Holland America Line - Cruise Line and Cruise Ship Reviews
At Eurodam’s Helm, Captain of the ‘Love Boat’
Editor’s Note: This interview (recently updated) originally appeared in the winter 2006 issue of The Avid Cruiser.
On the day before Valentine’s Day, during staff introductions to an audience of Holland America Line passengers, the 39-year-old captain of the Oosterdam went down on his knee to propose to the ship’s guest relations manager, the soon-to-be Pam van Donselaar.
In a true “Love Boat” moment, the captain says, “I compared myself to Captain Stubing and compared Pam with Julie (McCoy, the ‘Love Boat’s’ Cruise Director) and said that because officers and crew spend so much of their year on a ship that this was very likely the environment where they would meet their future partners in life.”
She said yes, the audience applauded, and in July the couple married in Vancouver. Ah, “Love … exciting and new.”
Now at the helm of Holland America Line’s new Eurodam, Jeroen van Donselaar is one of the cruise industry’s youngest captains.
He is certainly the youngest in Holland America Line’s fleet. Hailing from Vlissingen, in the southern part of the Netherlands, van Donselaar says maritime matters were de rigueur for a young Dutch boy growing up on the North Sea. After all, generations before him had set off in ships during the days of the Dutch East India Company, which engaged in colonial trade in Asia in the early 1600s.
“What pushed me over the edge,” van Donselaar says, “was a vacation I took with my family in 1981.” During a 24-hour ferry journey from Amsterdam to Gothenburg, Sweden, the boy made his way to the bridge, where the captain and first officer allowed him to observe the docking procedure. “It made such an impression on me that I decided on a career at sea.”
He returned home to enroll in Nautical College and later apprentice with Holland America Line. Upon graduation, the company hired him as a fourth officer. He made third officer in 1989, second officer in 1991, chief officer in 1995 and captain in 2002. Accustomed to working on smaller vessels, he was surprised by the size of the ship that would be under his command. “I remember stepping on board the bridge of the Oosterdam for the first time and thinking there was a ship parked behind us,” he says. “It was the aft section of the Oosterdam.”
Despite the light-hearted banter, the job is stressful at times. “There are moments of boredom on long stretches of open sea punctuated by moments of extreme challenge,” van Donselaar says. “Oosterdam has more than 9,000 square meters of windage (areas that are prone to wind), so more than 26 knots of wind requires that the ship tack, zigzagging its course.”
What’s it like to be the captain of a glamorous cruise ship? We caught up with van Donselaar in the unlikeliest of places for a seafarer: on land in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he and his bride will make their new home when they’re not at sea.
Q. Which character on “The Love Boat” do you most identify with?
A. Captain Stubing, with a touch of Gopher. I find Gopher to be the most enviable character. He is sometimes a little clueless, not to say I’m clueless, but he could be a friend, someone whose company I could enjoy. I could see having a conversation about life with him in the Ocean Bar.
Q. In what ways are you like and not like Captain Stubing?
A. I’m equally bald but definitely much younger. Captain Stubing was near retirement age. Ways we differ: He never seemed to do any paperwork or ship maneuvering. It was like the ship made its own way. In real life, ship maneuvering is my big concern, and it’s one of the things I enjoy most about being a captain. If they take that away, I’m gone, because the rest is paperwork and management. I enjoy the satisfaction of docking the ship. Sometimes, when the ship is alongside, I will go ashore to greet the guests walking off. I look at the ship, and I’m really proud when I think we’ve done a great docking — or even if it was not a great docking. I always say as long as there are no dents and scrapes, we’ve done a great job.
Q. What’s the most difficult port to dock in?
A. The New York City Passenger Terminal can be a hair-raiser if there is a lot of current, which there will be if there has been a lot of rainfall in upstate New York. The slip is at a 90-degree angle to the river, and when we make the turn, we get the brunt of current broadside. You need to have seen that maneuver a couple of times before you’re comfortable with it.
Q. Do any of the passengers ever remark about your age?
A. Yeah. They often jokingly ask if I’m sure I’m old enough to be the captain, Others ask, “Who’s driving the boat?” if they see me when I’m not on the bridge. I always say the chief cook. When they ask who’s cooking dinner, I reply, “Well, I’m preparing the dessert.”
Q. Had you not been a cruise ship captain, what profession would you have chosen?
A. Airline pilot for sure. There would be the same travel, uniform, technology and thrill of handling such an expensive piece of equipment.
