Diary of a Some-Time Cruisaholic and Her Cruise Shy Husband

(Part 3. Going Below the Surface on the Westerdam)

If you’ve read J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, you’ll remember how kid-pleasing food and pumpkin juice appeared directly on the tables in the dining hall at Hogwarts. You’ll also remember the elves working hard below the surface to make it all happen. Throughout our 13 day cruise on Holland America Westerdam, Simon, Otto and I witnessed comparable feats, and had the pleasure of speaking with a few of the key “elves” in order to learn how they did it.

Every day brought at least one delightful surprise, from the smooth sun drenched crossing from Cadiz to Fort Lauderdale to the unexpected find of Indian fare in the Asian section of the Lido Deck lunch buffet. But some of the most valuable surprises came via our interactions with some of the officers. We gained a deep respect for their dedication, knowledge, skills and positive approach to their responsibilities. Their hard work, and that of everyone on the ship, made it possible for over 1,600 passengers to relax and enjoy. This is why I’ve chosen to dedicate this post to the men and women of the Westerdam, who made our Atlantic crossing magical in so many ways.

Coffee and Comprehension

Among the most effective ways in which the officers of the Westerdam kept lines of communication open between crew and passengers were the informal morning Coffee Chats while the ship was at sea. At each chat, one or more officers explained what they did aboard the Westerdam, then answered questions posed by coffee-infused passengers.

Simon and I attended several of these chats, and came away with insights and answers to questions that enhanced our understanding of what went on while we were socializing, relaxing and enjoying our time at sea. Here is just a small sampling of what we learned during Coffee Chats on the Westerdam.


Second Officer, Matt, who originated from New Zealand, gave a presentation on navigation, which Simon attended without his directionally challenged wife.

One of the Chart Plotters Illustrating the Proposed route of the Westerdam as Described by Second Officer Matt (©simon@MyEclecticImages.com)

One of the Chart Plotters Illustrating the Proposed route of the Westerdam as Described by Second Officer Matt (©simon@MyEclecticImages.com)

Matt has been with the Westerdam over five years, and his duties include Senior Watch Keeper, Bridge Officer and trainer in Health, Environment, Security and Safety (HESS)

I met Matt when he facilitated some fascinating star gazing late one evening.

Women of Westerdam

At this chat, three of Westerdam’s female officers gave us insights on their positions, as well as some of the challenges they encountered:

  • Meredith, is Manager of Onboard Marketing (MOM). She is responsible for the shops, spa and casino.
  • Maya, Guest Relations Manager, was already familiar to us, as she helped coordinate our interview schedule with some of the other officers.
  • Linda is the Human Resources Manager. “I take care of the crew that takes care of you,” she said.

Meredith and Maja Describing Their Respective Roles as Officers on the Westerdam (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Meredith and Maja Describing Their Respective Roles as Officers on the Westerdam (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

I asked about protections for female crew members against harassment, and learned all crew members are required to undergo extensive training. Westerdam’s crew consists of individuals from 37 countries and nearly as many different cultures, so the need for this training goes far beyond respecting the women.

All ships are covered by the Maritime Labor Convention. Crew members have several avenues for reporting problems and getting support

Holland America shows zero tolerance for violence aboard its ships, and takes harassment complaints seriously. “We are protected,” Linda reassured me and my fellow mother hens.

The cruise line does show flexibility when it comes to the wellbeing of its crew. Normally these women work on six month contracts, but Maja is able to have three months on and three off, because she has a husband and toddler in Bali.

Missing family is the biggest challenge faced by these women. However, they truly love their jobs, and that enthusiasm is reflected in the friendly, yet professional way in which they perform them.

Environmental Officer Joe Parks

Joe is the only environmental officer employed by Holland America. “I’m a retired Seattle police Sargent,” he said, “I know how to enforce things.” He functions as the ship’s Compliance Officer, examining all of Westerdam’s waste streams.

