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Smooth sailing: behind the scenes on a cruise liner.

Take a first-class hotel designed to accommodate a thousand or more guests and marry it to a 700-foot long ocean-going vessel, and you have one of more than a dozen cruise liners plying the Inside Passage from May through September.

"But don't call it a floating hotel," says Peter Wallis, purser on the Nieuw Amsterdam, one of four leviathans of the Holland America Lines that call at Panhandle ports and Glacier Bay, often pressing on to Valdez and Seward.

That, he emphasizes, would be an oversimplification. I'm inclined to agree, having explored the MS Nieuw Amsterdam from the relative serenity of its bridge to the pulsating throb of its engine room during a seven-day peak season cruise from Vancouver to Ketchikan, Juneau and Sitka.

After meeting with Captain Jack van Coevorden and spending time with Chief Officer Hans van Biljouw and Chief Engineer Bram Francke, it quickly became clear that there is nothing simple about maintaining a 33,930-ton vessel with 607 passenger staterooms and 14 public rooms that pampers its guests at sea 51 weeks a year. An oceangoing vessel is a stand-alone community, and as a result, passenger safety and comfort - as opposed to mere housekeeping - must be the No. 1 priority round-the-clock, seven days a week.

The purpose of an ocean cruise is to provide a carefree environment for the ship's passengers. But achieving that objective while on a split-second timetable and covering nearly 2,000 nautical miles is a daily challenge for the liner's 532 officers and crew.

The Nieuw Amsterdam, whose international radio call letters are Poppa Juliet Charlie Hotel, was built at Chantiers de L'Atlantique in St. Nazaire, France, at a cost of $165 million (U.S.) and entered service in May 1983. It is registered in St. Maarten, Netherlands Antilles, but spends its summers in Alaskan waters and its winters in the Caribbean, with only a single week reserved each spring for dry dock.

The rest of the year, major overhauls and inspections - such as infrared thermography of electrical panel-boards and switch gear - take place at sea or on turnaround days in port.

Most engine room systems are inspected annually for insurance purposes, and some pumps are regularly overhauled every two years. Once every five years - also as required by its marine classification - every electrical and mechanical system on the ship gets a thorough check up. Constant Care. But it is unrelenting daily attention to maintenance that keeps the Nieuw Amsterdam functioning like the smoothly oiled machine that it is. "We can fix most anything on the ship while we are on the move, except for the main engine crankshafts," says Chief Engineer Francke, a Dutch citizen who has been with Holland America for 24 years.

The engine room has three overhead cranes and a 5-ton jack that enable the engineering division to tackle major jobs, such as replacing a 2.5-ton, 26-inch-diameter cylinder liner. A complete machine shop equipped with lathes and drills is ready to fabricate any part not readily available in the vessel's extensive stores.

But there are a few things that Francke and his 38-man staff, which includes three electricians and six machinists, aren't prepared to repair. They are the computers and other office equipment - such as copiers - in the hotel department. If these break down, shore-based technicians are usually contacted by radio-telephone to meet the ship when it docks.

Although almost any corrective maintenance activity can be pursued while the ship is under way, Francke often will defer certain projects, if they aren't pressing or safety related, until the ship is docked at its departure port - which for Alaskan cruises is Vancouver, British Columbia. There he has approximately 10 hours available for shore-side maintenance while the ship is reprovisioning, off-loading passengers and taking on a new complement of vacationers.

At the completion of our cruise, for example, Francke had scheduled several jobs to be done in Vancouver: repair of an evaporator pump and valve, replacement of turbocharger air intake filters and replacement of a six-stem one-inch pipeline.

The only regularly scheduled preventive maintenance work aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam occurs in the engine room. Once a week, when the ship is in Vancouver on turnaround day, the engineering staff carefully goes over the two 10,800-kw (14,677-hp) seven-cylinder diesel engines, checking bearings, fuel valves, fuel pump valves and starting valves, and replacing piston rings.

Each diesel engine drives a 15-foot-diameter propeller at a steady 135 rpms; maximum speed of 21 knots is achieved by changing the pitch of the propellers, not by increasing the revolutions per minute. Fuel consumption is 46 gallons per mile.

Also while in port, the Nieuw Amsterdam normally sends motors ashore that need to be rewound, picking them up when it returns a week later. There are 40 large, high-efficiency AC motors in the engine room and some 500 in all aboard ship, powering pumps, hoists, anchors, cranes, fans and such. All the motors used on deck are extra-heavy-duty models, and although the deck department is responsible for regularly inspecting them to make certain they are working, if repairs are needed, the work is handled by the engineering staff.

Typically, the ship will lose two motors during a week-long cruise. Francke notes that although shipboard motors employ special insulation systems to combat the high humidity at sea, "moisture is a killer." Because all engine room systems are redundantly designed, however, it is possible to operate the ship normally even if a critical piece of equipment, such as a cooling water pump motor, shorts out.

Because the Nieuw Amsterdam was built in France, 85 percent of its equipment is French made. The kitchen and laundry equipment were supplied by U.S. firms, and the boilers, evaporators and fan room equipment were made in Holland. Originally all of the motors aboard were supplied by the French firm Unelec. Francke still orders spare motors in Europe because they are cheaper, but if a replacement is urgently needed, he'll pick up a Baldor from a local distributor.

For spares, the ship carries more than a dozen AC motors rated 80-hp to 200-hp, primarily for horizontal pump applications, and several hundred fractional-horsepower motors for heating and ventilating fans and for kitchen equipment such as convection ovens, mixers and ice makers.

