“So this what we’re reduced to,” says the Captain sadly, indicating a small wooden steering wheel that’s all but invisible on his ship’s fifty metre wide bridge, “not like the old days eh?”
The wheel looks like something you’d find on a 1960s Mini Cooper but would be used to steer the brand new and gigantic Quantum of The Seas cruise ship, should some catastrophic, and very unlikely, failure of the smarter systems occur.
It will move to Shanghai in the spring where Jamie’s Italian on board will no doubt be a winner, once people stop asking “Jamie’s Italian what?”
The recently launched 5000 passenger capacity Quantum of the Seas is the latest in a line of Quantum class ships for Royal Caribbean, although Quantum of Solace is probably not one we will see anytime soon. For those that can’t get enough cruising it represents another leap forward in what are now floating holiday camps, ones that can sail to the sun and still serve you a decent cup of tea when you come back on-board carrying your donkey in a sombrero. This ship is off after this trial to cruise in the Caribbean for a few months and then it will move to Shanghai in the spring where Jamie’s Italian on board will no doubt be a winner, once people stop asking “Jamie’s Italian what?”
The ship’s bridge is otherwise a model of state of the art technology. “We don’t so much steer the ship as watch over the systems steering the ship,” the Captain explains, “at least when we’re in open sea.” All the same, around the clock a crewman constantly walks the width of the bridge using binoculars to scan the horizon. Old tech still has its place.
Not that much can happen. “Storms move slowly,” the Captain says reassuringly. “This ship can easily outrun any storm and of course we steer around any bad ones in our path.” And while the his main focus is keeping the ship level enough at all times to avoid passengers slopping their drinks, the 16 storey ship can, he assures me, lean over at an angle that’s frankly alarming to contemplate without being in any trouble at all.
“And we can stop within a nautical mile even at full speed; we tried it last week on a test run. It’s not great fun to experience a full stop at that rate of knots but it’s controlled and effective.”
There’s also a full sized dodgem car ride, a robotic bartender, a shopping mall to rival Westfield
Food is a major focus; this sea-going behemoth has sixteen restaurants, from the creatively cutting edge to a cheerful hot dog van. There’s also a full sized dodgem car ride, a robotic bartender, a shopping mall to rival Westfield, a ‘Wave Loch Flowrider’ surf simulator and a rock-climbing wall.
If that’s not enough excitement at sea there’s RipCord by iFLY, a skydiving simulator set in a recirculating indoor vertical wind tunnel, and even a great glass ball on an extending arm, North Star, in which cruisers can swing out and over the ship for a vertiginous helicopter-like ride that makes the knees weak.
I ask if I can visit the engine room, my mind full of images of Alec Guinness-style stoicism and cockney sailors in singlets shovelling in coal while sweatily watching the big lever that says “Full Ahead”, but of course it’s not like that at all. The ship is driven by Azipod propulsion units. It also blows super fine bubbles that pass from bow to stern under the ship, clinging to the underside and creating a slippery surface that also helps reduce drag.
As the ship burns fuel it loses ballast so it takes on seawater to make up the loss. This is then pumped back out into the sea when the ship refuels, but it’s not just pumped “as is”. The ballast seawater may have been taken on thousands of miles away and could contain organisms totally alien, even dangerous to a new environment, so it’s sterilised first to avoid any such problems. The whole ship is eco-friendly in a way that belies its gross size.
Cruising is not for everyone of course, but having spent 48 hours on board Quantum of the Seas sailing out past Lands End, hanging a U, and then returning to port, I found it rather grew on me. The cabins nearly all have balconies, while indoor ones have Virtual Balconies, a wall made up an 80-inch high-definition TV screen showing live views from the outside of the ship. It also has what’s billed as the fastest internet speeds at sea using a new generation of mid-Earth orbit satellites,
And the state rooms are remarkable: double floored and located at the stern, they’re almost never out of the sun, and fitted with everything you could want to make your life at sea no less comfortable than life in a penthouse, including a dedicated concierge. All yours for around £1000 a night.
Back at port, as dawn breaks over Southampton, the ship gracefully propels itself sideways to the quayside like a ballerina on point. From my place by the window I can see over the rooftops all the way across Hampshire. I think of the captain up front; he may not have a great big wheel anymore but to have ultimate control of a floating city that can go just about anywhere it wants to must be one of the better jobs in this world. C