Editor’s note – Monthly ticket is a new series from CNN Travel that highlights some of the most fascinating topics in the world of travel. In April, we set a course for the diverse world of cruises. Whether you’re looking for travel inspiration or insider knowledge, the Monthly Pass will take you there.
These factors will affect any ship, but multi-deck cruise ships can be affected the most due to their sheer size.
“The higher the ship, the greater the windage,” said David Bembridge. Bembridge is a retired cruise ship captain who has worked for decades on ships operated by P&O Cruises and Princess Cruises.
When the wind hits tall ships, they are prone to slip – a term used to describe a ship that is blown sideways. To counteract this effect, the vessel must be oriented at an angle.
This maneuver is very difficult when crossing a waterway such as the Suez Canal or the Panama Canal. In these narrow canals, ships must also avoid hitting the canal sides.
“If they pass quickly, it erodes the banks, pulling some of the sand away from the sides into the center of the channel, which is not good because it makes it less deep, and therefore causes shallower,” explains Bembridge.
While the Suez Canal and the Panama Canal have some unifying features, there are also major differences between the Egyptian waterway and the South American Canal.
Where the Panama Canal is largely bordered by forests and vegetation, Suez is surrounded by flat desert, which means there is potential for poor visibility due to sandstorms.
And while the 120-mile-long Suez Canal is largely straight, the nearly 50-mile-long Panama Canal “in and out of the islands,” as Bembridge describes it, with this terrain adding another dimension of challenge.
“It’s a different kind of difficulty, but it still requires a fairly intense focus going through there,” Bembridge explains.
Ships transiting the Panama Canal must pass through three different sets of locks. In recent years the locks have been expanded to better accommodate larger ships, but when Bembridge regularly sailed on the road, his ship would be separated from the lock’s sides by only two feet.
In Panama, mechanical tugs also help to haul cruise ships through the locks, while tug boats help steer larger vessels in the narrow sections of Suez.
“It’s usually a long day for the team on board, because you start and you don’t stop until you get to the other end,” Bembridge says of going through the two channels.
The cruise ships below the Suez Canal are assisted by local expert sailors, called marine pilots.
Soeren Stache / picture-alliance / dpa / AP
All ships operating in Suez and Panama are assisted by local sailors.
These sailors, known as marine pilots, board the ship at the beginning of the canal and work with the ship’s crew to ensure safe passage.
The Suez Canal and the Panama Canal are both “compulsory pilotage areas” – meaning that pilots are not optional, they are required by law.
Bembridge suggests that the working relationship between pilots and captains is not always smooth.
“This is one of the helping factors, and one of the drawbacks, sometimes, depending on the level of competence and the personalities involved,” he says.
“The pilot must legally direct the cause and speed of the ship. But at the same time, the master of the ship is always responsible for the safe navigation of the ship and this cannot be overruled by the captain.”
In some areas, the role of the pilot is less important, and not necessarily a legal requirement. But in the more challenging ports and waterways — such as Suez and Panama, or the waterways around Alaska, their role is essential.
Captain John Hering was a research vessel captain before becoming a naval pilot in Southeast Alaska.
Herring tells CNN Travel that there are two main reasons why pilots should be on board ships in certain areas.
“First, we provide local knowledge of road hazards, tides and currents, weather, concentrations of marine life, and more,” he explains.
“Second, being independent of the ship, we make an objective decision that is not subject to the economic pressures of the ship’s schedule. Captains are experts in their own ships and we are experts in Alaskan waters.”
Southeast Alaska is a mandatory extension area, partly because it is subject to strong winds and currents, and partly because of its marine ecosystem.
“Alaska’s coastal waters are blessed with an abundance of marine mammals,” Herring says. “Whale watching is a favorite pastime for commuters, but it requires constant vigilance on the bridge to avoid close encounters.”
Likewise, spotting icebergs and glaciers may be a highlight of an Alaskan trip, but these ice formations can cause difficulties for ships.
“This ice is hard and can damage the hull or the propellers,” Herring explains, adding that strong winds and currents make navigating the icy waters more difficult.
In recent years, technology has advanced, making navigating unexpected routes a little easier on ships.
But Hering points out that pilots are still an integral part of the age of satellite technology.
“The local pilot can still safely bring the ship into port without GPS,” he says.
Water depth and local terrain
The straits and canals in Chile, including the Murray Canal in southern Chile, shown here, can present particular challenges to ships.
Wolfgang Kahler / Light Rocket / Getty Images
Ships sailing around Alaska must also deal with varying water depths. In shallow water channels, ships need to move slowly to avoid creating a low-pressure area under the ship that could cause the ship to sink to the sea floor.
Ships can ‘squat’ if they are traveling too fast and therefore don’t have insufficient clearance under the keel, explains lead navigator Andy Winbow.
Cruise routes around Norwegian fjords, fjords, and Chile’s canals also include navigating the occasional shallow water.
Other cruise ship routes present problems because their terrain is constantly changing.
Bembridge gives the example of the Amazon River, parts of which are sometimes crossed on cruises in South America.
“The lower part of the Amazon is moving continuously and so on a marine map an island will appear, and when you get there the island will not be there, it will have moved to another place,” he explains. “It depends a lot on the pilots at the time – the local pilots are people who know the river and know how it’s being moved.”
City ports can also pose challenges.
Bembridge refers to the Dutch ports of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and the German port of Hamburg, as well as Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.
To dock in any of these cities, cruise ships must first cross a narrow channel, and how easy this is depends largely on weather conditions.
Planning and unexpected moments
Bembridge took this photo of one of the Panama Canal locks while at the helm of P&O Cruises’ MV Aurora cruise ship.
A solid itinerary plan is essential for easier sailing. Bembridge explains that cruise ship transit plans are usually drawn up by a junior officer, and then approved by the captain. The plans will always take into account any known potential challenges – such as wind, stream width, tides, and surrounding terrain.
“If you’re in an open ocean, that’s a relatively simple brief—this is the course we intend to follow, this is the pace we intend to go. Once you get close to land, and become more involved, begin to highlight the hazards, any currents, and the potential weather effects of any something,” says Bembridge.
“And then when you get into really confined water — which happens [Suez and Panama] Channels – so it’s a more intense brevity.”
The hacking threat is another factor to consider, although Bembridge notes that it’s not an issue than it used to be.
He remembers commanding the ships that cruised through the Gulf of Arden at wing speed, turning off the lights at night and organizing exercises for the passengers.
A portrait of Captain David Bembridge, who retired in 2020, near Cape Horn, Chile.
The weather is also taken into account when planning a trip, but all the preparations in the world can not take into account the completely unexpected.
Bembridge remembers a time when he was captain of a ship sailing from the Falkland Islands towards South America. The wind was expected to be strong, but when night fell, the storms were much stronger than expected.
Throughout the night, Bembridge and his team had been slowly heading towards the waves to try and counter the influence of the wind. When the daylight came, they saw how much they were dealing with.
“It was very, very big waves. And the bow of the ship was burying itself in and back in again, it was perfectly safe, but very uncomfortable.”
By the time the weather receded, the ship had drifted off course by about 30 miles. The ports had to be rearranged and the voyage re-planned.
But Bembridge notes that while ships may face unexpected challenges, ships and the people responsible for them are generally willing to take on obstacles.
“Modern cruise ships are well-equipped to handle all the challenges that come their way,” says Bembridge.
Top photo: A cruise ship sails in front of the Margerie Glacier in Glacier Bay, Alaska. Image credit: Tim Rue/Bloomberg via Getty Images