So just over three weeks after I returned to work we headed off again, out of Dover and on towards the Baltic. A timely journey with helpful tides meant we arrived at the Kiel Canal locks an hour earlier than before and, in the early evening sunshine, proceeded through into the fresh water of the canal. Our pilot for the first half of the eleven hour journey through these placid waters had worked for Saga some seven years before as a Staff Captain. I had heard of his name, but had never met him. There were a number of times when we had to stop in one of the ‘sidings’ to allow traffic heading the other way to pass, a period that meant pilot and Master had to work closely together on the bridge wing to ensure the ship did not come alongside the pilings. It was then, in the calm late evening air, that we chatted about a number of the colleagues we had known over the years, some still with us, and others who had moved on to pastures new.
He departed just after midnight and we had a ‘fresh’ pilot for the remainder of the transit, which passed without incident. Eventually, after the next set of locks had passed and the final pilot had departed, we could leave the operation entirely to the watchkeepers while sleep was recovered. The Baltic was busy, of course, and showers enveloped the ship in the early afternoon, clearing by evening. The following morning broke clear and sunny, the Swedish coast slowly growing to port. On the after deck a barbecue was being prepared at lunchtime as we approached the archipelago, and what a journey it was. Four hours of winding our way through the many islands, avoiding the many yachts’ folk who seemed quite determined to give the impression that they hadn’t seen us coming up from behind. With channels often only a hundred meters or so wide there was little room for us to manoeuvre, they knew that, and often left it until the last minute to put their helm down. Our pilot was entirely relaxed throughout, he knew as well as I that as these folk were probably sitting in their most prized and expensive possession, they weren’t likely to be instrumental in ‘scratching the paint’.
We berthed in the early evening on the 3rd, in time for the most adventurous of souls to venture ashore on the shuttle bus and catch Stockholm city life before darkness came. I, on the other hand, had dinner with Honor Blackman.
Dinner was a relaxed and very pleasant affair up in our East to West restaurant, my special guest coming along with her PA, while I had Len, our Chief Engineer for ‘moral support’. Honor Blackman has lost none of her lovely personality with the coming of the years and we chatted away quite easily, and somewhat closely, as she did quietly say to me before we sat down that she was a ‘bit Mutt 'n' Jeff’, and that did make me smile. Cruise Director Matthew is very much hoping he will be able to have a ‘Q & A’ with her on stage in a few nights time when a ‘James Bond evening’ will be held in the Britannia Lounge, I did ask whether she might be wearing something black, ‘That’s my secret’ came the reply, with a slight smile of course. I think I may becoming infatuated.
We left Stockholm the following evening and headed off down the familiar track to Helsinki, here the local shore excursion agent remarked that, weather wise, they were about to break an all-time record. It was warm, very warm, most unusual and when I mentioned to the pilot on departure that the last time I could remember such prolonged good weather was 2002, he said ‘Yes, and the following winter was one of the worst on record, with the harbour completely frozen over’. Probably a good idea it’s not on our next winter itinerary then.
The call was only for six hours, even so, for much of that time the ship was just about empty of passengers, who all went off touring or onto the shuttle bus into the city. They came back suitably exhausted, hot and ready to be revived. Hard work this cruising.
The night soon passed, one hour forward on the clocks and twilight continuing until long after the sun had set. By the time I was back on the bridge, at some very un-Christian hour, twilight was back and a rather jolly Russian pilot of some significant size boarded before five. With little rain for some considerable time, water levels in the harbour were low, so low in fact that the ship seemed to have a different idea to mine as to the berth we had been designated. A degree of maritime brute force sorted out the problem and we berthed on schedule.
Passengers went ashore asking me ‘What’s that word for thank you’? referring to my little Russian language lesson given over the public address. Apparently some of them even managed to get the pronunciation right and made the immigration ladies smile, which was really the purpose of the exercise. I remained on board until the evening, then taking the ‘Exclusive Hermitage’ tour, as did our special guest, as I had mentioned I would go if she did. We were with a relatively small party and were taken round some of the rooms before sitting down in the Large Italian Skylight Hall to listen to the State Symphony Orchestra of St. Petersburg. The room, the music, the acoustics, all made this a wonderful evening, even if there hadn’t been an ex-Bond girl with us. In the coach later I asked whether she had enjoyed the performance, ‘Very much so’ she replied, ‘and the ‘Pavane’ brought a tear to my eye’. It was indeed very special. Back on board we had a little caviar before retiring……well, when in Russia.
