GENTING HK BUYS GERMANY’S LLOYD WERFT SHIPYARD

It’s now official; Genting HK, parent company of Crystal Cruises, has bought Germany’s hugely prolific Lloyd Werft shipyard in a 17.5 million Euro deal that gives the company something like fifty percent of the land area, and a full seventy per cent of any new  build business.

The deal is the precursor to the construction by Lloyd Werft of a trio of new, 100,000 ton ice strengthened cruise ships for Crystal itself.

In recent years, the yard has been instrumental in either building, refitting or lengthening some six cruise ships for Norwegian Cruise Line. Set up as far back as 1857, the yard has a whole slew of building and refitting work to its credit.

Among other things, Lloyd Werft carried out regular refits and periodic overhauls of both the QE2 and the SS. Canberra. And, over the winter of 1979-80, the yard also carried through the ground breaking conversion of the SS. France into the SS. Norway- the first true mega cruise ship.

The acquisition of Lloyd Werft allows obvious synergies in respect of constructing vessels for both Crystal and Norwegian Cruise Line, it’s part partner under the Genting banner.

As ever, stay tuned for updates.

The classic SS. Norway was one of Lloyd Werft's greatest achievements

The classic SS. Norway was one of Lloyd Werft’s greatest achievements

THE NORWEGIAN COASTAL VOYAGE- WHAT IT IS, AND WHAT IT ISN’T

There is a tendency in some quarters to think of the Norwegian coastal voyage these days as a cruise operation.

It isn’t.

What it is- and always has been- is the only practical way to provide a year round link to the scattered communities that cling to the long, rocky coastline of Norway on a regular, reliable schedule. The ships carry food, fuel, electrical goods, cars and even animals between ports ranging from Bergen in the south, to Kirkenes in the far north, day in and out. And, inevitably, they also carry a vast number of passengers travelling between these different, often isolated communities.

But the sheer romance and languid beauty of the voyage has long since attained a legendary status and, even before the Second World War, the stout, sturdy little vessels of the run- the Hurtigruten- had begun to attract a small but steadily growing tourist trade. Today, that trade has grown immensely, and persuasive marketing has enhanced the appeal of the adventure, especially in the freezing winter months.

And the new ships of the Hurtigruten have been subtly constructed to appeal to tourists, too. With beautiful and expansive panoramic lounges, hot tubs, and luxurious cabins that, in some cases even include balconies, they do indeed resemble small, beautifully decorated cruise ships. The exteriors, too, display something of a modern cruise sensibility these days.

But that is where it pretty much ends. Anyone expecting to find the glut of entertainment and facilities of the modern cruise industry is in for a disappointment. There are no elaborate, extra tariff restaurants, no rock climbing walls, and no huge, Vegas style show lounges. The Hurtigruten ships instead proffer up an environment where less is most definitely more.

There is usually one main restaurant that serves up simple, hearty local fare on a three meals a day basis; breakfast, dinner and lunch. While much of this is done in the form of an elaborate buffet, the main hot dishes revolve around fresh, local fare such as locally sourced meat and potatoes and, of course, some of the best salmon in the world. What it might lack in variety and perceived sophistication is more than made up for by the sheer freshness and good taste.

And the real entertainment is actually Norway herself at any time of year. From the shimmering, ethereal beauty of the winter time northern lights to the incomparable, majestic spectacle of the endless summer sun, Norway is a stunning, twelve thousand mile long visual smorgasbord at any time of the day and night, One without equal on this planet in my opinion.

So these ships do not constitute a ‘real’ cruise experience- whatever that is, anyway. What they do offer is a unique, far more ‘up close and personal’ way to see and savour many off the beaten track sights and sounds of Norway that many big ship passengers simply never, ever see. The very nature of the voyage- and it is a voyage rather than a cruise- allows passengers to interact with the daily comings and goings of Norwegian people in a setting devoid of kitsch or pretension. This is Norway in the raw; rich, deep and beautiful, but seen from the comfort of a safe, agreeable environment.

The great thing about Hurtigruten is that it does not pretend to be something that it is not. It is a solid, reliable and extremely comfortable way to see the real Norway, at any season of the year, in very agreeable surroundings. It is not an all singing, all dancing, expertly choreographed floating theme park swishing lushly through the ‘greatest hits’ ports, but rather a long,meandering series of hopefully rewarding interactions with a matchless hinterland, and the proud people that cling to it’s harbours and valleys year round.

Worth a look? Over to you.

Norway is amazing at any time of the year

Norway is amazing at any time of the year

CRYSTAL SERENITY-FIVE YEARS ON

As it was almost exactly five years between my last two cruises on the Crystal Serenity, I thought it might be worth sharing a few personal impressions of this captivating, continually evolving vessel, one of the absolute true scions of the luxury market.

THE OUTER DECKS

Now sprinkled with a good helping of super comfy, circular pod beds, the outer decks are more a hazard to activity than at any time before. Ease and casually spectacular use of space remain the watchwords here.

The newly revamped area under the sliding glass roof is the crown jewel of the latest upgrades. The lush, verdant ‘living wall’ and trees, festooned at night with little, twinkling lights, make this area more alluring than ever. Keeping the original teak decking underfoot makes this space feel expansive, lush and clean, all at once. And with both a wonderful ice cream bar, grill area, plus drinks service, this particular venue was my ‘go to’ choice for large parts of our cruise through the Adriatic, any time of the day or night.

