A conversation with
QM2 Staff Captain Robert Camby

by Richard H. Wagner
O the third day of an eastbound transatlantic crossing in August 2009, Queen Mary 2 diverted from
her course and ran full speed northwest throughout the afternoon and into the night.  Some two
hundred miles off the coast of eastern Newfoundland, a Canadian Hercules military transport air
plane began dropping flares around the ship.  A giant helicopter then appeared over QM2’s highest
open deck (Deck 13).  Two Canadian Coast Guardsmen came down a line and working with QM2’s
crew, placed a critically-ill passenger into a wire basket.  In a series of lifts, the patient, his wife and
the two Canadians were winched into the helicopter.  As quickly as it had appeared, the helicopter
disappeared into the gloom.  The next day, Commodore Bernard Warner announced that the passenger
was resting comfortably in a Newfoundland hospital.
    The officer directly in charge of this dramatic rescue was Staff Captain Robert Camby.  Camby is
a young officer with substantial credentials including serving on P&O’s legendary Canberra and
Princess Cruises’ first Royal Princess (now P&O Cruises’ Artemis).  In his 15 year career, he has
advanced rapidly through the officer ranks working on every class of Princess ship and all of the
P&O ships except Arcadia.  Most recently, he was Staff Captain on P&O’s Aurora during her world
    The highpoint in his career thus far was his appointment to Queen Mary 2.  “I have a real love for
this ship.  I fell in love with it within the first ten minutes of being onboard back in 2005, instantly.  I
like the Cunard brand, I like the way we have all the cocktail parties, the passenger integration.  I am
used to doing that - - cocktail parties, dinner parties - - since I was very small with my family.  It is
something that comes quite naturally to me; it is a part of this job that I enjoy.  Having it more
regimented and formal is the method that I prefer.”
    Camby’s shoreside lifestyle is consistent with the glamorous style of his ship.  As a young boy, he
won a scholarship to study piano and violin at the British public (
i.e. private) school St. John’s.  Both
of his grandfathers had been professional violinists and his maternal grandfather, Johnny Douglas,
was a successful composer and the musical director of RCA’s Living Strings series.  Indeed, his
family owns a record company that still releases albums of Douglas’ work.  This musical background
gave Camby entry into the world of West End and Broadway Theater.  As a result, when he is on
leave, he attends opening night parties and “meets up with Sir Cameron Macintosh once or twice a
week just to catch up. I usually go up and down to London on several occasions to see his four shows
or something to do with the shows.”
    In addition to being involved with entertainment charities, he is a member of The Lord’s
Taverners, cricket’s number one charity.  In 2007, he became a Freeman of London and more recently
was inducted as a Chevalier into the Orde Des Coteaux de Champagne.
    With such a background, one naturally wonders why he chose to go to sea. “When I was young I
never really had the passion to play the violin or the piano professionally.  Even though I went
through the grades and did the qualifications, it was never really something that I looked at as a
career.  I had a lot of nine-minute wonders.  I wanted to be an undertaker, a removals man, and, of
course, an airline pilot.  Then, my family went on the Canberra for holidays in the early 1990s.  I went
on the bridge as a young boy, saw all the chaps up there and thought ‘I quite like the look of that.”

Although dramatic, the evacuation of passengers from cruise ships by helicopter is becoming
increasingly common as communications and aeronautical technologies advance.  Nevertheless, they
are complex operations that require extensive planning and coordination.
    Queen Mary 2 has a large medical center with doctors and nurses.  In fact, the ship has been
diverted in order to bring medical assistance to the sick and injured on other vessels.  Why then
would the ship ever have to do a helicopter evacuation?  “The facilities onboard are second to none
for a ship but they do not equate to some of the facilities that you have at a land-based hospital,
including the ability to operate.  We don’t have an operating theater onboard.  Some of the guests that
we have disembarked medically by helicopter needed surgery.  That decision is often made between
the doctor and the captain, whoever is in command at the time.”
    The first step in the decision-making process is a determination by the ship’s doctor that a
passenger (or crew member) needs land-based care and must have it before the ship can reach port.  
“The ship will do whatever it can.  Safety of life comes above anything including the voyage.  We
will temporarily postpone the voyage to get the passenger off and then proceed with the passage
    The next step is for the doctor to call the bridge.  Although the technology keeps improving, a
helicopter’s range only extends some 200 miles out to sea.  Thus the ship’s navigator, who reports to
the staff captain, must determine if the ship can come within helicopter range within the time that the
doctor believes is critical for the patient.
    This calculation does not entail just determining whether the ship would come within helicopter
range if it doubled back towards its port of origin.  Instead, more remote lands are considered.  For
example, in one instance, Cunard's former flagship Queen Elizabeth 2 was mid-Atlantic when it was
determined that a passenger had to be evacuated.  Instead of going east or west, the ship sailed due
north to rendezvous with a helicopter that was based in eastern Canada but which flew to Greenland,
refueled and then flew due south to meet the liner.