It was a warm humid night and the following day was to be even hotter, 90 degrees (in proper language) by three in the afternoon. Those folk that were out all day must have been exhausted by the time they returned. Behind us, as we sailed, huge thunder clouds rose over the city and great cracks of lightning darted from above. The sunset, when it eventually came, was spectacular.
Weather wise Tallinn was just about a repeat of the previous two days in St. Petersburg, very warm and sunny. With the ship being on one of two piers outside the harbour we had a grand view looking up towards the medieval old town, with its graceful spires and red gabled roofs. Most of the tours went that way although there was a ‘Soviet Memories’. It is so popular that I still have not managed to get a place, perhaps next time. We sailed just before four, an earlier getaway than normal in order to cover the three hundred miles to Klaipeda, our next call.
The formal evening had a ‘James Bond’ theme and George, our Executive Chef, had given every course at dinner a suitable film name. I wasn’t too sure whether anyone would try the ‘Die Another Day’, or even the Captain’s special – ‘License to Kill'. Dinner was in fact a fairly quick affair because just about all the diners wanted to take their seats for show time. The music and films of Bond were featured, but the special guest was Honor Blackman, who came onto the stage looking very elegant in a full length gold dress, how appropriate. Cruise Director Matthew spent well over half an hour chatting to her and the audience was riveted. She was delightful and, as the interview was coming to a close, she said, ‘But I haven’t told my best story yet’. Needless to say she did, it was very amusing, one for after the threshold you might say, and of course I must keep you in the dark as to its content. Spies, as well as actresses, must have their secrets you know.
Our arrival alongside the quay in Klaipeda coincided with a public holiday, and being lunchtime there appeared to be a great number of people just milling around close to the dockside watching. So close in fact that there seemed a very good chance that someone might get a heaving line on their head, that was until the official linesmen chased them out of harm’s way.
In fact it became apparent that the locals had also come along to see a group of burly looking chaps make things out of iron, armed only with a couple of braziers, a few big hammers and some Heath Robinson machinery used to keep the fires burning. I did check out their stand as I took a wonder ashore, but decided I didn’t really need any arrows, pokers or things to wear around my neck, heavy enough to create a noticeable stoop.
Town seemed quite busy, a number of stalls near the centre all selling amber jewellery that few were browsing yet alone buying. I also noticed a number of wedding parties, brides in voluminous traditional white and men in smart suits, out to have their photographs taken by the river or in the park. Two stretched limos also came down towards the blacksmiths, but strangely enough they were without passengers. I did wonder if they had been sent on a mission to purchase that last minute wedding gift while the bridal party were busy elsewhere.
The weather, although not quite as hot as the last few days, was dry and very pleasant and those passengers who went off to tour the city, village life and the UNESCO World heritage Curonian Peninsula would have had a fine time. There was also ‘Cold War Secrets’, a tour which visited the site of a Soviet nuclear weapons program, which I thought sounded rather intriguing. However one chap who went said he was just a little disappointed as there weren’t any missiles in the 90 foot high silos. I did suggest that the previous owners had most probably taken them away when they departed.
MV Saga Sapphire docked in Dover this morning, marking the end of our two week cruise to the Baltic. Once all of the passengers had disembarked, the ships’ company set to work to prepare the ship for our next cruise. Embarkation began at 1:00pm and new passengers started to arrive.
Once we had finished loading our supplies for the upcoming cruise and all passengers and their luggage were on board, we made our final preparations to set sail and embark on this seven day voyage to Scotland aptly named ‘A Highland Fling’.
As we set sail, Captain Rentell was on the bridge and in communication with the pilot of a Spitfire built in 1945 which Saga had organised as a surprise for passengers as we sailed out of Dover. The Spitfire put on an awesome display and the pilot demonstrated the speed and manoeuvrability of the aircraft which was certainly impressive as he flew straight towards the ship and diverted off course just at the last second. Passengers definitely witnessed the precision and skill of the pilot and it was a great surprise. It was a beautiful afternoon and evening as we sailed from Dover and headed up the East coast of England on our way to Scotland.
Passengers settled into their cabins and were made to feel welcome in the Dining Room for their first dinner on board. Tomorrow we will spend the day at sea as we head up North. I’m sure there will be a packed programme of entertainment to keep passengers occupied not to mention the Captain’s Cocktail Party tomorrow evening.
After leaving Dover, we spent a day at sea as we sailed north towards Invergordon. There was plenty of entertainment for passengers to enjoy including Captain Philip Rentell’s Welcome Cocktail Party. This was a chance for passengers to meet the Officers and Staff of Saga Sapphire, with the Senior Officers being introduced on stage. This Cruise our Chief Engineer is Steven Hare, the Hotel Director is Marco Criaulo, Cruise Director Matthew Shaw and Second in Command is Staff Captain Konstantyn Doroshenko.