Q. If someone wanted to become a cruise ship employee, what’s the one personality characteristic they’d need most?
A. They’d need to be outgoing. A cruise ship is a confined environment. I can’t think of any other place where so many people are in one place for such a long time. Guests are on for seven or 10 days or longer. Crew are on for months at a time. So you would have to be a people person and not prone to homesickness. It helps if you enjoy travel.
Q. What is the most challenging part of your job?
A. Most of the problems I deal with as a captain are not technical problems. Those things are easy to solve. Almost on a daily basis there is an issue with a guest or crew that I need to deal with. We typically have 2,100 guests on board, and with crew, that’s almost 3,000 people. So almost daily, there will be some problem with a person on board — either a passenger or crew. It’s always sad when you have to tell a crew member that a loved one is sick or has passed away — or to have to put someone off the ship in port because of unruly conduct. But when you carry 2,000 passengers, it’s bound to happen one may be a rotten apple.
Q. What was the best and worst experience you’ve had at the Captain’s Table?
A. Among the best, the oldest daughter of President Lyndon Johnson (Lynda Bird) once dined at my table. I found her to be interesting. But I’ve had to leave tables where couples started to argue with each other. Once or twice, I’ve activated my own beeper, made some phony excuse and enjoyed the rest of my meal in the solitude of my quarters. But 99 percent of the dinners are very enjoyable. We typically host one per cruise. In Alaska, however, we do not host dinners, as my presence is required on the bridge much more due to proximity of the ship to land.
Q. How do you keep from gaining weight with all that food?
A. I have three bikes at my home in the Netherlands, but on ship I ride the exercise bike (in the ship’s spa facilities) half an hour each port day, and I lift weights for 10 minutes. We also walk laps on the open deck on days at sea. In Juneau, I love hiking up and down Mount Roberts with Pam. We also have rental bikes on board for the crew to use during port days. Otherwise, I try to eat a sensible diet, which isn’t always easy.
Q. Have you ever been seasick?
A. Not on a cruise ship. I once worked as a ships' pilot in the Netherlands and experienced particularly rough seas on a small boat in the North Sea.
Q. Does it bother you when passengers make inappropriate references to the ship, like confusing “port” and “starboard”?
A. I always hate it when people say, “I have to go to my room.” Rooms are land-based. We have cabins. Or when people say “floors.” We don’t have floors. We have decks.
Q. What’s your favorite port?
A. I enjoy variation, as we’re on board ship for three or four months at a time. I’ll take a little Alaska, some Panama Canal, Europe and Caribbean. But I like the larger metro ports: Seattle, Vancouver and Sydney, for example. That said, we had a great time in some of the smaller ports in Norway. I also enjoy the Baltic, particularly Helsinki and Stockholm. From a technical perspective, Mazatlan is an interesting maneuver. We have a turning basin of just under 400 meters, and the ship is 285 meters long, so it’s a tight squeeze.
Q. What is the perfect moment at sea?
A. After the welcome aboard champagne reception on the first formal night of the cruise. It is the big reception where I shake hands with every guest and have my picture taken with them. After all the shaking of hands and camera flashes, the staff and I meet in the Ocean Bar, which is quiet by then, as all guests have gone to the dining room. We all have a drink, non-alcoholic, of course, then I go to my quarters with Pam (his fiancée) to watch a movie. We go out again briefly later at night for a coffee, so that I am visible for all guests.
Q. What’s your favorite maritime movie?
A. Poseidon Adventure and Out to Sea, which was filmed on a Holland America Line ship. In one of the scenes I’m in there for a microsecond. I got to meet Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. They were so friendly and down to earth and so professional. They did every scene in one take.
Q. Any unfulfilled ambitions?
A. I’d like to learn to play, the electric guitar, but for now, docking the ship is my show.
The Caribbean With The Captain of the Veendamby Captain Albert Schoonderbeek, Master of the Veendam
Ever wondered what it would be like mastering one of those big cruise ships?
If so, follow Captain Albert Schoonderbeek during a 14-day Caribbean cruise on board Holland America Line’s Veendam. Captain Schoonderbeek keeps his thoughts away from such pleasantries as beaches, shopping and relaxing, and instead keeps an eye on the ship, the schedule and weather forecasts. Following are excerpts from the Captain’s own blog, logged each day he is on duty.
