Travel Story What's it really like to be a cruise ship captain?

Photo of Niall McIlroy

Being in charge of the lives of thousands of crew and passengers is a big responsibility, but the seafaring life – and the chance to see the world – has a strong allure.

Every cruise ship captain I’ve spoken to appears to have one thing in common; he’d love to be able to spend his shore leave ... at sea.

Landlubbing is no holiday at all for these ship’s masters. Whether they relish the daily order of shipboard life, the challenge of navigating between new ports and old, or the responsibility of being in charge of everything around them apart from Mother Nature, at sea is where they’d rather be. 

“I have tried being ashore, I had two years on land and that was enough,” Norwegian Capt. Kjetil Gjerstad (pictured above) once told me on Explorer of the Seas.

“I love the job and the sea, and sailing around visiting new ports,” he said.

It’s certainly not about the comforts and cuisine of the cruise ship for these skippers. Capt. Gjerstad cut his teeth as a deck boy on a cargo ship where he worked his way through the ranks, gaining respect and responsibility, seeing the world.

“Cargo ships were nice,” he said, “we didn’t have pizza bars but we did have table tennis and a gym.”

His friend and colleague Kjell Nordmo also hails from the Norwegian Arctic and indeed his life has taken a very similar tack.

The long-time Legend of the Seas captain has steered his ship just about everywhere but the Poles as it tested new itineraries for Royal Caribbean.

And he’s been happy at the helm.

“Doing so many interesting cruises, I enjoy being on the Legend, I get the opportunity to get to know the crew and to visit so many fantastic ports, which takes me all over the world,” he said.

I’ve met many a nautical Norwegian. Perhaps it’s a national trait, salt water in the veins. So crucial has the fishing industry been to the country’s economy that life at sea has swept through many generations.

But not so Zisis Taramas. The burly captain of Celebrity Solstice may have been born on the Aegean island of Evia, but his family were farmers not fishers. “They grew vegetables, oranges and olives,” he told me as we cruised the Tasman to New Zealand. “My brother still works the farm but it’s not me. This is for me.”

Wedded to the sea he may be, but Capt. Taramas, married with a family of his own, was of course obliged to make time for his wife and two children back in Greece. And they’d go on holiday to see Dad who, though responsible for the lives of nearly 3000 people, was happy to let Mum be boss of the kids.

“That way I'm always the good guy,” he joked.

Thoughts of Greece and life on land just weren’t on the itinerary. For Capt. Taramas, negotiating the Tasman, a Bay of Islands entry, Auckland and eventually crossing the planet’s biggest expanse of ocean to America was the course he’d plotted and he revelled in the freedom it gave.

“This peace, this quiet out on the open ocean, there's nowhere I'd rather be,” he said.

Now where have I heard that before?

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