Captain Birger J. Vorland is Ready to Make History

Crystal Serenity

By Wendy Laursen 2016-08-15 00:31:57

Beginning August 16, Crystal Serenity will be the largest luxury cruise ship to ever navigate the Northwest Passage, maneuvering through 900 miles of majestic waterways lined with spectacular glaciers, towering fjords and vast unspoiled landscapes away from mainstream civilization and tourism, north of mainland Canada.

Captain Birger J. Vorland, a Crystal Cruises veteran with 38 years’ experience as a mariner, will be in charge of the historic voyage. Vorland has worked with passenger ships for 28 years and has sailed around the world including the Arctic waters around Svalbard.

As a Norwegian, Vorland is excited to be following in the footsteps of his famous countryman Roald Amundsen. Amundsen led the first expedition to traverse the Northwest Passage in his ship Gjøa, a 45-ton fishing vessel, between 1903 and 1906. He was also credited as the first person to reach both poles.

“Amundsen is a role model for everybody,” says Vorland. “He was a determined man. He didn’t give up, and he was an excellent mariner.

“The Northwest Passages was one of those impossible places that historically people couldn’t get through. It is only as recently as the last decade that has it been possible to plan such a voyage with some certainty during that very narrow window at the end of summer.”

Crystal Serenity’s voyage plan has raised industry concerns about the safety of using a non-ice-class cruise ship, but prior to making the voyage Crystal Serenity will be outfitted with state of the art forward looking sonar, ice detection radar, ice searchlights and thermal imaging as well as an ice navigation system IceNav that will display near real time satellite ice imagery and ice forecasts. 

“They say they can probably get us satellite images that are as fresh as two to three hours,” says Vorland. “It’s a whole different dimension to traditional forecasting with which there might be a 12 hour lapse between the actual measurement and the forecast you get.”

Vorland and other ship’s officers have attended ice navigation training at a simulator in St John’s, Newfoundland. Here, they gained experience on a 360-degree simulator that was mounted like an airplane simulator to provide realistic movement and vibration. They used a variety of vessel simulations including a ro-ro ferry with a similar layout to Crystal Serenity.

Two veteran Canadian ice pilots will be on board to assist the bridge team and help manage the information provided by the additional bridge equipment. 

The support vessel, the icebreaker Ernest Shackleton, will also carry an experienced ice pilot, and carry two helicopters for real-time ice reconnaissance and emergency support. In addition, it will have supplemental damage control equipment, oil pollution containment equipment and survival rations for emergency use.

Vorland was involved with the planning of the cruise from the start, about four years ago. “It became clear to us early that if we are going to do this, we need to have some sort of escort ship. That decision was made early, and it was something we came up with on our own. We understood about the remoteness of the area and the lack of search and rescue, and we wanted to make sure we mitigated any potential risks.

“Let’s say we cross the Pacific Ocean with one of our ships, that is also an extremely remote area, so you have a similar lack of those resources, but the perception is that it is not as remote as being up there in the Northwest Passage,” he said.

Even though the ice forecast for the area is very favorable this year – much like that of 2012 when the conditions were relatively ice-free, Vorland says he is ready to vary the voyage plan according to conditions. 

Crystal Serenity will travel at eight to 10 knots, without time pressures to reach each destination, so there is the chance for impromptu stops to enjoy unexpected attractions along the way. There will be 21 guest scientists, adventurers and lecturers on board including marine biologists, divers, astronauts, climatologists and naturalists to provide commentary to the passengers. The Ernest Shackleton will support Crystal Serenity’s adventures ashore, carrying newly acquired zodiacs for “wet” landings.

As part of his preparations for the voyage, Vorland visited all the places along the way that he expects to take his passengers to. “There’s such a diversity of cultures which have been there for centuries,” he says. “Everything is Arctic up there. You have the feeling of being in a very remote place, and I think our guests will be very fascinated by all the culture and how the people are coping. They probably have the shortest summer of all of us, even shorter than Norway, but they get along and get on with their traditional life despite the influx of our modern world.”

Vorland’s visits included Cambridge Bay, the largest of the Canadian destinations. Here he met with the local council and mayor. This town has special significance because Amundsen’s last vessel Maud is located there. Several years after sailing through the Northeast Passage again, a voyage that did not go to plan and took six years, between 1918 and 1924, Maud ended up frozen into the ice at Cambridge Bay, where she sank in 1930.

A project has been underway to raise the vessel, and this is expected to be completed this summer. “I took it upon myself to thank the mayor of Cambridge Bay on behalf of all Norwegians for allowing us to take the Maud back,” said Vorland.

Whilst visiting the region, Vorland also spoke to members of the local search and rescue community. One was a helicopter pilot who shared his experiences, having landed on most of the gravel airstrips that traverse the region. 

Along with local support, there will be two doctors, one more than usual, on Crystal Serenity, and Vorland believes that in the event of a passenger needing to be medevacked off the ship, he will be able to get them out within a day, or two at most. “That’s better odds than you’ll get if you have a big ocean crossing.”

Vorland says his main mission is to ensure the safety of the ship, 1,050 guests and 650 crew during the 32-day voyage from Alaska to New York. “Our goal was to establish the gold standard for anyone trying to do this with a large ship, and I think we have succeeded. That’s the feedback we are getting from the various government folk we’ve been involved with.”

He is confident that Crystal Cruises has done everything possible to ensure the safety of the voyage to the point where other cruise lines might be surprised at the high standard they’ve set. It is the way Crystal Cruises has always worked, he said. “I don’t want to be famous. I just want to go and do it safely and then everybody forget about me.”

Right now, though, he is impatient to get underway. “I’m very excited to be the captain of Crystal Serenity on any voyage it takes, but this one in particular, and I can’t wait to get to August 16.”

Crystal Serenity will return to the Northwest Passage in August 2017. Beginning August 15, 2017, the vessel will sail another 32-day voyage from Alaska to New York City via the legendary route (500 miles north of the Arctic Circle), first completed by Amundsen more than 100 years ago.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.