Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Cruise '09 A
We're just back from this year's cruise, 10 days in the sunny Bahamas. What a fabulous antidote to the single-digit temps and record snowfalls here in WI. We decided not to take out a second mortgage to pay for internet service on the ship (though it's surprising how many people were willing to shell out the $100 for 240 minutes of connectivity; the constantly-moving ship must rely on a satellite connection, so if it's outrageously expensive at least it's a slow and spotty connection), and so what follows is a collection of disjointed snippets that I wrote at quiet moments during the week. I see now that I've covered much the same ground on last year's cruise (here and here and here and here and here and here). Ah, well; apparently writing it all out once did not cause it to cease to amaze me a year later. So I repeat myself. Sue me.
1/3/09, 7:25 pm
We're just out of port on the evening of Day 1 of our cruise. We're aboard one of Holland America's newest ships, the MS Noordam, which launched in 2006. This is a "Vista Class" ship, about 950 feet long by 106 feet wide and and carrying about 2000 passengers. Our cruise a year ago was on one of the three sisterships to the Noordam, the Oosterdam (the others, to complete the points of the compass, are the Westerdam and the Zuiderdam). Our two cruises previous to these have been aboard their slightly smaller ships (the Maasdam, I think, and the Veendam).
We left the pier in Fort Lauderdale about 6:pm local time, and we were out of the harbor and in open water about an hour later. And though we're on about the most lumbering mode of transport on the planet (I cannot escape the contrast with the jets I fly--by this time the jet would be on approach for landing at a destination which will take us two and a half days' sailing to reach), the shoreline is already a thin strip of sparkle on the distant horizon, and will soon be out of sight altogether. We'll spend the next two days entirely at sea, a nice way to wind down and get our sea legs before we land Tuesday morning in St. Thomas and begin a string of daily excursions on different islands.
I'm always amazed at what a production this all is, beginning with the ship at turnaround--maybe especially that. For this particular ship, two thousand passengers disembark, replaced a couple hours later by another two thousand; the ship's 959 passenger cabins must all be cleaned, changed and readied, to include all manner of specially-requested items: chocolate-covered strawberries or chilled champagne or monogrammed bathrobes or particular fruits or drinks awaiting them in their cabin (there's a fair amount of this among regular cruisers); the ship must be refueled--and at nearly 60,000 gallons per day it's a lot of fuel--which I presume is typically done by some kind of in-ground system, though today the road was clogged with tens of 18-wheel tanker trucks bringing fuel to the fleet of a dozen or so big ships in port; the garbage from the previous cruise must be offloaded, and tons and tons of provisions must be loaded on board, orders for which must have been weeks or months out. What a planning effort.
Just the baggage alone is staggering. There are but two of us in our little room, and we brought three big suitcases for a ten-day cruise. Multiply this by the two thousand and you have a lot of baggage (an older couple behind us in line as we checked in had seven huge bags groaning on a wheeled cart). 20 or 30 collapsable steel cages about six feet square are filled over the brim with bags on the pier--woe to the bags on the bottom of the pile--and carried by forklift to a loading station at the ship down near the waterline, where burly guys bring all the bags onboard, they are sorted and sent up elevators to a forward or aft lobby, and the cabin stewards pick through them and get them to the correct room. Just this one task an amazing little orchestrated program and a tremendous amount of hard work for a lot of people (the heavy steel containers are then collapsed and stored on the ship; again and again I'm reminded that the aviation fetish for light weight is nowhere here in evidence. Nobody seems to pay any attention to the weight of anything on a ship like this one). We hear stories about people whose baggage doesn't arrive until their final cruising day (I can't imagine how this would be), but ours have delivered to our room every time even before the ship leaves its moorings.
I think proper staffing--to include numbers and selection and training--is much responsible for the smoothness of this, and I suspect that's the name of the game in getting the whole enterprise to work. Compared to a hotel, for example, there are just a lot of staff people here dedicated to guest comfort, probably a function of this "hotel" being always a capacity crowd, and a captive one at that. The kitchen operation is massive, the dining room staffs are dedicated to their particular tasks, the cabin stewards keep busy all day with their particular allotment of rooms. And so on and so on for the gym and spa, the youth activities, the hotel front desk and all manner of technical aspects of running the ship. Because so much of the cruising experience centers around food (I wonder if this is a particularly American twist?), the first order of business when passengers come on board is to route everyone up to the Lido deck (deck 9), where a scrumptious lunch awaits. That keeps most everyone clear of hallways and lobbies while the stewards deal with the bags and complete the turnover. Then that evening's dinner is a more muted affair, since everybody is groaning from their excessive (and usually slightly late) lunch. By the time one is finished with lunch, your cabin is ready and the ship readies to leave its moorings, usually with some fanfare and a castoff party. All of this requires furious planning and careful orchestration, and the crew seem to work with great industry.
And so it goes for the duration. Everything is carefully planned and correctly staffed, and it all goes off like clockwork.