Travels: A visit to the bridge of the Roald Amundsen

November 11, 2019 • 8:00 am

As of 6:30 a.m., the map tells us that we’re about to enter the Beagle Channel again, heading to Puerto Williams (the world’s southernmost city with a population of about 3,000) where customs clearance appears to be required for entering and leaving Chile, even via Antarctica. Tomorrow morning we land at the larger town of Punta Arenas, where passengers on this cruise debark and a new crop gets on.

Our ship (as of 6:30 a.m.) is circled, but we’re now stopping in Puerto Williams.

The ship’s Panomax camera has not been updated since 3:10 am so all it shows is the ship, but it’s now dawn and I can see that we’re close to land. View at 3:10:

As we were in the Drake Passage yesterday, with no opportunity to go ashore, the ship allowed the passengers to visit the bridge in groups. There captain Kai Albrigtsen, 54 gave us a nice long explanation of how the ship is run (I have pictures of the engines and batteries that I can show later.) The Hurtigruten page on his appointment as captain says this:

Hurtigruten has appointed Kai Albrigtsen as the captain of its newest cruise ship, the MS Roald AmundsenAlbrigtsen has been with the cruise line for 37 years, since joining as a galley assistant at the age of 17. 

. . .Throughout his career, Albrigtsen had a number of different positions on board more than 10 Hurtigruten vessels. His first expedition to Antarctica was in 2003, rose to the rank of captain in 2006.

An outdoor enthusiast, Albrigtsen often spends his time off fishing or hiking with his family in Norway’s Vesterålen or Lofoten islands.

For the past two years, he has held the position of master on the Hurtigruten expedition cruise ship MS Midnatsol.

Yes, it’s true (and I asked him before I read the above) that Albrigtsen began washing dishes on Hurtigruten ships, and worked his way up until now he pilots the flagship vessel for the entire company. Here’s the venerable captain standing before his station where the ship is “steered” (it’s largely done by computers and GPS, like an airplane autopilot).

There is no “wheel” to steer the ship as it’s done by computer and computer programming, though there is a “joystick” for manual control.

This is where the captain stands when he controls the ship. I hope that coffee mug isn’t full during rough seas!

A crew of 5 mans (wrong word, since some are female) the bridge, including the navigator and the co-captain (I can’t remember her name). Each person does an 8-hour shift, with three such shifts per day.

The ship has no rudder, as it’s steered by propellers in both the front and back of the boat. There are also thrusters on the side and two stabilizer fins, one on each side. Those, combined with the propulsion system and GPS, can keep the ship absolutely still in the water, moving at most a meter.  As far as I can see, there is no anchor on the ship, but I didn’t get a close inspection. (The Midnatsol, another Hurtigruten ship I circumvented in a Zodiac, does have an anchor, but I don’t know if they use it.)

Here is the co-captain. I was heartened to see so many women in high positions in the ship and in the company. The purser and several other officers are women.

There is the equivalent of a brakeman’s “dead man’s hand” in the ship: if there is no activity at least once every five minutes at night, an alarm goes off for the crew. This of course is to alert people if the skipper is either gone, unconscious, or dead.  I’m not sure how this works, and I may have given an erroneous description since I just overheard the co-captain mention this to another passenger.

Below is the co-captain’s screen. Both she and the captain have chairs, but they don’t sit directly in front of their screens, probably to get a better view of the sea ahead. (There is of course all manner of radar and sonar.)

The ship has a series of five overhead screens, again like an airplane. Here they are:

I photographed the three central screens. Although I’ve had to reduce the image quality, perhaps you can make out what each screen is showing. It’s all very high-tech.

And here’s the main screen directly in front of the captain and co-captain’s desk, showing the plotted route. As you see, we were heading north towards Puerto Williams yesterday.

Finally, how much ice can this ship plow through? It’s designed to go through a meter of sea ice, but, as the captain said, “It’s easier to go around ice than through it.” Icebergs, made of tough glacial ice that’s compressed snow, are harder than sea ice and are best avoided, as we know from the lesson of the Titanic.

You can read more about this first hybrid cruise ship at this link.

We saw a humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae), though whale sightings have been rare on this trip. This one came close to the ship and spouted; I was lucky to get this shot because the sun was so bright I couldn’t see the view screen. I just pointed the camera in the general direction and pressed the button when I saw a spout. The ship’s captain identified it over the loudspeaker as a humpback.

It dove and disappeared shortly after I took the photo. This picture was pure luck.

And a last photo of Antarctia. I’ll be back in a few days and will post more as I get time.


51 thoughts on “Travels: A visit to the bridge of the Roald Amundsen

  1. Icebergs, made of tough glacial ice that’s compressed snow, are harder than sea ice and are best avoided

    Understatement of the day haha.

  2. “An outdoor enthusiast, Albrigtsen often spends his time off fishing or hiking with his family in Norway’s Vesterålen or Lofoten islands.”

    If asked for a list of the best places in the world to live, Lofoten would be likely right at the top for me. I hope to do a bike tour there someday before getting too old, a time also when I luck out on getting all sunshine, no rain. It seems exceptionally mild for way north of the Arctic Circle, again the Gulf Stream. Very good Viking museum there as well.