INTERIORS

Mercifully, these remain instantly familiar and welcoming. The Bistro is a secluded little joy, tucked away on the upper deck of the Crystal Atrium, that serves up matchless Cappuccino, cakes and pastries from dawn until late into the evening.

Crystal Cove remains elegant, expansive, and just simply unbeatable. We embarked to a soundtrack of The Blue Danube, beautifully executed by a quartet of even more beautiful Asian ladies. That very much set the tone for what followed.

At night, and especially before dinner, it remains the venue for cold, perfectly crafted Martinis and cool, sultry jazz. With the discreetly tumbling waterfall coming down just behind it, Crystal Atrium has no peer as a crossroads, or people watching venue. A timeless classic.

The Avenue Saloon remains a cool, clubby little enclave for the after dark crowd. A piano bar by name, but one with a quirky, delightful twist in the normal repertoire. Ever heard Riders On The Storm done on a piano? Nope, me either. Brilliant.

CUISINE

This remains simply flawless, right across variety, concept, preparation and delivery. Whether picking at cold lobster on my balcony or savouring gorgeous, saffron accented lamb skewers in Tastes, the Crystal Serenity continues her own sublime culinary traditions.

Prego remains the absolute epitome of fine, feisty Italian food and service, with sumptuous steaks and mouth watering desserts, that is an absolute must-do on board. I never ventured into Silk Road on this trip, but others on board assured me that it remains as well served as ever.

PERSONAL NOTE

So, just a few thoughts there. Like many, I guess, I was a little concerned about how the takeover by Genting Corporation might have impacted life on board such a fondly remembered ship.

Having just spent a week renewing my love affair with Crystal Serenity, any latent anxieties that I might have had have now gone. The crew- from top to bottom- remain as superlative and courteous as ever; the absolute epitome of gracious seagoing hospitality (along with those aboard Crystal Symphony). Quality and standards throughout the ship remain as high as ever. I honestly see no signs of slippage anywhere. In fact, a renewed sense of purpose and forward momentum is more in the air on board.

One or two personal niggles; the paper cups in which Crystal so lavishly serves up it’s free ice cream do not do justice to the taste, and neither do the plastic spoons offered up with them. On a ship of this calibre, they should be glass bowls with silver spoons.

Other than that, all remains as reassuringly well as ever aboard the good ship Crystal Serenity. Like the Martinis, I was stirred, rather than shaken. This ship remains one that really does set the bench mark for all of the opposition. Long may she continue to do so.

Crystal is taking its legendary standards of luxury to a whole new height

Crystal is taking its legendary standards of luxury to a whole new height

MAGELLAN TO NORWAY- AN OVERVIEW

If anyone had told me that I would one day cruise over to Norway on a former Carnival fun ship, I would have recommended that they seek serious mental help.

I mean no disrespect to the Carnival brand and product by saying that. But it was the sight of one of those boxy ships, still replete with the famous ‘whale tail’ funnel standing tall and proud, that really threw me a bit of a curve ball.

And yet, there we were, ghosting on a still, late summer dawn into the jagged fastness of Flam aboard the Magellan, the new flagship of Cruise and Maritime Voyages. And it was certainly a moment to savour.

Built originally as the Holiday for Carnival in 1985, she was the first of a trio that were, in effect, that company’s first real mega ships. In their original fun ship guises, these vessels were hugely successful in the Caribbean.

As times and tastes changed, Carnival brought newer, more expansive tonnage on line. Holiday was first hived off to Iberocruises, the Spanish subsidiary of Carnival, to sail Mediterranean cruises as the slightly restyled Grand Holiday.

Then. late last year, she became the latest, surprise acquisition for Cruise and Maritime Voyages, the adults’ only UK based cruise company. An extensive transformation from European styled party boat to something more matronly and elegant was clearly in the offing. And how.

Magellan now strikes me as a mature mix of the best of her original Carnival features- large cabins, broad open sun decks, and the famous, long interior boulevard-and some thoughtful new touches in the shape of her vastly remodelled interior décor, and the well thought out revamping of public spaces.

The result is a ship that nails it near perfectly for the UK market. At 46,052 tons and with a capacity for 1,250 passengers, Magellan retains the warmth and intimacy of the CMV brand, while paradoxically giving passengers half as much space again as aboard the venerable Marco Polo.

Of course, the real trick was whether or not the line could successfully revamp her interiors to suit the more subdued tastes of her new target audience. The answer is a pretty definite yes.

The original Carnival glitz and neon has disappeared like a line of dancing showgirls behind a final curtain. Instead, cool, rich creams and finely styled, Scandinavian pine tables form the hub of a long, linear procession along the boulevard. Understated, sunlit and quite casually spectacular, it is a truly wonderful people watching area in its own right.

Much kudos, too, for the smartly re-imagined area around the former children’s wading pool. This has now been turned into a water feature, surrounded by a lawn area sprinkled with comfy sofas and chairs. With a semi circular stretch of deck overhead and blankets available everywhere, this aft facing little eyrie is actually the most spectacular lounging area on the ship. In fact, it would not look at all out of place on the likes of Regent or even Crystal.

The two main dining rooms- Kensington and the Waldorf- span the full width of the ship, and offer dinners in a traditional, two sitting rota. Oddly, the opening times for the two rooms are staggered some fifteen minutes apart on most evenings.

Upstairs is an expansive lido, facing aft, which also serves casual fare all day, while offering many of the main restaurant dishes at night in a breezier setting. This also features a bar and pizza corner that seemed to operate almost 24/7.

During the day, an additional, centrally located grill area serves up burgers, chicken and wraps.

