At the beginning of our cruise, the guide who introduced everything mentioned that they had an “open bridge policy”. Having never been on a cruise, I had no idea what he was talking about and was grateful for the sentence that followed. “That means that you’re welcome to visit the bridge whenever you like, as long as we are not executing a maneuver at that time,” he explained. My following thought was, “This. Is. AWESOME. I’m gonna get to see how they DRIVE a ship!” *(I suppose the correct word is steer, or operate, but I’m pretty sure my brain went with “drive” in that thought.)
But in the following days I was so occupied (and exhausted) by the amazing cruise itinerary that I just couldn’t find the time to go. When I woke up early in the mornings I would pad up to the ship’s library, which had hundreds of books and stunning views of the misty ocean mornings. In the evenings after dinner, I would be so tired that all I could manage was brushing my teeth and making it to the bed. And in between excursions, it was wonderful to talk with other guests, people from all over, from New Zealand to New York. But this might be the only cruise I ever take, so on the final night I resolved to wake up reaaaally early to visit the bridge.
The next morning my phone alarm went off at 5:30 am, and I rolled/tumbled/dragged myself out of bed. After grabbing a cup of tea from the library (yes, this is also where the complementary tea and coffee/latte/hot chocolate machine was stashed, also explaining its popularity), Stoytcho and I climbed the stairs to the bridge door. At first we weren’t sure whether or not to knock, but Stoytcho leaned on the door and it swung inward, so we let ourselves in; the first mate welcomes us on the other side.
The bridge was totally different from the rest of the ship, in every way. While all of the guest areas were immaculately clean and white, the bridge floor and walls were almost entirely black. The control panel spanned the whole front of the room, sitting before wide glass panels that overlooked the ship’s bow. And unlike the guest part of the ship, the bridge looked actually lived in. Coffee cups were scattered across the flat surfaces and hand-written notes and reminders for were taped on the vertical ones. There was a desk with a giant printer, decorated with a few baubles and chains of tinsel, a reminder that Christmas happened only a week ago. Some of the crew spent it here, instead of with their families.
We spent a few minutes looking around on our own but we were constantly drawn to the vast control panel, with all of its screens and switches. There seemed to be so many for just one ship. Using our broken Spanish, we asked what the more interesting looking ones did. The first mate humored us, explaining that this screen showed our location based on GPS, these switches controlled the power to different parts of the ship, and there were three ways you could steer the ship. Yes, three, including a wooden maritime wheel, a more modern-looking black wheel, and a joystick-type thing on the dashboard. We asked which one served as the main steering method and got an amused look. “It’s based on personal preference and the situation,” the first mate said. “Oh, so they’re basically the same?” Stoytcho replied. “Yes,” replied the first mate, “like a lot of these switches. There are two of every button on the bridge, in case one of them breaks. There are also two different GPS navigation systems.” That explained the overabundance of switches, buttons, and screens on the bridge; they were redundancies needed for us to get home in the event something failed.
The sun was beginning to peek over the horizon when we finished our tour. By this time the captain had come in, coffee in hand, and joined the first mate in answering our questions. We learned that it takes a LONG time to become a captain, and captains-in-training can serve on ships for decades before they’re promoted to captain and get their own ship; it took our captain a decade. The captain told us he’s also served on shipping freighters, where the cargo complains less but schedules are tighter–goods often have deliver-by dates. We were starting to get hungry, so we thanked the first mate and captain for their time and started for the door when the captain stopped us. “Don’t you want a picture in the captain’s seat?” he asked. I thought “What? I can DO THAT?” and I replied “Uh, sure!” I walked up to the captain’s seat, a shiny black leather chair suspended by a pole, and hopped on. It was insanely comfortable, and I leaned back and tried to look comfortable too.
So if you’re ever on a cruise, ask the crew about the bridge policy. It’s an amazing chance to see how the ship you’re on actually works and it’s a chance to get to know the crew who help make your cruise experience possible. They’re people too, and they’ll appreciate it.