Behind the Scenes on a Cruise Ship
Get a sneak peek at the inner workings of an ocean liner
By Marks HintonWould you like to take a behind-the-scenes tour to see how a cruise ship operates?" asked Environmental Officer Kees Kant of the Maasdam from Holland America Line.
"Is that possible?" I asked in return.
"If you want to go, Capt. Draper and I have arranged it."
"Just say when," I responded with enthusiasm.
In more innocent times, a tour of the nonpublic areas of cruise ships was easily arranged for almost anyone who expressed an interest. But Sept. 11, 2001, brought an end to that, possibly forever. While most lines still offer quick tours of a ship's main galley and food preparation areas -- where guests can view the fish kitchen, vegetable prep area, bakery, wine cellar and dishwashing operation -- more in-depth explorations are not offered. Fortunately, my avocation as a travel writer afforded me the privilege of this rare look behind the scenes.
I am from Texas, a state with a population of about 23 million people. If you remove the five largest cities from this figure and divide what remains by the number of towns in the state, the population of the average Texas town is some 1,900 people -- approximately the number of passengers and crew aboard the Maasdam. A cruise ship is really a small town floating on the ocean with the same needs and requirements as any municipality. It must have managers, skilled employees in many disciplines, sanitation facilities, environmental oversight, water, sewerage, safety departments, a jail, hospital, morgue, recreation and entertainment venues, restaurants and bars.
My tour began in the environmental officer's tiny cubicle, filled floor to ceiling with three-ring binders that record every item that comes on and goes off the ship. During an audit by outside officials, the environmental officer must be able to account for every can of paint, gallon of fuel, chemicals, cleaning products and more.
Our next stop was the area that might be equivalent to a town's public works department. Most operations here fall under the purview of the chief officer or chief engineer. In the tailor shop, three crew members worked over their sewing machines; on a nearby mannequin hung a partially finished uniform for the captain. The carpentry, electrical and welding shops bustled with activity. In the paint shed where Holland America's signature blue color is kept, Kant noticed that a plastic food container was being used to store paint -- a no-no. He nicely but firmly asked a painter to remedy the problem.
The food preparation area is the responsibility of the food and beverage manager. Here, we saw the butchers, poissoniers, bakers and vegetable cooks all plying their trades. Walk-in freezers, refrigerators and cold-storage rooms hold the huge amounts of food consumed every week: 8,500 pounds of meat, 4,200 pounds of poultry, 4,800 pounds of seafood, 9,500 pounds of vegetables and 2,900 pounds of flour, to mention a few. The crew goes through more than a ton of rice weekly.
Dishes, pots and pans are scraped and washed in steam-filled rooms that resemble saunas. Each washing area has a Somat pulper room, where leftover biodegradable food and cuttings are pulped into mulch that is transported to the garbage room for dehydration. Later, this mulch is either incinerated with shredded dry waste or sent down a hatch into the ocean as fish food. Any ash is off-loaded in a home port.
Once a meal is over, the refuse must be carefully handled. The chief steward is responsible for this unglamorous but very important task. Every item must be disposed of properly, and there is a lot of it: 66,000 to 110,000 pounds of solid garbage weekly, plus an average of two bottles and cans per passenger daily. Cartons, crates and packaging are burned in the incinerator. Plastics and other noncombustible garbage are collected in compactor boxes and placed in cold storage. Colored glass is separated from clear glass, and all of it is crushed. Tin and aluminum are compressed into bricks. The latter three waste products are recycled later.
The Maasdam generates 60,000 gallons of sewage each week. This, too, must be carefully processed. The "gray" water (500,000 to 750,000 gallons a week from showers, lavatories, etc.) and "black" water (from toilets) end up in a Zenon wastewater purification system. When the wastewater enters the holding tank, it is as nasty as you can imagine. However, after processing, it is said to be pure enough to drink, although I passed up the opportunity for a taste test. (During a voyage to Antarctica, I was told that had the ship been allowed to discharge this processed water into the ocean, it would have been cleaner than the waters in which we were sailing.) Nonbiodegradable solids, following filtration and separation, are stored until they can be pumped off the ship.
Used oil and chemicals also must be properly prepared for storage and eventual off-loading. Other substances that must be returned to port for disposal include medical waste, printing ink, chemicals and used batteries. The list is seemingly endless.
Fuel loading is carefully monitored as diesel is pumped into storage tanks through large pipes by fuel barges that meet the ship in various ports. The Maasdam carries 870,000 gallons of fuel capable of propelling the ship for 21 days at an average speed of 18 knots, or a distance of 8,900 nautical miles.
