My First "Crossing" - The Rotterdam VI's Inaugural West-to Eastbound Trans-Atlantic Trip, April 26th to May 5th, 1998

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A friend explained to me just recently, just before my trip last week on the new HAL flagship Rotterdam VI, that HAL was a Potamkin village. When I asked him what he meant, he explained that HAL was attempting to maintain a continued image of Dutch ships with a Dutch tradition when this was not at all the case. Carnival Corp was hiding behind cheap cardboard cut-outs of what used to be, hoping to fool it's loyal passengers into believing they were actually still seeing the Real Thing. He was being both lyrical and foreboding with his description. I'm glad he warned me, but I guess I already suspected what was happening.

I've followed the building and completion of HAL's newest "flagship" from the very beginning. I listened intensely as we got regular updates on the progress of this ship. I was so interested in seeing it that Hans and I actually contemplated an invitation to go to Italy to be there when the ship was to be handed over from the shipyard to the new owners back on September 30th of 1997. That date would have been our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary and a trip to Venice sounded romantic, anyway. The ship was not to be finished by September 30th, when SS Rotterdam V was taken out of service, renamed SS Rembrandt and sold to Premier Lines. In fact, rumors began to surface about the new ship's mechanical problems during sea trials, rumors that have continued to shadow it even now, when it has been in full service for almost seven months. When the new ship was ready to sail early last December, we thought about flying down to Florida to greet it and see it for ourselves when it arrived in the United States. Now, I'm glad we didn't go to Italy last September. And I'm glad we didn't fly to Florida in December.

The M.S. Rotterdam (the sixth such ship in the history of the line) was built in Italy and is registered in the Netherlands. It weighs 62,000 gross tons, is 780 feet in length, has a 106.4 feet beam at the Lido Deck level and has a draught of approximately 25 feet. Height above the waterline is 159.5 feet. Main propulsion is two electric motors and service speed is 22.5 knots, although the ship reached 25 knots during sea trials. The ship was built with two bow thrusters and one stern thruster. There are 13 decks, 4 penthouse suites, 36 deluxe suites, 120 mini-suites, as well as 382 standard outside staterooms and 117 inside staterooms. Maximum passenger capacity is 1,668 and crew is 630 maximum.

The itinerary: embarking in New York (some passengers embarking in Florida), one day at sea to Bermuda , then three days across the Atlantic to the Azores for two days (a port call at Horta one day and at Ponta Delgada the second day), another day at sea and terminating in Lisbon, Portugal. Present onboard were members of the SSHSA, Long Island Chapter and the World Ship Society PONY (Port of New York) Branch. There were also members from the Liners e-mailing list and the newsgroup rec.travel.cruises, as well as some members of AOL's Cruise Critic message boards.

The Rotterdam VI is a Statendam-class type ship, but built a bit larger in the engine room for increased power and speed for trans-ocean crossings. Hans had the opportunity to take a tour of the engine room one day. The whole power plant is diesel electric. Five sixteen-cylinder engines which run two huge generators. The generators run two big propulsion motors. Everything is operated by computers and is run on a big board. Very neat, very clean and well-attended by staff. He inquired about one of the engines inasmuch as it was shut down and he was told it was only "routine warranty maintenance". I suppose that's like bringing your Yugo in for an oil change and new spark plugs? Hmm.

The ship is supposed to take the place of the much-loved Rotterdam V, but it does not. This is not a "flagship" in any sense of the word, and I must admit to bristling every time I heard a member of the staff refer to it as such. The decor mixes ill-attempted touches of the past with annoying and contrived things that make one wonder if they are still on the same ship. Walk down the Upper Promenade Deck to find several areas of beautiful, classic elegance such as the Explorer's Lounge (very under-used, at least on this trip) with it's gorgeous inlaid tile dance floor, the Ambassador Lounge with it's ceiling style garnered from the previous and much-loved Nieuw Amsterdam. Then, all of a sudden, a literal herd of clay Chinese warriors complete with horses appears "in your face", so to speak. The change in environment and mood is abrupt and unnerving. I still can't figure out why that statuary is there. Neither can most of the passengers I spoke with. My bet (and my hope) is that the whole display will be gone within a year or two.

