In Captain Nick Nash’s office, a sign behind his desk reads: “You can only get so far on bull****.” Opposite, there is a jar of Japanese rice crackers and a bottle of tomato ketchup. The man in charge of Royal Princess has clearly made himself at home.
The sentiment in the sign couldn’t be truer on "turnaround day", when staff have less than 12 hours to dock, clear and clean the cruise line’s newest and most luxurious cruise ship, christened by the Duchess of Cambridge in 2013, and prepare for sailaway on the next voyage. Especially during inclement weather. At 6am on the day I visited Southampton the 1,000-ft long Royal Princess, sailing in from Normandy, was not able to dock at the Ocean Cruise Terminal at the scheduled time of 5am.
A change of terminal is the sort of last-minute alteration that ship staff have to be ready for as they swap between back to back itineraries – covering locations including the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. As well as 3,600 passengers, there will be eight tonnes of new produce for the 20-plus restaurants, cafes, and bars on board, from broccoli and pineapples (I see a grove’s worth coming onboard) to sides of meat. Then there are linens, loo rolls and wigs and prizes for the nightly live shows and uniforms, food and supplies for the 1,335 crew.
“Someone brought a can of petrol once – why?”
Martin Bristow, Hotel General Manager for Royal Princess
Cruise ship crew are getting used to stranger prying around on board. In July 2014 Royal Princess featured in a fly-on-the-wall TV documentary, The Cruise Ship. Now it is the turn of the 3,560-passenger sister ship Regal Princess, as she sails through northern Europe and Russia. The first episode of The Cruise aired last Thursday, with 4.5 million viewers tuning in to watch officers and crew navigate the 114,000-tonne, 19-deck ship; preparing over 20,000 meals a day and servicing 1,800 cabins.
The turnaround operation is planned like a military operation but meeting the 5pm sailaway time on a particularly blustery Southampton day would prove a struggle (it’s later officially delayed until 6pm). Martin Bristow, the ship’s hotel general manager, oversees everything from housekeeping to catering and customer service. The cruising old hand describes turnaround day as, “organised chaos”, where he can forget about his phone battery lasting the duration. He will be on duty for nearly 24 hours.
Bags are piled up ready to go through X-ray checks outside the terminal.
Suitcases start coming off at 4.30am – they will be followed, in various stages, by their 3,388 owners. Special rubbish ships will come to collect the bundles of waste not incinerated on board. HMRC clearance is scheduled for 6am.
From 7.30am onwards, it will take up to six hours to load all the new goods onto the ship. From where I’m standing inside its belly, with a view through one of the trap doors used to load produce with a forklift, the quayside moves up and down, up and down on the rough waters. Eight containers of dry foods will come on board in Belfast.
"It would be unthinkable to depart without sufficient alcohol stocks: I’m taken inside a room lined floor-to-ceiling with cases of wine, Glenfiddich whisky, Campari, sake…"
It might be hours until the embarkation passengers need lunch – but food production is already underway in the kitchen. No packaging is allowed in the galleys: all items, from pineapples to pork sausages, are unwrapped and chopped below decks, before being taken upstairs in what look like giant shopping trolleys.
The scale of this operation is colossal: the kitchens, manned by 460 staff, produce 10-15,000 desserts per day, while the bakery – which has been stamping out buns and loaves since 2am this morning – provides 5,500 rolls every day. That’s not to mention the 1,900 Danish pastries, 200 hot dog buns, 300 hamburger buns, 480 hazelnut stollen (does Christmas really come every day aboard Royal Princess?), 770 croissants, 150 doughnuts and 120 loaves of bread for toast.
It would be unthinkable to depart without sufficient alcohol stocks: I’m taken inside a room lined floor-to-ceiling with cases of wine, Glenfiddich whisky, Campari, sake…more supplies will be on their way in, to replace bottles going to the dining rooms on decks five and above.
Alcohol stores on board Royal Princess
The cruise ship stocks everything from liqueurs to whisky and beers
In the medical suite Dr Dylan Belton is expecting up to five pallets of drugs, dressings, vaccines – and they need to be moved from quay side to bed side as quickly as possible. If stocks are left on the shore for too long, medication that needs refrigerating will expire. The process will be easy on this sailing, but in South America, where shore operations aren’t as efficient, supplies have in the past had to be disposed of. That costs money, and shows the importance of a slick change over.
On a more sombre note, turnaround may also require the disembarkation of those who have passed away during the cruise. Depending on a family’s wishes, the body may stay on board until the end of the trip, rather than being removed at the next port.
