There was also the concern of spending 164 hours aboard a ship, cut off from the Internet and the telephone, at 13,000 miles from office! I felt somewhat uneasy. I was also wondering about possible sea-sickness, reminded of Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat,! My niece Sujatha Karthik in Purdue was a great planner and an expert in organising such travel; from booking the passage to the minutest details she planned every aspect with precision and care. There was the added comfort of her parents and a renowned academic friend from Purdue University and their relatives to keep company. We were to fly out on a four-hour flight from Chicago to Vancouver, stay overnight and board the ship the next day and at the end fly out to New Jersey on a five-hour flight, all tied up neatly.
Our stay in Canada was largely for transiting to the ship. The rules mentioned no visa fee for less than two days of transit. So I opted for a transit visa. It was a wrong assumption and we lost precious time. Worried about getting the passport stuck at the Embassy in Delhi I applied for this at the Visa Facilitation Centre for Canada in New York and handed the passports. Our stay at New Jersey was just for a week. We had to fly to Chicago. We encountered a new problem: US rules demanded the production of passports at the airport for air travel. My wife and I produced alternate identity proofs. But the scrutiny was so elaborate that we missed the flights! We had to return home and catch the flight the following morning. The passports did reach us at Chicago well in time for flying out to Vancouver.
Dutch, the pioneer….
Throughout summer hundreds of cruises are organised all across the American continent, the Caribbean, Europe and elsewhere. I gathered that this had been a well-organised business flourishing for over a century. The Holland-America Line (HAL) based in Netherlands had its origin in 1873. Headquartered in Rotterdam the line was a principal carrier of immigrants from Europe to the United States clocking around 850,000 passengers to the New World. As early as in 1895, the company offered its first vacation cruise from New York and continued the trans-Atlantic service till the 1970s providing passenger and cargo services. Since the 1970s holidays became the company’s full-time focus. In 1989 HAL became a wholly-owned subdivision of Carnival Corporation, the largest cruise company in the world.
Mammoth in every aspect...
The cruise ship M S Volendam 777.56 ft long and 111.55 ft wide has a gross tonnage of 61,214. It can take 1445 guests serviced by a crew of 606. To take care of the needs of such large numbers, the ship is equipped liberally. Total power through five large diesel/electric engines is for 43.2 MW (57,909 hp), enough to power a town. The ship cruises at a maximum speed of 23.5 nautical miles (around 30 mph). It consumes 85 gallons of fuel per mile (1 gallon=3.78 litres). The ship can produce around 370,000 gallons of potable water per day and consumption is estimated at 174,000 gallons per day.
My apprehension over spending time was totally unfounded. There was so much activity: experts run classes for computer software including lessons on Windows 10, on photography, cooking, crafts, music, theatre and films of high quality, apart from an extensive library, swimming pool and what not. For those interested in losing money big, there is a 24x7 casino.
Rooms were cozy with five-star comforts with large windows to view outside, decks around the ship at different levels (four storeys for passengers) and other facilities liberally provided with seats.
Good access to news, developments
There were several restaurants that offered food throughout the day and night offering a vast variety of culinary delights. I was initially worried about a vegetarian food and soon found it was no problem. Fresh fruits and vegetables were available right through.
The ship covered a total distance of 1935 nautical miles through the seven days with three days of docking for visits to places of interest on land.
Accustomed to following news by the hour I was wondering how this need would be met. Volendam is equipped with facilities for printing daily news sheets in A4 size of 8 pages. There were separate reports – Times Digest, from the pages of the New York Times, Britain Today, Australia Today and Canada Today. Copies of these were widely made available at different spots in the ship, right from the early hours of the day. Of course, TV channels provided 24x7 news from CNN, Fox News, and BBC. There was also provision for interactions with senior members of the ship’s crew including the Master and Chief, hotel director, the cruise director, executive chef, guest relations manager and shore excursion manager.
I also had a delightful, exclusive interview with the ship’s Master Frank van der Hoeven. He provided interesting nuggets on the pioneering work done by the Dutch in the cruise business. He referred to several European countries and the US offering cruises across the globe. The Dutch are pioneers. There are other large operators like the British P&O. Over time, bigger and better ships are employed.
No class divide
An interesting nugget provided by Hoeven was making available the facilities to all passengers: “we endeavour to treat everybody equal. Access to the facilities is made available to all.” Of course, the choice of opting for larger size rooms and suites at higher prices are provided.
Hoeven has been in this field for 20 years. He referred to the meticulous planning involved to cater to the needs of over 1400 passengers and 600 crew, 24x7. Real-time information on the ship’s location, speed, distance from the destination are all provided. The daily programme, neatly printed, provides rich information on the various activities planned for the day. Well-equipped, large capacity theatres provide rich entertainment - music, plays and magic shows.
It was a sight to watch fresh fruits and flowers, milk and other victuals loaded in tonnes and served fresh.
Costs around Rs 1300 crore
Heoven pointed to the increasing sophistication and facilities offered making use of technology: “it would take 18-24 months to build a cruise ship. Lots of design and engineering inputs by specialists in various fields go into the construction of such a ship, designed to last over 40 years. Costs will be upward of $ 200 million. Extensive training is provided at select schools through sophisticated simulators. At every stage the importance of safety is stressed and systems are continuously refined,” he said.
I was deeply impressed by the tight schedule of Volendam: for the weekly cruise, getting into the ship commences from 1200 hrs on Wednesdays. The ship sets sail at 1700 hrs, returns after the cruise with three halts and sailing along miles and miles of glaciers; it docks back at the Vancouver Port at 0700 hrs, the following Wednesday. It is ready for the next cruise, the same evening! Old left-overs cleared and cleaned, fresh victuals loaded and this schedule continues without a break for the entire summer, lasting six months and in winter the ship is shifted to other seas!
India has a long coastline exceeding 7000 km. Post-2000 the teeming middle class has been spending liberally on travel across the globe. Many of these on such cruises. Look at the explosive growth in air travel over the last two decades! I do hope Nitin Gadkari would consider opening up the prospects for such cruise along our beautiful, long coastline of around 9000 km.