At Eurodam’s Helm, Captain of the ‘Love Boat’

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Editor’s Note: This interview (recently updated) originally appeared in the winter 2006 issue of The Avid Cruiser.

Captain of the ‘Love Boat’

On the day before Valentine’s Day, during staff introductions to an audience of Holland America Line passengers, the 39-year-old captain of the Oosterdam went down on his knee to propose to the ship’s guest relations manager, the soon-to-be Pam van Donselaar.

In a true “Love Boat” moment, the captain says, “I compared myself to Captain Stubing and compared Pam with Julie (McCoy, the ‘Love Boat’s’ Cruise Director) and said that because officers and crew spend so much of their year on a ship that this was very likely the environment where they would meet their future partners in life.”

She said yes, the audience applauded, and in July the couple married in Vancouver. Ah, “Love … exciting and new.”

Now at the helm of Holland America Line’s new Eurodam, Jeroen van Donselaar is one of the cruise industry’s youngest captains.

He is certainly the youngest in Holland America Line’s fleet. Hailing from Vlissingen, in the southern part of the Netherlands, van Donselaar says maritime matters were de rigueur for a young Dutch boy growing up on the North Sea. After all, generations before him had set off in ships during the days of the Dutch East India Company, which engaged in colonial trade in Asia in the early 1600s.

“What pushed me over the edge,” van Donselaar says, “was a vacation I took with my family in 1981.” During a 24-hour ferry journey from Amsterdam to Gothenburg, Sweden, the boy made his way to the bridge, where the captain and first officer allowed him to observe the docking procedure. “It made such an impression on me that I decided on a career at sea.”

He returned home to enroll in Nautical College and later apprentice with Holland America Line. Upon graduation, the company hired him as a fourth officer. He made third officer in 1989, second officer in 1991, chief officer in 1995 and captain in 2002. Accustomed to working on smaller vessels, he was surprised by the size of the ship that would be under his command. “I remember stepping on board the bridge of the Oosterdam for the first time and thinking there was a ship parked behind us,” he says. “It was the aft section of the Oosterdam.”

Despite the light-hearted banter, the job is stressful at times. “There are moments of boredom on long stretches of open sea punctuated by moments of extreme challenge,” van Donselaar says. “Oosterdam has more than 9,000 square meters of windage (areas that are prone to wind), so more than 26 knots of wind requires that the ship tack, zigzagging its course.”

What’s it like to be the captain of a glamorous cruise ship? We caught up with van Donselaar in the unlikeliest of places for a seafarer: on land in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he and his bride will make their new home when they’re not at sea.

Q. Which character on “The Love Boat” do you most identify with?
Captain Stubing, with a touch of Gopher. I find Gopher to be the most enviable character. He is sometimes a little clueless, not to say I’m clueless, but he could be a friend, someone whose company I could enjoy. I could see having a conversation about life with him in the Ocean Bar.

Q. In what ways are you like and not like Captain Stubing?
I’m equally bald but definitely much younger. Captain Stubing was near retirement age. Ways we differ: He never seemed to do any paperwork or ship maneuvering. It was like the ship made its own way. In real life, ship maneuvering is my big concern, and it’s one of the things I enjoy most about being a captain. If they take that away, I’m gone, because the rest is paperwork and management. I enjoy the satisfaction of docking the ship. Sometimes, when the ship is alongside, I will go ashore to greet the guests walking off. I look at the ship, and I’m really proud when I think we’ve done a great docking — or even if it was not a great docking. I always say as long as there are no dents and scrapes, we’ve done a great job.

Q. What’s the most difficult port to dock in?
The New York City Passenger Terminal can be a hair-raiser if there is a lot of current, which there will be if there has been a lot of rainfall in upstate New York. The slip is at a 90-degree angle to the river, and when we make the turn, we get the brunt of current broadside. You need to have seen that maneuver a couple of times before you’re comfortable with it.

Q. Do any of the passengers ever remark about your age?
Yeah. They often jokingly ask if I’m sure I’m old enough to be the captain, Others ask, “Who’s driving the boat?” if they see me when I’m not on the bridge. I always say the chief cook. When they ask who’s cooking dinner, I reply, “Well, I’m preparing the desert.”

Q. Had you not been a cruise ship captain, what profession would you have chosen?
Airline pilot for sure. There would be the same travel, uniform, technology and thrill of handling such an expensive piece of equipment.