Our six day cruise took us over from London’s cruise terminal at Tilbury to three show stopping Norwegian classics; Eidfjord was an amazing natural confection of jagged mountains carpeted in deep ranks of pine forests, plunging waterfalls and still silent fjord waters where the silhouette of our ship was reflected to almost crystal perfect clarity.

In lofty, rolling Flam, we rode the famous train up through a landscape of some twenty kilometres of thundering streams, vast, snow capped mountainous gorges, over and past sunlit valleys sprinkled with scores of silent, grass roofed houses, to the summit at Myrdal. Stopping en route at the vast, thunderous waterfall at Kjellfossen was a highlight never to be forgotten.

Our last port of call was cool, patrician Bergen, with its immaculate Bryggen area; a warren of old wooden Hanseatic houses, miraculously preserved and restored as a shopping centre that abuts a vibrant quayside. It dominates a waterfront cradled amid seven low, rolling hills, and the scenic panorama form atop Mount Floyen- accessed by a spectacularly crafted funicular train journey- is simply exhilarating. The whole of the great city sprawls out below you like some incredible, multi hued patchwork quilt.

Magellan spent six days threading her way deftly through this vibrant, soul stirring hinterland with almost effortless ease and poise. I have to say that the ship has space and grace by the bucket load; the conversion has been superbly carried through in the public areas and outdoor venues to create a uniquely welcoming ‘new’ ship.

A word about cabins; the insides and outsides are all of roughly similar dimensions, quite generous in size all round, and with beds that convert from twins to a double. Even better news is that CMV charge only a 25% single supplement for many of these.

In short, Magellan is soothing, comfortable and sybaritic, and she offers some seriously good food and service. At the prices she charges, this ship is an excellent choice, and a great addition to the UK cruise circuit. Very much recommended.

Flam; a real highlight of our Magellan cruise

Flam; a real highlight of our Magellan cruise

CARNIVAL PLANS 2016 DEEP CARIBBEAN CRUISES FOR FASCINATION

In a welcome and surprising move, Carnival Cruise Lines is putting one of its original Fantasy class megaships back on a seven night Caribbean itinerary for the first time in a decade.

Beginning in May of 2016, the 70,000 ton Carnival Fascination will be home ported in Bridgetown, Barbados, to offer a series of very port intensive, seven night sailings to St. Lucia, St. Kitts, St. Maarten, San Juan and St. Thomas, with a final day spent at sea before returning to Barbados.

Built by Kvaerner Masa shipyard in Finland as the Fascination in 1994, the ship was the fourth of the eight ship Fantasy class- the first generation of mega ships to be built for the company.

As new tonnage came on line over the following years, all eight of the ships were relegated to short, three to five night cruise voyages out of ports from Miami out to the west coast. Lacking the balconies and amenities of the new ships, it seemed to be good business to put these less amenity laden ships on shorter cruises.

So it is both surprising and quite nice to see this relatively more intimate, 2,000 passenger Carnival stalwart getting back out and doing some more intensive sailings. Recently, sister ship and first of class Carnival Fantasy has been used again on some seven night Bahamas itineraries out of Charleston, which seem to have been very popular.

For the UK market, these new Carnival Fascination cruises are being bundled in with flights, transfers, and a three night pre cruise hotel stay to provide a very attractive, eleven night cruise and stay option, mainly based on London departures.

I have fond memories of making a pair of four night runs out of Miami on the Fascination a decade or so ago, and found her to be a very snappy, well run ship that served up a great value short trip.

These new runs out of Barbados should prove to be a good option out of Barbados. As ever, stay tuned.

One of the original, pioneering Carnival mega ships is returning to longer, seven night Caribbean cruises.

One of the original, pioneering Carnival mega ships is returning to longer, seven night Caribbean cruises.

DUBROVNIK SET FOR PLATINUM CHIP CRUISE DATE IN SEPTEMBER

With it’s amazingly intact medieval old town and imposing city walls, Dubrovnik is one of the absolute must see ports on the eastern Mediterranean cruise circuit throughout the summer months.

And, while the port is always busy from May through to October, this coming September 8th will witness a platinum chip convocation of cruise ships at the stellar Croatian port- not so much in terms of numbers, but more in standards of sheer, jaw dropping top end luxury vessels that will arrive over the course of the day.

In no particular order, Crystal Cruises’ sublime Crystal Serenity (with yours truly aboard), the sumptuous Silver Spirit of Silversea, Hapag Lloyd Cruises’ peerless Europa 2, Azamara Club Cruises’ immaculate Azamara Journey and the amazing, five mast Royal Clipper of Star Clippers, will all arrive at the port. Between them, these five superb ships are expected to deposit a total of around 2700 guests into the venerable old sea city on the Adriatic.

Of the five, Crystal Serenity will dock in the harbour at Gruz, just a short, two kilometre ride from the old town. The other four ships will lay offshore and tender passengers in to the dock at the bottom of the old town, literally at the foot of the main street of Stradun.

This is a quick and easy process- I arrived in Dubrovnik this way aboard Silver Spirit a few years ago- and, bearing in mind the relatively small numbers involved, it should be pretty much of a hassle free process.

Ease of access to the city itself is generally good, a fortunate fact when you consider that Dubrovnik is now attracting close to a million cruise visitors each year.

While five ships in Dubrovnik is nothing new, the arrival of this particular quintet will be quite something. Of the five, only the Azamara Journey remains on my ‘to do’ list, so this will be like a unique reunion of old friends.

