Cruise captains usually don’t celebrate icy waters.
But thanks in large part to climate change, Captain Birger J. Vorland is confident he’s about to make history sailing through Northwest Passage.
Like his predecessor, Roald Amundsen, Vorland is Norwegian. But unlike Amundsen, who took three years to complete the first successful all-water crossing in 1906, Vorland will do it in 32 days.
He’s also steering a much bigger ship carrying 1,000 passengers and 653 crewmembers aboard Crystal Cruises’ award-winning luxury liner, Serenity. The ship embarked on the journey Aug. 16 from Seward, Alaska and is expected to reach the “impassable sea route” on Aug. 30 when it has to transit Victoria Strait. It was near here that Franklin’s 1848 expedition got trapped and had to abandon their ships.
Known for its top notch service and luxurious amenities, Crystal Cruises is sparing no expense to ensure the voyage is successful-- and safe. The luxury liner, which has a casino, tennis courts, night club and medspa, stands out on a shipping route where the few and far between vessels are Russian trawlers and commercial fishing boats.
Passengers began reserving staterooms when the itinerary was first announced two years ago. Basic 269 sq. ft. deluxe staterooms start around $22,000/person (based on double occupancy), hypoallergenic PURE staterooms start at $32,000 and the 1,345 sq. ft. Crystal Penthouse with butler service starts at $120,000. For that price guests enjoy upgrades like heated flooring and seating, a spa flotation tub with ocean view, state-of-the-art lighting and surround sound, an invitation from the captain for a private tour of the bridge and a walk-in closet with illuminated rods and custom shelving.
Yes, there are formal nights and Dior and diamonds for sale in the on-board boutiques—but from day one passengers have been routinely briefed to expect the unexpected.
“Ice isn’t just ice,” emphasizes Captain Vorland. Eskimos have dozens of words for snow and there are almost as many for ice. To stay on top of the current ice conditions, Crystal Cruises installed IceNav, a program used by commercial vessels and expedition crews, on Serenity and RRS Ernest Shackleton, the icebreaking British Antarctic Survey escort accompanying her. Serenity is the only vessel in the Crystal Cruises fleet with this feature. IceNav offers on-demand satellite imagery providing updates as recent as three hours old—about as close to real time as it gets in the Arctic.
“I have been in ice, but I’m not an expert in ice,” admits Vorland, who has visited all 13 ports of call on the itinerary but has yet to navigate the Passage in its entirety.
To help guide Serenity through the most treacherous parts, Vorland picked up two experienced Canadian ice pilot boat captains, Captain John Cowan and Captain Andrew McNeil, in Nome on Aug. 21. Cowan and McNeil have experience piloting commercial ships in the Passage and have worked on icebreakers operated by the Canadian Coast Guard.
In May, Vorland and the pilots completed an interactive ice simulation course at the Marine Institute in St. John’s, Newfoundland. “The sound effects of the ice cracking were tremendous,” Vorland recalls. Fortunately for him, and Serenity guests, any ice breaking will be done by the Shackleton which boasts a hull capable of breaking through 2.5 meters of ice without so much as scratching the paint.
The thrill of sailing through the Northwest Passage is the premier draw of this trip. But any cruise guest—even the biggest history buff-- wants good food aboard.
Crystal Cruises is known for high caliber cuisine. Serenity’s sushi restaurant, Silk Road is a collaboration with Nobu. But on a 32-day trip where the bulk of the time is spent in polar regions, obtaining perishables up to par with refined palates takes Herculean efforts. In one day the ship’s kitchens go through 200 lbs of salad, 2,000 lbs of fruit and 90 gallons of milk.
Since sourcing food locally in the Arctic isn’t an option, Crystal Cruises chartered a BOEING 737 and filled it to capacity with 48 airline pallets worth of produce. The plane will meet the ship in Cambridge Bay on its 13th day at sea. Crystal Cruises flies in supplies to other voyages including its Amazon cruises, but nothing to this extent. Serenity will restock again via cargo plane about 11 days later in Greenland. It will restock for its third and final time five days later in Boston.
“No one is getting scurvy on this ship,” laughs Captain Vorland who is adamant guests get their vitamin C. In fact, orange juice is the only menu change Crystal Cruises had to implement for this voyage. Otherwise the entire menu is the same as it would be on other voyages.
Normally, the kitchen serves fresh-squeezed orange juice and goes through 25 crates of oranges each day. To cut back on waste—the ship pledged to carry its waste and not dump it in the Arctic Ocean—it’s serving frozen premium orange juice instead.
Scurvy jokes aside, the crew’s biggest concern is evacuating someone in the case of an emergency. Despite the remote destination, Vorland is confident his team could have anyone en route to a hospital within 48 hours. But in such an isolated area, it won’t be cheap. Every passenger is required to have medical evacuation insurance covering at least $50,000. This plan is offered on other Crystal Cruises voyages-- but this is the only one on which it is mandatory for all guests due to the tremendous costs associated with flying a medical team to the Arctic.
In Barrow, Alaska-- the northernmost American city-- the ship will rely on two U.S. Coast Guard helicopters stationed there in the event of an emergency.
In the Northwest Territories, the helipad-equipped ship will take on two of its own helicopters to see it through to the final port, New York City. Crystal Cruises usually sees fewer than three emergency evacuations annually across its more than 30 global cruises so it’s more likely that the only time a Northwest Passage guest will spend in a helicopter will be on an excursion.
In Nome, passengers willing to shell out $5,000 for flightseeing excursions boarded Bering Air helicopters. Some stayed local, hovering over the surrounding tundra—home to moose, musk oxen and bears—while others headed as far away as Provideniya, Russia to visit a reindeer herders’ camp.
The idea of touching down in Eastern Russia for two hours may sound insane and logistically impossible, but for a company that’s flying in a 737 filled with 25,000 lbs of fresh fruit and vegetables, the sky’s the limit when it comes to how far they’ll go to satisfy their discerning guests.
Katie Jackson is a travel writer. When she's not working, she's chasing after a Leonberger named Zeus.