An Interview
Captain Albert
Capt. Albert J. Schoonderbeek BSc, MNI, was born in the eastern part of the
Netherlands in a town called Ede. In 1976 he entered the oldest Maritime Academy in the
world, “De Kweekschool voor de Zeevaart,” in Amsterdam and did his seagoing
apprenticeship in 1979. Upon graduation he found employment with Holland America
Line, the only Dutch company that operated cruise ships and has been with the line ever
since.  In addition to being the master of the VEENDAM, Captain Schoonderbeek is an
author of books and articles about the sea and passenger ships as well as the author of
Captain Albert’s Blog, which recounts VEENDAM’s exploits on a daily basis.  When he
is not commanding a ship, Captain Schoonderbeek and his wife enjoy cruising on ships of
other cruise lines.  He and his wife live in England.

Then and Now: Changes In The Cruising Life

Inasmuch as Captain Schoonderbeek co-authored the official company history, published
to mark 125 years of Holland America Line in 1998, an appropriate starting point for the
conversation was how being a captain on a Holland America ship today differs from being
a captain in the past.
     “Everything is so streamlined that it is very hard to put your personality on the product
anymore.  Of course, in the old days, the captains could basically run the ships the way
they saw fit as long as they arrived safely in New York and as long as they arrived safely in
Southampton.  So, that makes for characters.”
     “I started out in 1981 on the old STATENDAM and I thought: ‘I want to become a
captain of a cruise ship because this is nice.  This guy plays around with the boat a little bit
and the rest of the day he talks with the passengers, sits in a bar and has a drink - - this is
a great life.’  I remember near the end when the ship went out of service.  [The captain]
had a telex from the office, which was still here in New York at 2 Penn Plaza.  This
[caused a] major panic.  All the staff, all together in the Captain’s cabin, there is a telex
coming in from the office.  I thought ‘this is something, he got a telex from the office.’  
Now, you get several e-mails a day.  Things have changed a little bit.”
     The changing times are also reflected in changes in the life style aboard cruise ships.   
“There is a tendency in the industry to go more casual.  Holland America Line is fighting it
hand over fist.  When my wife and I cruise, I do like to dress up - - do it with a little bit of
     However, Captain Schoonderbeek recognizes that there is a strong current flowing in
the other direction. “I now come across people who are onboard a ship who are very well
to do guests but in their daily lives never wear a jacket or tie because in their way of living
it is unnecessary.  So, when they come onboard a ship, they get the most expensive cabin
onboard the ship but they still don’t dress up because they have never done it.”
     In addition, there is the fallout from the increased restrictions on the weight of the
baggage a passenger can bring on a commercial airplane.  “Before, you could take like 60
kilos, now it is down to 40.  What do these people do?  A tuxedo - - most of them, are
not light weight - - so are you going to pack a tuxedo and fly it all the way say to England
or to Germany for the two nights of formals?”
     “What also happens more and more frequently is that guests dress up for dinner but
the moment dinner is finished, they run back to the cabin, change and then go to the show.  
Typically, it is in these people’s mind set that you dress for dinner.  You go to expensive
restaurants, yes, you dress a bit more nicely.  Then, after, you go to the show like you go
to the movies.  You go in a tee-shirt again.  It is just the way people think nowadays.”    
      Along the same lines, Holland America is phasing out the traditional receiving line
during the captain’s welcome reception.  “The captain’s receiving line is becoming
something that a lot of people see as more of a nuisance than as really interesting.  We
already don’t [have a handshake] because of [the norovirus].  We have now the wave.  
Holland America ships are without [the norovirus] but, if it would be onboard, I as the
captain could be a major source of contamination because I’m shaking 1,200 hands.  
What we are going to do now is have the captain on the stage with a quick introduction of
the four staff officers and the employee of the month and then we do a champagne toast.  
So, people can happily sit down.  The first indications from the other ships where it has
already been rolled out are quite positive.  It takes from me a bit of the pleasure of meeting
everybody but people like it. If people like it, very good.”