In his capacity of environmental guru, Joe deals with complex international and local rules and regulations, making sure everything that goes on the ship comes off. He has to measure, weigh, document and account for all waste generated during a cruise.

Holland America and Carnival Corporation set the environmental bar at the highest level. Here are a few ways in which our fragile environment is taken into consideration:

  • Exhaust cleaning systems (ECS), Without which the ships would be putting 98 percent noxious material into the air. With ECS, three per cent.
  • Food scraps are compressed, diluted and discharged below the water line with no harm to marine life
  • Human waste (black water) combined with gray water (from sinks and showers) can be treated and filtered until it is potable. This water is not given back to the passengers. It’s discharged.
  • Other waste is incinerated if possible. What won’t burn is off-loaded at ports.
  • Recycled materials are sold and the money is put into a fund for crew entertainment
  • Engine exhaust is used to heat water onboard.
  • Desalinized water is used for drinking and tap water
  • A slippery coating is applied to ships’ bottoms to help reduce friction.
  • Recently, trays were removed from buffet areas, which resulted in a saving of 10,000 gallons of water per week previously needed to wash them. Also, guests ate less and subsequently produced less waste.

Colin’s Secret Sauce for Happy Passengers

Since cruise ships are commonly referred to as floating hotels, it only makes sense they hire hotel directors to keep the passengers happy. On the Westerdam, the Hotel Director is Colin Jacob, and if there was ever a perfect person for the job, he’s it. With his warm, firm handshake, deep accented voice and upbeat approach to everything, it’s easy to see why both passengers and crew members are always smiling.

Hotel Director Colin Jacob Aboard the Westerdam (©simon@MyEclecticImages.com)

Hotel Director Colin Jacob Aboard the Westerdam (©simon@MyEclecticImages.com)

Colin began working aboard the Westerdam in August, 2017. Throughout his career in hotel management on land, he understood the importance of consistency and passion for the job, and brought this vital understanding to his current position. It will come in handy, because Colin is responsible for the entire guest experience aboard the Westerdam. He is also responsible for the crew.

Signs on Colin Jacob\

Signs on Colin Jacob\’s Desk that Seem to Reflect His Attitudes (©simon@MyEclecticImages.com)

Colin’s Mother lives in South India, and his father hails from Mauritius in Southern Africa. His father, a lieutenant general, wanted his son to follow in his footsteps in the army, but Colin yearned to see the world and interact with “its diverse population. The army wasn’t my cup of tea,” Colin confessed.

His father objected to his son’s career aspirations, but eventually relented. So Colin was free to travel to Switzerland and earn a bachelors degree in Hotel Management. He then went on to complete his MBA online.

After five years with Sheraton, Colin moved on to work in a number of hotels all over the Middle East and Australia. He eventually found his sea legs with Royal Caribbean. then spent six years with Carnival, before landing a job with Holland America.

Colin was at sea to stay. “The difference between working in a hotel and a cruise ship,” he explained, “is that on a cruise ship, every day is a new day, and you don’t know what’s coming your way. In a hotel, you always know what’s happening today and tomorrow.” He went on to say that “You only see hotel guests briefly, if at all, but on a cruise ship you get to know them, and learn a lot from them. You deal with things you’ve never dealt with before, and that makes you stronger. You build personal relationships, and get to travel the world. That’s what makes it exciting.”

“There’s no denying that there times of frustration and sadness.” But Colin’s philosophy of being happy and moving through sadness while learning from it, keeps him firmly on his path.

In Colin’s world, “Guest Services is not a department, it’s an attitude”. He uses logistics, consistency and his passenger-centered approach to keep everything running smoothly

Colin is on call 24-7, but what makes him the perfect person for the position is that he loves to meet people and loves his job. The kind of job where you absolutely can’t fake it.

The Doc Away from Dock

Nobody wants to become ill or incur an injury on a cruise ship. Unfortunately, the worst can sometimes happen while you’re having the best time of your life. Fortunately, cruise ships like the Westerdam have a highly trained medical staff onboard to handle every kind of medical emergency.