The ship shows it's connections to Carnival/Farkas too often and much too colorfully, although he allegedly had nothing to do with the interiors. Shades of orange appear neurotically in places it wouldn't be on the older HAL ships like the Westerdam and the "N" ships. There is also many abrupt changes in style from Italianate to deco to rococo to neo-classic to post-modern to Oriental and back again, all within a few yards of deck space. I couldn't help but feel like I was moving from one ship to another ship to another ship, and it was a dizzying prospect.

The materials used on the Rotterdam VI are plastic-y and cheaply rendered, which meant bathroom cabinet doors that didn't close tight and vanity drawers that didn't open smoothly. A variety of small things also pointed to sloppy construction, such as a strange cold breeze that blew through the bathroom side door jam and the smell of cigarette smoke that emanated from the medicine cabinet whenever it was left open for more than a few minutes (Hans thought I was nuts when I told him about this, but after he saw...and smelled...for himself, he became a believer). The carpet by the door to our verandas was damp from underneath whenever it rained or the deck outside became wet for whatever reason. SOLAS requirements be damned, but I'd rather burn on an elegant, well-designed ship.

We had a cabin with a verandah on the (what else?) Verandah Deck this trip. I do wish ships would once again have proper sounding deck names, such as A Deck, B Deck, Promenade Deck and so on. HAL does seems to hold true to this most of the time and tries to stick with this (although a Dolphin Deck was put between A Deck and Main Deck), but many of the other cruise lines go off the deep end. Maybe it was because I was on a crossing rather than a cruise that I was sensitive to this for some reason. A "Calypso" Deck or a "Waikiki" Deck just doesn't cut it somehow out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. At any rate, our cabin, which I expected to have more room, considering it's location and category, was no bigger than an average-sized cabin. It was not at all well planned and somewhat cramped. Getting to the bathroom while someone was attempting to open a closet door in the entry area was almost impossible. Lighting was very inadequate throughout the entire cabin, so much so that even simply reading the Daily Program made one seek out better light.

The ship and it's renown reputation for cleanliness ("HAL...The Spotless Fleet") came into question several times, but one occasion sticks in my mind. Some of us were lazing around near the Ocean Bar on Upper Promomenade port side near the Atrium one late afternoon. On one of the large plate glass windows that extend from ceiling to bench were lots of paint splatters, enough to distract anyone from the majesty of the sea passing by outside. We all noted that it would not have taken any time at all to clean this, and that we couldn't have been the first guests to have spotted it. It was distracting at least, disturbing at best, on a ship that belongs to a company that always prided themselves on a spic-and-span reputation. However, our cabin was kept in good shape and most other areas of the ship also seemed well-maintained. There were just some things that were disturbing (such as this example of paint splats) to see on a ship less than a year old.

There had also been a great deal of hubbub about mechanical problems with Rotterdam VI since it's sea trials last Spring and debut last Autumn in Italy. While in Bermuda, we spotted several sullen-looking workmen in white Fincanteri jumpsuits coming and going from the ship. An ominous sight, to say the least. On our trip, we had relatively normal weather and mid-Atlantic sea conditions, but from the way the ship hit the water, one could tell it was clearly not built for Atlantic crossings, but Caribbean cruisings. It has a "tremble" for lack of a better word and a slight, intermit ant vibration that runs the length of the ship. I would think that this ship might be terribly uncomfortable in bad weather or rough sea conditions.

At this point in my review I guess I should comment about the exterior of the ship. On our first port of call, Bermuda, where we dropped anchor off Southampton, we were on our way in by tender to Hamilton when I remembered I wanted to take my camera for a few photos of the Rotterdam VI. We had always done this with other ships, most notably Rotterdam V. I looked back at Rotterdam VI and thought "do I really want a photo of this ship?" It sat there at anchor, looking like a large cinder block with an uncomfortable front point to it, with two outsized salt and pepper shakers on top for the stacks. There was no grace to this ship, no wonderful lines to the unique stacks, like Rotterdam V. This was not at all a handsome ship, not by any stretch of the imagination. I noticed this again on our way in from Ponta Delgada in the Azores later in the trip. The ship, with it's lifeless stacks and high bulky profile, reminded me of a factory or a power plant.

