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Captain’s Log: Sail Along on the Grand World Voyage Cruise

Captain Mercer is back onboard the Grand World Voyage and he’s blogging about his cruising adventures. The ship set sail from Fort Lauderdale in early January and made its way through the Panama Canal. After a call at Ecuador this week, it’s eight days at sea before landfall in the South Pacific. Catch up with Captain Mercer and witness the Grand World Voyage through the eyes of the master of the ship.

Jan. 6 – Fort Lauderdale:

Dear readers, after a hectic 24-hours I am back in the ‘Driving’ seat again. We left Port Everglades last night (5th) at 10 p.m. having embarked over 1,000 guests (and their luggage 😉 ), stores and fuel and heaven knows what else. Quite windy too, I probably woke up some of the guests, the bow-thrusts were working quite hard.

The Grand World Voyage logo painted on ms Amsterdam. Photo courtesy of Jeff Farschman.

The Grand World Voyage logo painted on ms Amsterdam. Photo courtesy of Jeff Farschman.

As I write, we are in the Old Bahama Channel, this lies between Cuba to the south and the Bahama Banks to the north, eventually we will round the eastern tip of Cuba, thence the western end of Haiti and into the Caribbean, our destination being Santa Marta, Columbia for Friday morning.

My leave was hectic, some time in Europe for training courses, visiting my daughters and grandchildren, then a hernia op (heavy suitcases up steep gangways) and some R&R of course. Suitcases are strewn around the cabin and today will involve packing it all away into its rightful place.

Emily and Violet are walking now, Olly is shooting up, all too quickly.

Jan. 7 – At Sea

After weeks of a leisurely coffee, a read of the morning news on the internet, still wearing PJs 🙂 shipboard routine comes as something of a culture shock. If someone could explain to me why, when one awakes in darkness, the luminous hands of my watch are in exact alignment more often than not, I would be grateful…

During one of my previous posts I mentioned my attendance at another ECDIS (Electronic Chart Display Information System) course. The big change is that now, as we are ECDIS compliant, we are now using this as our principal Navigation system. After 40+ years at sea, all of them using paper charts, the change, although expected, seems odd. My morning routine has always included a visit to the Bridge, a chat with the watch-keeping officers and, amongst others, a perusal of the chart on the chart-table. Old habits die hard and the now bare chart-table seems alien to me. Instead I consult the ECDIS, an electronic chart on a screen. I’m sure that my predecessors would be turning in their graves, no sextants and celestial navigation and now, no paper charts; the inevitable march of progress…

‘Introductions’ this evening; I go on stage and introduce not only myself, but 16 other officers, our ‘key’ personnel. I do my ‘Intros’ off-the-cuff, far preferring it this way than reading from a script; it has its challenges, however it is less formal and one can adjust, depending on the audience’s reaction. I know most of my officers and crew, so knowing their ‘bios’, helps to make our guests feel more knowledgeable about them. I have to admit that, over the years, I have had some moments though, having a brief complete memory loss of a name, even though I’ve sailed with the individual for years; not an auspicious moment!

Captain Mercer presenting the officers, courtesy of Jeff Farschman,

Captain Mercer presenting the officers, courtesy of Jeff Farschman,

Captain Mercer toasts to a wonderful Grand World Voyage.

Captain Mercer toasts to a wonderful Grand World Voyage.

Jan. 10 – San Blas Islands, Colombia

The San Blas Islands lie on the northern coast of Colombia, 80 miles to the east of the Panama Canal. On a hot and muggy morning, we weaved our way through the (visible) islands and the (invisible) reefs. As we made our first turn we were greeted with a sight seldom seen nowadays, a 3-masted schooner, the Tor Heyerdahl. She is a sail-training ship for teenagers and young adults.


The native canoes did not take long to assume their usual position, as close as they could, the occupants begging for any ‘gift’ that might be donated. We continually move them away, however they always try to return, their favourite spot being near the stern, uncomfortably close to our azipod prop-wash.




Jan. 11 – Panama Canal

We were scheduled to depart the San Blas Islands at 6 p.m. on Saturday, however, to arrive at the Panama Canal at 5 a.m. on Sunday, we required a speed of 7 kts. Herein lay a challenge; our stabilisers are not very effective at that speed and so, as a consequence, we remained at anchor until 8:30 p.m. and this gave a speed required of 10 knots, at which speed the stabilisers work effectively.

