Hardly any cruise vessels come to Portsmouth. I’m not sure why. Yes, it’s easier to get here by road but the arrival by sea is much nicer. This morning the sight of the impressive Spinnaker Tower greeted us. As we got through the breakwaters, Lord Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory came into view together with other National Museum of the Royal Navy exhibits.
I didn’t have much time to enjoy the sights. The turning basin off our allocated spot was rather tight with only 30 meters to spare at each end of the vessel. However, with assistance of the local tugboat we swung the vessel round and were alongside.
The maiden call of Saga Sapphire attracted many visitors. I was privileged to meet the harbour master himself. We had a nice chat and exchanged plaques. Our collection is growing.
This day was a prelude to the main attraction of this cruise –the Isle of Wight race. In preparation this evening we had a very helpful briefing by Dennis Steele. He explained to all landlubbers on board what the race is all about and what to expect. Dennis was for many years a Vice Commodore of the Island Sailing Club and took part in the Round the Island Race many times. He also had a nice surprise for us. As the first cruise liner taking such an interest in the race, we were presented with a yacht club banner and the special tankard of the race. The same one that’s presented to all participating crews. What an honour.
The next morning we left harbour very early. It was already busy with yachts rushing to the start line. We quickly passed Cowes Haven and dropped anchor near Salt Mead Buoy. Our timing and position were perfect. The first wave (some of the fastest yachts around) crossed the start line and in no time were onto us. The tactical battle was taking place right in front of us and Dennis could hardly hide his excitement as he gave his live commentary. Shortly after the fastest trimarans (including the later winner Phaedo 3) rushed past us. Just when we thought we couldn’t be more impressed, the rest of the yachts moved through the starting line. Soon hundreds of yachts surrounded us. Not as fast as the professionals, but still very competitive, trying to get best position and clear wind. ‘Starboard!’shouts were everywhere.
Before the race, we had news that a yacht called “Saga”was taking part in the regatta. She has no connection whatsoever with our company. We thought it would be fun to ask our guests to keep an eye out for it and let us know if they spotted it. I decided to take part in the hunt as well. So far nobody else has claimed they saw it, but I did and have the photo to prove it!
Even if we’d wanted to we could not move from our position. The size of the armada was incredible and only once the bulk of them had passed our position could we heave the anchor and rush towards the finish line. We thought we might be there in time to see the fastest boats crossing the line. However, we could have not anticipated that this year the multihull race record would be broken. Phaedo 3 smashed it in an unbelievable two hours 23 minutes and 23 seconds –knocking 22 minutes off Sir Ben Ainsley’s record. She was across the finish line before we even completed heaving up our anchor!! What a race!
In this new position, our guest could sit and enjoy as the remaining yachts made their way to the finish line. This race isn’t for the faint hearted. Conditions today were rather extreme and the race was mostly against nature rather than man versus man. The organizers cancelled the less vulnerable classes. One yacht sank, several others were damaged, over a hundred gave up or required assistance. In my eyes, everyone that finished was a winner. Well done!
After all that excitement, this evening I had hosted my Cocktail party. I did not count, but I think we had nearly everyone in the Britannia Lounge. The partly was followed by a gala dinner and I had the absolute pleasure of hosting my table, with some special guests. Mrs Jane and Mr Donal Cox, our Diamond Club members, were kind enough to accept my invitation to my table this evening. Together with their friends, we spent a lovely evening chatting and laughing while enjoying delicious food by our Executive Chef George. I only wish there were more hours in the day!
After an early start –pilot was on board at 5am, we docked in Le Havre well before 7 o’clock. Weather was very kind to us and shortly afterwards we were able to send our guest on the long awaited tour. Wait…Why have we arrived here so early if the first tour was only at 8am? I think I need to have a word with our port manager.
