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March 27, 2007

Swapping Stories, Burning Fuel

Fabulously retro controls on the bridge

If I had the money, the first thing I would do upon getting to Hong Kong is buy the biggest, fattest, most ridiculously enormous SUV available and drive it up and down the city's streets--idling whenever the mood strikes, cranking the air conditioning with the windows open--just to appreciate the superb fuel economy. When it comes to fossil fuels, this ship has quite a thirst. It doesn't run on gas or diesel fuel. It burns what's known as heavy fuel oil, a petroleum product that, when cold, is hard enough to walk on. (This is the stuff Kim Jong-Il is always running out of. This and Cognac.)

The ship burns through 80 tons of the stuff per day. Eighty tons. Inconvenient, but true. The heavy fuel oil doesn't turn the ship's two propellers directly. Instead it's used to power six 12-cylinder generators, which in turn power the ship's electric engines as well as the many other electrical systems and amenities on board. Desalinating seawater is a biggie. The kitchen alone goes through 100 tons of water day.

These are some of the many fascinating facts I learned on the bridge tour.

The bridge, you will notice from the photos, is fabulously retro. As I admired the big buttons, flashing lights and brushed steel levers, I thought, This is what the control room in Goldfinger's hideout must have looked like. And yet, the ship itself is not that old. It was built in 1995, just around the time retro was coming back. Perhaps it was deliberate.

The bridge on "auto captain"

That's not to say the ship is technologically stunted. When we visited, it was running an autopilot, though I think "auto captain" would be a more appropriate term. There was one bridge officer on duty-his name was Ivo; he is from Bulgaria--and another man standing watch, which is just like it sounds. He just stood there, looking out the window. There are worse jobs on this ship.

Navigation is done these days with the aid of a GPS. Oil tankers tend to rely on this and solely this. Here on the cruise ship, though, they take at least one manual navigation reading a day, either by using the sun or the stars, which requires a sextant. I find it difficult to comprehend how one's position on the sea can be determined solely by looking at the stars.

It didn't take long for the bridge tour to get into some serious guy talk. It started when Ivo pointed to the ship's spare propeller blades, which are sitting in plain view on the ship's foredeck. At that, one of the other passengers said he was on another cruise liner that blew an engine mid-voyage. "I remember watching them load in the crankshaft when we arrived in dock," he said.

From this, Ivo segued into an explanation of what a complicated and difficult task it is to replace a ship's engine. Unlike cars, ships don't have hoods that can be easily popped. Changing an engine on a ship requires cutting through the hull, removing the old engine, installing the new one, then sealing the hull up again and painting over so it looks like new again.  The cost of replacing an engine is so dear, in fact, that it often makes more sense just to build a whole new ship altogether. And ships aren't cheap. This one cost $350 million in 1995. (I know a mechanic who dropped a brand new clutch into a Volvo two years ago--and replaced the rear main seal--for around $1,200. I'm thinking the cruise liner people should talk to him.)

The men were gripped by what Ivo had to say. They all crowded around and fired questions at him: "Do you need to be in dry dock to replace a propeller blade?" (No.) "How many cylinders does each generator have?" (12) "How deep is it right now?" (5000 meters.)

Their wives weren't quite so interested. They hived off into a separate group and moved to the back of the bridge, where there was a series of photographic portraits of each of this ship's captains in full nautical regalia. Here, the wives took turns pointing at the faces they recognized.

"I remember him and him, but not him."

"Really, because I remember him, but I don't think I ever met him."

"Oh, I'm sure we met him. That was on the Singapore cruise."

"We missed that one. We're thinking of doing it next year."

While all this took place, we burned about one and a half tons of fuel.

Posted at N 21 28.115   E 125 35.765


Wow, 80 tons a day. Did they mention how much the ship can hold? Also, I would think that when the boat (sorry, ship) was close to empty, there would be more buoyancy and the ship would just be bobbing like a toy on the ocean.

Looks like you guys are getting pretty close to land. I put your coordinates into Google Earth and it looks like Taiwan isn't far off.

Another interesting and humourous report.Have you ever considered stand-up comedy?


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