Not to mention, of course, fantastic photo opportunities for all the ship spotters out there.

Stay tuned for a full report, with photos, after the event.

Silver Spirit is part of an extraordinary, five ship luxury flotilla due to call at Dubrovnik on September 8th, 2015.

Silver Spirit is part of an extraordinary, five ship luxury flotilla due to call at Dubrovnik on September 8th, 2015.

NORWEGIAN ESCAPE TO BE FLOATED OUT TODAY

Around 1100 this morning, the brand new, 164, 600 ton Norwegian Escape is due to be cautiously floated out from the covered dock in  Meyer Werft shipyard in Papenburg, Germany.

The enormous ship is the first vessel of the so called Breakaway plus class, due to be rounded out with one more vessel in the same vein- the upcoming Norwegian Bliss.

Today’s carefully co-ordinated float out is a huge milestone in the life of a ship which is already close to completion, in actual fact. Next month, the enormous vessel will be moved a few miles down the River Ems for her final outfitting.

The first crew members will actually board the ship in the next few days, to begin familiarising themselves with the ship and her various operating systems and policies.

Following on from her sea trials, the ship will make a series of short, introductory overnight cruises, as well as holding ‘open house’ for various media events, before she leaves Southampton on her positioning voyage; a ten night cruise over to Miami, pencilled to sail on October 29th.

After initial celebrations and further media hosting on board, the Norwegian Escape will then begin a series of seven night, round trip sailings to the eastern Caribbean, calling at St. Thomas, St. Maartern, Tortola, and Nassau.

Norwegian Cruise Line has quite a lot to smile about lately....

Norwegian Cruise Line has quite a lot to smile about lately….

THE TITANIC- WHY DID IT TAKE SO LONG TO LOWER THE BOATS?

If any one thing is guaranteed to raise hackles in the whole, sorry saga of the Titanic, it is the subject of the loading and lowering of the boats.

Consider this; there were twenty boats in all. There were some fourteen regular, five ton lifeboats, and an additional pair of cutters, as well as four emergency boats on board. Their total capacity was something in the region of 1180 people. Yet only 705 would actually make it into those boats.

The Titanic hit the iceberg at 11.40 on the evening on Sunday, April 14th. But not until 12.45 on the morning of the 15th was the first boat- number 7- lowered from the sinking ship. With a capacity for some sixty five people, it left the Titanic carrying just twenty eight.

In many instances, the pattern was repeated. Boat number one, capacity forty, left carrying just twelve.

How could it happen? How could those boats- insufficient for around half of the 2200 plus people on board the sinking liner- leave with something like 475 empty seats? And how did it take so long to begin an evacuation that soon thereafter became almost ruthless in its desperate haste?

Some of the answers lie in the way that the Titanic was conceived and run in the first place.

When the writer Joseph Conrad derisively referred to Titanic as ‘a kind of maritime version of the Ritz’ not long before she set sail, he was closer to the truth than many then realised. The ship was staffed and run- in first class at least- like a top end, five star plus hotel.

There were literally hundreds of stewards, stewardesses, bell boys, chefs, musicians, postal clerks, and even a gardener on board the Titanic. They were there to deliver a level of service and catering excellence that would leave most land based hotels reeling in her wake.

But, for all of her finery and panache, the Titanic was not a hotel; she was a ship.

Of a total crew in excess of nine hundred, there were only something like sixty five trained seamen on the entire ship. That is to say, men who could be expected to carry out emergency duties in the unlikely event of an accident. Including, say, the loading, lowering and, indeed, the manning, of all the lifeboats.

Sixty five men out of a crew of nine hundred….

But the owners had thought of that. They had fitted the Titanic with a wonderful, new advanced system of launch gear for the boats. Known as the Welin davit system, it allowed for each lifeboat to be lowered smoothly to the sea by small, electrical engines. No need for a large amount of manual labour, and time saving to boot.

Of course, the boats could still be lowered manually, in the old fashioned way. This was all well and fine, if only one or two boats needed to be lowered that way.

But what happened if all of them needed to be lowered by hand, and quickly? That was the nightmare scenario that no-one could ever have envisioned. But that is exactly what came to pass on the night of April 14-15, 1912.

After the Titanic glanced against the iceberg at around 11.40, Captain Smith brought the ship to a standstill, and sent both his carpenter and Fourth Officer Boxhall down below to make an inspection tour of the damage. The carpenter’s report indicated that the ship was making water very quickly indeed.

Instead of ordering that the lifeboats be uncovered there and then, Smith himself then set off on a tour of inspection with Thomas Andrews, the chief builder of the ship. Their increasingly baleful progress through the damaged areas convinced both men that the Titanic was, indeed, going to sink. Here, valuable time was lost while the captain confirmed for himself what a perfectly qualified carpenter had already told him.

Now, Smith swung into action, and started swinging out the boats. He ordered that each boat be uncovered, filled with women and children, and then lowered away. On the port side, Second Officer Lightoller would be in charge. First Officer Bill Murdoch would officiate over on the starboard side.

Stunned, half asleep and disbelieving, the seaman of the Titanic began to gradually report to the boat deck. What followed was a black comedy, played out across the sloping decks of the sinking liner.

The normal, scheduled boat drill which should have taken place that Sunday morning had been cancelled at the last moment- by Captain Smith. There was nothing unusual in that back in 1912. Cancellations were as regular as Atlantic storms, just part of the increasingly cavalier mind set that had taken over even the best and most formerly prudent of ocean liner captains by the second decade of the new century.