November 25, Tampa — We are going on a 14-day cruise. This means heavy storing before departure, with several gangs of longshoremen working over three ships side breaks to deal with the luggage, provisions and spare parts. 17:00 hours is our departure time, but at 16.55 we were off the dock and going through Tampa Bay as fast as was safely possible. By 20.15 the pilot was off, and I could start cranking up the speed. Now we have to wait and see what the nights brings in regards to speed achieved: Our starboard propeller shaft has not been fixed yet. It started playing up during our last cruise.
November 26, At sea – Well our progress was not as good as I had hoped for. Although we are already doing better than the last cruise, we could not get the speed up to a full output on both propellers. I had to reschedule for St Thomas (instead of San Juan). We had a lot of headwind during the day, but on the aft decks it was very pleasant and most guests were out in the sun.
November 27, At sea – Today is our second regular sea day and again we were blessed with beautiful weather. Advice from the engine room is positive about progress being made with improving the output on the propellers — and thus the speed — but it will be a few days before it will make a significant difference. We have a fairly unknown group of people on board: the upholsterers. Guests do not realize how important these skilled craftsmen are, but they play a key role in the presentation of the interior of the ship. Apart from dry docks, which only take place every two years or so, most maintenance on a cruise ship has to be done while sailing. On a regular schedule, step by step, curtains, carpets, chairs and couches are renewed.
November 28, At sea — In the afternoon a North Atlantic wave field came toward us with heights of about 8 feet to 10 feet, with peaks up to 12 feet, and this made the ship start to pitch and that costs speed. The starboard shaft did not like it either and that meant that we had to reduce the output at times. It will depend on how long this wave field persists whether we are going to be delayed, and, if so, by how much. According to the weather chart, the wave field is not supposed to reach the coast of Puerto Rico and as we are coming close by there, I hope that I can take advantage of it. We’ll see.
November 29, St. Thomas — Well, the wave field extended until the Puerto Rican coast and we had to sail through the whole length of it. Mother Nature was not helping and the waves kept coming until about 6 in the morning. In the end we docked over three hours late at Crown Bay, St. Thomas. Good news for all of us was that there were three couriers standing on the dock with the last engine parts that we needed. An unexpected happening was that in the afternoon, while I was sitting in my office, the ship suddenly shook. On departure, the pilot told me there had been a 7.3 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Martinique. That tremor went through the whole East Caribbean and that is what I felt in the cabin. The ship was unaffected, though, as was the Virgin Islands.
November 30, Roseau, Dominica — The wind only died down in the early morning hours. Starboard shaft also needed another slow down, and thus we docked over an hour late in Dominica. I think this was the fastest docking I have ever done here. The pilot, who is as black as spades, got noticeably white around the nose when I lined the ship up for the dock. A piece of good news is that the Chief engineer during the course of the afternoon reported that we can now put a lot more power on the portside.
Departing Dominica was the regular sideways off the dock movement, and within five minutes we were on our way to Barbados. It is a nice and quiet overnight trip, and as the chief engineer reported good things from below all is well in the world. As I have been moaning for the last few days about the weather and with now the wind suddenly falling away, the weather chart shows what I mean.
December 1, Barbados – Bridgetown is busy on a Saturday. In the line up were the Emerald Princess, Star Clipper, Veendam, Seabourn Pride, an oil tanker, two Royal British Navy support ships and a French destroyer. Just after 7 a.m. we were docked at the sugar berth for a long day in port: I had postponed sailing time by two hours. We were very close to the passenger terminal, but the problem with the sugar berth is that the ship can only dock starboard side alongside.
Otherwise one of the sugar conveyor towers will touch our overhanging Lido Restaurant. This is much to the annoyance of the chief officer, who desperately wants to dock portside alongside everywhere to do maintenance on the portside hull. In the preponderance of the ports we have to dock starboard alongside because of local circumstances, such as here in Barbados. If there is a choice, then the docking side is decided for me by others. Who said that a captain was in command? I just have to do what I am told to.
Sailing away was very beautiful: no wind, and the Star Clipper had all its sailing masts lit up, the cargo terminal was one blaze of light and the skies were ablaze with stars.
