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

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.



Post Travels: How to Have a Luxury Cruise Experience on a Budget

Cruising naturally takes many complications out of traveling. You unpack once, go to bed, and wake up in a new destination. Repeat the cycle over and over again, and you can cover a lot of ground, even on sailings that only last a week. And for savvy travelers, cruising is also a great way to travel on a budget.

Wallet-Friendly Travel

Eva Jenner, Vice President of Sales for Holland America Line, notes a cruise’s built-in advantage: “Cruising is a more affordable way of seeing a country or region than a land holiday. Take for example that countries such as Norway and Japan are fairly costly to travel in. Traveling by a cruise ship offers a way to make these more expensive destinations affordable.”

Food and lodging, two of the largest expenses associated with travel, are typically included in cruise fares. And if you do your homework and have flexibility with your travel dates, there are deals on sailings to be found. For instance, “Fall is a great time in terms of value,” according to Jamie Dee, Cruise Director on Carnival Paradise.

Included Eats

Luxury means different things to different travelers. While some might seek spa experiences and fancy linens, to others, daily breakfast in bed does the trick. A free room service menu is a perk available on a number of cruise lines, including both Holland America and Carnival.

It’s also common for cruise lines to offer optional specialty dining venues aboard its ships. High-end menus including steak, seafood and specialty cuisine often come with an additional fee. Though typically cheaper than what dining out might cost at home, if it’s not in your budget, you won’t feel deprived at sea.

Main dining rooms offer multi-course meals at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Can’t decide which dessert or appetizer to try? Order more than one. It doesn’t matter how little or how much you eat; it’s all included in your cruise fare. Though it’s never a good idea to waste food, having no restrictions often encourages travelers to step outside their comfort zone and try new things.

America’s Test Kitchen. (Photo courtesy Holland America Line)

On sea days, Holland America serves formal afternoon tea, in addition to simpler dining options like burgers and tacos. Its Lido buffet serves up options ranging from sushi and gingerbread waffles to a salad bar with seared tuna. Carnival has built a name for the included food offerings they’ve added for cruisers over the years. Along with Mexican eatery BlueIguana Cantina, the line’s partnership with Food Network star Guy Fieri means travelers can now nosh on gourmet burgers and barbeque for no additional charge. Royal Caribbean offers a fun food truck concept with the Dog House, as well as a fun selection of international fare at Windjammer.

Guy’s Burger Joint. (Photo courtesy Carnival Cruise Line)

Drink Deals

Whether a drink package is a deal or not varies from one person to the next. If you’re more of a lightweight, happy hours and drink specials might be all you need. Some folks simply like the idea of the expense being prepaid and not having to think about it. Drink packages come in all sorts of varieties, covering everything from alcoholic beverages to soft drinks and bottled water. While some cruise lines allow passengers to bring one bottle of wine per person on board, most alcohol will be confiscated and returned at the end of the cruise. However, many lines do allow guests to bring non-alcoholic beverages like sparkling water, juices and sodas aboard. Norwegian Cruise Lines offers a free open bar option with many of its sailings.

Alchemy Bar. (Photo courtesy Carnival Cruise Line)

Take Advantage of Free On-Board Activities

“All entertainment and onboard programming is part of the overall cruise experience. Guests have an array of onboard activities to choose from as well as multiple music venues and Broadway style shows – all included in the cruise price,” says Holland America’s Jenner.

Taking advantage of free offerings is key to keeping a cruise budget intact. A list of free activities and those that require a fee is printed in the cruise bulletin that is typically left in staterooms every evening by housekeeping staff. Some cruise lines’ schedules can also be accessed on-line or via cell phone apps for no additional cost.

BB King Blues Club Band. (Photo courtesy Holland America Line)

Getting more for less is especially important for traveling families. Carrying 800,000 kids a year, Carnival ships offer plenty to keep young ones busy. “Entertainment options such as Lip Sync Battle, Hasbro, The Game Show, Playlist Productions, massive WaterWorks aqua parks and the Seuss-a-palooza Parade and Story Time – all are offered at no charge,” said Dee.

WaterWorks. (Photo courtesy Carnival Cruise Line)

Royal Caribbean’s Oasis-class ships are packed with activities for kids, including rock climbing walls, ice skating rinks, zip lines, and surf simulators.

Though families are welcome aboard Holland America sailings, entertainment options focus more on live performances typically preferred by adult cruisers. Unique partnerships mean guests can enjoy an eight-piece band in the B.B. King’s Blues Club, or live chamber music performances at Lincoln Center Stage. America’s Test Kitchen boasts live cooking demonstrations, and the Microsoft Digital Workshop offers computer and technology classes.

Free activities are obviously popular. If you’re looking to ditch the crowds, pay particular attention to options offered on days when your ship is in port. You don’t necessarily have to skip going ashore; lingering onboard a little longer, or heading back a touch earlier is sometimes all it takes to have some of your favorite offerings all to yourself.

Booking Cruise Excursions Onboard Versus Independently

It’s often a better deal to book tours and excursions on your own, but there are risks involved with the cheaper price tag. Cruise ships aren’t known for waiting for straggling passengers, so on those rare occurrences when something goes awry, stress levels can intensify. Excursions booked on board come with the peace of mind that you’ll never be left behind. Plan accordingly, giving yourself plenty of extra time if you venture out on your own. If you’re the type that tends to worry, acknowledge it and act accordingly. You won’t have any fun out exploring if you’re constantly worried about getting back to the ship. And no one should have to worry when on vacation.