    1. I have never been there myself but I believe that there are also some fabulous sea-bird colonies on the cliffs of the Lofoten Islands.

    2. Now that I think of it, if anyone wants to see very good views (lots from a helicopter like in the Tour de France mountain stages), try to find the TV for the 2019 Arctic Race of Norway:

      Stage 1: Å–Leknes 182 kilometres
      Stage 2: Henningsvær–Svolvær 168.5 kilometres
      Stage 3: Sortland–Storheia summit (Melbu) 176.5 kilometres
      Stage 4: Lødingen–Narvik 166.5 kilometers

      That almost entirely involved Vesterålen and (mostly) Lofoten. Quite spectacular scenery. I know it had a major real time international TV coverage because I just happened to be staying with our close Norwegian friends in Asker then in May/June. The motorcyclists/helicopter pilots who do these things make terrific videos, even for scenery-lovers who don’t give a damn for bike racing (not me) and don’t speak the language (me).

      1. “ May/June..” : Sorry, that was 2018. I should have written “mid-August 2019” I’ll brag that my daughter gave a conference lecture in Oslo then, so we went again!

    1. Any ship is in trouble if it gets a complete power failure. I would imagine that there is a substantial amount of redundancy built into the various systems that power and guide the ship.

      1. Propulsion failure on any ship is a major issue. But these cruise ships that use pods for steering had serious failures when the systems were first introduced. I imagine they are much more reliable now. But I was on one years ago when,at night, in congested waters, one the pods turned an uncommanded 180 degrees. The ship shook violently and the Chief Engineer, with whom I was talking at the time, hurried off at a rate of knots.

        The next day I had a tour of the engine spaces with the CE and the Electrical officer. They said they knew how everything worked up to the point in a large electrical cabinet they pointed to a computer motherboard!

  3. Very interesting set of photos. Sailing is certainly not what it use to be. When a ship no longer has a rudder you know it is a different world. The captain is the perfect example of climbing the ladder within the company.

    I would guess the ship has a lot of back up electrical power to make sure the technology keeps running. I know it was one of the dangers with modern aircraft instrumentation where everything in on screens, if the power goes out you can really be screwed. You could probably say, with all the radar and electronics, they are on IFR all the time. Maybe they call it ISR, instrument sailing rules.

      1. Yes, as I mentioned, lots of back up. For many years in the design and building of military aircraft, second and third back up systems have been in play. Back up hydraulics, electrical, you name it. It was always one of the significant differences between our planes and the soviet aircraft. They were not so concerned with it.

        1. It continues to this post-Soviet day. I own a Ural motorcycle, built in 2018; they have sidecars and carry a spare wheel. The thing is the spare will work as a replacement for any of the three wheels on the machine, but if used as either rear wheel, the rear brakes no longer work. I can just imagine the Russian engineers who designed it explaining it to me; “You still have one brake. Why you need two?”

          1. Yeah, safety of the occupant is not always a high priority. There is lots of redundancy built into things in the west that soviet engineering does not get into. It cost money and it adds weight.

      2. The ship can operate with all four engines dead [for a time] – it runs on batteries & all the engines do is make electricity to feed the battery storage.

        1. All they need is to cover the upper surfaces of the ship with solar cells and they’d be free from fossil fuels. Come to think of it, the ship could tow an array for extra oomph.

          1. It’s a future-proofed ship to a degree. There’s a timeline to install more battery storage & the engines are convertible to LNG which has 20% more specific energy than diesel, though LNG, I think, needs to be cooled a lot!

            I do wonder if the ship could be solar/wind/etc recharged in each port of call one day, when there’s more hybrid vessels on the seas – reducing total fossil fuel usage.

      1. Many years ago the USS Nimitz visited Portsmouth & my uncle took us out in his inflatable & we circumnavigated it. I was incredible to be next to it – like a floating tower block.

    1. Drop the “[/b] “, fix the typo, and it would sound like somebody went right the way round the world in an inflatable. That would be something!
      I better not put ideas into the wrong head. Maybe somebody’s already done it!!??

    1. And Ushuaia Argentina must have a better marketing department than Puerto Williams 🙂 Ushuaia boasts Fin del Mundo, whereas Puerto Williams is about 12 km south of Ushuaia. I think that the two towns have an official agreement stating which is the southernmost.

  4. I’ve never been on a liner like that but I’m told they’re very stable. That sometimes you’re hardly aware you’re moving. But the waters down there can be some of the most violent in the world (or so I’ve read). I wonder how well landlubbers are doing on the trip? Is the Amundsen (and ships like her) stable enough most of the time? Dr PCC(e) did mention having to walk crablike and a speaker who had to hold onto the podium, so it was rolling at least once. But I bet those thrusters make the ship well-suited for big seas, from a lubber’s perspective.

    1. Actually it’s not that big a ship, about 500 passenger, compared to some of these floating hotels (7,000 passenger!) with large numbers of booze-infested bores.

      But the Norwegians started building the world’s best ocean going ships about 1500 years ago. (Sorry Polynesians, but the Pacific is less violent usually, I think.)