Yesterday in Guernsey, we were at anchor. Some of our guests decided not to go ashore but today they were eager to step on terra firma for a change. With all the tours we had on offer, ‘Discover Beautiful Honfleur’seemed to be the most popular one. Only a short distance from Le Havre, our guests could enjoy most of the day in this small Normandy port. A guided tour took them around the town centre with picturesque narrow streets of half-timbered houses overlooking the harbour. Another tour that attracted quite a few passengers was ‘Fecamp and Etretat’. Part of its program was a visit to Palais Benedicitine, which houses a working distillery that produces the famous liqueur. This was followed by the visit to Etretat with its high white cliffs –twins of those on the South coast of the Isle of Wight.
With so many attractions around the vessel, I did not have much chance to tell you anything about the entertainment on board this cruise. Apart from wonderful shows from our own Explosive team, we had some great guest entertainers as well. First night was all about ‘Remembering the Somme’by Bruce Morrison - solo performance of powerful, emotional and passionate tribute in poetry, words, song and music. Last night we had a chance to listen to some musical artistry of the instrumentalist Kenny Martyn. Fantastic as ever.
Tomorrow we will say good-bye to our passengers. The time has come for me as well to return home. I have immensely enjoyed my last few weeks on board Saga Sapphire. I will be handing over the ship to Captain Philip Rentell tomorrow.
I would like to thank all my Officers, Staff, and Crew for all their hard work during this time and for making my life so much easier. I wish Captain Philip, and all who will sail on Saga Sapphire, smooth seas, safe sailing, and only sunny weather.
The crossing of the North Sea was in fair sunny conditions as we headed off on our cruise ‘Into the Arctic Circle’, a two week voyage to the very top of Norway. Our first harbour pilot was scheduled to board at 5 am and as we approached the coast the ‘Norge’, a private small ship belonging to the Norwegian Royal family passed ahead looking quite superb in the golden skies of sunrise.
Stavanger was still fairly quiet as we arrived, but on our jetty there was a lorry loaded with brand new roof trusses. Needless to say there was some amusing conversation suggesting the refit period was not quite finished. In fact it was only the vehicles crane that was to be used, to place the shore gangway on board.
A variety of tours were on offer, including a drive down to a small settlement at the head of Lysefjord, perhaps more famous for Pulpit Rock which towers almost 2000 feet above the waters. Mrs R and I have also, in the past, taken the ferry to the delightful Flor and Fjære Gardens situated on the small fjord island of Sør Hidle. On this occasion we decided to join a group taking the ‘Occupation of Stavanger’ tour which included the Rogaland War Museum housed in an old military barracks and the ‘Fly Historisk Museum’. The latter had many planes safely under cover in an original hangar built in 1942 next to the Harsfjord from where German seaplanes operated. The collection includes a couple of small airliners, some early jet fighters and a magnificently restored Catalina flying boat. A Messerschmitt 109 is being rebuilt and a Heinkel seaplane fished out of the fjord a few years ago is also being slowly preserved in an ‘as found’ condition.
The same truck came to take our gangway off before leaving, this time without the roof trusses. I have been assured that they are not hidden away under canvas somewhere behind the funnel.
The run up from Stavanger meant a few pilot changes at unsociable hours, but we had a superb morning yesterday venturing into Sognefjord and then up through the more open fjords as far as Floro, sailing then back out into the Norwegian Sea. A slight south westerly wind along with a relatively slow speed meant passengers could enjoy the changing scenery from the top decks without having to hold onto their hats, the sunny clear conditions showing Norway at its best.
Just before midnight another pilot joined off Kristiansund to guide us to Trondheim, 92 miles away. Eventually, as breakfast approached, he brought us ‘round the corner’ where our berth became evident in the distance, well at least the large glass fronted public swimming pool that is adjacent.
Passengers either took the shuttle bus into town, or went off on tour. Those of us that are on board in a professional capacity braced ourselves for that weekly necessity, the ‘Crew Drill’. Having recently returned on board I was keen to witness the performance, and make some observations after, so it was midday by the time life returned to normal.