Chatting with Dr. Deon Venter on the Westerdam (©simon@MyEclecticImages.com)

Chatting with Dr. Deon Venter on the Westerdam (©simon@MyEclecticImages.com)

Dr. Deon Venter heads up the medical department aboard the Westerdam, which consists of two physicians and three nurses who work on a rotation. This means someone is always available to see to the medical needs of both passengers and crew.

Deon was born and raised in a small fishing village south of Cape Town, South Africa. He worked as a General Practitioner for 15 years with an interest in emergency care. While on a European vacation with his family, he was driving a rental car in Genoa, when he saw a big white Princess cruise ship. He said to his wife, “Wouldn’t it be nice to work on a ship like that?” With this idea implanted in his brain, Deon responded to a Carnival Corporation recruitment flyer for medical personnel, and was soon hired as a junior doctor. And after only two years, Deon was promoted to Senior Doctor.

Most of his sea time was spent aboard Princess cruise ships, but he is currently nearing the end of his second contract with Holland America. He is occasionally joined by his wife. Aboard ship, doctors are officers, and Colin feels the cruise line is very good to them.

Holland America strives for consistency in onboard medical facilities. This insures seamless transfers of medical personnel from ship to ship.

The Westerdam’s medical facility is located near the bottom of the ship for stability. It consists of a reception area where passengers can sign-in, two consulting rooms, two beds, one bed for short stays (a couple of hours), plus medical cabins nearby. There the medical staff treat insect bites, cuts, flu and respiratory symptoms, as well as stomach bugs. The staff is also trained to handle serious situations such as heart attacks and strokes. At this point, however, a decision must be made as to whether to continue treatment onboard or to evacuate the patient via ship diversion or helicopter to a better equipped facility onshore.

“Maritime medicine has really evolved,” Deon observed. “It’s become a very strong sub-speciality. You need specific experience and skill sets: emergency work, psychological work, general practice work, public health work.” X-ray and other essential equipment, as well as medications are available. Basic surgery can also be performed, if necessary. The medical staff has 24-hour access to consultation with experts onshore.

Meet Captain Mark Rowden

Every good ship needs a good captain, and the Westerdam has been blessed with the leadership and experience of Captain Mark Rowden. On the third morning of our Atlantic crossing, he graciously took time out of his busy day to answer questions, and tell us about his life at sea.

Captain Mark Rowden of the Westerdam (©simon@MyEclecticImages.com)

Captain Mark Rowden of the Westerdam (©simon@MyEclecticImages.com)

Born and raised in a small town in Yorkshire England, Capt. Mark came from a seafaring family. His father and brother worked on ships, and his nephew is a marine engineer.

He began his career as a deck hand on a cargo ship in 1987. After three years he went into training to become an officer and was hired as third officer on a freighter. In 1992, Capt. Mark took a job with Chevron in San Francisco, working on oil tankers for about six years. While in the Mediterranean and Caribbean, the sight of so many majestic cruise ships made him decide this was where he wanted to be.

Capt. Mark’s career with Holland America began when he was hired as Second Officer aboard the Veindam in 1998, and was promoted to staff captain seven months later.

In 2006, Capt. Mark found himself on the building team of the Westerdam. So when he returned in 2015 to serve as her captain, it was an honor. After all, she was his baby

His experience as a sailor in the lowest ranks helps Capt. Mark understand his crew. “I try and connect with the junior officers and people in the galley and talk to them,” he explained. Capt. Mark’s empathy with his crew is one of the aspects of his personality that makes him a superior leader. Soft spoken and calm, he carries himself with a combination of dignity, confidence and warmth. “I do team building things like play cards and watch movies,” he said. “These simple things help build trust”.

Capt. Mark assigns his senior officers on a rotation to bring the ship in and out of ports most of the time, under his supervision. He sees this kind of hands-on experience as preparation for the future when they’re in charge.