We weaved our way back through the reefs and islands to the open sea and I was pleased that I had made the ‘delay’ decision, the Caribbean was still rough and had I not done so, the night would have been ‘uncomfortable’ 😉

The Canal authorities had asked us to be at Cristobal breakwaters for 5 a.m. There are always a vast number of ships in the approaches, those leaving or entering and others at anchor; one has to be diligent in such circumstances and so, at 3:15 a.m. my call from the Bridge awoke me. Coffee, (of course), in hand, I arrived on the Bridge. Radars humming, the glow of instrument lighting and, outside the windows, the lights of scores of vessels, not to mention Cristobal’s.

Our first report point to Cristobal signal station was at 12 miles off the entrance; they accepted our transmission and that was it. At 8 miles off they called us, “please time your arrival for 5:40″, damn, I could have had more time in bed 🙂

The delay was because ‘northbound’ ships, having been transiting during the night, were delayed and as a consequence, the ‘southbound’ ships, (including us) were delayed. We took a 180° turn and headed north-east for a while, killing time until we could turn again and make our ETA.

Like ducks in a row, 20 minutes apart, southbound ships made their way towards the breakwaters and the pilot station. Here we slowly made our way down the well-buoyed channel, the lights of which looked more akin to an airport runway. Ahead of us, at the southern end of the channel, 2 green leading-lights assisted us; both on towers, 1 higher and behind the other, if they are in-line then one knows we are on the correct track.

Pilots and authorities board, one of whom is an ‘inspector’; he ensures that all is in order, that the vessel has no discrepancies and that she is capable of transit. All in order, we receive the ‘Zulu 14′ call sign; (ahead of us is Z12 and astern Z16 and so forth. We won’t use our “Amsterdam” name at all, always the Canal call-sign).

We follow Z12, a product carrier and Z10, the “Wind Spirit”, previously owned by HAL’s Windstar group. The itinerary I published on my blog had, of course, gone to out of the window, the 40-minute delay on arrival being the cause.

Gatun is our first lock; it is in fact a ‘flight’ of locks, entering the first, pumped up and then into the next. It’s a ‘tricky’ maneuver; getting the ship alongside the approach wall, so the locomotives can get their wires attached. On the long, centre approach wall, one can attach 3 locos, (named ‘centre’ 1, 2 and 3, believe it or not). As one progress into the lock, one can attach ‘side’ 1, 2 and 3. This is when I relax a little, up until this time I have been maneuvering, once the locos are attached, the pilot controls them and all I have to do is manage the speed.

Looking aft, the “Silver Spirit” entering the first flight.

Looking aft, the “Silver Spirit” entering the first flight.

Having departed Gatun locks, we enter Gatun Lake, the ‘powerhouse’ of the Canal lock system. As there was a further delay further south, we ‘pottle’ across the lake at a sedate 5 knots. We weave through the buoyed channel, passing northbound vessels, their proximity, by necessity, being close. As we do so, jungle on either side, there is little sign of human habitation.

Gatun Lake, islands and jungle.

Gatun Lake, islands and jungle.

From Gatun Lake, we pass Gamboa, the hub of the Canal’s dredge and work operation. With the construction of 3 new, massive locks there is a need to widen the canal to take the juggernauts which will use it in 2017. Because the dredgers take up some of the channel, there is a one-way system in place. The Culebra Cut has always been one-way, (at least in the time I have transited), as a result there are constant changes of speed while we arrange suitable passing areas for northbound ships we pass.

Clockwise from top: A bucket dredger, bulldozers moving the dried dredge mud and approaching Gamboa.

Clockwise from top: A bucket dredger, bulldozers moving the dried dredge mud and approaching Gamboa.

Once past Gamboa, into the ‘Cut’, this section was constantly under the risk of landslides and consequently the sides have been ‘stepped’, with massive bolts drilled into the faces.

The ‘Centennial’ Bridge spans the Cut. ‘Stepped’ sides are visible.

The ‘Centennial’ Bridge spans the Cut. ‘Stepped’ sides are visible.

At the end of the Cut lies the final 2 sets of locks; having been ‘lifted’ in Gatun, we now ‘drop’ in Pedro Miguel and finally, Miraflores locks.

A crowded visitor center, left, and Miraflores locks.

