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04 March 2018; Cienfuegos, Cuba. Almost.

While the sun was rising behind the mountains of Cuba, the Ms Veendam approached the pilot station of Cienfuegos with the plan to sail through the narrow entrance at 06.30 and then to be at anchor by 07.30 hrs. for clearance by the local authorities. All eyes on the bridge were on the anemo meter to see how much wind there was blowing. In the entrance we had to make a 90o turn in a channel that is only 300 feet wide.

This is the challenge, the ship has to make this turn. The under water is 300 feet wide and the Veendam has a beam of over a 100 feet.

The Veendam is the largest cruise ship that has ever attempted to anchor at Cienfuegos and it relies on there being no more wind than 5 to 7 knots in the turn. So we were watching closely as the wind in open waters was around 20 knots and gusting higher. Normally there is not much wind on this side of the island but a weather system off the Carolina’s is producing a lot of wind while moving into the Atlantic and the tail is just laying over Cuba. Not nice.

The Master – pilot conference with the Navigation Team watching. They are looking at a large television on which we can project the electronic chart.

The captain had his doubts, the bridge team had its doubts, and I had even more doubts as I do not like to go anywhere without a plan B and in this case there is no plan B. You either make the turn or you don’t. If you do not, then a new hotel will be established along the coast line here. The pilot was queried about wind and weather but according to him it was all within the limits. So the captain decided to make an approach and have a closer look. Go not too far enough into the channel so we could still turn around and close enough so that we could see the corner. In nautical language we call this an abort point. While there, the captain asked the opinions of all in the team and then decided to turn around as we could see white caps on the water, at the bend in the channel, and that meant winds higher than 16 knots which was a lot more than the 5 knots we wanted.

This is the challenge. When a ship goes around the corner, it always drifts a little bit even at very slow speed.  If the wind then helps the drift you very quickly get outside the red line and that is bad news.

But you never know the wind might die down, so we tried it for a second time. Things got worse, more wind. Then the pilot advised that there would be even more wind in the afternoon so there was no reason to wait a few hours and see if the wind would die down, giving us the chance to make an afternoon call. So unfortunately the captain had to cancel the call and make it a sea day instead. Going somewhere else was not an option as just hopping over to another Cuban port is not something that really works under the current arrangements of Cuba Allowed Cruising. For the rest there is no other port nearby apart from Grand Cayman and we are already going there tomorrow.   Lots of disappointed guests and crew, including myself as I have never been to Cienfuegos before myself. But safety comes first even if it is a chance in a lifetime to go somewhere. Hal captains do not gamble.

Look to the right, there are mud flats sticking out under water from the Lighthouse so this is as tight as the ship can be and as it needs to be to make the turn. Too much wind and you are set to the other side which is shallow as well.

Thus we said to goodbye to the pilot, who was not happy at all, as most likely back ashore a lot of people would be yelling at him. He might know the channel but he does not know what wind does to a very high cruise ship with balconies. So he might have gained a bit of experience today as well.  The Veendam will be back to Cuba in the future again and hopefully the wind will then do what it is supposed to do here; stay away.

With a sea day, the Cruise Director had to fill an empty daily program and I was roped in as a space filler to keep at least some of our guests happily diverted for a few hours. The Captain decided to join me so he could explain what happened as guests normally equate cancelling ports with bad weather, not with a nice and sunny day. So a little explanation about what was lurking under water helped to raise the mood and was also greatly appreciated. I think it must be the first time in HAL history that two captains were giving a joint presentation on the stage. He used slides from his last call, when he did get in, to explain what the challenge was and these are the pictures you see in this blog today.