Opting to take a brisk walk into town, first crossing the nearby railway, I headed up towards the Nidaros Cathedral, a magnificent structure where work began in 1070. It is, apparently, the largest of its kind in all Scandinavia and has been a place of pilgrimage as it marks the burial site of the patron saint of Norway, Saint Olav. A slight diversion brought me to the old city bridge, red painted and looking down stream towards warehouse originally used in the trading days.
The day was sunny and quite warm, a bonus one might say, and when returning on board I was amused to notice that some of the passengers seemed to be more interested in what was happening inside the swimming pool than taking in the Norwegian scenery. We left on schedule, the keen on shore breeze that had sprung up in the afternoon making the manoeuvre ‘interesting’. The Lofoten Islands beckon.
One pilot left in the evening and another joined just before next morning’s coffee time, we continued north, but in rather overcast conditions. Visibility was good however, and as we approached Hollandsfjord the grey cloud appeared to lift. Speed was reduced until Sapphire seemed to just glide across the waters, and then, up to our right, the Svartisen Glacier came into view. Down to just two knots, we turned at the very head of the fjord and ‘lingered’ for twenty minutes or so. I had the passengers looking out for the two ‘tame’ moose that are now advertised as being available to ‘kiss’. They must have been having a shy day; fortunate perhaps, 600 Saganauts would have been quite a challenge.
A slow overnight passage across the Vestfjorden took us over to the spectacular Lofoten Islands and Leknes, a small port really only used by cruise ships in the summer months. The forecast was good and gradually the low clouds lifted revealing stunning scenery. Mrs R and I joined a panoramic tour that soon dived into a tunnel taking us to the adjacent island and Vikten, where we made a stop at the glass blowing workshop of ‘Glasshytta’. This unique glass is now a symbol of the Lofoten Islands and the demonstration was most interesting. Being somewhat inquisitive I had noticed a crate load of empty spirit bottles outside the back door, so I asked whether these were collected for recycling into the products produced. The glassblower smiled and said ‘Yes, but I don’t drink all the contents myself, except perhaps in the winter’.
We drove on, along narrow winding roads, to Nusfjord which is advertised as ‘One of Norway’s oldest and best preserved fishing villages’. The village is still owned by the Dahl family and is very much the tourist site, but tastefully done as it is now on the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. In season, large hauls of fish are still landed, particularly cod in the winter, but in days gone by, thousands of cod were laid out on drying racks for up to six months. A small processing factory would separate liver, tongue and head, much of which would be exported. An audio visual presentation, in a darkened warehouse room still having the faint ‘whiff’ of the old days, gave a fascinating insight into what life must have been like. Outside, screeching gulls nested on window ledges, resulting in the boardwalk being ‘bomb alley’, tourists beware!
It was a delightful tour and by the time we sailed in mid-afternoon there was only blue sky above. As we proceeded further into the Vestfjorden, the mountains behind with their jagged peaks looked truly stunning.
Being a member (number 238,273) of ‘The Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society’ I felt it only correct that I should wear their emblem on my uniform collar as we entered Hammerfest, the traditional home of the society.
Timing was perfect as we arrived outside this small northern ‘city’ just as the regular Hurtigruten coastal vessel was about to leave. We rounded the bay and took up her berth in the heart of ‘downtown’ and here I found, just a few steps away, the new headquarters of the ‘RAPBS’, the tourist information office. Proudly showing off my small, but discretely enamelled polar bear badge, the assistant smiled pleasantly, obviously not as impressed with my life membership as I am. Even so, my wife quickly ascertained that membership was qualification for a 5% discount of any shop purchase. Our on board tailor now has a new woven badge which must be affixed to an Arctic jacket already sufficiently covered with emblems of obscure places around the globe.
