Cruise skipper: dealing smoothly with the unexpected

Earl B. russell logs 55,500 miles a year as skipper on one of a vanishing breed of American ships. Since 1975 he has been master of the Santa Mercedes, one of four look-alike 20,000-ton cruise liners. They are the only remaining scheduled passenger ships on the high seas operating with an American crew under the US flag. All other ships in the cruise category are registered in foreign lands.

Three times a year Captain Russell boards his Delta Steamship Lines vessel in its home port of San Francisco for a 63-day, 18,500-mile voyage through the Panama Canal, around South America via the Strait of Magellan, and back to the US West Coast, touching 18 ports along the way.

The Santa Mercedes and its three sister ships (Santa Mariana, Santa Maria, and Santa Magdalena) are the last ones of their type built in the United States (Maryland). Each is designed to carry cargo, 100 passengers in first-class accommodations complete with swimming pool, dining room, and lounge, and 90 crew members. The cruise liners maintain regular schedules, with a departure every two weeks from ports along their route, including Vancouver, B.C.; Tacoma, Wash.; San Francisco; and Los Angeles.

Captain Russell entered maritime service at 16 during World War II. His first assignment was aboard a Liberty ship on which he was a room steward. "I soon found making beds wasn't the life for me," he recalls. But he continued at sea, studying and working up through the ranks as able seaman, boatswain, deck maintenance man, and quartermaster.

Master of a ship is no 9-to-5 job. Hours are irregular. At best, sleep is choppy. A typical day at sea "starts at midnight and ends at midnight," the skipper explains. Twice between midnight and 4 a.m. he leaves his quarters to check on the ship's position, a routine that continues throughout the day.

His day is dotted with problem solving and decisionmaking. Along the way, he also may be involved in an inspection (US-registered ships adhere to far more rigid standards than foreign vessels); conducting a lifeboat drill (a plaque over his desk constantly reminds him: "A Collision at Sea Can Ruin Your Entire Day"); hosting the traditional captain's party in his suite; conversing by radiotelephone with Delta's shore staff in San Francisco; and chatting with passengers.

The captain relates that one of the most difficult thigns on voyages is to maintain schedules. While much of the planning is left to the shore staff, the unscheduled often enters the picture.

This ranges from another ship tied up at what is supposed to be his vessel's berth to the always unpredictable weather, including tropical storms.

"When the unusual occurs -- something beyond our control -- I decide what to cut in order to make up time," he declares.

The increasing cost of fuel now adds to the skipper's daily concern. Skirting a storm, for example, means burning more fuel. While the Santa ships use low-grade bunker oil, the cost still adds up. Captain Russell calculates that 1 1/2 barrels of oil are consumed each mile. So if 128 extra barrels are used over a 6-hour period, he illustrates, it means $2,000 to $3,000 in additional operating costs.

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