Fog Shuts Down Svalbard … And Silversea Rises to the Challenge
Sunday, July 12, 2015
This morning, guests aboard Silversea Expeditions’ Silver Explorer disembarked our adventuresome expedition ship in Longyearbyen, Svalbard. We bid the crew – our friends – farewell. We shook hands. We descended the gangway. We left Silver Explorer, and our voyage, behind us – in the past.
Little did we know that six hours later, we’d be back onboard having lunch in The Restaurant.
Following our tour of a foggy Longyearbyen, we made our way to the postage-stamp-sized Longyearbyen Airport. As we pulled up, some bad news: Expedition Team Member Kit came over the bus intercom to tell us our incoming charter SAS flight was delayed in Oslo by at least an hour.
Still, our hopes were buoyed when we came into the airport and were told by SAS staff that the flight “was expected to land any moment.” So, we got our boarding passes, checked our luggage, went through security, and waited.
For those who think I have a dream job, consider this: I’m supposed to be in Amsterdam tonight for a river cruise that embarks tomorrow, for 15 nights on the Danube. So I used my time at the airport to access the internet and start looking at my options. I figure my hotel stay in Amsterdam can get scrapped; it’s looking unlikely I’ll make my connecting KLM flight. I hit cancel just as Expedition Team member Kit magically came over the airport’s PA system.
The inbound charter flight had been diverted to Tromso because of the heavy fog here in Longyearbyen. At best, it would make it here with a six-hour delay, meaning the earliest we could possibly get out would be 6:00 p.m. It was announced that we’d be leaving the airport, claiming our luggage, and returning to the ship – where lunch was prepared and waiting for us.
Now, Longyearbyen is a cute town. But it’s like the cute town that time forgot. And given the harsh polar climates, sometimes the thinking of the locals in places like this ain’t quite right. This was the case at Longyearbyen Airport, where they’d pulled half of the guests’ luggage from the belt and had sat it on the floor. I found my grey Hey’s hard sided case waiting for me, but numerous guests weren’t so lucky.
Thirty or so of us got on the first bus transfer back to the ship. The Silver Explorer is literally down the hill from the airport – but we can’t walk there. Why not? We’re in polar bear country, of course! And as the airport is technically outside the city limits, you need a gun in order to walk the three kilometres that separate ship and airport.
The other sixty or so…not so lucky. Their luggage took over an hour to come off the belt. And what was the issue causing this massive delay? Someone forgot to turn it on. Follow me, if you will, as I hum the first few bars of the theme to Deliverance.
We, meanwhile, returned to the ship and enjoyed cocktails in the Panorama Lounge before Executive Chef Pia made us a nice welcome lunch – that was, of course, intended for the embarking guests but which was moved up time-wise so we could enjoy it. And here I though lunch would be an expensive can of Pringles potato chips on SAS!
While we’re doing all this, Expedition Leader Juan came over the PA with some bad news: the flight from Oslo has been cancelled, so our departure from Longyearbyen was scrapped for the day. We’d be spending the night onboard Silver Explorer.
For the guests, this is a huge win. For the crew – this is a nightmare.
Consider this: the entire accounting and passenger management system has to be re-programmed to fit in our special “voyage.” New keycards have to be printed, on short notice, for 102 guests. The luggage that was just offloaded this morning has to be trucked back here from the airport. The tide isn’t high enough to open the ship’s shell doors, meaning each piece has to be manually hauled up a steep gangway to the Deck 5 embarkation point. And Silversea guests have a lot of luggage.
The Expedition team, meanwhile, has to figure out what to do for the rest of the day to keep guests entertained and happy. They have to liaise with the ground operators to secure some kind of transportation for us, and contact Silversea headquarters as well as representatives from SAS to find out what will happen next with the charter flight.
Butlers and suite attendants have to remove the personalized stationary, backpacks, polar jackets, specialized alcohol, and other amenities from the suites to return them to their original state.
We have pressures, too, of course. People have places to be, flights to catch, things to do. But I personally think they pale in comparison to what the crew have to go through now: a period of indecision and uncertainty. And uncertainty is sometimes a productivity and morale killer.
