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Controls of 141,000-ton Royal Princess - Cruise ship school

Controls of 141,000-ton Royal Princess – Cruise ship school

As P&O’s new Britannia flagship arrives in Southampton for her naming ceremony on Tuesday, Nigel Thompson takes command of her colossal cousin Royal Princess. Sort of..

Big, red and round. And sending out irresistible “Push Me” invitations a bit like the messages on the cake and bottle in Alice in Wonderland.

Now what exactly DOES this Big Red Button do?

I am on the wing bridge of the skyscraper-sized cruise liner Royal Princess – “Kate’s ship”, launched with great fanfare and a giant nebuchadnezzar bottle of Moet & Chandon champagne by the Duchess of Cambridge on June 13, 2013.

Well, it’s almost “Kate’s ship”. As close as you can get without actually going to sea on the 1,083ft-long, 141,000-ton floating luxury hotel that caters for 3,560 guests.

I am at the CSmart facility, on a freezing industrial estate in Almere, near Amsterdam, which is the training school for the 3,000 or so officers who work across the 102 ships in the Carnival Corporation, including those from the world’s most prestigious cruise lines such as Princess, P&O and Cunard.Controls of 141,000-ton Royal Princess - Cruise ship school

And I am in the hi-tech wonder that is one of its two full-size bridge simulators.

It has been programmed for Royal Princess, which has a near-identical sister ship, Regal, and both of those are the same basic structure as P&O’s eagerly-awaited new 141,000-ton flagship Britannia, which arrived in the Solent from the Fincantieri shipyard near Trieste, Italy, yesterday in readiness for her naming by the Queen in Southampton on Tuesday.

Our computer version of Royal is docking at Fort Lauderdale in Florida and while the Daily Mirror’s cruise columnist Captain Greybeard is doing a pretty good job of “reverse parking” it, I am being of no assistance at all, other than staring at the Big Red Button and REALLY wanting to know what it does.

The answer comes courtesy of Captain Hans Hederstrom, the urbane Swede in charge of CSmart.

Simply, it’s the Man Overboard Button – if someone goes over the side you hit that, it alerts the emergency crew and records the ship’s position so the navigator can get the vessel back to the same spot for a rescue.

I press it. Nothing happens. Unlike most things on this simulator, it’s a dummy.

Talking of dummies, it was my turn to take charge of this mighty vessel – which, if you could stand it on its stern, would be taller than London’s Shard skyscraper.

Having handled a cruiser on the Norfolk Broads – and having discovered stern-on mooring is like reversing an articulated lorry with bald tyres on a buttered, sloping ice rink – I was reasonably keen to dodge the “reverse parking” stuff and stick to aiming the pointy end at something.

In this instance, I chose New York City. Which I figured was so big even I could spot it.

Earlier, there had been a visit to the engine control room sim, where a fire in an engine on Emerald Princess was tackled using “high fog’ water vapour. As instructor Stefan said: “Follow the correct procedure and you can save the ship.”

It seemed to involve pressing a lot of buttons and not panicking. I felt 50% qualified to assist, anyway.

In fact that’s very much the message here. It’s all about safety at sea with the creation of new practices on the bridge where the captain takes a step back from an operational role and other officers “drive” the ship under his supervision and leadership.

Of course, the captain is still ultimately the master of the vessel. Hans firmly believes this is the way forward for all marine traffic and it would greatly reduce the risk of accidents at sea.

A newer, much bigger facility will open next year to meet increasing demand.

This method was first introduced in Scandinavia after a series of ferry groundings, and even the most junior officers are encouraged to speak up if they have any navigational concerns – safety is absolutely paramount with constant double-checking between the navigator and his assistant of the ship’s course and position. No longer is it a one-man show.

Of course, this leads to the inevitable, serious Costa Concordia question, where the captain was at the helm when disaster struck off the Italian coast. Francesco Schettino was jailed for 16 years last month in Italy after being convicted of manslaughter after his ship capsized in 2012, killing 32 people.

In a low voice, Hans says: “We did not see him here.”

Back on Royal’s bridge, having done some important pointing at things out to sea, staring bewildered at a radar screen and phoning room service, at last it was my turn to do some of the steering stuff. On the approach to Manhattan we whooshed under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge at 16 knots – a bit too fast according to Hans, but I like to give my passengers some added value.

Then sim operators Tim and Pelle (both Dutch KLM airline staff who have never been to sea, but are industry-leading experts at “creating the hell” for exacting cruise ship training) throw in a curve ball, namely another Royal Princess coming the other way.

I wasn’t sure who had right of way – but it was definitely me – so I pointed “my” Royal at the entrance to the Hudson River and mentally eyeballed the person in my place at the helm on the Royal doppelganger, seeing who would be first to blink.

At this point, Mr Bravado and his sidekick Mr Stupidity sauntered on to the bridge, and I asked the sim operators to chuck in a big snowstorm to make it a bit more interesting.

Well, if you’ve got your hands on around 10 million quid’s worth of technology, you may as well make the most of it.

Clearly the whiteout meant I couldn’t see where I was going at full speed, but helpfully it did also mean I couldn’t see the oncoming “other” Royal.Controls of 141,000-ton Royal Princess - Cruise ship school

Out of sight, out of mind. If you watched The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy back in the 80s and remember Zaphod Beeblebrox’s “Peril Sensitive Sunglasses” which blank out all danger, then you’ll get my drift.

The snow cleared, the other Royal had gone who-knows-where and we were nicely heading to the Hudson.

So, in the spirit of journalistic cooperation, I handed the wheel to a fellow travel writer from another national tabloid newspaper.

Though I may perhaps not have mentioned to him that while his back was turned I’d quietly put the rudder hard to starboard and the Royal was veering completely off course at full speed.

Us seasoned nautical types call that “giving someone a bum steer”…

by Nigel Thompson

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