At 8:00am this morning, Saga Sapphire docked in our first port of call this cruise, Invergordon in Scotland. Invergordon has been known to seafarers for generations, but for centuries it was little more than a hamlet built around a castle known as Inverbreakie. It was developed into a port and naval base in Georgian times and was renamed in honour of Sir William Gordon, a local landowner. In 1915, the port was the site of a tragic accident when an explosion wrecked the World War I battle cruiser HMS Natal, causing many lives to be lost. Sixteen years later, the town gave its name to the famous Invergordon Mutiny when crews threatened with a cut of salary refused to take out their ships. Invergordon acted as a base for flying boats during WWII. The port took on a new lease of life in the 1970s with the development of the North Sea Oil Industry. Today Invergordon is a thriving cruise port and the perfect base for visitors to explore the Scottish Highlands.
There were several shore excursions on offer today including ‘Grand Dunrobin Castle and Royal Dornoch’, ‘Urquhart Castle on the banks of Loch Ness’, ‘Rogie Falls and Silverbridge Forest Walk’ and the most popular tour today was the ‘Panoramic Tour of Loch Ness’. I was due to escort on the Panoramic Tour and the lucky passengers on coach number 7 got to spend the afternoon with me. Unfortunately there had been a very bad accident and the road to Loch Ness was closed. So our panoramic tour to Loch Ness was rapidly re-scheduled into a Panoramic tour of the Highlands. The scenery was stunning and our friendly guide and driver (Ken and Davey) were very impressive with their knowledge of the local area. I also learnt a great deal about malt whisky! Instead of visiting Loch Ness, we visited the picturesque old town of Durnoch. Here we had some free time to explore this pleasant and quaint place, where passengers could visit the cathedral, local shops and even the old jail. The building is still the same layout of the jail however it has now been turned into a lovely shop, selling a variety of local crafts, artworks and souvenirs. We had a very pleasant afternoon and the weather stayed dry throughout.
We arrived safely back at the ship and all were back on board by 6:30pm, as Saga Sapphire was due to set sail for our next port of call on this ‘Highland Fling’ cruise.
MV Saga Sapphire docked in Leith at 9:00pm on Sunday where we stayed alongside for two days at the gateway to Scotland’s magnificent capital. Although I have visited Edinburgh many times, this city never fails to fascinate me with its rich history. The oldest building dates back to the 12th century and is St Margaret’s Chapel which is situated in the castle grounds. The newest ‘historic’ building is the Scottish Parliament building which was opened by the Queen in 2004. At this time of year the entire city is abuzz with visitors to Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival which is the largest arts festival in the World. So there was plenty for our passengers to see during our stay in this wonderful city.
On Monday morning, passengers were up bright and early ready for a busy day in the city. Many of them had booked onto one of our organised shore excursions ranging from ‘Edinburgh Panoramic’ a visit to the Royal Yacht Britannia, ‘Holyrood Palace and Scottish Parliament’ and ‘Falkirk Wheel and Forth Bridge’.
For those who had not booked onto one of our organised tours, a complimentary shuttle bus service ran continuously throughout the day from the ship to the centre of Edinburgh. From here passengers could explore as they wished. There was plenty of shopping opportunities, or they could visit one of the many museums in the city, or they could fill their day (and night) with performances as part of the Fringe Festival. Not only the theatres but, bars, hotels, churches and any indoor venue with a decent amount of space has been converted into a performance area and a short stroll along the Royal Mile will give you a good idea of the type of performances that are on offer.
For many passengers, the highlight of the cruise came on Monday night when they experienced the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. The majority of our passengers had booked their place to witness this spectacle and the coaches left the ship just before 7:00pm to take them as close to the castle as possible. Needless to say the Tattoo did not disappoint and the weather stayed dry for the majority of the evening. For many, it was certainly an experience that will never be forgotten. They returned to the ship very late and a little chilly, however the Food & Beverage Team had prepared a delicious late night Scottish buffet accompanied by Hot Chocolate (with a wee dram).
We sailed from Leith early on Tuesday morning and will spend the day at sea before our arrival in Ijmuiden, Netherlands tomorrow. This will give passengers a chance to relax and recover from their busy stay in Edinburgh.
We sailed from Edinburgh and spent the day at sea, allowing guests to recover from their activities ashore over the past few days. The weather was pleasant and at times sunny and I even found a few passengers outside sunbathing. Captain hosted a cocktail party this evening and the entire ship was invited to a special evening to mark the cruise drawing to an end.