    Helicopter medical evacuations are not without a significant economic cost.  A ship burns much
more fuel running at full speed than it does at its normal cruising speed.   Not only does the ship
usually have to run at full speed to make the rendezvous but in order to get back on schedule “we have
to go full speed across the Atlantic for three and a half days. Rather than 25 knots or 24 knots, we
have to do 28, which is a huge increase in cost.  We obviously have to tell the company [home office]
about that.  Safety of life - - you can’t put any price on a life. I don’t think anybody on this ship or in
this company shoreside would question a decision concerning the safety of a person onboard.”
    Once the ship’s commanding officer determines that a helicopter evacuation is necessary and is
feasible without placing others at an inordinate risk, the staff captain becomes responsible for
executing the operation.  On a transatlantic crossing, this usually involves working with the British or
Irish coast guards if the ship is in the eastern North Atlantic and the Canadian or United States coast
guards if the ship is closer to North America.  “I phone the coast guard station [for the area] that we
are in and tell them it is a go.  We will then communicate with them every 30 minutes to tell them our
position, course and speed.  We give them updates of weather conditions - - the cloud cover, how
high the cloud is, visibility, wind, barometer, whether it is rising or falling, whether there is a storm
coming. They give us an update on whether the helicopter has taken off and what range we can get to
    “At the same time, I invite all of the heads of department up here - - we have a meeting on the
bridge, which I conduct.  I tell them to refer to the ship’s specific response to helicopter operations   
i.e. written procedures].  The ship has a very detailed regimented response, which includes: the
evacuation of certain cabins; it includes the clearing of all the balconies of all debris; it includes
clearing of all open decks; it includes the manning of all open decks by security.  Every single open
deck door has to be manned.”
    The reason that doors have to be secured and cabins and balconies evacuated is that there is
always some risk involved when the ship is in close quarters with a helicopter.  For example, a
sudden down draft when the helicopter is hovering low over the deck could cause it to crash into the
ship.  Accordingly, the preparations include “setting up of all the fire teams up on Deck 13.  You will
have about five fire teams.  Some of them will be used as attack teams, some will be what we call
‘snap and grab’ - - if the wreckage were to come down on the deck, we could pull out parts and drag
the bodies out.  Then we have some of our rescue boats, our fast boats, manned, so if anyone fell into
the sea we would be able to rescue them.”
    Therefore, passengers are not allowed to come on deck to watch the action.  “Unfortunately, some
passengers may want to take flash photographs, which can put the helicopter pilot off.  At the same
time, we have to stop passengers from waving stuff.  We have had passengers in the past trying to
wave flags, baseball caps - - if anything like that gets in the rotor blades, down comes the aircraft   So
you  want to keep people off the decks, keep the decks clear.  If a helicopter were to crash onto the
deck then it would send shrapnel across the top decks of the ship so right away you would have a lot
of people in danger.  We keep the whole of Deck 12 and Deck 13 completely empty   Deck 7 is
completely empty because if a helicopter were to go down, it would land on the lifeboats [which are
carried just above Deck 7] and [people on] Deck 7 would be in danger.  We keep them off the
balconies because the helicopter passes very close to the balconies.  Plus the fact that the helicopter
has its own policies and procedures and if they were to see a lot of people on the open decks, they
would not make their approach.”
    One person, however, does stand on the open deck.  “I [am] the flight deck officer and I will co-
ordinate the entire operation from the center of the flight deck.  I am the only one permitted to stand
underneath the helicopter, which is a very precarious position.  I communicate directly with the
helicopter and the bridge.”
    The helicopter is often not the only aircraft participating in the evacuation.  As noted earlier, there
can also be a Hercules military transport airplane. “The Hercules is a traffic plane.  He comes over
the top and circles.  He does all the communication initially with us.  He can communicate with the
bridge and with me a lot earlier than the helicopter can.  He is almost like a reconnaissance plane.  If
it is at night, he also drops flares, which will give the helicopter almost a runway approach to the
ship.  So, he does external communications to everybody else, keeps the traffic in areas clear, and
monitors the radar so the helicopter can do nothing but concentrate on getting over the ship.”
    When the helicopter arrives, it does not land on the ship.  Although made of steel, QM2’s upper
decks are jot reinforced to cope with the weight and stresses associated with landing a military
helicopter.  Therefore the helicopter hovers low over the deck and access to and from the aircraft is
by cable.
    “They will send down normally two people, both of whom will be paramedics.  One will be the
main paramedic and the other the winchman.  The paramedic and the winchman will be taken straight
to, in this case, Stairway A, Deck 13, where the patient is.  We cordon that off and secure the area.  
At that stage, the helicopter moves off and stands by at the side of the ship.”