Thus, the men had no actual boat assignments; everything they did that night was by instinct, rather than routine. And that work was far from easy.

Every single boat had to be stripped of it’s canvas cover- no small job in itself. Then they had to be swung out on brand new davits, lowered flush with the boat deck, filled with women and children, and then lowered a full seventy feet down the side of the Titanic.

Once afloat, they had to be disconnected from the ropes that had lowered them, and then rowed to the assumed safety of some nearby rescue ship. Each boat weighed five tons empty, and they would take the additional weight of sixty five frightened souls on board. In those days, each boat had to be rowed manually. There were no electric motors for the lifeboats.

You can see that all of this was a pretty tall order, in and of itself. It would have presented a huge challenge to a perfectly trained crew; even one that had grown used to working together over a long period of time.

But for the crew of the Titanic, untried and unused to working as a team, it was about to get a whole lot worse.

With the electrical supply available to the ship slowly failing, Chief Engineer Joseph Bell had to decide on priorities, and quickly at that. He decided to concentrate on keeping power going to the lights and the wireless room on board.

To facilitate that, he shut down the power to a whole raft of redundant, now pretty much superfluous power outlets. As the situation worsened, Bell and his heroic engineers ruthlessly culled every bit of machinery that they could in order to keep those other, more vital elements alive and in play.

One of the first casualties was the lifeboats’ winches. After all, the boats could be lowered by hand, couldn’t they?

So now, the small band of sixty five seamen set about the loading and lowering of something like twenty lifeboats. There were two groups of four boats on the forward deck, and another group of four located aft, on both port and starboard sides. The four collapsible boats were on top of the officer’s mess right forward, and were somehow supposed to be manhandled down and fitted into the forward davits, once those were empty. It was an utterly farcical placement.

Both Murdoch and Lightoller knew that the Titanic was sinking by the head. As her bow sagged down, the water would inevitably rise to the forward end of the boat deck first. Which made getting those first, forward boats away something of a necessity, if anyone was to be saved at all.

Now this woefully inadequate band of sixty five men embarked on a herculean task for which they had not been trained or prepared, in circumstances that could hardly have been more dire. They knew almost from the start that they were truly up against it.

The passengers, alas, did not.

While the all too alarmed passengers in third class were kept below by the series of locked gates mandated by US Customs to keep the classes segregated on ocean liners, their counterparts in first and second class were reluctant to even come out on deck, never mind enter the lifeboats. And, after all, why would they?

The only coherent thought that seemed to occupy Captain Smith’s mind that night was the need to prevent a panic. Simple maths informed his thinking on that front.

Some 2200 souls had been entrusted to his care, and he had lifeboats for less than 1200. The nearest responsive rescue ship was some four hours’ steaming away. And the Titanic had just over half that time to live.

Smith knew that over a thousand of his passengers and crew had nowhere to go but down. And he also knew that, as the ship sank further, awareness of their truly desperate plight could trigger an unstoppable panic, one that might result in even more fatalities.

There was no public address system available to the Titanic, so no general alarm was ever sounded. This largely explains why there was a lack of any initial panic; it was the end product of people’s largely complete lack of awareness of the true nature of the ship’s plight. And, up to a point, that fed into Smith’s hand.

So, instead of opening up the gates to third class, Smith tried to play an unwinnable poker game; passengers in first class were lulled with lively ragtime and other upbeat tunes in the warm, well lit interior of the ship. Outside, the night air was freezing, and the sound of the ship’s boilers, venting off steam through the whistles, was akin to a deeply unpleasant roar that made conversation- and, indeed, hearing any shouted orders- all but impossible. No, better by far to stay inside in the warm, comfortable surroundings that they had enjoyed so much over the last five days.

At the same time, the under resourced, over worked handful of officers and men on the boat deck were desperately trying to coerce passengers into the boats. But even the few passengers that did come out into the frigid night air were reluctant; wives did not want to leave their husbands. Extended families were reluctant to be parted.  And the idea of climbing into those little boats, there to endure a potentially terrifying, seventy foot drop down into the darkness to drift about on the sea, seemed ridiculous. After all, they would only have to come back up the same way in a little while. After all, wasn’t the Titanic unsinkable anyway?

So, in that first, desperate hour, we find a fatal cocktail of events taking shape; overworked seamen, unused to working together, carrying out backbreaking work- so backbreaking that many of them were sweating in the freezing cold air- working frantically to manhandle these large, five ton boats out over the ship’s side, only to find that the handful of passengers that were about were extremely reluctant to enter them. Combined with an understandable desire to get those boats most threatened by the rising water away first, it is little wonder that things went to pieces.

Urgent, often haphazard work by a desperate crew was met with the utter complacency of many passengers in first and even second class that night, at least in that first hour. The result was the loss of almost five hundred more lives than were necessary; a shocking indictment. On the Titanic, almost everything possible was done for the comfort and leisure of the passengers, and almost nothing at all for their safety.

And, inevitably, as the tilt of the deck grew greater, the fear and panic did spread like sleeping sickness right through the foundering ship. When a wave of terrified third class passengers did come pouring up from down below, they had to be physically pushed back in some cases. For sure, shots were fired in the air.

For by now the boat deck was crowded, but the boats were mostly gone. And, as a few able seamen were sent away in each successive boat, so the numbers available to launch those last boats dwindled, even as their work load grew ever greater and more desperate.

What could they have thought themselves, as they worked like manic automatons to load and lower those boats, knowing full well that they had scant chance of finding a place in one for themselves?

