Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Vacation 2012, #9: At Sea

(Strange, toad-like squatter person trying to take captain hostage.)

Today, something I've wanted to do for a decade: take an in-depth tour of the behind-the-scenes area of a large cruise ship.

I've asked a bunch of times on previous cruises, but always I was told that for security reasons these areas were off limits to the general public. I don't know what possessed me this time, but after our mandatory lifeboat drill an hour or so after we boarded the ship in Amsterdam I asked an officer on the deck about maybe a private tour. "We'll definitely be doing one. Just watch your paperwork at your room and an announcement will be made."  Hmmmm.  Sure enough, a day into the cruise there was a small paper in our mailbox (I love getting mail at sea!) announcing that an extensive tour of the off-limits areas of the ship would be available to a very limited number on a first-come / first-served basis. Oh, and it'll cost $150. But I could not pass up the opportunity and signed up immediately, and today was the day.

A very limited number, it turns out, means 15, and there were two groups given tours, on at-sea days, about a week apart. Our tour guide was a marketing guy who lived and worked on the ship, someone whose normal job was taking care of corporate clients on their business cruises. He was quite entertaining, obviously a people-person who seemed to know everyone on the ship.  And we saw just about everything: the backstage area for their big theater, the dressing and costume storage rooms, a full kitchen tour including storage areas, the marshaling area for onloading / offloading everything, the tailor shop--all the ships uniforms are made to order onboard by a full-time tailoring staff--the astounding laundry facilities, and my favorites: a full tour of the engine room and the bridge / navigation deck. Of course we got to see a good deal of the areas on the ship where the almost 900 workers live; I've often wondered about their accommodations. For each area we were met by someone who has something to do with that area--kitchen manager, waste and recycling manager, hotel manager, engineer, etc. They typically talked for a few minutes and then answered questions. All very well organized and friendly and most inclusive.

I'm frankly surprised they'd let us in the engine rooms while out at sea, but it was an all-time cruise highlight for me. Things are done so differently nowadays from the ships of old (none of whose engine rooms I have visited, I must admit). Where reciprocating steam engines and then steam turbines once did the work, diesels now are the only game in town. And more than this, for a modern cruise ship the propulsion system is entirely diesel-electric, with the big diesels operating generators and electric motors turning the propellors. There are no longer spinning shafts running half the length of the ship which poke out the back and have a huge propeller hung on them. And without this direct mechanical connection, the whole ship can be packaged differently (though the engines are the heaviest bits and they naturally live down low and amidships as ever.) 

A modern ship like the Eurodam (2008, from the Fincantieri shipyards just North of Venice) uses a device called an Azipod for propulsion. This is basically a streamlined pod that sticks in the water beneath the ship at the stern and which contains a huge electric motor. That motor in turn connects to a huge, multi-bladed propeller, and the whole pod can be rotated to provide directional control for the ship, as well as sideways and reverse thrust. So this device--the Azipod--takes the place of propeller AND rudder, and it does a good deal more than those two together. (With bow thrusters, the ship now rarely needs tugboat assistance.) The diesel engines now simply run big generators, all the same voltage (which is transformed into whatever the ship needs), and the number of engines running is determined by the anticipated electrical loads. At sea there are never fewer than two, and today there were three running as we walked among them. The engine room is actually two rooms with a water-tight bulkhead between them and a closeable door in the bulkhead to go from room to room. Each room contains two mind-bogglingly huge V-12 diesels and a straight-8, for a total among the six engines of about 100,000 horsepower. We were all issued earplugs, and it's certainly a noisy environment, though not as bad as you might expect for as much power as was being produced. The engines seem to run at such a leisurely pace, turning about 250 RPM. There were one V-12 and the straight 8 running in one room, and one V-12 in the other. The 8 runs with complete smoothness, while the V-12s both had a slight lazy wobble in their cushioned mountings. Near as I could tell, all engines had the same cylinders--there were a couple spare cylinder heads and connecting rods mounted on the wall outside the engine room and covered in plastic--so the displacement of each motor might simply be a function of how many standard cylinders were installed (tho I was surprised to read on the literature at the end of the cruise that the 8-cylinder motors were more powerful than the V-12s, so unless this was a misprint my impressions of a common cylinder to both engine types is incorrect). 

Some of this flexibility that results from six engines / six generators and the azipods and bow thrusters are expensive concessions made to the mission of a cruise ship. I remember seeing a Discovery Channel video on the building of the world's largest container ship (which put it at or near to the biggest moving object ever made by humans) for the Maersk Shipping Line. That ship was built in Finland and had but a single engine, the largest diesel engine ever made: a straight-line 12 cylinder (I believe) that spun a traditional propeller shaft out to a single massive screw at the very back. That ship had almost no maneuverability on its own, having to be tugged in and out of its berths with a fleet of tugboats, while I've only ever seen a tugboat assist once on one of these Vista-class Holland America ships. (For what it's worth, that incident was in Puerto Rico, where we were needing to turn 90° into our spot at the pier. There was a fierce wind blowing directly across the pier which wanted to push us into another ship already parked at the adjacent pier. The tugboat pushed against the wind as we pivoted in place and inched into our spot until we were safely in the wind shadow of another big ship at the next upwind pier. Fascinating to watch. Those are the watchwords for anything to do with docking a cruise ship: patience and extreme deliberation.)

