During the first week in November of 1996, I celebrated my 25th wedding anniversary by taking a seven day, Eastern Caribbean cruise aboard the M/S Sovereign of the Seas (SVS), a vessel of the Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. This is a 73,192 ton cruise ship whose length and breadth is 880 feet and 106 feet respectively. One of the highlights, was a tour of the bridge offered to all of the passengers. The best part, though, was a visit to the ship's radio room that I requested, and was granted exclusively for me. Word has it that tours through the ship's engine room were discontinued when a passenger slipped on a patch of oil several years ago and sued the cruise line.
THE RADIO ROOM
In the radio room, located behind the bridge, all of the equipment was state of the art and was manufactured in Europe. The photo depicts the main radio console. While there was lots to look at, there were two things that caught my attention. First, the ship was equipped with satellite communications, however, I noticed a radioteletype terminal as a major piece of equipment. This terminal is connected to one of the satellite channels in order to communicate with other ships that are still fitted with vintage technology. Second, a digital, high frequency receiver receiver was tuned to a frequency in the 8 Mhz marine band and was monitoring CW traffic. Other than a few entries in the log which recorded the reception of Q signals, there was little CW activity. I could not help but notice a CW key tucked away on a shelf. Apparently, CW is a mode of last resort in case everything else fails; otherwise it is not normally used. The 500 Khz International distress frequency is only monitored by an auto alarm system. SVS is, of course, equipped with GDMSS, a satellite based distress/alarm system.
Three, solid state radio transceivers were fitted into a large closet, with just enough space to house them. There were no dials, lights or meters on any of this gear and it was about as exciting to look at as a fuse box with the door closed. Everything in the room was controlled from a master console. I asked the chief radio officer if it would be possible to use one of the transceivers to make a few calls in the 7 Mhz amateur band. To my disappointment, he stated that the equipment was only programmed for operation on authorized marine frequencies and it would simply not tune any amateur band. Operating as VE3FAB Marine Mobile will have to wait until another day.
The main area of the radio office was surprisingly small and I estimated its dimensions to be about 25 feet by 15 feet. Most of the area was occupied with the master radio console. There were other small offices off to the side but these were mainly for processing paperwork. By law, SVS is required to have two radio operators per watch and provide at least 16 hours of coverage. One of the major pieces of equipment in the radio office is a plain, old fashioned photocopier. Other than a VHF marine band transceiver, the bridge has no other means of direct radio communication. All key crew members wore pagers, hence the need for a shipborne radio paging system.
Due to time limitations, it was not possible to get a detailed explanation of each of the radio sub-systems, but overall, I was most impressed with the layout. After seeing all this gear, I would have gladly payed the cruise line extra money had they let me stay in the radio room for an extra day or two. I was in doubt, though, if my body could have handled a few more days of those wonderful 'five star' meals served in the ship's two luxurious dining rooms.
SVS has a capacity of 1,141 passenger cabins, each equipped with a closed circuit T.V. On the uppermost deck, an all-weather satellite TV dish provides two CNN news feeds for all those TV's. One can only imagine the size of the internal cable TV system. Channel 35 was fed by a bridge mounted TV camera so passengers can get a nice bow view without having to leave their cabins. At first this was a novelty, but with time, it became boring to see the same picture when the ship was at sea. Other channels included movies, how to gamble, shore excursions and video tapes of on board activities. The ship was equipped with an satellite based radiotelephone system that provides the capability of placing an international telephone call from the privacy of one's cabin for the sum of $US 9.50 per minute.
The very first thing that I noticed when setting foot on the bridge was the minimum complement of personnel. Since the ship is very automated, only two officers are required per watch. While the ship is at sea, the autopilot is engaged and it's a bit eerie to see that no one is at the helm. The bridge is divided into several functional sections.
Lacking, was the traditional helm and engine telegraph as evidenced in the photo. All engine movements were controlled from a manoeuvring console located at the front of the bridge. This console housed the engine throttles, propeller pitch and bow thruster controls. Partial duplications of this console were remotely situated on the port and starboard bridge wings. By judicious use of rudders, propellers and bow thrusters, the ship can turn full circle about its axis and docking appears to be easier than parallel parking one's car. The rudders could be controlled independently or used in synchronization. At each docking, the Captain addressed all of the onlookers above the bridge wing and thanked them (tongue-in-cheek) for all of their 'assistance' in helping to dock the ship as he couldn't have done it without their help. Like everything that is made to look easy, it takes many years of experience to learn how to dock smoothly and without incident.
In spite of all the automation, I noticed a red sign over the one of the consoles which stated 'Stabilizers Out'. Obviously, someone thought that this was a prudent reminder even in view of the heavy automation. It would be very embarrassing to dock the ship with the stabilizers deployed! To the port side of centre, there was a fully automated, computer controlled, fire alarm and damage control system. Fire drills were practised periodically to ensure that personnel did not become complacent with the automation and procedures. Further towards the port side, there was large plexiglass schematic outlining the fire detection sensors and damage control mechanisms for each deck in the ship. In case of an emergency, the Captain would be at this station making decisions and giving orders. On the extreme port side of the bridge, there was a navigation desk. The Officer of the Watch pointed to a globe of the world and jokingly told us that this was their basic instrument of navigation. On the starboard side of the bridge, there was an administrative console containing additional instrumentation and the ships log was kept at this station. Three radars are employed for navigation. The main unit, an Atlas, 10 cm radar had a 20 mile range while the other two were shorter wavelength radars with finer resolution for use in harbour.
POWER AND PROPULSION
To handle the enormous electrical demand of SVS, she is fitted with a power plant capable of generating 12 Megawatts of power distributed through 1,000 miles of electrical cable! Both 120 and 240 volt AC power is available in each cabin using a special combination receptacle. The plant consists of six auxiliary engines made in Wartsila, Finland. This, and her four main diesel engines burn 80 tons of fuel in 24 hours when sailing at a cruise speed of 19 knots (21 knots max). During the bridge tour, the Officer of the Watch told us that the ship's entire fuel bill is paid from the proceeds of the gambling casino. In addition to fuel consumption, SVS has several other staggering demands. The on-board evaporator must produce 800 tons of fresh water daily and the refrigeration equipment generates 18 tons of ice cubes per day most of which is destined for beverages. To transport the ship's vital fluids, 43 miles of piping are installed.
The propulsion system consists of four 14-cylinder Pielstick (French) diesels on rubber mountings to reduce vibration. Any remaining vibrations are produced only by the cavitation of the propellers. Jointly, the engines deliver 29,000 shaft horsepower and feed two variable pitch propellers. Twin rudders can be operated independently or in synchronization. The ship has two bow thrusters, each connecting to a 1500 horsepower electrical motor. The Sovereign of the Seas was built in St. Nazaire France at the Alston-Chantiers de l'Atlantique shipyard and was delivered from the yard on December 18, 1987.
It broke my heart to leave these fairytale surroundings after seven days, but now I can look forward to my next adventure at sea.