Aware that the lack of internet and phone service onboard the ship due to satellite connectivity posed an issue, Silversea arranged bus transportation into the center of Longyearbyen. The caveat: we’d have to leave at 5:30pm and proceed to our anchorage. So all aboard was set at 5:30p.m.
Still, that gave me two hours in town to send out as many emails as I could. I rebooked my KLM flight to Amsterdam for tomorrow evening and felt pretty secure in that decision. For $125 change fee, it’s a small price compared with purchasing a new ticket.
At 5:30pm, I returned on the last shuttle bus to the ship. I embarked, got my new keycard, and moved in to my old suite that I’d vacated this morning. It was an odd feeling, to be sure, to be back so soon.
Still, guests were in a jovial mood as we set sail to our overnight anchorage. I took my laptop to the lounge, ordered a beer, and sat down to write about our “series of unfortunate events.”
At 6:22pm, Expedition Leader Juan came over the public address system to deliver some more double-edged sword news: SAS has made the decision to cancel tomorrow’s flight to Oslo as well. The airline says the earliest they can get us out of Longyearbyen is Tuesday morning – but that it could be as late as Wednesday evening before we reach Oslo. This has some fairly adventurous consequences for yours truly, as I’m supposed to be in Amsterdam tomorrow for the start of my next voyage aboard a river cruise ship. That won’t be happening. The best I can hope for now is to join in Cologne on Wednesday – and how I will get there is still up in the air. But I see images of the John Candy movie, Planes, Trains and Automobiles…
However, the weather is the root cause of this. It cannot be helped, and Silversea is at the mercy of SAS and their ability to offer the Boeing 737 charter flight service to Oslo’s Gardermoen Airport. And this isn’t something SAS wants to get wrong; Norway’s worst-ever air disaster occurred in 1996 when a Russian Tupolev TU-154M crashed on approach to Longyearbyen Airport due to poor weather and crew disorientation.
Tomorrow, we will be at anchor here in Longyearbyen as there are no available berths for us. Imagine that! Longyearbyen – the town that typifies the phrase “barren wasteland” – is full with cruise ships tomorrow. Incredible!
So, Silversea will offer continuous shuttle service by zodiac to and from the Silver Explorer and Longyearbyen throughout the day tomorrow so guests can go ashore, do some shopping, and make use of local communications services.
Add to that another step the crew now have to do: print new daily programs for tomorrow. Re-stock suites with more toiletries. Re-set fruit baskets. The work required of them is ongoing and endless, and they are absolutely rising to the challenge in every conceivable way.
What’s interesting is how many guests have expressed concern for those who were supposed to embark today. We know this cuts down on their cruise, and that they are spending a few more unscheduled Radisson nights in Oslo. We’re very aware we’re getting the better end of this deal; it’s really no hardship to be “stuck” aboard a five-star luxury vessel for two more unscheduled nights.
Silversea is also helping to assist guests who, like myself, rebooked their flights this afternoon. It’s very generous, and nice of them to do. I also think it’s appropriate – but I have no idea how they’ll do it. We have no internet or phone access. In town, only the airport and one café have Wi-Fi.
But the ones working the hardest are, as always the crew, including the Expedition Team. They, like us, had shifted gears this morning, preparing for another voyage. Another set of guests. Another hundred-odd names to memorize and faces to remember. Instead, they got this band of miscreants back for another round!
For me, I can’t complain. Sure, I’m worried about how I’ll get to my river cruise. I’m perturbed I can’t use the phone or the internet, and I have no idea whether I now need to fly to Amsterdam or Cologne, Germany. It’s going to cost me money – that much I know. But you know what? That’s life.
In a way, I am glad this has happened. I get to see firsthand what Silversea’s response to a major issue is. And I have to admit I am impressed: they’ve handled this Plan B (I hear Plan C is also in the works, in case) with the same grace and effortlessness that they conducted themselves over the past 10 days, working through confusion, exhaustion, and a lack of information from SAS.
We’re all in uncharted waters here – and we’re all in this together. So let’s see how Part 2 of our adventure goes!