      We were on a 350 passenger Hurtigruten (MS Spitsbergen) with supposedly hurricane-force winds (but not a storm) overnight (approx. May 23 last year) in the Arctic Sea. He slowed it down, and it really wasn’t that bad.

  5. I’m guessing that the ship is as dependent on high-accuracy GPS signals as any modern airliner. I wonder whether they carry sextants and copies of the Nautical Almanac on board, in case the GPS fails.

    1. The BBC has been running a series on the new Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth. Last night the captain was educating junior officers on how to use a sextant and navigate by the stars. As he pointed out electronic navigation aids, GPS etc are useful but likely to be interfered with in wartime. You always need a fallback.

  6. The display screen shows the ship’s heading – 323.8 degrees. And the orange flag is a wind barb. It shows the wind coming from the left. The barbs show wind speed as 35 km/hr.
    I think the white dashed arrow shows the desired track of the ship. The ship is headed slightly left (into the wind) in a so called “crab”.

  7. It seems likely that the ship does have an anchor as its active station-keeping abilities would presumably not work if there was a hardware failure. Perhaps it is kept inboard, rather than at the usual position external at the bow, in order to protect it from being fouled by ice.

      1. I can think of much worse ways to spend one’s retirement.
        But keeping up the energy is a problem, for me anyway. Comparing to same race younger age group results in the ski racing makes that brutally obvious, despite trying to train as much as ever.

        1. Even when my feet weren’t completely shot, I’d think I was walking at a far clip only to be passed by a series of 20 year olds.

  8. See the picture below [click to enlarge]. The top row of yellow squares are the ports for the electric winch-driven mooring cables

    JAC: “The ship has no rudder, as it’s steered by propellers in both the front and back of the boat. There are also thrusters on the side and two stabilizer fins, one on each side.” No, the props at the bow [front] ARE the thrusters on the side. There is a total of four thrusters [props] to drive & manoeuvre the vessel:
    [A] there are two powerful ones at the stern & they can swivel individually in the horizontal plane through 360 degrees – Because they can swivel there’s no need for two rudders & the lack of rudders reduces drag significantly. Then…
    [B] there’s two more thrusters [probably less powerful I’m guessing] near the bow – one on each side that point almost sideways [slightly forwards pointing of sideways]. These two prop driven thrusters are buried inside the ship – the warning symbol for those thruster seawater intakes & ‘outakes’ [can’t think of a good word] are circled in green. The actual ports for these are below the waterline in the green squares on the left picture.

    JAC: “Those, combined with the propulsion system and GPS, can keep the ship absolutely still in the water, moving at most a meter. As far as I can see, there is no anchor on the ship, but I didn’t get a close inspection” Every ship will have at least two anchors of course – they are the yellow squares immediately above the green circles. Note that they are only just above the waterline.

  9. And here is a schematic of the ship’s power & propulsion system. Note that there’s no mechanical connection between the engines & the thrusters:

    FOUR BLUE BLOCKS AMIDSHIPS: Four Rolls Royce diesel engines each with a funnel system & a converter to turn all the rotary energy into electricity.

    GREEN LINES: Main voltage electrical power distribution to the battery storage, transformers & electric motors that drive the thrusters [power lines to the winches isn’t shown]. Normal ships tend to have three levels of voltage depending on the devices/motors being driven. I am guessing the electricity from the batteries is distributed at one medium voltage throughout the ship & stepped down or up at transformers near the particular device/motor that’s being powered. I’m not an electromagician so I’m guessing.

    Yellow lines:
    Lower voltage power or control circuitry to the bridge. Dunno – a lot of the power lines aren’t shown – such as to the radar & other instrumentation

    RED BLOBS TO THE LEFT: The two thrusters [props] that can rotate 360 degrees

    RED STABILISER AMIDSHIPS: One each side – I suppose it hinges forwards & disappears into the hull in calm seas & they spring out in bad seas or when turning [to reduce the rate at which the ship rolls in a turn]

    RED THRUSTERS TO THE RIGHT: one each side of the bow, but offset. That explains the double ports on each side – a thruster pulls seawater in from one side of the hull & pushes it out the other, there’s two tunnels running alongside each other, each going from one beam to the other.

  10. I think you misunderstood the watch system. On merchant vessels I have been on, three junior deck officers (2nd or 3rd officers) each hold 2 4 hour watches a day. Commonly that might be 04:00-08:00 and 16:00 – 20:00 for one officer then 08:00 – 12:00, 20:00 – 24:00 for the next etc. The captain gets called to the bridge during operations by a watch officer in the event of something out of the ordinary happening (fog, for example).

    The “dead man’s handle” is to give an alert in case the watch officer is disabled. The captain himself does not hold a watch.

    During maneuvering in close quarters the captain will be on the bridge, and likely steering the ship during docking and undocking.

  11. Thank you for your lovely travel reports.

    You wrote: “A crew of 5 mans (wrong word, since some are female) the bridge…”

    A better word would be “staffs,” as in “a crew of 5 staffs the bridge.”

  12. Must’ve been quite the feat to tack through the Drake Passage into a roaring wind in one of those square-rigged wooden sail ships.

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