On our tour, we stopped at the laundry facilities. This section is full of gigantic washing machines and "wet-cleaning" machines. Because dry cleaning produces large amounts of toxic waste, the cruise industry has switched to the more environmentally sound wet-cleaning process. In this room, table and bed linens, towels and clothing turned in by officers, crew and guests are laundered. Next door are huge ironing machines capable of pressing king-size sheets in one pass. Commercial ironing equipment is used for clothing and similar smaller items.
We did not visit the engine room because Kant was in his starched white-dress uniform. While the engine room is not dirty, there is always a chance that things can get messy when you are standing near five V-12, 47,000-horsepower diesel engines that consume 33,000 gallons of fuel and 210 gallons of oil daily. Later we viewed the area via closed-circuit television.
We spent quite a bit of time in the engine monitor room. While the ship can be operated from the bridge, it is to this room that the captain usually sends orders directing the ship's speed and course. Engineers sit before banks of computers and five huge television screens -- one camera focused on each engine -- changing propeller pitch and revolutions per minute to more efficiently navigate the ship toward ports of call. It resembles a computer game room in a giant mall.
Before proceeding to various galleys, quarters and messes, we made two more stops, both the responsibility of the chief security officer. First was the brig, a tiny cubicle measuring about 8 feet by 4 feet. It contained a steel twin bed covered in a rather ratty sheet and an even worse-looking pillow. The walls were thickly padded with an unpleasant, mustard-colored vinyl. The one dim light fixture was encased in a heavy steel cage. I asked Kant to close me in for a brief minute. That short sentence was much too long.
I asked who might be brought to this dismal space. Kant said that crew members can be incarcerated here for several hours for various transgressions. But he recalled an earlier voyage when a passenger acted aggressively toward other guests. The chief security officer cuffed the fellow and escorted him to the brig. During his four-hour stay he shaped up considerably and returned to the general population a model citizen.
Next was the coffin room, a small space that contains three enclosed steel bunk beds rather than coffins. The room is kept at a constant temperature of 39 degrees. The chief security officer is also the undertaker.
The crew quarters are spartan but more than adequate, with two people assigned to each cabin. There is a large recreation room for the crew, with a bar, foosball table, pool tables and dartboard, among other pastimes. The crew galley and mess hall are under the direction of two Indonesian chefs and one Filipino chef -- the majority of the crew is from these nations. Giant rice steamers line the galley wall, and cooks stir their contents with paddles the size of garden spades. Crew members select items from their native cuisines to pour over heaping bowls of rice.
Then it was off to the officers' galley and mess. Officers may eat with passengers in the public dining areas if they are wearing their dress whites or dress blues. But often, if they have been working below decks in their "browns" or just want to be casual, they elect to eat here. They also have a recreation area with a small bar where they can have a drink, chat, play cards or participate in a rousing game of darts.
Officers' quarters have changed in recent years and are equal to the passengers' staterooms. Located on the Navigation Deck, just behind the bridge, the accommodations of the highest-ranking officers are similar to guest suites, but without the marble floors and other luxurious touches that passengers may find in their rooms. In today's cruise world, many officers travel with their spouse. On our voyage we were joined by Kant's charming wife, Yvonne. Periodically, children travel with their parents.
Our final stop was the ship's bridge and communications room. If a ship were to have a heart, it would be the engine room. If it had a brain, it would be the bridge. Unlike the bridges of years past, this area is as hushed as a library. The only sounds are the hum of the computers, navigational equipment and radar and sonar scopes. The ship's course is followed on computer screens, although there are still plenty of neatly cubbyholed maps, should they be needed.
There is no one behind a giant wheel steering the Maasdam. Computers do that. During their watches, most officers are on the bridge monitoring the ship's progress, following various orders and being available in case something out of the ordinary arises.
But I saw one thing that hadn't changed from the early days of sailing: A lookout constantly scanned the horizon, although with high-powered binoculars rather than a spyglass.
"What are you looking for?" I asked him.
"Stuff," he replied.
"What kind of stuff?"
And so ended my tour of the Maasdam. I was fortunate that Capt. Hank Draper gave his permission for this special excursion, and that my friend Officer Kees Kant carved two hours out of his busy schedule to lead me on this unique trip. It gave me an intriguing glimpse into the behind-the-scenes workings of this "small town" while it was at sea.
Information: For rates and itineraries aboard the Maasdam, visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 338-4962.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in March/April 2006 . Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 338-4962 for current rates and details.