You know how difficult it can sometimes be to squeeze into the a space in the supermarket car park. Imagine how tricky it must be to park something hundreds of times bigger, like a cruise ship.
There are currents, tides and the wind to contend with, it’s essential to get your vessel alongside in precisely the right position to line up with gangways and things, and there’s no time to mess about because passengers have to get ashore and dash to the airport.
Captain Albert Schoonderbeek faced all this a couple of days ago when he brought Holland America’s Prinsendam into Tilbury docks on the Thames, or the London International Cruise Terminal as it is now rather grandly named.
He was up early and on the bridge at 3.00 am ready to pick up the river pilot at North-East Spit pilot station, and had a good view of construction work at the new London Gateway container port.
But the real fun started as the ship got close to docking. I’ll let Captain Albert describe it in his own inimitable style:
“With the flooding tide, the preferred way of docking is portside alongside with the nose into the tide and that meant swinging around in the river. That is quite a peculiar manouevre as you try to swing the ship around in place, while the current is pushing you up river and the breeze tries to play with the funnel at the same time.
“So it is a sort of balancing act of getting the ship lined up with the dock, while being pushed away and at the same time trying to stop the ship by stemming the current when nearing the correct position.
“The Harbourmaster put out a nice board with ‘bridge’ on it and that is where the bridge has to be lined up with. Then there is the assistant Harbourmaster who counts down the meters until the gangway is in position and then there is the security officer in the gangway door, who does the same in feet.
“The pilots who see this many a time normally like to stand back and hope for a laugh, but he was disappointed this time.
“I had my own mark from last time, so I just stopped there and the assistant Harbourmaster came quickly to an agreement with the security officer about how many feet there were in a meter; so the consensus was that the ship was in position without having the ‘bow to go three feet forward and the stern to go three feet aft’ . . . at the same time, as sometimes happens.”
I love it! And I’m still trying to picture the reaction of a captain being asked to move his ship three feet forward and three feet astern at the same time. Captain Albert is a softly-spoken Dutchman (now living in England) but imagine if it were a voluble Italian at the controls instead . . .
After a couple of days in port, Captain Albert and Prinsendam sailed from Tilbury yesterday afternoon, setting out on a cruise to the Baltic. He was too busy on this visit to fulfil an ambition to visit the grave of Indian princess Pocahontas in Gravesend. I hope he has more luck when he returns in July.