The Nieuw Amsterdam is able to get one-day turnaround on motor rewinds if it calls ahead and has an apparatus service shop truck meet the ship. But Francke says the drawback in such repairs is that the short time in port does not enable the ship to apply the best possible insulation system.

Although the engineering staff doesn't attempt to rewind motors, it regularly replaces faulty bearings identified with vibration-testing equipment.

Command & Control. The engine control and engine rooms, which Francke calls the nerve centers of the ship, are staffed in eight-hour watches by a second engineer, a third engineer and an assistant. Francke himself, like all other officers on the Nieuw Amsterdam, is on 24-hour call seven days a week. After four consecutive months on the job, he gets a 10-week leave.

The engine room watch keeps an eye on a sophisticated digital computer system that monitors 250 different analog instruments keeping track of things such as oil pressures and temperatures. Abnormal readings generate alarms that are displayed on a video terminal. The computer every four hours prints out a hard-copy record of each computer-generated alarm.

"There are always surprises every day," says Francke, who went to sea on a cargo ship as an apprentice at the age of 18 and received his chief engineer license at the age of 35.

In addition to the main engines, Francke's other primary concerns are the two shaft generators, each producing 2,400 kw; the auxiliary engine used when in port to generate 4,000 kw; bow and stern thrusters rated 800 kw each, which are used for maneuvering and docking; five exhaust gas boilers; two oil-fired incinerators for paper products; and four sea-water evaporators run by steam or main-engine-cooling water capable of producing 195,000 gallons (600 tons) per day of fresh water.

Another area of engineering responsibility is the HVAC system, which uses chilled water produced by three centrifugal compressors (a fourth compressor is on standby). This is circulated throughout the ship to fan rooms and heat exchangers that serve the passenger cabins, public rooms and crew's quarters.

Rounding out Francke's responsibilities are maintenance of the ship's electrical distribution system, the commercial laundry equipment and the food preparation and refrigeration equipment in the sprawling galley, presided over by Executive Chef Karel Leemkuil.

Keeping kitchen equipment on-line is vital aboard a cruise ship, because food service for the passengers is almost non-stop, beginning with breakfast at 6:30 a.m., through brunch, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and the late buffet, which doesn't conclude until shortly after midnight. During our cruise, the kitchen prepared nearly 10 tons of meat, fish and poultry; nine tons of vegetables; and more than 2,700 dozen eggs, served with eight tons of fresh fruit and 300 gallons of ice cream.

Steering a Safe Course. Five decks up from the engine room, on the bridge, Chief Officer van Biljouw, who has served with Holland America Lines for 28 years, has different concerns: navigation and safety.

The 40 officers and men of his deck department include not only the quartermasters who man the bridge in six four-hour watches - even when the vessel is on autopilot - but also painters and carpenters. The painters twice a year refinish the Nieuw Amsterdam with 800 gallons of paint - navy blue for the hull and white for the superstructure - while thee carpenters maintain the decks and woodwork.

The deck department conducts lifeboat drills during each cruise. Its goal in training is to be able to launch all lifeboats and rafts in 30 minutes. It also is responsible for fighting fires, except in the engine room, which has its own fire squad.

Fire detection, prompt response and containment are major concerns aboard every ship at sea, and the Nieuw Amsterdam is no exception. There are 218 smoke detectors on the ship, all connected to a safety console on the bridge. If a detector senses smoke, its corresponding indicator light on the bridge console will flash red and an audible alarm will sound. The detectors are extremely sensitive. We recently had an alarm caused by a passenger smoking a pipe while standing under a detector," says von Biljouw.

In the event of an actual fire, yellow fire screen doors can be pneumatically actuated from the bridge to partition the ship into five vertical sectors. These fire doors, which are checked every day at sea, also can be closed manually. They are designed to contain a fire for at least 60 minutes twice as long as it would take to launch the lifeboats and abandon the ship.

To fight a fire, the ship has 182 fire hose stations, of which at least two can reach any compartment, plus 116 hand-held chemical extinguishers. Four fire pumps, which are checked weekly, keep the firefighting system continually pressurized.

The safety console not only pinpoints the location of a fire, it also indicates whether watertight bulkheads below the water line are open or closed. The Nieuw Amsterdam has 23 watertight doors that can be closed to create 11 compartments. The ship can stay afloat with any two of those compartments flooded.

The navigation aids aboard ship are equally impressive. Besides magnetic and gyro compasses, there are two VHF radios and a COMSAT radio, a fax to receive weather reports, and four radar systems. An anticollision radar can track up to 20 ships within a 48-mile circle, while a 3-centimeter radar provides a larger picture useful in navigating narrow passages. Both of these radars are connected to a third radar screen, which is used by the pilot. The fourth radar is a short-range RACA-DECCA system designed exclusively for use in narrow passages, which are ubiquitous among the 1,000 major and minor islands of Southeast Alaska.

All the navigation officers know how to trouble-shoot these radar systems, and spare circuit boards are available for at-sea repairs. But if a problem cannot be solved, the ship will radio ahead to have a technical representative meet it at the next port of call.

As is the case with most unforgettable experiences, it is the people behind the scenes who often deserve much of the credit. And when it comes to a cruise tour, that goes double. Kudos are deserved not only by the chef, the waiters, the wine steward and the cruise director; the engineering and deck departments also merit a big hand for their roles in seeing that the passengers enjoy smooth sailing.
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Author:Elsberry, Richard
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Feb 1, 1991
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