Perhaps the one, true mercy accorded to those men is that they could at least lose themselves in a job of work. But those brave men would never be lauded like Wallace Hartley and his immortal musicians, or be showered with the kind of praise rightly directed at the likes of the wireless operators, the stewardesses, or even the hapless Captain Smith himself.

Complacency was the chief catalyst for this ocean going catastrophe without an equal. People will continue to cite the freakish weather conditions of that incredible night as a prime contributor to what followed, and that may well be so. The iceberg wasn’t seen until it was far too late.

But, in truth, nothing was a greater danger to the huddled masses on the Titanic than the ingrained mind set and mentality of those that conceived, commissioned, and then sailed her. That collision of overconfidence and nature was fatally compounded by a kind of complacent, Olympian blind faith in technology; one that eventually found its comeuppance on that cold April night back in 1912.

Titanic sinking. April 14-15, 1912.

Titanic sinking. April 14-15, 1912.

THE TITANIC- QUESTIONS I’D LIKE TO ASK…..

When RMS Titanic plunged beneath the starlit Atlantic on the early morning of April 15th, 1912, she left more than fifteen hundred souls behind her, thrashing and gasping desperately for their lives in the freezing cold water.

She also left a whole raft of unanswered questions behind her. Questions that need answers now as much as they did back then. And, because of the shocking roster of lives lost among the senior staff on board, they are answers that we will never, ever get.

And, of course, that is part of her appalling, compelling mystique; what we actually know is just the tip of the iceberg- pun wholly intentional. But the real conundrum is in what lies beneath.

If some cosmic force could somehow grant me the means, what I would really like to know is what was said between three key players in the tragedy during those last few hours, as the Titanic sagged helplessly into the abyss. The slowly unfolding tragedy would have brought all three to within a close, enforced proximity during those last, ghastly hours.

Those three men were Edward Smith, the captain; J. Bruce Ismay, the owner, and Thomas Andrews, the chief architect for both the Titanic and her almost identical sister ship, the Olympic. Andrews had taken over this role from Alexander Carlisle to be fair, but his input into the design and construction of both ships was still pivotal.

Two of these men would perish in the disaster; a third would survive. For reasons of his own, he would prove to be somewhat less than forthcoming on any conversations he may have had with the other two men. But, in truth, he was never pressed by the largely deferential courts of inquiry held into the sinking on both sides of the Atlantic.

Conjecture on the subject is fascinating, but in the absence of definitive answers, conjecture is all it will ever be. Still, let us look at what all three men did know for certain, not long after midnight on Sunday, April 14th, 1912;

1) They knew that the Titanic was going to sink within three hours, and that the nearest responsive rescue ship was more than four hours’ steaming time away.

2) They knew that there were lifeboats for just 1180 of the 2200 plus passengers and crew on board.

3) They knew that the water temperature was well below freezing, and that no one could be expected to survive immersion in it for more than a few minutes.

And, the inescapable logic to be deduced from those three facts was that at least a thousand people were going to die before even a slight chance of rescue could reach them.

Of course, most of this shortfall hinges on the lifeboat capacity. The British Board of Trade regulations required that the Titanic carry only sixteen lifeboats. The White Star Line had provided her with twenty in all.

As the overall architect, Thomas Andrews had specified no less than forty-eight lifeboats each for the Olympic and Titanic. He even installed a special kind of lifeboat launching gear, called the Welin davit system, that was capable of launching three boats in succession from the same spot.

But Andrews was over ruled. By Bruce Ismay no less, in his capacity as managing director of the White Star Line.

Why? Each of those five ton lifeboats would have cost relatively little to build. And, because of the revolutionary Welin system, those twenty eight extra boats would have taken up no more floor space on the boat deck.

It has been argued in recent years that shipping line owners like Ismay saw lifeboats simply as rescue ferries, to be used to evacuate a ship in the event of fire or collision. That he did not conceive that they would actually have to be used as fully fledged survival craft in their own right.

Ismay’s supposed thinking was based on the experience of losing another, much smaller White Star liner, the Republic, back in 1909.

The Republic had been rammed in thick fog, off the coast of Nantucket, by a much smaller Italian immigrant ship, the Florida. The Republic immediately sent out a distress call as she began to sink very slowly but surely.

Luckily, the Republic was very close to land; right near the spot where most ocean liners begin their final run in to New York. As a result, she was soon surrounded by a small, rapidly growing rescue fleet, and  in quite short order.

The boats on the Republic were then used to simply ferry all of her passengers and crew over to the ships standing nearby, waiting to pick them up. Thus, every life on board was saved after the initial collision. It was, indeed, a text book operation, and it gained world wide attention at the time.

But Ismay either drew the wrong conclusions from the loss of the Republic, or simply went into denial. Either way, it proved fatal to the huddled throng on the sloping boat deck of the Titanic, just over three years later.

For Titanic was not near any land; she was four hundred miles out in the Atlantic. All the ships in the general vicinity that did answer her desperate wireless messages were too far distant to respond in time. And, from the outset, the Titanic was far more seriously wounded than the Republic had ever been. So Ismay’s argument that lifeboats were only necessary as short distance ferries was turned completely on its head, and with disastrous consequences.

The pathetic handful of lifeboats on board the Titanic would all have to serve as fully fledged survival craft, and quite possibly for hours on end. What was worse was that there was room in those boats for less than half the people on board.

Ismay knew that. And so did both Captain Smith and Thomas Andrews.

I will always wonder if Ismay used the Republic near escape as an excuse not to provide more boats- the same boats that the experienced, hugely dedicated Thomas Andrews clearly did feel were necessary. What could his motivation have been in such a case?