December 2, St Georges, Grenada – Major panic this morning among the local authorities. During the night one of the big channel buoys disappeared, and nobody knew where it went. These buoys are big: About 6 feet high, 3 feet in diameter, weighing over 1,000 pounds and connected with a chain to a large piece of concrete on the sea floor. So it was not a matter of a passing small boat pinching the buoy. They had been looking for the buoy but were planning to look again as they could not find it. I have now been coming to Grenada off and on since 1986 and you can see what a positive impact cruise tourism has on the local economy. More and more houses are renovated and a lot of new construction is going on as well. After swinging around off the berth, we set course on a South Westerly heading aiming for the East side of Isla de Margarita. Tomorrow we will be at anchor.
December 3, Isla de Margarita — We knew that we would anchor today: the Holiday Dream (Pullmantur) had the dock because it was the turnaround port for the ship and its guests. We were at anchor all day, and our guests were tendered ashore. As there was no wind at all, the ship sat almost on top of the anchor and swung lazily around on the ebb and flood tide. We were ‘anchor aweigh’ at 16:30 hours, and left El Guamache at 17:00 hours after all the guests were back and the tenders retrieved. Tomorrow we are in Bonaire and tonight we are going to run full out to be on time.
December 4, Kralendijk, Bonaire — The distance between El Guamache and Kralendijk is a long one, so as soon as we left the anchorage, we went pedal to the metal. Keeping my fingers crossed and waiting to see if our newfound speed would hold out. An hour later we were doing over 19 knots and we were in business. Thus we arrived nicely on time at the pilot station. A lot of guests are confused about Bonaire, as they all think that because it is a small island, the moment you see it, is the moment that you are there. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Bonaire is shaped like a crooked banana, with Kralendijk located where the brand sticker can be found. Thus, if you come from the South as we did, you still have to sail another 40 minutes towards the north, slow down and then pick up the pilot. The call was quite long, as I extended the visit by two hours to give some missed time back from earlier in the cruise. We left Bonaire just before 8 p.m. and travelled at a sedate speed of 15 knots to our next port of call: Oranjestad, Aruba.
December 5, Oranjestad, Aruba – The calm weather, e.g. little-to-no wind, keeps persisting. Also on arrival Aruba this morning while it normally blows considerably here, today there was just a very light wind blowing. I did not mind at all, as the less wind, the easier the docking. That is one of the reasons why I always arrive very early. The wind tends to be much less before sunrise and that makes it easier as well. Aruba is a short stay, due to the fact that the distance to Grand Cayman is considerable. It takes an average speed of 19 knots to get there on time. So when everybody was back on board just after 14:30 hrs, we raced out of the port, got the pilot off while making the turn to the northwest and cranked the ship up. Within 30 minutes we were flying. Tomorrow we have a day at sea and the weather forecast is really good.
December 6, At sea — Today was meeting day. The ship was merrily on its way to Grand Cayman and making good speed for a timely arrival. That gave time to get a number of ‘end of the month’ things done. We have several monthly committee meetings, where representatives from the various departments on board come together. There are also weekly meetings, and, as everywhere else in a big organization, a large number of departmental meetings on a daily basis. If I would get a dollar for each time, that a meeting is taking place somewhere on the ship, I would drive a much bigger car. Tomorrow we are in Grand Cayman, and the weather forecast promises us a very nice day without a cold front in sight. Last cruise it was a sudden cold front that forced me to cancel the call at Grand Cayman, but now it looks very good.
December 7, Georgetown, Grand Cayman — It was a beautiful day, it was a gorgeous day and even better, we were alone. We were the only ship in port. No lines in the shops, no tourist jams in the main street. Having Stingray City all to yourself. It could not be better. The sun shone all day and there was a gentle breeze blowing to make it pleasant. That gentle breeze is also of extreme importance to me as it is needed to keep the ship in position. Georgetown is a strange place where if there is too much wind and or from the wrong the direction then you have to cancel. If there is not enough wind then you cannot anchor as the ship will drift onto the reefs. We left Grand Cayman on time and headed northwest in the direction of the west point of Cuba. Tampa is our final destination. It should be a good home run as the weather forecast looks very good.
December 8, At sea and going home — Tomorrow we are in Tampa and I will be going home for a four-month leave period. Normally my colleague and I are doing three on, three off, but due to the scheduling of the yearly captain’s conference, we have changed it this time to four on, four off and then two on, two off. In that way it also works out that I will be on board for Christmas 2008 after having had the previous two holiday periods off.