For the remainder of the day and night, the Veendam will sail very slow towards Georgetown Grand Cayman where we will arrive around 06.30. For anchoring in Grand Cayman a bit of wind is good; we are at anchorage number 4 which is the nearest one to the port and, if available, we will get help from a few shore side tenders to speed our operation. All good things after not such a good day. But it is going to be a busy day tomorrow, with the Brilliance of the Seas, the Norwegian Escape, the Carnival Miracle and the Veendam nicely lined up outside the port. They will put 12,014 guests ashore if everybody is going, not counting crew.  It is going to lively in Front street. But we are still lucky, on March 20th. The Nieuw Amsterdam is in port together with a few biggies and they will put ashore just over 20,000 guests.  I will stay on board and use my time to teach the shop staff how to deal with guests who do not want to go to the Guest Boat drill.  That is much more fun.

  • Robina Herrington

    What a disappointment for you all, I was
    Also looking forward to the Visit!
    Thank you for your informative Blogs most enjoyable.

  • Frans van Giersbergen


    Thank you for the information regarding excursions in Cuba.
    Undoubtedly it was a very good decision to abort the approach. By your narrative it is obviously very tight getting in there. Was this wind situation a one off, or does it occur more often?
    If it does occur more often, what would be the cutoff point for not going there any more?

    Best regards
    Frans van Giersbergen

  • Captain Albert

    This was very usual. It needs a lot of upheaval on the Eastern Seaboard of the USA to affect the weather on the south side of Cuba. So not going there anymore is not really a discussion point as it is very unusual to have so much wind and so early in the morning.

    best regards

    Capt. Albert

  • Copper10-8

    Veendam’s Captain is on top of his game as always! Better safe than sorry and wind up on the shore

  • Ruud

    We almost went for this cruise, but sailed with the Volendam to Indonesia. Otherwise we would have been with you on the Veendam that would have been nice but missed the port and that would have been really sad.

  • Captain Albert

    Hallo Ruud,

    Yes we were all sad, but some guests are going to give it a second try as the ship is going there again in a few weeks from now.

    I will have to be very lucky if I get there again.

    Best regards

    Capt. Albert

  • Not Happy

    I was on this cruise. We awoke early to watch the ship travel down the narrow canal as advised by the ship staff “It would be something to see” We waited as a ship larger than ours passed down the canal, 5 catamaran’s exited, small fishing boats to the side.. No white caps noticed. Question is if all the other’s could travel I think we could too. Such a shame, choose this cruise- much more expensive because of the two ports in Cuba and having another day at sea with nothing to do was very disappointing. No music on deck, and even though slots were filled during the day none were fun and if they were they cost you more money. Terrible for Holland to offer a free glass of wine to try to make up for missing the port. Cruise Director without any apology- only patted himself and staff on back. Never again Holland.

  • Captain Albert

    Thank you for reading my blog.

    I was on the bridge when the Captain cancelled the 2nd approach and I fully concurred with his decision. Then I invited
    him to come on stage before my Holland America line History talk and he explained to all the guests in the showroom at
    sea what the logic was behind it. It is hard to understand when it is good weather that there are other dangers lurking.
    The cruise ship that went in ahead of us, had two advantages, first there was less wind at the time and 2ndly she
    was about one 3rd of the volume / height of our Veendam and had a lot less balconies which cause a lot of trouble
    with wind, as the wind bites into the balconies instead of being deflected. So the two are not comparable.
    The white caps were not where you could see the catamarans, but at the corner from where the catamarans appeared from.
    And there was our danger.
    Captains never like to cancel ports but they will do if the safety of the ship and those on board can not
    be guaranteed.
    Captain Colm Ryan was my staff captain in the past and that day I was very proud of him that he made the right decision
    regardless of the pressure that was put on him and the complaints,he knew he would face later.

    Best regards

    Capt. Albert

  • William Van der Ven

    My wife and I were on the earlier February Cruise and even when all the sea/wind conditions were right, the margin for error, u could throw a beer glass from the Lido deck and have it disappear into the foliage growing ashore. My wife and i concurred that the captain and his navigation crew earned their guilders that morning and again that late afternoon.
    Goede zeilen kapitein,
    William Van der Ven

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