thereby allowing the ship its first contact with the sea. It is said that this small jar of water is supposedly stored on the bridge somewhere and a request was made to see, and perhaps photograph it. We were told that in the case of the Statendam, the jar containing the ship’s “first water” is actually stored in the captain’s cabin and not on the bridge. Since no one was particularly interested in bothering the captain, sorry – we could not get a photo of this.

We also saw the room in which the navigator works when he is making up his charts. That room also contains the controls for the elaborate security monitoring system for critical areas of the ship. We saw the fire monitors for various areas, such as the Lido Pantry and other potentially “hot” spots around the ship, and how the officers get notification if there is a potential problem. They can then zoom in on the area and determine just which smoke detectors went off, and determine whether there is likely a problem requiring further investigation.

There are lots of other interesting areas on the bridge, more than I would have ever suspected. It is a very large room, running the entire width of the ship. There are stations for every conceivable purpose, from navigation, to control, to communication. There are also several large comfy chairs against the wall at which observers can sit, and even an exceptionally large chair from which the captain can call out commands.

There is no large wooden wheel to steer the ship. Instead, there is a small racing-type wheel that the quartermaster uses to manually pilot the ship, executing the orders as given by the captain. Our host was kind enough to allow us to pose for photos here – “Look, Ma! I’m driving!” Yeah, right.

The thrusters are controlled from another station, using joystick-like controls. These are generally used when the Statendam is maneuvering in and out of port.

Another neat thing is a clear opening in the floor on which a watch officer will often stand when he wants to look directly down into the sea. Most times this is necessary while maneuvering into or out of port, especially in tight situations. Standing on this clear piece of glass is a bit intimidating since it appears one could fall directly into the sea. Of course, the glass (or probably actually plastic) is very thick, and falling through would be virtually impossible. But try telling that to someone when they are standing there. It can be quite intimidating. Yet we all tried it, and none of us were any the worse for wear as a result.

We also got to meet the Statendam’s “bridge mascot,” a large inflatable croc (or maybe it’s an alligator) affixed to a section of the large glass window that gives the bridge officers the best view on the ship – a sweeping, virtually limitless panorama of the infinite ocean – at least on this portion of our sailing. Standing at that window, even without the use of binoculars, provides an amazing view, directly over the bow of the ship. And, best of all, it’s true what they say – the more you pay, the more you sway. The folks working here truly get to feel the full “motion of the ocean.” The movement of the sea is so much more pronounced on the bridge, just as I am sure it would be for those lucky folks staying in accommodations on the Navigation Deck – the uppermost level of guest accommodations onboard. I loved the ride we enjoyed from the bridge and found myself holding onto the railings conveniently provided at each equipment console.

The senior bridge officers, and of course the captain, all have accommodations along a small hallway directly adjacent to the entryway onto the bridge itself. The door to the bridge is protected with a surveillance camera as well as a keycard locking system. Our host explained that the reason they have cabins so close by is so that they can get to the bridge at a moment’s notice, even if they are off duty and in their cabins sound asleep.

All too soon, our wonderful tour was over. We appreciated the time we were given by the busy bridge officer who answered all of our questions and explained the use and function of each piece of equipment. He was also kind enough to allow us to take unlimited photographs and even have some fun playing Statendam “driver” for the camera.

This experience is one I won’t soon forget.

Yesterday we had yet another treat in store. This was a combined CruiseCritic/Cruise Mates get-together in the Crow’s Nest. Our wonderful hosts were kind enough to provide a spread of appetizers, as well as coffee, tea, juice and cookies to make the occasion even more festive and fun. Just about everyone in our group attended, despite the fact that there was a Mariner award ceremony/brunch going on at almost the same time.

Several of the Statendam’s officers attended, including Theo (Hotel Manager) and his wife Helen, Jackie – the Internet Manager (my “angel” with regard to this blog – had she not supplied a loaner wireless card when my own failed to work, this blog would have contained nothing but one or two line entries), the onboard florist whose artistic arrangements onboard the ship have provided us with hours of visual and sensory pleasure; Peter, the food and beverage manager who set these wonderful affairs up for us; and a host of other wonderful people too numerous to individually name here – but you know who you are. We had a great Q&A session and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves.

And, on the subject of the events of these sea days on the way back to San Diego, I should also mention for those here interested – the Mariner Awards ceremony. I was told that there was something like 1,000 repeat passengers (Mariners) on this sailing. And everyone onboard qualified for some sort of award, even if it was their first cruise – since this sailing was a minimum of 30 days in length. So the Mariner Awards had to be broken down into three separate days to accommodate everyone. The first day (Tuesday) was for people getting 100 day or more medals. The remaining two days were for folks getting 25 or 50 day pins. I got my 100 day medal on this cruise, while Trisha and Virgil got their 300 day ones. We had a nice ceremony in the Van Gogh Lounge where each award recipient (beginning with 100-day medal holders) was called up to the front individually to receive their medal from the captain and hotel manager. An announcement was made regarding just how many days they had sailing with Holland America, and an individual photo was taken (and delivered to our staterooms the next day gratis). Following the 100 day pins, awards for 300, 500 and 700 day Mariners were made. Appetizers and drinks were served – and, yes, you could order a cocktail if you preferred – or you could select among the wine and champagne constantly being brought around on trays. Orange juice and soda was also available.

At the end of the ceremony, all others onboard with 100+ days, who were not receiving medals on this cruise (because they had already received them for their last award level) were asked to come up to the stage for a group photo with Theo and Captain Jack. I assume they too received a copy of that photograph.

Immediately following the awards ceremony, we were all invited to the dining room for a brunch. A special menu was printed for the occasion which we could feel free to keep. The menu was somewhat limited, but was certainly more than adequate. There was a seafood dish, a quisch type entrée and a steak dish. I chose the steak, thinking that what I would get would be a small lunch steak. Imagine my surprise when I was served a full-size dinner steak that I could hardly finish half of.

Maybe it is true that Holland America doesn’t offer the past passenger amenities that some cruise lines do. But then, that could be because Holland America doesn’t have to. Most of this line’s passengers are repeaters, and I guess that says something about the product offered by the Line. I suspect Holland America has put a priority on upholding the higher levels of service that keeps these passengers coming back time and time again, instead of providing things like free internet and laundry service. At least to me, those “perks” don’t mean very much, and I would much rather forego them to get the same high quality cruise experience that I’ve come to expect while onboard. I like the more personalized attention that I receive on a Holland America cruise and will take that over a free bag of laundry any day. It’s really nice to have stewards who greet you by name each morning when you appear in the Lido for breakfast, and who insist on carrying your tray to your table. It’s nice to have a dining room assistant manager who refused to allow me to fetch my own cup of coffee one evening, simply because I was on vacation, and summoned a steward to take care of it. But, then, I guess it’s all a matter of what’s important to you, and I can only state what’s important to me.

But I think this nice Mariner’s event, not to mention the higher level of personal service on Holland America will be enough to keep me returning – time and time again. I don’t need no “stinkin” free laundry.

These past three or four days at sea have been wonderful. I thought the whole six sea days heading back from Nuku Hiva to San Diego would be downers, but quite the opposite has been true. They’ve been restful and pleasant, with high points contained in each one of them. I’m gonna hate to see this cruise come to an end. It’s clearly been my most pleasurable one yet.
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