Shortly after our ship departs from Newcastle for Amsterdam, we are escorted up to the bridge. But not because we are in trouble. We have been invited up to see the view and to find out a little about life upstairs and what’s involved in captaining a modern cruise ferry.
View from the Bridge
“How do you get to be the Captain?” asks Cameron, not wasting any time with small talk as he chats up the Second Officer on the bridge of King Seaways, one of two DFDS vessels that ply between Newcastle and Amsterdam.
If 23 year old Alex Vovchenko is surprised by my son’s directness, he doesn’t show it. Instead, he smiles, before replying, “Working all the time. Study, study, study.” It’s not the answer Cameron wants to hear.
“So, you’re not the Captain right?” checks Cameron. “Do you want to be the Captain?” Cameron is determined to glean all the information he can out of this encounter.
“Everybody wants to be the Captain,” smiles Alex.
We change the subject, before Cameron mentions Captain Underpants. His brother challenged him to drop it into the conversation when he found out about the bridge visit. And Cameron loves a challenge.
A still life painting
The most surprising thing about the bridge is the air of calm. Downstairs it’s like being on a cruise ship as passengers relax, dine and dance. Up here there’s the hush of an an art gallery, the second officer a lone curator watching over the installations. The control console has a touch of Yves Klein with its giant screens of blue. Lines of silent walkie talkies in the corner are a more contemporary artwork. There’s a still life by the sofa; a large bowl of fruit sitting on a pressed cotton tablecloth. And outside the big picture windows not still life but wildlife – minke whales, white beaked dolphins and porpoises. Not that we’ve seen them; but we heard all about them in a talk from the onboard wildlife expert.
“Is that the Captain’s chair?” asks Cameron pointing to the big chair in front of the console.
Alex shrugs. “Not really. You want to?”
Cameron is quick to climb up. “I’m the King of the castle…King of the Seaways castle,” says the ten year old as I cringe. But at least he didn’t sing the theme from Captain Underpants. He sits a while and looks out upon the ocean, perhaps dreaming of a life at sea.
Alex strides over to a second control desk behind us to show us four CCTV screens showing the car decks.
“That’s the coach that drove on ahead of us!” says Hannah, thrilled with herself for noticing.
Alex points out rows of green lights that reassure the crew the car desks are safe and sealed. He explains how the smoke detectors and sprinklers work, how he can monitor each cabin and detect problems and faults. And then he notices a single red light. He jabs and pokes at it and then sets to work on sorting it out while we watch and realise how much responsibility lies on the shoulders of the people who work in this room.
Yet no one is steering the ship
I’m strangely interested in the technicalities.
“Will the ship be on autopilot for the whole trip?” I ask.
“No, no no!” says Alex, taken aback by my ignorance. He springs back over to the main control desk and moves a cursor across an electronic chart to show me what it’ll be like later in the evening; dotted with traffic lanes and gas platforms that serve as potential hazards.
“Any icebergs?” asks Cameron hopefully from the high chair.
“No icebergs,” Alex says firmly.
A colleague of Alex’s pops his head around the door and we quiz him about how long it would take them to stop the ship, in the event of an iceberg or something like that. (I think that Titanic season made more of an impression than we thought!) He reassures us they can stop the engines and disengage the propeller in a minute.
In the chair of the top banana
Alex invites us to eat the fresh fruit. But it wouldn’t be right; that’s the Captain’s fruit bowl. And anyway I think between us we’ve already sampled almost all the 80 dishes on the buffet downstairs and need to leave a little room for drinks at the cabaret later. While it’s nice up here, having ditched my vehicle and all the responsibilities of driving, I’d rather relax downstairs. And I know the kids are itching to play Bingo.
But not until they’ve all had a go in the high chair. When I’m in the control seat I feel like Captain Kirk. But it reminds Matthew of something else entirely.
“It’s a barber’s chair,” he cries as he pulls me off. “I’d like a little trim please; short on the top.”
When Hannah sits up she decides she would like to be a Captain, despite the responsibilities. “You get a cool chair and all the apples you can eat.”
“How about you Matt? Want to study hard and sail the ship?” I ask.
“Yes. You should be Captain Underpants, Matthew.” says Cameron. “I think you’d be very good at that.”
For UK adventurers DFDS Seaways has two routes to mainland Europe with daily sailings from Newcastle to Amsterdam (great for heading into Central or Northern Europe) and regular sailings from Harwich to Esbjerg (perfect for exploring Scandinavia and the only direct sea route from the UK).
On both routes the ships are more like cruise ships than ferries with a range of comfortable overnight cabins, bars, restaurants and on board entertainment. What’s more in season there are kids clubs and on board wildlife experts to help keep the kids interested and occupied.
Travelling by sea really marks the start of a journey and has other advantages for adventure seekers. It’s a bit of an adventure in itself, with all the excitement of boarding, the uncertainty of the weather, an unfamiliar ship to explore and the opportunity to get blown away on deck. There are no baggage restrictions so you can take all the gear you want without worrying about baggage surcharges. And on overnight crossings you get a night’s accommodation included, a good night’s sleep (weather permitting!) and arrive on the continent fresh and ready to explore. You can have breakfast on board (great fresh bread, pastries and coffee) and then, with your own car or bikes with you, you can drive straight off and get going. Perfect! For more details check out the DFDS Seaways website.
This post is part of our 2012 Adventure Islands Season. We spent summer 2012 exploring Iceland and The Faroes, researching what’s on offer for adventure seeking families. We’re grateful to Smyril Line for help with transport, to Berghaus and Thule who helped equip us for the journey. All experiences, views and opinions are however, as ever, our own.
You can see a map of our journey on The Family Adventure Project Punkt! and view some exclusive behind the scenes photos and video of what we got up to.