We strode off for a jaunt up to Mount Salen, at 282 feet not the highest climb in the district, but marvellous views over the harbour. We carried on round to the other side and saw much more of what must be ‘upper Hammerfest’, continuing to clamber over grey pinky granite, split by the winter ice and having a sizeable number of alpine flowers, until we must have covered several miles. From even higher there were marvellous views of islands and fjords and in the bright Arctic sunshine it somehow felt a great privilege, despite the exertion, to be just standing there.
With only 97 miles to run up to Honningsvåg, the most northerly port on this itinerary, we didn’t need to leave until late in the evening. Although much cooler than the 19 degree daytime temperature, the sun was still low on the horizon, partly hidden by encroaching cloud. An ethereal sea fog was creeping across from the west, would I have a sleepless night?
In fact the fog held off, but when I returned to the bridge in the morning the sky was leaden, clouds down to less than 500 feet, the horizontal visibility however was well over 10 miles, so it was no problem to navigate visually. The Norwegian pilot, a nice chap well over six feet with several days growth of beard, an ear ring and looking more like a pirate, had remained on board overnight. Glad of the rest I suspect as he had been on duty for several days prior to joining us in Hammerfest.
Honningsvag is more of a large settlement than a town and I can assume that if it wasn’t for the fact that the most northern point of Europe happens to be at the top of the island, all that would be there would an even smaller fishing community. Thousands of passengers, however, pass through the small port every summer with the hope of seeing the midnight sun. The chances seemed somewhat remote on this day.
The tours went off, all kitted up for the damp chilly conditions, some to the North Cape, others to a fishing village on Mageroy island (reindeers grazing) and yet another for a ‘King Crab Experience’. I was reliably informed by Mrs R that the latter was a huge hit and judging from the ‘scraps’ that were sent back for ‘the Master’ those who have a taste for these larger than life sea creatures must have been in seventh heaven, as they had a chance to taste more than just a morsel of this superb delicacy. Most of the daily catch apparently, is flown in tanks, still alive, to the Far East.
The weather did not improve, in fact a penetrating light rain blessed us during the afternoon. Having had to proceed with various slightly more mundane, but routine duties during the morning, my afternoon exercise escape was postponed for another day.
Sailing was not until 2100 hours, as we wished to pass around the North Cape just at midnight, in the hope that both sun and Cape could be seen at the same time. The pilot offered gratis the services of a rather large ‘stand by’ support vessel anchored nearby which needed to complete a ‘towage exercise’ as part of its routine tasks. No doubt the chaps on board were glad of something to do, but this very large vessel looked somewhat out of proportion standing off our stern.
And at midnight we cruised slowly by the Cape, a fresh westerly breeze bringing the cloud and light rain, at times blocking the view of those looking down at us, and us looking up at them, miniature people against a rail more than a thousand feet up the awesome sheer cliff. To the north however, a glimmer of sun from time to time, low on the horizon and just visible through the thinner cloud. So we had done it, the midnight sun, sort of.
Captain Philip Rentell
Captain Philip Rentell
Jul 15, 2016
Tromso is probably best known for two reasons, the first being that it was the place where the German battleship Tirpitz was finally sunk by British bombers during the Second World War, and the second is that it has often been called ‘The Gateway to the Arctic’. In the 19th century it was a base for Arctic explorers and the Polar Museum, located in an old customs warehouse dating back to 1830, is popular for visitors who wish to take a glance into this exciting period of history.
Our berth, where we stayed overnight, is conveniently close to the city. Major construction works are going on alongside as a new cruise terminal is to be completed in 2018, so Tromso may yet again be the gateway to the Arctic, this time for cruise passengers who may fly into to the airport in order to join a ship for a voyage going further north than ours.
We had four excursions taking in everything this part of Norway has to offer, including the unusual modern aluminium clad Arctic Cathedral built in 1965. Some went to the Wilderness Centre to meet the 200 huskies, while others had a chance to meet the Sami people and their reindeer. Behind us the daily Hurtigruten vessel came in for a four hour stop before proceeding to all ports north.