Royal Princess is Princess' newest cruise ship, with space for around 3,500 passengers
New crew are arriving too, and around 80 who have finished their shifts – many months at a time, cruising back-to-back – are leaving. There is an awful lot of paper work involved. There are more than 50 nationalities of workers on board; all need the necessary work visas, travel documents and uniforms – plus on-the-day training in operating watertight doors – “highly dangerous if you are not trained in how to operate them in an emergency”, according to Martin.
Baggage for the next cruise is collected in the vast terminal. The 5,000 suitcases are scanned for suspicious items, and Martin explains that sometimes people just don’t realise what isn’t allowed on board. “Someone brought a can of petrol once – why?”
And if luggage gets lost somewhere in the process? Passengers can expect on-board credit and refreshments. Bags are going to be slow on board today, Martin admits.
It is startlingly easy to forget that Royal Princess – with its corridors of cabins and napkins-and-tablecloths restaurants – is anything other than a floating hotel. But talking to the engineering crew (though access to the engine room is strictly forbidden) is a quick reminder that this vessel needs heavy fuel oil, diesel oil and 3,800 tonnes of drinking water stored in its veins, and it will take three to four hours to pipe it all in.
Royal Princess is steered using a digital system with a tiny gear stick.
There’s a second reminder that there are obligations to the coastguard and maritime laws to comply with – and that the shipping forecast is vital listening.
“Unfortunately, we don’t control the weather,” says Capt Nash, on the Bridge, referring to the poor conditions that had made today’s arrival difficult. He tells me the ship moves sideways like a train she moves alongside the quay closer and more neatly and tightly than I could ever hope to manoeuvre a car next to a kerb.
The most stressful part of Capt Nash’s day is during arrival and departure when major decisions need to be taken – if the gangways are getting too steep embarkation needs to stop, for example – but otherwise his team will pretty much take over.
"On a more sombre note, turnaround may also require the disembarkation of those who have passed away during the cruise."
Is there actually a steering wheel, I ask naively. He points to a small black Go-Kart style wheel. “We actually used it this morning, but in more normal conditions we use this.” He gestures at a minuscule games-console like stick. It’s more sophisticated than it appears, of course – the stick controls a computerised navigation system. Still, it’s good to know the manual wheel and elbow grease are there when needed.
While there is a strict time frame for getting things on and off the ship, much activity simply carries on, around the clock. I found the ship’s laundry (spotless and safe, but windowless) well below decks. “You don’t see much daylight down here,” says one member of staff, alongside a dozen mask-wearing crew collecting bed sheets, pillow cases, towels, table cloths, napkins – you name it – that tumble down from great chutes, above. There are 21,660 items to launder, in machines that hold up to 450lbs. Sheets pass through a room-sized contraption that more resembles a printing press than a washing machine, before being shunted through a giant iron that takes 30 seconds to automatically fold each item. Staff shirts are “blow-dried” on a bizarre machine that shoots air through the arms – the garment momentarily resembles a blow-up doll before deflating to butler-worthy perfection.
Washing is done on a mass scale in the laundry room.
Laundry is sorted and washed in supersized washing machines
From forklift truck and pallet to washing machine and dryer to housekeeping where teams on passenger decks work to intense deadlines while remaining swan-calm. Although the “deep clean” of curtains and carpets is started three days before the end of a cruise, finger marks, bins and linens must all be cleaned at the last minute. With nearly 2,000 cabins to prepare for new passengers before 1pm, cleaners have just 15 minutes for each of the 15-20 rooms they are responsible for. I am told remote controls and telephones (where bacteria are most likely to lurk) are must-clean items. Each pillow must be plumped to perfection; each sheet corner tucked out of sight. I marvel at the staff’s swift but thorough approach – and thank the heavens for fitted sheets.
Shirts are dried on a machine that makes them resemble blow-up dolls.
At just gone midday we walk through the ship’s mighty central atrium. A string quarter is playing. Two passengers are perched the bar, sipping cocktails from martini glasses. “Those ladies have got the right idea”, says Martin. He spends much of the rest of the day “doing the rounds” and checking his teams – “I play traffic warden too [for passengers] – people often want to know the way on the first day.”
There are stringent standards to meet when making up a cabin.
The afternoon slides by and the queues in the terminal dwindle. As I grab a taxi at 6.15pm, the ship is still in the dock. New passengers begin to appear on the top deck and balconies, in the pale evening sun. I look at the giant metal funnels and think about the incinerators, fuel tanks, engineers, chambermaids and kitchen staff, all the people and processes inside Royal Princess that keep her going, week after week, month after month. She may be late on this occasion, but the crew couldn’t have turnaround day more planned out if they tried.
Royal Princess is Princess Cruises' newest ship with a raft of features.
The Cruise airs on Thursdays at 8.30pm on ITV