You can often find Capt. Mark in the dining room, in the bars and other public areas. He enjoys interacting with the passengers for whose safety he is responsible. And his friendly demeanor is genuine.

Typically, when the Westerdam is at sea, Capt. Mark begins his day at 8:00 AM doing what most of us do: email. He then gets up and starts walking. “You can sit behind the computer sending emails to the person next door,” he said, “but I prefer to walk around and talk to the officers.” A 10:00 AM coffee meeting to discuss safety and other issues, and the rest of his day is taken up with inspections of areas such as the engine room, looking at operations, cleanliness and the important components of a well-run ship.

When the Westerdam is sailing from port to port. Capt. Mark gets up at 5:00 AM for docking, then works all day, until it’s time to take the ship out.

On the Westerdam’s Bridge

When you ask a ship’s captain if you could come up and take a look at the bridge, and he says, “yes,” there’s nothing like it in the world. We were offered that privilege by Capt. Mark, and we didn’t hesitate.

We found the Westerdam’s Bridge much larger than we had expected. After all, we’re used to the cockpit of a 32 foot sailboat.

Capt. Mark’s description of the bridge made it easy to visualize what was where. Directly in front of me, at the bow, were radar screens, the navigation system and electronic charts. To the left was communications and on the right, stability and officers’ chairs. Behind me stood the safety center with its detection and monitoring systems. Another surprise was that the wheel was the size of a dinner plate.

The Helm on the Bridge of the Westerdam (©simon@MyEclecticImages.com)

The Helm on the Bridge of the Westerdam (©simon@MyEclecticImages.com)

Large windows on three sides gave an excellent view of what was happening on the vast expanse of ocean surrounding the ship, which at that time was nothing. On each side of the bridge were the fly bridges that protrude from the sides of the ship and have a section of solid glass floor, enabling the crew to look directly down to the water. Otto didn’t seem inclined to step out on it, and I saw no need to push the issue.

Looking Aft from the Starboard Fly Bridge of the Westerdam with a Clear Line of Sight Down the Entire Length of the Ship (©simon@MyEclecticImages.com)

Looking Aft from the Starboard Fly Bridge of the Westerdam with a Clear Line of Sight Down the Entire Length of the Ship (©simon@MyEclecticImages.com)

“Everything is computerized and saves a lot of paperwork,” Capt. Mark noted. Logs are completely electronic and there are no paper charts in daily use.

The Westerdam still keeps a sextant for worst case scenarios. “If the worst happens,” he said, “I can still get you home.”

History, Humor and Making Time Fly

While at sea during the Westerdam’s Atlantic crossing, we were treated to a special presentation on the Main Stage by Captain Albert Schoonerbeek, Traveling Master – training young officers onsite – and historian for Holland America Line. All three levels of seating were packed, as Capt. Albert began a one-and-three-quarter hour voyage through time from Holland America’s beginnings to the present. If you think this kind of historical presentation sounds dry and boring, think again. Capt. Albert had us bouncing between rapped attention and spontaneous laughter. When he was done, it seemed as if only a short period of time had passed.

Talking with Captain Albert Schoonerbeek Aboard the Westerdam (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Talking with Captain Albert Schoonerbeek Aboard the Westerdam (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Capt. Albert joined Holland America in 1986, and by the time he was tapped to train new officers, he had served as captain on several of the line’s ships. But his love affair with the line goes back to his childhood, when he found a postcard showing a Holland America ship from 1936. From that moment, his destiny was sealed.

The Rotterdam - the First Ship of Holland America (Courtesy of Captain Albert Schoonerbeek and the Holland America Line)

The Rotterdam – the First Ship of Holland America (Courtesy of Captain Albert Schoonerbeek and the Holland America Line)

Holland America turns 145 in 2018, but in 1873, she barely had two ships to rub together: the Rotterdam and the Maas. But from these two tiny ships, whose passengers consisted primarily of immigrants leaving through the port of Rotterdam to begin a new life across the Atlantic, Holland America grew into the luxurious cruise line it is today.