Q. If someone wanted to become a cruise ship employee, what’s the one personality characteristic they’d need most?
They’d need to be outgoing. A cruise ship is a confined environment. I can’t think of any other place where so many people are in one place for such a long time. Guests are on for seven or 10 days or longer. Crew are on for months at a time. So you would have to be a people person and not prone to homesickness. It helps if you enjoy travel.

Q. What is the most challenging part of your job?
Most of the problems I deal with as a captain are not technical problems. Those things are easy to solve. Almost on a daily basis there is an issue with a guest or crew that I need to deal with. We typically have 2,100 guests on board, and with crew, that’s almost 3,000 people. So almost daily, there will be some problem with a person on board — either a passenger or crew. It’s always sad when you have to tell a crew member that a loved one is sick or has passed away — or to have to put someone off the ship in port because of unruly conduct. But when you carry 2,000 passengers, it’s bound to happen one may be a rotten apple.

Q. What was the best and worst experience you’ve had at the Captain’s Table?
Among the best, the oldest daughter of President Lyndon Johnson (Lynda Bird) once dined at my table. I found her to be interesting. But I’ve had to leave tables where couples started to argue with each other. Once or twice, I’ve activated my own beeper, made some phony excuse and enjoyed the rest of my meal in the solitude of my quarters. But 99 percent of the dinners are very enjoyable. We typically host one per cruise. In Alaska, however, we do not host dinners, as my presence is required on the bridge much more due to proximity of the ship to land.

Q. How do you keep from gaining weight with all that food?
I have three bikes at my home in the Netherlands, but on ship I ride the exercise bike (in the ship’s spa facilities) half an hour each port day, and I lift weights for 10 minutes. We also walk laps on the open deck on days at sea. In Juneau, I love hiking up and down Mount Roberts with Pam. We also have rental bikes on board for the crew to use during port days. Otherwise, I try to eat a sensible diet, which isn’t always easy.

Q. Are you concerned about a rogue wave, like the one that hit the Norwegian Dawn in April of 2006?
No, but it sure makes the ride uncomfortable when the ship pitches too much. Cruises are laid out in such a way that we almost always encounter nice weather, but it does happen sometimes that you run into storms. Early in my career, in 1994 during 52-day Circle Pacific cruise we hit bad weather two days before arriving in Auckland, New Zealand. I was on the bridge with the captain, and he was hanging onto the rail looking pale. The waves were so large that we were looking against them instead of onto them as they crested. We were looking into a wall of water. There was some damage, but the ship survived.

Q. Have you ever been seasick?
Not on a cruise ship. I once worked as a pilot in the Netherlands and experienced particularly rough seas on a small boat in the North Sea.

Q. Does it bother you when passengers make inappropriate references to the ship, like confusing “port” and “starboard”?
I always hate it when people say, “I have to go to my room.” Rooms are land-based. We have cabins. Or when people say “floors.” We don’t have floors. We have decks.

Q. What’s your favorite port?
I enjoy variation, as we’re on board ship for three or four months at a time. I’ll take a little Alaska, some Panama Canal, Europe and Caribbean. But I like the larger metro ports: Seattle, Vancouver and Sydney, for example. That said, we had a great time in some of the smaller ports in Norway. I also enjoy the Baltic, particularly Helsinki and Stockholm. From a technical perspective, Mazatlan is an interesting maneuver. We have a turning basin of just under 400 meters, and the ship is 285 meters long, so it’s a tight squeeze.

Q. What is the perfect moment at sea?
After the welcome aboard champagne reception on the first formal night of the cruise. It is the big reception where I shake hands with every guest and have my picture taken with them. After all the shaking of hands and camera flashes, the staff and I meet in the Ocean Bar, which is quiet by then, as all guests have gone to the dining room. We all have a drink, non-alcoholic, of course, then I go to my quarters with Pam (his fiancée) to watch a movie. We go out again briefly later at night for a coffee, so that I am visible for all guests.

Q. What’s your favorite maritime movie?
Poseidon Adventure and Out to Sea, which was filmed on a Holland America Line ship. In one of the scenes I’m in there for a microsecond. I got to meet Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. They were so friendly and down to earth and so professional. They did every scene in one take.

Q. Any unfulfilled ambitions?
I’d like to learn to play, the electric guitar, but for now, docking the ship is my show.