Next to the engine room is the air conditioning room and a massive water treatment / freshwater creation plant, all of which is the purview of the mechanical department, though there are specialists for each system. The A/C plant makes enough cool air to keep everyone comfortable in the tropics, and takes up as much room as one of the two engine rooms. Again, one has a sense of a huge amount of energy needed to make all this run. At least one engine has to generate power for the galley and 8 restaurants and a couple hundred computers and 20,000 power sockets and 35,000 light bulbs and so on (I'm making those numbers up, but even at rest the power needs of the ship must be staggering).

The other especially cool thing, for me, was to see the bridge. I've seen plenty of pictures over the years, but the actual working environment of a big ship like this one is kind of an inner sanctum and it was a privilege to see it in action. This is where the analogy with my own job kind of gets lost. In an airline, the captain physically controls the airplane 50% of the time, and an airline captain always takes care of taxiing duties on the ground. In a ship like this one, the captain would rarely if ever actually control the ship. Rather, he controls the people below him who control the ship, and he of course also heads a massive staff that has nothing to do with the operation of the machine proper. So the captain is a busy and much-sought-after guy. In our case he was a jolly-seeming Dutchman of about my own age who was about to celebrate his 24th anniversary with the company.

We saw the main control station at the center of the bridge, and the fully-redundant control stations at each far edge of the bridge--the "wings," so called because they stick out over the water and give a full view of the ship for docking procedures. Interestingly, the floor of the bridge wings is plexiglass (like a high rise observation novelty for tourists), giving a fine view of the water and the side of the ship directly below.  These bridge wings were traditionally out in the open, where an officer would shout commands / observations back to the wheelhouse in the center of the ship; some newer ships are still this way, but most have this arrangement with a very wide bridge encompassing both wings. There are never fewer than three people on the bridge, one officer of the watch and two spotters constantly on the lookout for ships or debris or other surprises. At night, the captain told us, a second officer of the watch is there, and during docking and undocking the captain is almost always present and directing activity.  I suppose that's the main thing, the depth of the chain of command on a big ship compared to an airliner

At the end of the tour we were brought as a group up to the Crow's Nest Lounge and given our drink of choice while listening to the Hotel Manager tell tales of life at sea. And we were given a little swag bag with some HAL goodies. Very nice.  In sum, it was quite above and beyond as tours go. I never expected to get a tour at all, let alone one so comprehensive and well-organized. 

(The fine finishes and glamor end at the crew door.)

(Talking to a couple of the dance troupe in a dressing room behind the stage.)

(One of several costume rooms.)

(One of many watertight doors separating parts of the ship below decks. Operated manually at the door or automatically from the bridge. As our guide said: "There are no safety features; it's not your garage door. If you're caught when it closes you will become two.")

(Not seen on passenger decks, these are everywhere as we near the waterline.)

(Typical hallway in crew quarters.)

(The onboard tailor shop. Three tailors are employed here 10 hours a day, seven days a week.)

(Some rank-specific colors for uniforms. All crew uniforms are made onboard in this shop.)

(The really flabbergasting laundry department. Only three huge washers and six industrial dryers. Only towels and robes get dried.)

(Two guys at the machine that dries, presses and folds everything that's not a towel or a bathrobe. Workers on the other side collect the finished products.)

(Officer's cabin, the window gives the rank away. Most people share a room, and two rooms to a bathroom. As you move up the rank structure, individual rooms get their own bathroom for the two inhabitants. Officers have their own cabin and bathroom. This one needs a bit of decoration, I'd say. Like a Justin Bieber poster or something.)

(The engine control room. This is about half of it.)

(Two levels down, now at the bottom of the ship, the engine room corridor.)

(The straight-8 diesel, one per engine room. This is about 7 or 8 feet tall.)

(Up on a catwalk, the heads of that engine. The rocker arm covers here are about the size of a toilet each. It was running at the time.)

(On either side of the straight-8, a slightly smaller V-12.)

(One of the engine room corridors. On our immediate right one of the huge electrical generators powered by the V-12 just behind. And on the left side the straight-8 and its generator. There's another corridor and another V-12 on the other side of the straight-8. And this is one of two basically similar engine rooms.)

(Air conditioning piping. Everything to a massive scale.)

(Air conditioning room.)

(Dry storage room below the galleys. One of several.)

(In the galley. The process of feeding 3000 people never stops.)

(On the bridge, looking from one side to the other.)

(The control station on the starboard bridge wing. You can do everything from here.)

(The azipod controls. Outboard levers to set direction of propeller spin and amount of current, inboard levers for rotation of azipod and forward / reverse control. Azipods can rotate 360° and their propellers can also spin in either direction, giving great flexibility.)

(This little knob steers the entire ship in manual mode!)

(The view aft from the port bridge wing. The sea smooth as a plate of glass.)

(The glass floor of a bridge wing. We're about 8-10 stories up from the water.)

(The view forward from the starboard bridge wing.)

(The ultimate economy meter. How many tons of fuel per mile and dollars per minute to operate this way?)

(Brilliant, huge hi-def flat screen plotting chart. The "glass cockpit" as it were.)

(A central status display)

(Dead center on the bridge: the ship's wheel. Tiny, like a Momo race wheel.)

(Quite the view.)

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