There was some confusion the day of boarding since Rotterdam VI was making it's first call to New York. There were about 250 members of local chapters of several ocean liner and steam ship associations waiting to board for a reception. There were the regular passengers waiting to board. There was also a large group of area TA's waiting for their first peek at the ship. Hans and I belonged to both former groups. Though the lines were long, HAL reps handled it well. Or so we thought. Having filled out all of our documentation regarding boarding and immigration like good cruisers should do, we were irritated to learn that HAL lost my forms after I handed them in. I was asked to re-do them, a simple thing; however, HAL had taken our passports and issued receipts on this voyage (something I had read about from others, but have never experienced myself) which meant I had no idea the exact date my passport expired and this information was called for! Easy to provide when you're filling these things out in your living room, more difficult if not impossible to do from memory. Some of the normal things to be taken care of, like shipboard credit accounts and shore excursions meant waiting on long lines. Very irritating to have to deal with while on vacation. I never remembered all of this as the norm on HAL's ships in the past. In fact, after a surly young Indonesian bar hostess became annoyed at a member of our group when he told her he had given his drink order to another waitress, I felt sure that if this was the very first time I had booked an HAL cruise, I wouldn't be back again. Later in the trip I was to discover that high tea in the afternoon was not at all like it used to be (in the HAL "Good Old Days"?). Rather than being served tea and "goodies", the event was now a buffet! I don't think the folks who originated afternoon tea had this in mind.

Some pluses (you thought there would be none?): The Lido Restaurant on the Rotterdam VI is as good or better than it has ever been and far better than any Lido or Lido-style food service onboard any ship afloat, in my opinion. The variety and the goodness is there, meal after meal. The area is pleasant and roomy, and the service is good. The only gripe I have about the Lido is those darned salt "mills" to match the pepper mills. Who ever heard of a salt "mill"? HAL got fancy and it was not necessary. Anyway, they don't work well, if at all. We wound up taking the thing apart every time we were up there. I know, a small annoyance, but the ship was full of small annoyances like this.

Another plus is the elevators. They are quick, roomy (with seats!), and quiet (if you don't count the female robotronic voice announcing the floors) all over the ship and they are used ALL the time by the passengers. I should note here that our particular voyage had many older travelers. One member of our group wondered how some of them managed to get onboard at all under their own steam, and there was many wheelchairs and walkers in evidence throughout the trip.

Yet another plus: excellent insulation and soundproofing between cabin-to-cabin, but I understand that cabins-to-public spaces, especially cabins adjacent to the Queens Lounge stage area was a problem. Climate/temperature control was excellent. The verandahs were deep with solid doors and were private.

There was some wonderful and intensely interesting "ship" folks onboard. Indeed, the group we sailed with and the folks onboard is what made this trip so great for me. Luis Miguel Correia, maritime historian, photographer and author of eight books, including one he recently did with Bill Miller, gave lectures on SS Rotterdam V and CCL's Portuguese ships. David Zeni, author of "Forgotten Empress" about the Empress of Ireland and her sinking on the St Lawrence River a few years after the Titanic disaster, also gave an interesting slide lecture on the subject. Joe L'Episcopo, from the ship's Shore Excursion office, gave an animated and informative talk on 100 years of sea travel and also, another informative presentation on the sinking of the RMS Titanic with comments and information not known by many folks who are just recently and tan gently interested in the subject as a result of the success of the blockbuster movie. Memorabilia-man Richard Faber was handy with enough goodies to keep even the most devout ship shopper happy, and one of the highlights of this journey was afternoon conversations with 88 year old Com. Alexandersen, formerly of the SS United States, who was travelling with his wife and friends. What a bounty of information and stories he had! Bermudian ship artist Stephen Card was also onboard and had a interview and question-and-answer session one afternoon, as well.

I had a great time on my first crossing, and I would very much like to do many more crossings in the near future rather than continue with cruises, Caribbean or otherwise. I want to travel on the real ocean liners, the ships that make the trip special. The Rotterdam VI unfortunately was not special. Think of it this way: The Rotterdam V was a genuine Miss America with style and class and purpose. She was beautiful, so beautiful you could not NOT look at her. She performed. She was pretty AND strong. She was a classic, but she got old and she got "dumped" by those that should have taken better care of her. Shame on them.

Using the same standards of comparison, the Rotterdam VI is an ugly duckling who should not have been allowed to enter the contest at the local level, let alone get into the finals in Atlantic City. She doesn't smile, she has no real talent to speak of and she looks awful in the swimsuit competition. She cannot even be considered for Miss Congeniality. One wonders how the same standards of judging were used to be able to call both unique flagships.

Call me shallow, but I want my Miss America to shine, to smile, to be worthy of the title. There are no jewels in this young lady's crown, and she's tripping on the hem of her gown as she tries to walk down the runway.

I will not sail on this ship again.