Saga Sapphire docked in the port of Ijmuiden today at 12noon. This is the port for Amsterdam and many passengers had booked one of our organised shore excursions. There was a delightful ‘Panoramic Amsterdam and Canal Cruise’ trip and also a ‘Highlights of Amsterdam and Canal Cruise’ tour. The second tour included a visit to Anne Frank’s house where the young girl and her family hid for many months during WWII and where she recorded her experience in a diary, which is among the original objects on display. I escorted on the ‘Taste of Holland’ tour and had a very enjoyable afternoon on bus number 3. We visited a place called Zaandam just north of Amsterdam and here we visited a quaint Dutch Windmill village that has been restored to re-create an 18th century community. There was once originally over 500 windmills in the Zaanstreek area and eight have been preserved at the village. We also visited a cheese factory just outside Edam and got to taste a selection of delicious cheeses made of goat, cow and sheep’s milk. The cheese was accompanied with a variety of different flavoured mustards which was an interesting combination and one that I had not tasted before. So I well and truly fell for the ‘tasting experience’ and ended up buying a selection of delicious cheeses and various different pots of mustard! After the cheese factory our guide took us into the centre of Edam for a walking tour. Unfortunately the weather became quite rainy, however a few committed passengers (all women!) braved the elements and ventured out to explore Edam. The town was very pretty and quaint with some very interesting history. This is certainly a place I would like to return and learn a bit more about.
We returned to the ship at approximately 6:00pm, and shortly after set sail from our final port of call on the ‘Highland Fling’ cruise. We will now sail overnight and dock in Dover tomorrow morning marking the end of the cruise.
We are off again with the ship brimming full of Saganauts on a twelve day cruise to see ‘Britain and Ireland’s Finest’, well, according to the brochure. It certainly started off with a sensation, a WW2 Hurricane performing an eight minute display off the white cliffs as we passed St. Margaret’s Bay, tingling great stuff!
The following day dawned bright, and brisk for those wanting to walk the mile around the upper deck, but as we headed up past the coast of Northumberland the wind eased. The land became more distinct, rolling green hills dappled with sunshine became clearly visible, and puffy white clouds with the odd grey shower could be seen in the far distance. We passed again between the Farne Islands and the mainland, Bamborough Castle prominent above the white sands which stretched for miles. Island day trippers waved with great enthusiasm from their boat as their skipper came in for a better view.
The following morning dawned a little grey, and a chilly north westerly wind meant jumpers and coats on the bridge wing as we docked in the Cromarty Firth. Our pilot looked every bit the hardened sea dog, with a closely shaved grey beard and a woolly hat to match. We berthed at the pier that had originally been built for some long forgotten bulk cargo, but now brought back into use when two passenger ships are in town. Quite satisfactory, but almost half a mile in length. My comment to passengers after arrival was a rather flippant ‘We can almost see Scotland from our berth’. They knew what country we were in though, the man with the agony bag at the bottom of the gangway saw to that.
I had the great pleasure of being collected by a chap I had met on a recent holiday. We drove off to his house in the country, halfway to Inverness, and ‘played’ with his live steam garden railway while his wife made us all a light lunch. After a few hours relaxation we all drove back and I showed off my slightly larger ‘toy’.
The run up from Invergordon to the capital of the Orkneys was only 108 miles, so once clear of the Cromarty Firth one engine was shut down and we slowly cruised up the coast, crossing the Pentland Firth and picking up our pilot the following morning just before seven. There was another larger ship on the only berth so it meant having to anchor. Fortunately the winds were relatively light and the bay of Kirkwall sheltered from any swell, even so I opted to also use the stern anchor in order to keep the ship slightly off the wind and make a lee for working the tenders. It is rare to see a passenger ship with a stern anchor these days, so the young officers have little opportunity to experience the particular skills required to use one.
The day was about the best I have seen for a long time in this small group of islands exposed to the vagaries of the Atlantic weather, where punishing lows can come in and ruin several days on the trot. After a relatively small shower first thing, the clouds scattered and the sun shone for much of our time at the anchorage. All the tours went off without a hitch, some going one way around the islands, the rest the other way I presume, but there is much to see.
Apart from St. Magnus cathedral in Kirkwall itself, tours went off to look at standing stones, the underground village at Skara Brae, Scapa Flow and the Italian chapel built by prisoners of war. I did take a quick ride ashore on a tender just to check out the landing; fortunately it was right in town, handy for those who just wanted to go for stroll, and also a focus of interest for those tourists and locals who didn’t have much else to do. They were leaning over the rails watching the folks coming ashore and boarding the tenders as though they were from some special place. Well, I guess they were.