    The paramedics transfer the patient from the stretcher in which he was brought up from the ship’s
hospital to one of their own stretchers.  “Then I will communicate with the helicopter and say that she
can make her approach again and we will bring the patient out [onto the open deck].  The paramedic
will attach himself to the stretcher and he will go off with the patient.  Also, if [the patient is]
traveling with a partner and the partner wishes to go as well, we will lower down [another] basket
and the basket will go off with the other half and the winchman.  They are generally more nervous
about the husband or the wife than they are about the patient.  The [patient is sedated] and does not
know what is going on and will go up quite smoothly.  It is usually, the partner, the wife or the
husband that is more nervous because they are going up in complete knowledge of what is going on.
They will do a lot to protect that person as they are going up in the air.  They are absolutely amazing
in doing that.”
    Although this ends the ship’s involvement in the evacuation, Cunard has established “Care Teams”
to assist evacuated passengers and their families.  This can involve providing assistance at the
location where the passenger was landed as well as with arrangements to transport families to the
scene.  “It is a fantastic operation.  The Care Team system with this company is amazing.  The idea is
that you are not left on your own.”

In addition to being responsible for helicopter evacuations of individual passengers, the staff captain
would also take a leading role in the unlikely event that there had to be a mass evacuation of the
ship.   “There is no ship that I have ever been on in my 15-year career that is as sea worthy as this.  
We have to spend a lot of our time convincing the passengers that it is gale force 11 outside and they
do not necessarily believe us because the ship is so steady.  She was designed for that and we are
very fortunate to be on a ship as safe as this.  The safety standards on here are higher than on any ship
that I have been on, not that the others are not high but this is extremely high.  The drills, the training
and things like that, we are by far the finest ship I have ever been on.”
     “The best lifeboat is the ship.  So unless the ship was - - and we would know - - in imminent
danger of foundering, we would stay onboard the ship as long as possible.    We have food supplies,
towels, warmth, and the ability for communication.  Even though the boats do have that the best
possible place to be on is on here dry.  Obviously, when the people go on the boats there is the
possibility that people are going to get wet and hypothermia is going to set in.  So, you don’t want to
be in the boats unless you have to and for the shortest possible time.”
    In the event that a catastrophe required the evacuation of the ship, “we have the ability with the
GMDSS equipment to communicate with every living soul on the planet.  [Thus,] even if we were in
danger of sinking within minutes, we would have the ability to press buttons on that to send out
[distress] signals.  If we have time, we would actually type out a message and detail all the
information and then send that.  We would have somebody with us fairly quickly.  Aircraft would
arrive fairly fast and they would be able to circle us and drop extra life rafts and supplies before
other ships could get to us.  Nowadays, the world is very small.”
    Participants in the lifeboat drills that take place on every voyage invariably think of the Titanic
disaster and wonder how their ship would do if she struck an iceberg or was involved in a similar
collision.  “There are a lot of [watertight] compartments on here. If you were to flood six of the
forward compartments, she would stay afloat with that.  But they say she is a 'two compartment ship'
which is to say that if the two largest compartments on the ship were to be flooded, then she would be
in danger of foundering.”
    Maritime scholars generally agree that it was a mistake for Titanic to try and turn to avoid the
iceberg rather than let the ship strike the iceberg bow on.  The same would be true with a modern
liner.   “Turning is not so good, you don’t want to make a hole down the side.  Your most sensitive
parts of the ship are the side, which are the passenger cabins, balconies, passenger public rooms
where passengers are most likely to be close, plus the fact that all the lifeboats are there.  The
forward end of the ship are mostly tanks and a couple of store rooms so you would be able to hit that
part of the ship straight on and you would probably do the least amount of damage.  You would have
the least danger of sinking because you could sustain a certain amount of damage up forward and still
be able to float quite easily and you have isolated it to one area where there are hardly any people.”
    As is pointed out during every passenger lifeboat drill, a more likely danger is fire.  Consequently,
QM2 has a system of smoke detectors linked to a hydrafog system that can blanket an area in a fire-
dosing mist within seconds.  In addition, ‘we have fire teams onboard that are all qualified and
trained by the UK fire training schools, the same as you have for the normal firemen in the UK.  All of
the officers are trained firefighters and we refresh our ticket every year so we go back to the fire
training schools in Hampshire or New Castle.  We get put through our paces just like a normal
fireman would do.  We get trained in the latest equipment.”
    “We [also] undergo training regularly onboard here.  The drills are twice a month but we also do
familiarization training for our fire teams about every four days.  They will be taken in their normal
uniforms up to look at certain areas which are where fires are more likely to occur if we were to get
one - - cooking areas, theater areas where they use pyrotechnics, places like that.  Then, we train our
fire teams over and over and over again in entry procedures for a fire in that particular area.  The idea
here is if you gave our fire teams a blank piece of paper and you sat them on the bridge and said to
them you have a fire in the Kings Court galley, they would be able to get a pen and draw for you
where the fire points are, where the door is, which way it opens all from memory.  Without having to
go down there or think about it, they know that behind this door there is a red button on the left etc.  
You drill them to a point where they are so familiar with they are as familiar with each area of the
ship as they are with their own home.”  

Staff Captain Robert Camby
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Cruise ship interview - - Cunard - - Queen Mary 2 - - Captain Robert Camby