I don’t think it was necessarily about the boats per se, but rather, accommodating the larger extra numbers of crewmen that would have been needed to lower and man them properly. Even on ships as huge as Olympic and Titanic, space was not infinite. Providing more crew for more boats would have meant creating extra cabins for them. And that could only be done at the expense of giving something else up- like valuable cargo space, for instance.

Of course, this larger crew would also have resulted in a larger wage bill. Did Ismay use his fatuous optimism over the Republic rescue as a shield to cover his reluctance to increase the total number of boats and crew, simply as a cost saving expedient?

I’d love to know what Thomas Andrews had to say about it on the night of April 14th-15th, 1912. Because if anyone was entitled to feel aggrieved with Ismay, it was surely him.

As it was, the evacuation of the sinking ship was very badly botched. Only 705 people were saved in boats capable of carrying 1180- an appalling shortfall of some 475 souls.

This, largely, can be laid at the door of the popular, hugely experienced Captain Edward Smith. He ordered that the boats be swung out, and filled with ‘women and children first’ before being lowered.

On the port and starboard sides of the sinking liner, that same order was interpreted very differently by the respective supervising officers. On the starboard side, First Officer Murdoch read it as ‘women and children first’, and then subsequently allowed men into the boats when no more ladies were in evidence.

On the port side, Second Officer Lightoller read it as ‘women and children only’- end of. No men at all. Even when there were just twenty-seven souls aboard a lifeboat built to hold seventy people.

This resulted in something like three quarters of those saved leaving in the starboard side boats. Andrews, his world already crumbling around him, was struck numb with horror when he realised that Lightoller was lowering boats at nothing like their full rated capacity.

According to his own account, Lightoller told Andrews that he was worried about filling the boats at deck level, in case the full weight load of seventy people caused them to buckle under the strain. An incredulous Andrews told Lightoller that two of the boats had been tested in Belfast, fully loaded, and that there had been no problems at all. After this, Lightoller did step up the number of people in each successive boat that he lowered.

Andrews, of course, was by this time unable to comment.

That said, one man could have cut straight through this appalling dichotomy; where your actual chances of survival were much better, or worse, depending on which side of the deck you happened to be standing on. That man was Captain Edward J. Smith.

Smith could- and should- have overruled his feisty second officer. But he did not.

Again, why?

Ever since the collision, no one had been more acutely aware than Smith of how desperate the situation was. He was the first to see any wireless messages coming through to the sinking ship .He knew all too well that the lifeboat capacity was woefully insufficient. And, just like Andrews, he knew exactly who was responsible for that shortfall.

No matter how you view his actions leading up to the actual collision, it is impossible not to feel some sympathy for Smith; he knew that at least a thousand people were going to die. And he knew that, as the captain of the Titanic, the ultimate responsibility for that loss would be laid to his charge, and not that of Bruce Ismay. If he felt that to be both unjust and inevitable, then who can blame him?

So, what was said between captain and owner? They were in very close proximity for at least the first fifty minutes or so after the collision. Again, Ismay was not forthcoming on the subject. Again, Smith was unavailable to provide any kind of possible counter narrative.

For sure, many of the deck officers on the Titanic would have been privy to any exchanges between those two men. But most of them went down with the ship. There may have been some ‘in the know’- and Lightoller comes to mind- but he maintained a discreet silence. The Second Officer retained an extraordinary devotion to his late captain right up to the last days of his own, quite extraordinary life.

Quite simply, Smith seems to have quietly imploded, going to pieces even as the cold ocean devoured the innards of his ship. The shock of inevitable disaster, coupled with that massive, unavoidable loss of life, probably overwhelmed him. Almost everything was left to the isolated efforts of his deck officers- Wilde, Murdoch, Lightoller, Lowe and Moody- in a nightmare situation that completely tore up the rule book.

This handful of essentially leaderless, desperately over worked men were constantly trying to improvise short term solutions for a situation that grew increasingly desperate with each new minute. If they were over stressed and made some impulsive mistakes, it is hardly to be wondered at under the circumstances.

But it is Thomas Andrews that I feel truly sorry for. For his story is nothing short of heart breaking.

I would love to sit down and ask him how he felt, as the ship he had laboured to bring to life over three long years, died slowly beneath his feet. How he felt about Bruce Ismay leaving the ship in one of the last lifeboats (if, indeed, he knew at all). Knowing that his recommendations about lifeboats had been ignored by the same owner that left in one of the few boats on board, while at least a thousand people were about to die as a result- that would have broken most men.

I cannot get them out of my head even now. The thought of Smith, stunned and ruined, watching helplessly as the water rose slowly but unstoppably towards him, about to obliterate both his life, and the enviable track record he had built up among the travelling public over some thirty-eight long years. Andrews, still trying desperately to save others even at the end, with no intention of ever doing anything to help himself. And yes, even Ismay, shivering in a little wooden lifeboat as his credibility sank with the dying leviathan that he could not bring himself to look at as she plunged under that stark, starlit ocean.

I would love to have been party to those anguished exchanges between these three, central figures as their worlds fell apart all around them. Because it is their story that is the kernel, the very epicentre, of the entire, needless tragedy of the Titanic. No one knew the truth in the way that they did.

All we have instead are questions that can never, ever be answered.

Final twilight of the Titanic. As she races into the sunset and the passengers savour fine food and wine, the iceberg lies in wait...

