Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Cruising Life, V1

(Our ship: the MS Oosterdam. I did not hire a helicopter for this picture; I stole it from the web.)

As a machinery geek, I've been seriously remiss in slavering over the nautical realm. Actually, I like boats, and have spent time around them for most of my life. My parents used to own a medium-sized sailboat, and I did some sailboat racing during my teenage years, and we always had a small powerboat around for joyrides and pulling skiers. So I'm not an expert, but I have basic boat handling skills. I wondered a few posts back about the notion of our being attached to specific terrestrial settings, about some of us coming to love the sea, even though water--essential as it is for us--makes for a very hostile human environment without protection or adaptive equipment. But I think with a little more exposure I might have become one of those people, someone who lives on the water or makes his living on the sea. For a long time I thought I might buy an old fixer-upper and live on it while I rehabilitated it. I don't know; maybe it's all just a dream, a cherished romantic escape valve when I'm threatened with crushing mundanity.

Anyway. Several times over the past decade Susan and I have taken a cruise for our winter vacation. My work life is routine and a bit monotonous, but Susan's job involves much greater engagement and stress than mine, which makes some kind of mindless decompression essential to her mental health. She would opt for a week on a beach at some Mexican all-inclusive resort, and my input is to make that resort a floating, moving one. And this has worked quite well. Our first was a Western Caribbean cruise out of Fort Lauderdale that basically went around Cuba with stops in Key West and Cozumel and Grand Cayman. We liked that well enough that we then roped my whole family into a similar cruise a couple years later, this time stopping in Belize and Guatemala.

This year we thought we'd try the Mexican Riviera. Susan was interested in the destinations, and I'm just happy to be on the ship. (I'd love, for example, an Atlantic crossing to Europe--several days at sea--whereas Susan would prefer just to get jesused to the places and skip the enroute portion. Ah, compromise.) All these cruises have been on Holland America. We did a little research before the first cruise, and Holland America seemed a bit more adult-oriented than some others, which were either geared for families--that is, expect a zillion squalling children dominating all public spaces and emptying their bladders in the swimming pools--or the Spring Break crowd--translate: lots of 20-somethings on a week-long bender. These both seemed scenarios to avoid. Plus, Holland America seem to have a lower (higher?) staff-to-guest ratio than some other lines. "More adult-oriented" might be a euphemism for "lots of octogenarians and their parents," and there's a kernel of truth here. But only a kernel, and in any case it's mostly a positive thing--everyone is patient and most of them live out their enjoyment quietly, and we've found cruisers generally to be chatty and very friendly. We're always on the young side, but not by much, and we're never the youngest people on the ship by any means. Anyway, Holland America was our choice for cruise No. 1, and we had a really good time. So we stuck with them.

Not surprisingly, it's the ship itself that really grabs me. Nothing in the world better qualifies in scope and scale as industrial-strength machinery than a frickin' ocean liner. I'm always like a googly-eyed kid when I come in close proximity to one of these, and the excitement of actually getting to legally board one almost makes me soil myself (my wife laughs at how these things quickly cause me to transition from old curmudgeon to youthfully spry to downright infantile). Our first two cruises involved identical sister ships of about 700 feet in length. This is a huge vessel, though not the biggest we saw in our sundry ports of call on those cruises. But for this present cruise we ended up on one of Holland America's new "Vista Class" flagships, the Oosterdam. The Vista ships are 950 feet long and displace a mind-numbing 82,000 tons. This is still not the biggest we might see, but it's in the ballpark. This is the biggest moving thing that most of us will ever get up close & personal with, and I don't think I could ever get blase about a ship like this ("Are you kidding?" my wife asks. "You can't stop talking about your stupid Honda Civic!")

I used to think of a cruise ship as a floating skyscraper, mostly as a size analogy, but that descriptor doesn't quite get at it. (Still, the tallest building in Minnesota for years has been the 775 foot IDS tower in Minneapolis, and this ship standing on end would be 200 feet taller.) Calling it a floating hotel is a better fit, since a cruise ship has all the amenities of a huge hotel and then some, but even that doesn't capture the complexity of the machine. They're floating cities, really, with most of civilization's perks and services self-generated onboard. They make their own power, heat & air conditioning, they desalinate their own water for almost 3,000 people (passengers & staff), and then they treat all the waste water onboard before exhausting it safely back to the sea or hoarding what cannot be and offloading it at week's end. None of these things is a simple matter. There are dry cleaning and massive laundry facilities onboard, a casino, a small infirmary, a nice library and computer lab, and wifi (very slow, and for an exorbitant fee) in all public spaces. The food preparation facilities are immense and carefully thought out, and the range and quality of the food that is available pretty much 24 / 7 is hugely impressive. There are 14 public elevators--not funky "cruise ship" elevators, but what seem to be regular elevator cars that you'd see in any big city building--to whisk people among 11 public decks, plus god knows how many staff elevators serving all public levels and all the others below. There's a nice workout facility and an extensive spa, two swimming pools and half a dozen hot tubs, and no fewer than nine separate eating / drinking facilities. All of this stuff must be supplied and cleaned and maintained in such a fashion as to not disrupt the vacationing throngs. And the well-oiled professionalism with which they accomplish it all never ceases to amaze me.

