Cruise ship interview - - Norwegian Gem - - Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) -- Captain Roger Gustavsen
with Roger Gustavsen,
Richard H. Wagner
Captain Roger Gustavsen comes from a small town just south of Oslo,
Norway. His father was a sailor and the young Gustavsen’s ambition
was to follow his father to sea. However, when it came time to go to
college, "it was not a very good time for sailors" so Gustavsen studied
marketing and accounting instead. Not long after he graduated,
conditions began to change and so "I decided to go to maritime college
Since 1997, Captain Gustavsen has worked for Norwegian Cruise Line.
Founded in the 1960s, Norwegian has been responsible for introducing
many innovations to modern cruising. Accordingly, I asked Captain
Gustavsen about three of the ships that he has served on during his career
One of the innovations Norwegian introduced to the industry was large
ship cruising. It did this in 1979, when Norwegian purchased the giant
ocean liner SS France. Built in 1962, this ship was one of the last great
ocean liners. As the sun set on the heyday of transatlantic crossings, the
France had been retired in 1974. After an extensive refurbishment, which
cost over $100 million, Norwegian put her into service doing cruises from
Miami as the SS Norway. The ship was far larger than any of her cruise
ship competitors and her success proved the viability of large ship
cruising thus opening the door for today's mega-cruise ships.
Gustavsen did four contracts on the Norway as Chief Officer,. "For me
to work on a ship that was built two years before I was born was
amazing. [She was a] totally different style, totally different design [from
today's cruise ships.]".
"That ship was made for Atlantic crossings and she had a completely
different hull shape compared to [modern cruise ships]. When we had a
little bit of bad weather, the way she moved through the ocean was
"She had limitations. [Because of her 11 meter draft], she could not get
into [most Caribbean ports]. We were always at anchor."
Her steam turbine power plant required that actions be planned out well
in advance. "When we got to the pilot station in Miami, we would call
down to the engineer and tell him one and a half hours in advance to start
to reduce the r.p.m.s so we could start operating the engines from the
bridge [for docking]."
Built in another era, the Norway did not have all of the amenities of a
modern cruise ship. "Of course, that ship did not have Freestyle
Cruising. We had two dining rooms and the Bistro in addition to the
outdoor restaurant. But it was very nice dining in the old style [with] a
big staircase coming down"
Living conditions for the crew were also much different. Only ten
percent of the crew cabins had toilets and showers en suite. These were
allocated to the female crew members. The men had to make do with
common toilets and showers in the corridors. "Still, the crew was so
happy. They loved that ship. They did not want to leave it, they really
enjoyed it. They live much better on the newer ships but they really
loved the Norway and would have stayed there forever."
Just prior to his current command, Captain Gustavsen was master of the
Norwegian Sky, which does short cruises from Miami to the Bahamas. .
"If you compare it to other ships that do three and four day cruises [to the
Bahamas], Sky is absolutely the best."
Indeed, from a seaman's perspective, Captain Gustavsen has nothing but
praise for the Sky. "Technically, the Sky is fantastic. She has six
engines. She has two stern thrusters and three bow thrusters. She is very
powerful. She is a very nice ship to handle."
The Sky is the sister ship to Norwegian Sun but the two ships are not
identical. The difference is most apparent when one looks at the
balconies. The Sky "was originally [going to be] a Costa ship, the Costa
Olympia. But the shipyard [where she was being built] went bankrupt
and Costa decided that they did not want to take the ship. NCL bought
that ship and an option to build another one the same. When NCL bought
the Sky, the hull was more or less finished [and] they didn't have the
opportunity to do so many changes."
One thing Norwegian saw as vital, however, was that the ship have
balconies. Her original Costa design did not call for balconies. But
during the years since the ship's keel had been laid, "the balcony was
more and more a must have on cruise ships so it was absolutely the right
thing to do - - the balconies were added."
In contrast, the Sun was built for Norwegian from the start. "That is why
on the Sun, the balconies look different with the sliding doors. The Sky
has a door and a window. It has to do with the construction."
Captain Gustavsen is also pleased with his current command. "We have
a rather new fleet at Norwegian. The Gem is one of the newest, it is the
Each winter since she came into service in 2007, Gem has been cruising
from New York to the Bahamas and the Caribbean. "It is a good chance
for people to get away from the cold weather a little bit. You can be in a
place where it is minus 4 or 5 degrees [centigrade - - about 32 degrees
Fahrenheit] and we can bring you to plus 22 [71 degrees Fahrenheit] in a
"It is cold in the beginning [of the cruise]. It can be windy We go as
fast as we can away from it. We will as soon as possible be in the
warmer weather. We can do 26, maybe 27 knots. We do not need that to
get to Port Canaveral on time but we use it for the first night just to get
What if the ship should encounter a winter storm while heading south?
"These ships are strong today and they are big. They can handle the
weather It is never close to unsafe. You can have bad weather in other
parts of the world too - - hurricane season in the Caribbean. You have to
deal with it."
"To me, the bigger challenge is the current in the Hudson River and
getting the ship into [the berth]." The piers at the Passenger Ship
Terminal in New York are perpendicular to the Manhattan shoreline.
Therefore, a ship coming up the river and wishing to dock at the
Passenger Ship Terminal must make a 90 degree turn. When it does the
strong current of the river pushes against the side of the ship. As the ship
enters the berth, its bow is suddenly sheltered from the current by the
piers upriver. However, the aft section of the ship is still subject to the
river's current. This has caused more than one ship's side to bump a pier.
The Gem, however, has an azipod propulsion system. The ship's
propellers are mounted on two pods suspended below the hull. They can
be turned independently in any direction. "It is very nice to have a
powerful stern when you put the bow in and you have the stern out in the
The propellers are turned by electric motors inside the pods. The
electricity is generated inside the hull by five diesel engines "with
approximately 20,000 horsepower each. There is always one in spare.
We never use all five. [On a cruise, we run] four engines, three engines
and even two between the islands."
Leaving Gem's technological prowess aside, why should people select the
Gem over other cruise ships sailing from New York? "I would say that
they should try NCL because of Freestyle Cruising. What we can offer
with the specialty restaurants is a unique thing. I have been in this
company since before Freestyle was implemented and today, I would say
that anything else does not make sense. That you should tell people on
vacation where to eat, when to eat and to eat together does not seem like
One of the other cruise ships sailing out of New York is Gem's sister
ship Norwegian Jewel. "Which you choose does not really matter, they
are more or less the same."
Style of command
Captain Gustavsen’s experiences on these ships and others in the
Norwegian fleet have helped to shape his style of command. Consistent
with the innovative philosophy of the company he works for, Captain
Gustavsen does not believe in the traditional, rigid, authoritarian style of
"I can't see how that is going to work today with an organization of 1,080
crew. [You cannot] sit there at the top and think you are going to run the
show by yourself. We are a team. One man cannot do anything. "
"My style is very casual too. If a utility attendant would like to talk to
me the door is open."
"For a senior manager on a ship, your main task is to keep the crew
happy. If we do not take care of the crew, they will not take care of the
guests. We keep the crew happy and they will make sure the guests are
"We have a lot of things that we try to do for the crew outside working
hours. When we meet them we talk and try and keep a casual tone
between us. You will always get respect because of your position but
that kind of respect is completely worthless. You need to get respect
from the way you are and the way you do your job."