After a morning of ‘duties’I popped ashore with Mrs R for a quick stroll and happened to meet Julian, our Food and Beverage manager who was just leaving a ‘tourist’shop with a number of large bags. On venturing to ask what he had been up to, I was invited to look at the contents. Inside were quite a number of those tasteful plastic Viking horned helmets one might see at a fancy dress. When I raised an eyebrow he explained they were for a very special Viking lunch he was organising for our next sea day. I look forward, with a certain degree of trepidation, to seeing a number of our Filipino waiters serving passengers while dressed up to look like Viking marauders.
My fears were unfounded, it was not the waiters that looked like Viking marauders the next lunchtime, but John, our now bearded Cruise Director, who looked particularly scary, dressed up more like a beer house serving maid, complete with rouged cheeks, pink lipstick and hairless ankles visible under a rather unattractive baggy skirt. It was, however, a fantastic seafood buffet which Executive Chef George (in a blonde pig tailed wig?) and his team had excelled.
The sea day spent between Tromso and Molde was in calm conditions, one pilot disembarked in the early hours of Saturday and the next one joined at three in the morning of Sunday, just off Kristiansund, for the 60 mile outer fjord passage to Molde, a small town situated in the Romsdal province. Sheltered by many mountains on all sides, the scenery is quite beautiful and conditions are such that plants are protected from the harsh winds coming in from the North Atlantic. It is said that 222 peaks of the Romsdal range can be seen from the Varden viewpoint above the town, but perhaps not this day as the cloud base was rather low.
Rain stayed away and tours went off along the ‘Atlantic Ocean Road’, around this ‘Town of Roses’and to Håholmen Island where a short cruise on an 11th century replica of a Viking ship was part of the itinerary. Needless to say I did not join the latter, just to ensure I did not become part of the ‘entertainment’. Mrs R and I took a stroll just before lunch, walking along the waterside pathway passing the football stadium built by a very rich local resident of the town and an unusual glass faced hotel built in the style of a sail. The town is quite charming, old wooden buildings full of character still exist alongside those a little more contemporary. Roses were in bloom everywhere, and not a single indication of ‘Black spot’, how do they do it?
For the first time this cruise I had to stand on the bridge wing and get wet when docking the ship in Bergen. Fortunately I had plenty of time to dry out and by the time I (alone) departed for the afternoon tour, the skies were a little clearer.
I joined a group heading off for a trip on the Vossebanen, a heritage steam railway that has brought back to life a 12 mile section of the Bergen to Oslo line that went out of service in the 60’s when a new tunnel under the mountains was completed. Normally the line only operates during the summer months on a Sunday, but Saga had chartered the train for a leisurely journey from Midttun to Garnes. Here, with wonderful views across the Sor Fjord, volunteers of the Norwegian Railway Association have their base in the old station. They only have one steam engine, dating back to 1913, and a number of teak carriages, but some other interesting rolling stock stands waiting to be lovingly restored. The chatty enthusiastic guard told me the driver was training another chap, which is why some of the braking was not quite as smooth as it could be. Seemed fine to me considering the combined age of the footplate crew certainly exceeded the age of the engine. Our passengers really enjoyed the experience and one lady, yes, a lady, told me it was the best tour she’d been on the whole voyage. Considering all the amazing scenery we have shown them in the past two weeks I did wonder if I had heard her correctly.
The departure was somewhat different from our arrival, mainly because the weather was far more clement and the pilot was a lady. In the many years of sailing into Norwegian waters I told her it was the first time I had met a lady Norwegian pilot, she smiled of course and we chatted amiably while the Staff Captain made the manoeuvre off the berth. A little later, when I came back onto the bridge in my dress uniform to say cheerio prior to going down to the Farewell Cocktail party, she remarked that I looked very handsome (she was not wearing her glasses). It was my turn to smile as I mentioned that it was the first time in 26 years as a Master that a pilot had ever said that to me (thankfully), but as she was a lady I was happy to receive the compliment.