OK, I continue in my long tradition of getting all weak-kneed at things absolutely taken for granted by the population at large. So there is electrical power on board. Big deal. But that's kind of my point. We're used to having electrical outlets everywhere, but of course a ship is not on the grid. And our staterooms have 110V and 220V outlets side by side to accommodate foreign electrical gadgets, to say nothing of what other voltages and currents are needed in the mechanical and maintenance parts of the ship. I'm always put in mind to ask how much of this stuff we'd have if it were left up to me. Answer: none. A ship like this one represents such an accumulation of knowledge and extreme specialization of labor, the sharp point of 300 years of industrial evolution.

I'm fascinated with all the behind-the-scenes stuff, but even the stuff we see is amazing. It's a huge logistical feat right from the get-go. The ship comes into harbor about 7:am on Saturday morning, and begins disembarkation by 8:am. The week's new passengers are already boarding by about noon, and by 1:30 pm everyone's staterooms are ready for them. So in just a few short hours they've managed to strip and clean and configure about a thousand separate staterooms (each with a full bathroom)--including all the special perks for those who so choose: chocolate-covered strawberries, embroidered bathrobes, fresh flowers, etc.; offload and onload thousands of suitcases, get rid of tons of garbage and take on as many tons of food and supplies--truck after truckload of them. Once the turnover is complete--which is always attended by a bit of mayhem, since each queue or activity is slowed to the pace of its dimmest or most confused or overwhelmed occupant--the staff settles into the business of making everything run smoothly for the week. 11,000 meals a day--many in high style--floor shows and other events, excursions (with docking and / or tendering considerations); somebody had to think about all this in advance. Meal planning alone seems hugely daunting.

(A fresh coat of paint on these while we were ashore. They looked fine before to me.)

And then there's the invisible side of things, including the technical running of the ship (just my cup of tea) and the maintenance staff. This morning as I went for a walk around the Promenade deck (necessitated by a breakfast that would have fed a whole family in the Midwest and perhaps, to look at them, a whole village of the Indonesians who assist us in the dining room), I noticed at least 20 maintenance people at work with various odd jobs. It was mostly cleaning obscure things or painting and scraping, but much of the work was on items just out of public view--for instance, on the back sides of a couple suspended lifeboats (which are themselves large, elaborate vessels), stuff that people don't even see. And that was just on one public deck. I saw a couple people in a mechanical room in the bow putting a fresh coat of paint on gigantic anchor chain links, each link weighing a good 500 lbs. That room was full of huge capstans and chain windlasses, things scaled up obscenely to control 164 million pounds. This is a relatively new ship; four or five years old. But entropy works overtime on a sea-going vessel. Steel and salt water are not on good speaking terms. I saw very few missing chips of paint or rust spots; but the fact that I could see any at all on such a new ship gives a glimpse of what a tsunami the mechanical staff must stay ahead of. And it's doubtless twice as bad to have to fix a problem that occurs than to prevent it from happening in the first place. Hence, a huge mechanical staff and a list of very arcane tasks. One guy spent several hours strenuously wiping ventilation louvers with a cleaning solution while I supervised with a frosty Diet Coke from my deck chair. Nice job, there, buddy. Today while most of the boat was ashore for the day in Mazatlan, there were several crews at work doing more disruptive things, including a couple guys on a cable gantry hammering & scraping noisily on the hull near our cabin window for a couple hours. Every morning the acres and acres of teak decking have been watered and scrubbed, and there are crews painting or varnishing somewhere on the ship at every daylight moment. A few hundred deck chairs around the ship on various levels miraculously appear after breakfast and then mysteriously vanish during the nighttime hours (I've noticed their being there or not being there, but I never see anyone accomplishing the task).

Actually, the hierarchy and management of all these staffs must be quite interesting to study. On an airplane, the maintenance is on the ground, and the aircraft commander holds one of the flying seats in the cockpit. Maintenance issues during a flight involve checklists to contain the problem and then to operate the airplane around the handicap. But a ship like this one has to effect its own repairs on the fly; pulling into port for a repair just isn't going to happen except in extreme cases. (Another passenger we talked to told us the story of a ship she was on losing the use of a screw a few years ago, and the ship had to limp into port. A special mechanic was flown in to Sweden from the factory in Italy and the passengers were all bused--smoothly and seamlessly, she said--to their next port of call, where the repaired ship met them the following day.) The operating staff on a ship like this one must be immense, and the Captain probably doesn't touch a control, ever. He oversees and commands an immense staff, and ensures the safe operation of an impossibly expensive bit of machinery. His Will Be Done. It used to be that you could tour the engine room and bridge of a boat like this one, but the TSA has long since put the squash on that. But I'd really love to see the mechanical stuff.

(Looking aft from just forward of the halfway point.)

Here are some specs of the Oosterdam from a sheet I copped from the steward at the front desk:
  • Decks: 11
  • Guest Elevators: 14
  • Public Rooms: 24
  • Guests: 1848
  • Crew: 800
  • Gross Tonnage: 82,000
  • Length: 950 ft.
  • Width: 106 ft.
  • Draft: 26 ft.
  • Built: 2003
  • Bow Thrust: 3 units, 3,400 bhp
  • Props: 2 Azipods, 25,000 bhp each
  • Engines: 5 diesel, 1 gas turbine
  • Max Speed: 23 knots
So anyway, we're off to Puerto Vallarta and back, with a couple stops along the way. More to come.

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