Post Travels: Behind the Scenes with the Captain of a Cruise Ship

You might be surprised at the things a ship’s captain has to worry about.

Captain Henk Draper in a boat's control room.
Captain Henk Draper. (photo courtesy Holland America Line)

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Whether you’re new to cruising or a seasoned sailor, you learn something new with every ship and destination. From streamlining packing skills to booking shore excursions to taking advantage of what’s included on your sailing, once you get your rhythm down, the excitement of waking up to a new location every day kicks in full gear.

But really getting to know a ship, and the destinations to which she sails, takes time and experience, so when you have a question, there’s no better resource than the captain. Holland America Line Captain Henk Draper has been showing excited travelers the world for a quarter of a century. Born and raised in The Netherlands in a family of seamen, Draper has spent his career at sea, first on cargo ships and then with Holland America.

Captain Henk Draper in a boat's control room.
Captain Henk Draper. (photo courtesy Holland America Line)

“I must admit Holland America Line was not my first choice of a job, but after 25 years I think I have the best job ever,” says Draper.

Every week or so, thousands of new people make the Noordam their home away from home. As Captain, Draper is responsible for the safety and security of around 2,800 passengers and crew members on a daily basis.

“I think as a Captain that you are responsible for everything that is going on, on the bridge and on the ship. I think as the Captain you should regularly walk around on the ship and be visible. You should be in the engine room, you should be in the laundry, you should be in the kitchen, because it is important that both guests and employees see you are taking care of business,” says Draper.

Most people have no idea about what goes on behind the scenes of a cruise ship. From water desalination, to stabilizers, to keeping an eye out for whales.

“As soon as we see whales, we have to slow down,” says Draper. “We are trained in how to predict the movement of the whales, and personally I’ve never had any whale strikes. Holland America Line developed the interactive, computer-based training program designed to avoid whale strikes in cooperation with NOAA and the National Parks Service. All deck officers on Holland America Line vessels have taken the course, and the program is being shared with the cruise and maritime community.”

Boat passengers watch whales cresting.
Whale watching cruise excursion. (Photo courtesy Holland America Line)

It seems simple enough, but fluctuating speed can make keeping to a schedule and getting to port on time challenging.

“When we go to Alaska, the whale population is growing so fast out there,” says Draper. “You have to slow down for those pods of whales and you still want to be on time in Ketchikan.”

A cruise ship sailing in a bay at dusk.
The Noordam in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Serhat Akin)

Whether in Alaska, or in the South Pacific, constantly changing weather and tides have to be considered throughout cruise journeys. On a recent sailing into Akaroa, New Zealand, the Noordam had just six and a-half-feet (2 meters) under the keel. When docking in Sydney, Austrailia, Captain Draper had the same amount of space atop the ship as she sailed under the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The ship’s bridge is equipped with the most recent technology, but experience can never be replaced and comes into play in situations most cruisers don’t realize, like reporting swell height.

“It is all estimated. It is just experience. We cannot really meter it from the ship. It’s all by eye,” says Draper.

As a Captain, Draper works three months on, and then has three months off. Picking a favorite port at sea is tough, but for a variety of reasons, Draper has a fondness for Port Chalmers, New Zealand.

“I think it’s just awesome when you go in, and when you sail out I’m always amazed by the albatross colony on the starboard side. And I always enjoy watching and for me it is kind of the highlight of the whole cruise,” says Draper.

Seagulls in flight above a hill
Port Chalmers albatross colony. (Photo courtesy Monarch Wildlife Cruises)

And when the opportunity allows, he doesn’t hesitate to head into town, to enjoy a meal The Portsider restaurant.

“He (the owner) makes the best Bitterballen I’ve ever eaten,” says Draper. (A traditional Dutch snack, Bitterballen is a ragout of slow cooked beef shoulder coated in bread crumbs and deep fried.)

What’s one of the Captain’s favorite things to eat on the ship? Draper’s a big fan of the steel cut Oatmeal. So if your travels take you aboard Noordam, you know what to order for breakfast.



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