Carr: Helsinki to Miami Aboard Carnival Spirit

carnival spirit
Carnival Spirit Photo: Carnival Cruise Line/CC BY-ND 2.0

By CW4 Michael Carr – “This is your cabin sir,” pronounced the Carnival crewman.

“Thank you” I replied, attempting to keep a low key and unemotional tone in my voice, but in my head, I was thinking, “Damn, this is way too nice for me, but whatever, I will be glad to take it.”

My cabin was just aft of the Carnival Spirit’s bridge. Spirit was a newly launched 963-foot, 88,500 gross ton cruise ship. My VIP suite had a balcony, large sitting area, huge bath, a king-size bed, white fluffy carpeting, a desk, lots of recessed lighting, and the list goes on.

“Way too ornate for me. I was much more comfortable in a cramped bunk on a sailboat, or a cabin on any of the many Coast Guard, Army, and merchant tugs I had served. I could not get over the balcony, with a varnished teak rail. Damn.

“Ok, I thought, I can deal with this, there is even a coffee pot in my room, sweet.”

I had boarded the Carnival Spirit at the Kvaerna-Masa shipyard in Helsinki Finland, where the ship was built, along with four other instructors from the Master, Mates, and Pilots Union. We had been contracted by Carnival to train the Spirit’s new crew in Coast Guard approved courses such as Crowd and Crisis Management, Basic and Advanced Firefighting, Ocean Survival Safety Training, and Enclosed Space Entry, during the ship’s transit from Helsinki to Miami FL.

Upon arrival in Miami the Spirit would load her inaugural group of 2,124 passengers and take off on her first cruise. The plan was for us to ensure her crew was trained and certified prior to arrival in Miami. We would then disembark, as passengers embarked.

We had ten days to accomplish our training. With no passengers on the Spirit she appeared to be an empty ship. Workers from the Kvaerna-Masa yard were riding along to complete some final work on the ship, along with the few hundred crew and ourselves. This is how I ended up with a VIP suite, there were no passengers!

Our voyage was to last 10 days, and each day would be filled with classes and exercises for the crew. We set up a classroom in the main ballroom and alternated class and tests with hands-on exercises.

Carnival ships are crewed by a mixture of diverse cultures. Italian officers, Philippine chefs, Chinese housekeepers, and Eastern European hostesses. Every morning an engaging Russian young lady provided us with strong black coffee, it was a great way to start the day.

“Let’s try this again,” I found myself saying during our fire drills. “You need to be more assertive, aggressive, take charge, don’t hesitate, get in there and fight the fire.” I realized that how we teach Firefighting in the US is different than in other cultures. We tend to be more aggressive. In the US Merchant Marine the Chief Mate is the “On-Scene Leader”, and like a squad leader in the military, they take charge and assert control. Other cultures are more deferential and reserved, which is often not the best approach when attacking an incipient fire.

“Inflate your trousers to stay afloat,” I instructed. “You cannot just tread water, you must get your pants or coveralls off and inflate them”. I demonstrated this in the ship’s pool and we coached tentative and many non-swimmer crewmembers through the drill.

After a few days at sea, we developed a rhythm and learned the crew’s names and personalities. There was an unwritten hierarchy among the many ethnic backgrounds and cultures. Some crew had never given orders but were now in charge of a designated lifeboat.

“Listen to me, passengers are like sheep, they are not mariners, they do not know what to do in an emergency. You are the sheepdog. Take charge, tell them what to do in a loud and commanding voice.” I would say to the crew.

“Make them don their lifejackets, but don’t use the word don, they don’t know that word, use the phrase put on your lifejacket, they know what that means. Passengers don’t want to put on lifejackets; they would rather just hold them. By putting on a lifejacket you are admitting an emergency exists. They don’t want to admit there is an emergency. “Head and mind games are going on here,” I would add. “Get in their heads, make them do your bidding!” We would all laugh a little to dispel some of the seriousness. “Now let’s do this again.”

As each day passed I became more attached to the crew, they were motivated, sincere and wanted to learn. They were some of the best students I had ever taught. In the mornings I would drink a cup of coffee on my private balcony, which overlooked the extended stabilizer fin protruding from the ship’s side. We barely rolled. This was the only ship I had ever sailed on where you could leave your full coffee cup unattended and it did not spill or slide off onto the deck. Amazing.

A few days prior to reaching Miami we had completed all the required training. We held a graduation ceremony and handed out certificates. I could see by the smiles on faces how happy these newly trained crew were with their maritime knowledge. I was also fulfilled, having been able to work with four other extremely talented and experienced MMP mariners, passing along the art and science of being a mariner.

We pulled into Miami early on our final morning. I watched from the Spirit’s bridge as the pilot boat came alongside, and then witnessed the expert interaction between the Miami Pilot and Spirit’s Captain as they worked together to bring the massive ship alongside Miami’s cruise ship terminal pier.

Once moored, my fellow instructors and I departed, going ashore via the crew’s gangway near the vessel’s stern. I paused on the gangway and looked forward to throngs of excited passengers carrying bags and paraphernalia crowding the boarding area and embarking gangway.

“Way too many people for me,” I said out loud, but to no one in particular. Then I looked at the ship, thought of the wonderful crew. “I sure will miss that morning coffee”, and we headed ashore.