‘Can you actually be ‘on holiday’ if you’re going on a cruise and you work at a maritime museum?’ asked one person when I explained that this summer, for my holiday, I would be boarding the Azamara Quest for a 10 day cruise from Rome to Istanbul.

Well, it turns out you can’t. And if your daily grind is thinking about longitude and navigation, it is especially hard to do so. So, after a few days of non-stop cocktails and lounging on the pool deck, I thought it was about time to make the most of my time onboard the Azamara Quest.

Phillip Herbert, the Hotel Director for the Quest, is one of those people for whom anticipating other people’s needs is a matter of professional pride. So when I casually mentioned that I work at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, quick as a flash he asked, ‘Would you like a tour of the Bridge?’. Every day we were treated to ‘The Voice from The Bridge’, daily announcements from the wonderful Captain Jose, but how would actually being there compare?

After being escorted by security through a door that says ‘Crew Only’, past a corridor lined with plaques commemorating the first calls the ship made to destinations across the world, we were introduced to crew members Andrada and Peter, who stood behind rows of electrical equipment, facing a wall of windows looking out onto the open, featureless sea.

AIS (or Automatic Identification System) alerts the crew to other ships in the area.

These rows of electrical equipment represent the multitude of high-tech devices all modern cruise ships are equipped with to keep their course as they trek across the globe to exotic ports of call. Global Positioning Sustem (GPS), multiple navigation radars, echo sounders, adaptive self-tuning autopilot, fiber-optic gyro heading reference systems, Doppler speed longs, and electroniuc chart displays…

To the left of the rows of radars and GPS navigation system, stood a 3rd Officer, staring out across the sea. Andrada explained that he was the ‘Port Master’ whose job it is to scan the horizon 24 hours a day. All the crew undertake this duty, rotating every four hours. Andrada explained that despite all the Automatic Identification Systems, which is used to identify other ships in the area, and other equipment, there is no substitute for the human eye.

 

Port Master uses the most important equipment, his eyes, to survey the horizon for nearby ships. Port Master uses the most important equipment, his eyes, to survey the horizon for nearby ships.

The sentiment that, despite all the electrical equipment in the world was no substitute for a seaman’s eyes, was echoed by Navigation Officer Kiryakos. He emphasised that the electrical equipment was there to assist, rather than replace, the expertise and instinct of the crew. This is easier said than done, however, in fog, when the crew have no choice but to trust the radar.

One of the things I tell people when I’m doing my tours of Ships, Clocks & Stars is about the history of the sextant, and how even modern sailors (despite all the electronic equipment) are still trained in the art of using a sextant…So I had to ask, did they have one on the Quest?

The answer is yes, and Kiryakos was kind enough not only to get the dusty sextant out of the cupboard but also show me how to use it.

When they have long periods of time at sea, that’s when they generally tend to use it, but it’s more to practice so they know how to use it, but they still have a copy of the Nautical Almanac and the Nautical Tables to hand. Maskelyne would be proud.

‘Is this thing on?’ How (not) to use a sextant ‘Is this thing on?’ How (not) to use a sextant

 

Navigation Officer, Kiryakos shows me how it’s done. Navigation Officer, Kiryakos shows me how it’s done.