Emigrants Packed on the Forward Deck of the s/s Noordam in 1878 (Courtesy of Captain Albert Schoonerbeek and the Holland America Line)

Emigrants Packed on the Forward Deck of the s/s Noordam in 1878 (Courtesy of Captain Albert Schoonerbeek and the Holland America Line)

Through his photos and stories, Capt. Albert carried us through Holland America’s humble beginnings, her growth in number and size of ships, how her ships faired through the Spanish American and two World Wars, her transition from a cargo ship and passenger ship line to running cruise ships exclusively and finally, the Holland America of today. He described how first class passengers on early 20th century ships sat in the dining room in swivel chairs designed to keep them wedged in against a rimmed table, because stabilizers didn’t come into use until 1951. He told of how the ships’ funnels were painted orange during the Spanish American War to keep from becoming targets in a conflict in which Holland had no part. And so the stories went on and on in a chronological tale we hoped wouldn’t end too soon. But it did, and the spell was broken. But if you ever have the opportunity to listen to Capt. Albert present the history of Holland America, don’t hesitate to take a seat and let yourself be informed and entertained.

The Statendam and Ryndam in the Panama Canal (Courtesy of Captain Albert Schoonerbeek and the Holland America Line)

The Statendam and Ryndam in the Panama Canal (Courtesy of Captain Albert Schoonerbeek and the Holland America Line)

Guest Services

Amidship on level 1 of the Westerdam sat the Guest Services desk. Between losing my iPhone, locking ourselves out of our cabin, dozens of questions and other situations, the smiling young ladies at the desk knew us well before the end of our second day. There was probably a limit to what these women could do, but I don’t know what that was.

Westerdam's Guest Services - Only Seen as Quiet as This Late at Night (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Westerdam’s Guest Services – Only Seen as Quiet as This Late at Night (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Simon, Otto and I owe the kind folks behind the Guest Services desk a special debt of gratitude for the way in which they assisted us with our minor mishaps. We watched them interact with other passengers, and realized that we weren’t at all special. In their eyes, everyone was.

Tips for Smooth Sailing

Below are some tips gleaned from conversations and Coffee Chats with Westerdam officers, as well as from our own experiences:

  • Always carry travel insurance. Even a minor injury while cruising can set you back a pretty penny.
  • Check with your doctor, and if recommended, get a flu shot before sailing.
  • Carry a list of your prescriptions, along with their directions, as well as your most recent ECG. Keep this information in your purse or pocket at all times.
  • Hand sanitizer dispensers are mounted on walls throughout the ship. Use them in addition to frequent hand-washing to inhibit the spread of pesky viruses.
  • Help protect the environment by making sure the lights in your cabin are off, your chargers are unplugged and water taps are completely turned off. Also, refrain from throwing anything – including your spouse – overboard.
  • Hoping to purchase a chef’s knife, hunting knife, diving knife, or any sharp instrument as a gift or souvenir? Be aware that it will be confiscated and bonded until after you leave the ship at your final destination, at which time it will be returned to you.
  • If you are pregnant, and have passed your 24th week, be aware that you may not be permitted to board. Always check with your physician and the cruise line before booking.
  • Public health concerns such as stomach and respiratory illnesses may also be cause for denial to board.
  • Although cruise ships carry oxygen, wheelchairs and walkers, these are for developing medical situations onboard. Passengers are responsible for bringing their own oxygen, wheelchairs, walkers and guide dogs
  • Make sure your key card is with you at all times. If you don’t, you risk locking yourself out of your cabin. And I should know.
  • Trying to compensate for all the fabulous food in which you’ve been indulging? Three turns around the Promenade Deck of the Westerdam equals one mile. And there’s always the gym.

Have you ever gone behind the scenes and learned how complicated making something look easy can be? We hope you’ll share your experience in the comments.

Disclaimer: We would like to thank Holland America for generously offering us complimentary internet access. However, all opinions, as always, are entirely my own.

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