     Another change being introduced to the Holland America fleet is “As You Wish”
dining.  Traditionally, Holland America has had two seatings in the main dining room of its
ships with passengers assigned to a specific time and table for dinner.  However, now
passengers will have a choice between the traditional approach of having a permanent
table and an approach that offers more flexibility as to time.  “It is being phased in step-by-
step across the whole fleet.  On the large ships, the Vista class, it is already operational
and on the smaller ships, it is being phased in slowly but steadily.  The reports that come
back from the other ships is very, very positive because we still maintain our regular
seating for those who want to.  All our dining rooms have two levels.  So, you have the As
You Wish level and you still have the static level.  So, there is something for everybody.  It
works very, very well.”
      Even with the introduction of the new dining arrangement, some of the traditions of
passenger ship dining will be maintained.  On VEENDAM, “we still have a deck table,
and there is an engine table and there is a hotel table for each sitting.  So, that means on a
rotation basis, one or two deck officer will attend first sitting and I’ll attend second sitting.   
Any licensed officer can go and if we have a cadet who is a bit upstream so that he can
answer a difficult question, then he goes as well, because people love it when a cadet hosts
a table.   Then, of course, there are the senior tables with the doctor and so and so.”
Captain Schoonderbeek sees the officer-hosted tables as being more than a means of
entertaining passengers.  “If you are a young guy or a young girl from England or from
Holland, it takes a while to understand Americans who you [as a ship’s officer] will be
working with for the rest of your life because the cultures are quite separate, quite
different.  The United States is a big country.  When you come from Europe, you
automatically think that everything looks like New York and acts like Dallas.  Then, you
come on board and you find that a lot of our clientele is from the Midwest.  You find out
that these people are totally different than the East Coast or from the West Coast.  That is
something you have to learn.  And for that, going to the tables, apart from that it is quite
good fun to do so, it is a very good training ground.  We still do it and we will keep doing
     The hotel department on cruise ships is usually the largest department and because its
responsibilities encompasses the dining, the entertainment, the bars, the activities, the shore
excursions and the accommodations, it is the department with the most contact with
passengers. As cruise ships have become destinations in themselves, the importance of this
department has grown.  However, on all cruise ships, the person in overall charge of the
enterprise is a deck officer.  Captain Schoonderbeek explained why.  “I don’t know how
to bake a cake and I don’t know how to present it but I know when there are issues going
on in the kitchen that need my attention.   The hotel manager runs his own department like
the Chief Officer runs the bridge and the Chief Engineer runs the Engine Room.  The
captain’s [role] is more and more of a situation where you coordinate. You also look for
patterns where there is something going wrong because the head of department isn’t
picking up or because he is so focused on  his little world that he doesn’t see it.  You don’t
look for details, you look for patterns.”  
     “If you grow through the ranks, you see those patterns because when you are a
navigator, you are on the bridge.  To learn to navigate, you learn at school.  When you
come on the ship you have your license and you can use the radar, you can tell the
quartermaster how to steer.  You build a routine and experience.  What you have to learn
is that mayhem that comes over the telephone.  The telephone on a cruise ship never
stops.  When you pick up the phone, you have to think about what I am now going to say
how is that going to cause a chain reaction eight decks down in the bowels somewhere.  
That’s what you learn when you go through the ranks.  Then, when you make captain, you
can control the situation because that is the advantage of being a navigator.  A navigator
always looks for issues - - it is safe navigation.  You look for how to avoid a collision.   In
the Hotel Department, they look for the positive thing, they want to provide service.  The
same with the engineers, they look at fixing things.  That is what engineers are all about - -
maintaining engines, fixing engines, doing things.  It comes down to somebody from the
Deck Department who becomes captain to see it in the bigger picture and to coordinate
     Still, a deck officer aspiring to be captain should learn about the other departments on
the ship.  “What would be useful is that they spend some time in the hotel department just
walking around and doing things.  But, [the job already forces them to do so] because the
deck department is the guys who are doing drills.  Then, automatically you get involved
with all the hotel people, how they think and how they operate and what are issues for
them.  A third officer who has just come fresh from school will get involved in traffic
control - - those are the ladies in the staircase who guide the guests to the lifeboats.  They
come from first of all, the shops and the casino because of the language skills, the
photographers, musicians - - these are basically land lubbers who don’t have a clue about
sailing.  But, they have a job at sea so there we have a young third officer who has to train
them in lifesaving capabilities.  At the same time, he has to understand how these people
think.  There you get a crash course in alternative thinking because a musician who come
aboard to play a flute does not think about safety, does not think about how a cruise ship
runs.  He just wants to do his gig and then go for a drink and amuse himself.  They learn by
going through the ranks.”