Part II of our conversation with Royal
Caribbean's Captain Erik Standal
By Richard H. Wagner
(originally published in The Porthole,
World Ship Society Port of New York
Branch, January 2009)
ABOVE: Captain Erik Standal. Since this
interview was conducted, Captain Standal
has taken command of NAVIGATOR OF
THE SEAS and is shown above on the bridge
of that ship
BELOW: EXPLORER' leaving New York
Captain Erik Standal is the master of Royal Caribbean
International's EXPLORER OF THE SEAS, one of five
Voyager-class cruise ships. At 138,000 gross tons and
with a passenger capacity of 3,114, EXPLORER is one of
the largest passenger ships in operation. Indeed, today's
largest ships, the Freedom class, are an extended version
of the Voyager-class design. I recently had the
opportunity to speak with Captain Standal, a native of
Bergen, Norway, about EXPLORER.
Since 2007, EXPLORER has been homeported in
Bayonne, New Jersey on a year-round basis. In the
warmer months, she sails to Bermuda, Canada/New
England and to the Caribbean. In the winter, the ship sails
to the Caribbean. However, before getting to the tropical
waters, EXPLORER must brave the winter weather along
the Atlantic seaboard. "Of course, it is not the same as
sailing from Miami inside the Caribbean in the
summer-time. It is a different place weather-wise. It is
the open Atlantic. The next stop is Europe or Africa. If
the weather blows from the east, which it very often does,
then it has the whole Atlantic to build. We have had very
nice days at sea from New York to Florida. Of course,
there have been days going south and coming north where
it has been fairly rough with strong winds and seas, but it
is the North Atlantic. The ship can handle it very well.
You just have to adjust the speed and make it as
comfortable as possible.
"The old-style vessels like the NORWAY, which was
built for crossing the Atlantic, were built with a slimmer
and longer length. When you look at the forward end,
everything is clear; there is no obstruction that can be
ripped off by the sea. They were built to make more than
30 knots speed. You would not be able to push this one at
30 knots through the water, especially not in a rough sea.
We can make around 23 knots as the top speed.
"[The Voyager-class ships] were built for the Caribbean.
Of course, they can operate in other areas. You just need
to walk the open deck to understand that you can make a
better design for a cold climate, like they have on some of
the vessels with a retractable roof and so on. [However,
Royal Caribbean is] expanding both its markets and the
itineraries, new destinations, the fleet is expanding, so
you need to establish yourself where you can. When the
time comes, without having seen any plans on the table
today, it is logical to think going forward there will be
more specifically designed ships for northern sea areas."
The bridge on EXPLORER OF THE SEAS is a vast
space broken by a few work stations with computer
screens and dials. While at sea, the ship is normally on
auto-pilot with a pair of officers providing oversight.
However, when the ship is going in and out of port, she is
under manual control albeit assisted by computerized
EXPLORER has a ship's wheel. However, the more
intricate maneuvering is done using a group of handles
that controls the ship's bow thrusters, her fixed position
propulsion pod and her two azipods. Rather than give
orders to a helmsman, Captain Standal prefers to be
literally hands-on. "I have my hands on the handles when
we move off the pier. As soon as we started pushing
ahead, I give it over to the quartermaster but he is just
doing what you tell him. It is the same when we come
into a port. When we are five or six cables from the pier,
I take the controls myself. It is safer to do it yourself than
to go through different links [in the chain of command].
You have much faster reaction in the system. It is not like
the old days; you had minutes: here, you are talking
seconds in which you have to respond.
"Some people drive cars very well, and some people
have been driving cars for 50 years and they still can't
drive very well. And in some ways, it is not really
different than ships either. Some people have a good feel
for maneuvering ships; some people just can't do it. It is a
feeling. It is a long process to get this feeling. When you
see it moving, how much to give and it is much faster
reaction than when you have to give it to someone else.
You put your hands on it, you can feel."
The Voyager-class ships are very large and very tall. As
such, the sides of the ship act like a large sail and wind is
a factor in maneuvering. "You have a lot of power and
you have the azipods in place of the conventional rudders
and so on. But there is a reason for it. If you had the
conventional propulsion and rudders on this ship it would
be very difficult. At [a cost of hundreds of millions of
dollars], you want to make sure they are as easy to
maneuver as possible because the ports are not getting any
bigger. Nature builds the ports, we just put the pier there."
On the bow of the Voyager-class ships is a raised
platform with benches where passengers can pause when
making a circuit of the ship's open-air promenade.
Receiving little attention from most guests is a white "H"
inscribed in a circle on the platform's green floor. In fact,
it signifies that this is not a venue for people who want to
re-enact the "King of the World" scene from "Titanic" but
is actually a helicopter landing pad. "All the railings that
surround it, you pull them out, all the benches you remove,
and the mast you take down. Sometimes they land,
depending upon what type of helicopter it is. Sometimes,
if it is a Coast Guard helo they are used to hovering over
the platform and lowering a basket."
EXPLORER has a well-equipped medical facility.
However, "there are certain things that we can do and
certain things that we cannot do." Moreover, the person
needing evacuation may not be a passenger or crew
member. "I have picked up sailors whose boats sunk
under their feet a couple of times. It is not that unique.
"Sometimes you have a [four month period] with zero
helicopter evacuations and then in a few weeks you may
have two. They do happen. It is not something very
special. We have good reasons for it.
"We call our main office and we call the Coast Guard and
coordinate with them and they are very helpful. We try to
minimize the effect on the passenger itinerary. It can
affect arrival times. But when it is a question about life
or death, you don't have a choice even if it means 3,500
guests will be one hour or five hours late into the port,
even a turnaround port.
"If something happens, what you do is start early, make a
diversion, change the course so you go towards the
helicopter and meet it somewhere in the middle. You try
and close on them. If you are on a trans-Atlantic one day
out and something happens, whatever is the shortest, you
may have to go back. It can have a significant impact on
many things but you do not have a choice."
The helicopter pad on Explorer..
The ship's wheel on Explorer.
Cruise ship inside interview - Explorer of the Seas - Royal Caribbean - page 2