Final twilight of the Titanic. As she races into the sunset and the passengers savour fine food and wine, the iceberg lies in wait…

THE CONTINUED RISE OF COLD WEATHER CRUISING….

One of the things that continues to fascinate me in terms of cruising’s future is the continual, on going rise in popularity of winter time voyages to cold weather destinations, such as northern Norway, and even some of the banner ports in Scandinavia. In the last decade, it’s a type of cruising that has assumed a momentum all of it’s very own.

For a permanent resident of the north east of England, the very idea of winter time cruising inevitably leads me- and, I suspect, most other people- to look at balmy, warm weather options such as the Caribbean, the Canaries, and even the Far East. After all, if God had meant me to spend winter embraced by cold, chilly days and nights, then why put two international airports within forty miles of my front door? The logic seemed inescapable.

Plus, add in the fun in the sun vibe of the Caribbean, and the fact that our winter season is actually the best time to see the fabled treasures and sights of the Far East, and it seemed even more of a no brainer. I have no problem with winter as such. It’s just that I prefer to enjoy it in a hammock. In thirty degree sunshine.

On a beach. With a Daiquiri. ‘Make winter history’ became my mantra.

But over the past few years, some intriguing new options have crept in onto my radar. And, shock horror, some of them involve cruising to colder- far colder- climes, in the depths of winter.

I think it was P&O Cruises that first tried what seemed to me to be a hugely ambitious, winter cruise to some of the Baltic capitals, as a round trip from Southampton. In an industry where repetition and continuity are so often the buzz words, just the idea of a winter Baltic cruise seemed incredibly audacious, and at least worthy of further investigation.

As a long time fan of such cities as Copenhagen and Oslo, I have to admit that I would be curious to see them in winter. And this new cruise promised overnight stays in both- alluring in its own right. A great chance to really get into and around all the fairy tale Christmas markets, and also to sample some of the local nightlife ashore. Would I be prepared to eschew my normal, sunnier winter sojourns for such a wildly eclectic itinerary?

Not straight away. But I was beginning to wonder…

And then came the advent of winter cruising to northern Norway. Offered as a round trip from various UK ports by both Cruise and Maritime Voyages and Fred. Olsen, these fourteen night winter odysseys to view the shimmering, ethereal skyscapes served up by the magical Northern Lights, really did make a very deep impression on me.

So I began to look at what I perceived might actually work against each option. Of course, the bone chilling cold would preclude using the outdoor pools and hot tubs. And a buffet lunch in the sun was looking highly unlikely. If I went for either of these cruises, I would have to consider my expectations of the actual shipboard experience in a very different light.

But, a few years down the line, and I actually think I could really do one of these trips, and probably enjoy it immensely. And the winter time Baltic cruises have grown in popularity to the extent that even Cunard is now occasionally offering them.

What really won me over is the wonderful brochures, usually produced by Norwegian Coastal Voyages, for their year round, Huritgruten adventures that sail the entire length of Norway, year round.

These articulate the sheer beauty and diversity that each season brings to Norway with such depth, eloquence and inclusivity that I would certainly now put at least one such, short cruise on my prospective calendar. And I think that this new, very real stream of actual information in helping to drive cold weather cruising as a whole.

Like many people, I was something of an ignoramus as to what was actually ‘out there’ on such winter voyages. I knew that cold days and nights were definitely out there at a time when I could be chilling- pun wholly intentional- on some surf kissed Caribbean beach.

But now I know how wonderful, magnetic and alluring the Northern Lights can be. I can sense the sheer, epic adventure of going dog sledding across a sea of fresh, glistening snow under a blanket of gossamer pale Arctic twilight.

I can appreciate how warm pools of light on snow kissed cobble stones might give me a different, delightful take on ‘wonderful’ Copenhagen, or how a glass of warm, spicy wine in a Hamburg bier keller might be the perfect end to a day of spectacular, very different Christmas shopping along the festive expanse of the Alster.

I get how wonderful the tall, slender spires of Stockholm would appear, even through a veil of icy mist. And I can envisage the sheer, splendid peace of sailing between jagged, snow shrouded ravines deep within a Norwegian fjord, while reindeer gaze idly at our ship as she passes by on what looks like a sheet of slowly cracking ice.

I can appreciate how fresh and vital the air would feel, cold or not. And I now get that those winter time skies can provide me with panoramas every bit as mesmerising as anything that I have seen in Asia, or out in the South Pacific.

In short, good travel copy and advertising really does work. Though pretty well travelled, I was obviously in need of education. And now that I have had the education, I have thrown off at least some of my reserve.

And there is also something of the desire to get a bit ‘off the beaten track’ that is fuelling this nascent curiosity of mine. I suspect that the same also holds true for many other people, too.

So, winter cruising in colder climes really is something that I would consider now. I have been lured out of my indolent, sunny torpor with the notion of doing something that looks fresh, vital, and inherently rewarding in a totally different kind of way.

Mind you, that’s not a complete, one hundred per cent capitulation. Oh, no.

I still expect to find my personal, carefully hidden hammock waiting for me when I rock up on Cane Garden Beach in Tortola this year. And when I get there, the only ice I expect to see is in my first Margarita.

I’m sure you get the picture. But it takes more than one picture to make an art gallery. And travel, if it is anything at all, is surely a kind of art form.

You pick the colours. And you decide on the canvas you paint your impressions on. For sure, there are many different options out there.

Cherish them all.

The might of Kjollfossen, in Norway. Imagine it frozen over in winter time....

The might of Kjollfossen, in Norway. Imagine it frozen over in winter time….