Goodbye Old Friend

In which I say goodbye to a ship named Prinsendam – the second time around.

I was new to Juneau, looking across Gastineau Channel from my home in North Douglas.  A neat little cruise ship pulled into Juneau’s dock.  It was June 1980. She had a single orange funnel aft and beautiful lines.  That was the first time I had seen a ship named Prinsendam.  It seemed an unusual name to me because most Holland America ships were, at that time, after cities places, and directions on the compass, with the suffix “dam.” (Noordam, for instance).  According to Holland America Captain Albert Schoonderbeek’s blog “Prinsendam” was first proposed as a ship’s name in 1936.  There was no ship honoring Den Haag (The Hague) which was also known as Prinsenhof, or the Prince’s City.   Den Haagdam sounds awkward (or like an ice cream cone) but Prinsendam sounds ok.  In the end they opted for Nieuw Amsterdam in honor of New York.  The revived the name in 1973 for Holland America’s first purpose-built cruise ship.  The others, like Rotterdam and Statendam were repurposed Atlantic liners.  Looking at her from across the channel I fell in love.  So, evidently, did our three-year-old Kevin.  In September on the ship’s last call in Juneau for the season (and it turns out forever) we were on a walk.  Kevin made a break for the gangway.  I caught him just before got to the ship and held on to him.  He was screaming.  It was the only time I remember him throwing a tantrum.  He wanted on that ship.   Crew at the gangway laughed but if I hadn’t caught him, I doubt they could have stopped him from getting on the ship.  Security was pretty lax in those days.

On Saturday morning, October 4, 1980 I woke up to news that Prinsendam was on fire in the Gulf of Alaska.  I was managing KTOO FM and had to reshuffle staff to cover the biggest story of the year.  We chartered a plane and got a reporter to Sitka to cover the stories of the survivors just before the weather socked in both Sitka and Juneau.  I sent a reporter to the 17th Coast Guard District and coordinated coverage from the station feeding audio to the networks.  The Coast Guard, assisted by the US and Canadian Air Forces, conducted a rescue in what ended up being 30-foot seas with 100-meter visibility.  It was the best news story I ever covered, suspense (one life boat was missing for almost a day), heroism, danger and, in the end, everyone saved.   The Prinsendam sank several days later.  That was my first goodbye.

(I produced a radio documentary on the sinking (click here).  You can read “None Were Lost” an account of the rescue by Capt. Steven Corcoran.)

Holland America resurrected the name Prinsendam in 2002 when it acquired the Seabourn Sun.  The ship had been built as the Royal Viking Sun.  At the time she was the most luxurious ship afloat.  She carried 750 passengers and had more public space per passenger than any other ship.

The Royal Viking s she was first configures.

The luxury was too much to sustain, she was acquired by Cunard and sailed under her livery before going to Seabourn.  In 2002 she moved to Holland America and became Prinsendam.  Over the years, owners added staterooms raising the capacity to 835 guests and cutting some of the amenities.  Even though she had a few more passengers she was still a low-density ship, easy to find a quiet place if you wanted one.

This Prinsendam came to my attention when American Express sent a brochure tempting me to use up some of the hundreds of thousand loyalty points I had collected but never used.   It showed Prinsendam going around South America with a call in Antarctica.  It hit too many of our hot buttons, the Panama Canal, Antarctica, the Falklands, Carnival in Rio, and sailing 1,000 kilometers up the Amazon.  We booked. 

Prinsendam was unique in the Holland America fleet.  She was small and could fit into ports and under bridges other ships could not.  She traveled places other ships did not go.  We fell in love with the ship and sailed, not only on this South America cruise, but on later occasions to Iceland, Greenland, the UK, Norway and the low countries.

Plus, the ship was named Prinsendam.  When I went to get my travel shots the doc asked the name of the ship.  When I said Prinsendam he started laughing.  As a young doctor, he had set up an emergency hospital for the survivors who arrived in the small Alaska town of Yakutat.  He asked if I had any reservations sailing on Prinsendam.

Another friend was also amused.  He had been in Sitka during the rescue and later had taken the same South America cruise.  He had taken the book, “Burning Cold” by H. Paul Jeffers, a reporter who had covered the sinking, on the ship, read it openly on board and dared me to do the same.  (Captain Corcoran’s book had not come out yet) I did, in fact I brought two copies.

I became notorious for the book on the cruise.   One of our tablemates was a retired Coastie and he asked to borrow a copy.  Within a week I had a list of 6 people who wanted to borrow the book.  Some were retired Coast Guard and one was retired Canadian Forces who was the dispatcher for the Canadian helicopters during the rescue.  Near the end of the cruise the ship’s master Captain Jeoren Schuchman sent me a note asking if he could borrow the book.  I made it a gift to him. 

Prinsendam’s style matched ours.  She had good sea keeping keeping taking us through rough seas in the North Atlantic when Captain Dag warned us. “We are in something called a North Atlantic Oscillation between an Azores high and an Icelandic low so if you have that kind of problem take a pill and go to bed.”  We never got seasick on Prinsendam although in the Straits of Magellan we did have a fire on board.  We had just gone to bed when the bells, whistles and horns went off.  I turned to Suzi and said “This can’t be good,” thinking “Well it IS the Prinsendam.”  Captain Schuchman came on the PA system just as we started to smell smoke.  He assured us that it was a fire in the incinerator chute.  He thought they had it under control but they couldn’t tell because there was too much smoke for the cameras to see and they couldn’t go in because the compartment was full of CO2.  A few minutes later he came on and all was well.  Later in the cruise he arranged a tour for us to see where the fire had been.  It was a great confidence building move.  I like this captain.

You notice I’m using the past tense in referring to Prinsendam.   On July 1 she was turned over to Phoenix Reisen, a German company, to be rebranded again, this time as Amera serving the German speaking market.

When we heard of the sale, we wanted to sail her one last time.  We traveled in May and were on board until just under a month before she was turned over.  Captain Schuchman was again skipper.  During the Captain’s Q&A I asked him what he would miss about Prinsendam and what he would be glad to see the back of.

He would miss the smaller ship feel and its unique itineraries, the chance to sail to Antarctica, up the Amazon and to the Arctic Icecap.  (She is ice hardened.) He will miss the “feel” of the ship, its vibe of friendly informality.

But when it came to what he would like to see the back of he was pretty definite.  “The ship was designed by engineers, not sailors.”  It is designed to be easy to maintain, sometimes at the expense of maneuverability.  It originally had no bow thruster.  That was remedied early on, but the bow thruster is under powered.  The rudders do not align with the props.  This makes her awkward to maneuver.  In Esbjerg we needed a second tug to dock given the wind and current.

The new owners are realigning the rudders and putting extensions on them that will make Amera more maneuverable.  They care, and that makes me happy.  They’re making other changes, taking out the casino and putting in more staterooms.  On Prinsendam I could see evidence of the Royal Viking Sun, some of the original Norse themed artwork remained and the suites were still named for Arctic explorers.  I ever sail Amera I hope to see something remaining of Prinsendam. 

Goodbye old friend.  Sail well under a new name and banner.

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