A crowded visitor center, left, and Miraflores locks.

Finally, (almost 14 hours), we’re into the Pacific. We pass Balboa port; here Container ships discharge their boxes. Rather than go through the Canal, some of them stop here and the boxes are rail-shipped to Cristobal (and vice versa), where they are loaded onto another ship. Under the Bridge of the Americas as we disembark our pilots, we’re on our way to Manta, Ecuador, and the vista of Panama City is on our port side as we glide down the channel to the open sea.

Bridge of the Americas and Panama City.

Bridge of the Americas and Panama City.

As I write, we are southbound in the Pacific under leaden skies, however the winds are following and the seas are calm. We are scheduled to arrive in Manta, Ecuador at 5 a.m. tomorrow (13th) morning. We cross the equator, thus entering southerly latitudes, at 1 a.m.

Jan. 13 – Manta, Ecuador:

Manta, Ecuador; we’ve called here before of course, almost exactly a year ago. It’s a fishing port in the main, although there’s a cargo ship next to us, the majority of the boats in here are Tuna boats. The area thrives on the sea and the restaurants along the beach-front are renowned for their seafood.

Another early call, 3 a.m.; on the Bridge for 3:30 and time to become accustomed to the darkness (and have a coffee), the 2nd Officer, Ineke has the watch, she is assisted by Anthony, one our 3rd Officers. As is the norm, we supplement the Bridge team for arrivals, both the Staff Captain Gerd and I have to be there too; the Engine Control Room is similarly supplemented; the Chief Engineer, 1st Engineer and Chief Electrician in addition to the normal watch-keepers all have to be there…

We exercised the Officers and Crew in a drill this morning. Starting with a Fire drill we progressed through our Stage 2 and 3 scenarios which is ‘abandon ship’. We exercise continually during the course of the voyage; it involves ringing of alarm bells and announcements, however our guests are very understanding as to the reason.

While all this was going on, Karen was ashore, my camera in her bag. I have deleted the blurred trees and sides of cars, (she took some out of the taxi window!), however she managed, as always, to get some nice ones. I will leave you with a selection. We depart at 9 p.m., 8 days at sea as we cross the Pacific to French Polynesia!

Karen and a very large tuna, the seafood market, a boat building and Amsterdam from town.

Karen and a very large tuna, the seafood market, a boat building and Amsterdam from town.

Captain Mercer will continue to write on his own blog,, and check back on the Holland America Blog for regular updates from him during the 114-day Grand World Voyage. You can follow the voyage on our Pinterest page as well!

(When not indicated, all photos were taken by Captain Mercer – or Karen!)

  • Gary and Linda Spence

    Hi Captain and Karen.

    This Blog sure brings back recent fabulous memories!!

    Would be great to be with you again!

    Was great to get to know you both.

    Hope our paths cross again.


    Gary and Linda Spence

    PS: Sounds like water skiing behind the ship would be more difficult than last year

  • KarenJ503

    I LOVED the visit to the San Blas Islands on my hubby’s and my very first Panama Canal cruise! I still have a dozen panels of their fine stitching artwork waiting to be made up into a wall-hanging quilt.

  • Ida Prefontaine

    I am enjoying your blog, we have Rotary friends that are on your cruise so we can follow them.
    Thank you

  • Chris Barlow

    Captain, what has happened since Jan 19?

  • Julie

    Chris, we’ve reported Captain Mercer’s adventures in various posts, just not under the title “Captain’s Log.” But if you put his name in the the search they will come up. Or you can search under Amsterdam, the ship. Or … you can visit to see his blog! 🙂 Happy reading!

  • Duane and Eunice Bietz

    Jonathon: reading your very informative blog makes me wish I had responded positively to the HAL question as to whether I wished to do the World Cruise again in 2015. The 2014 experience, as the physician, was wonderful and your blog brings back fond memories.

  • Irene & Wayne Hendricks

    Sailed with you on 2013, 14, 15, and now 2016 Amsterdam. You are highly respected by passengers & crew for listening to needs & requests. You are commended for tender pick up for passengers who went on the first excursion to Corrigidor in the Philippines in 2013. Looking forward to sailing with you again in 2016!
    Irene & Wayne Hendricks

  • Nigel St. Louis

    Hello Jonathan, I was asked by Karen (K2) to send you a photo of you and your brother. I cannot post a photo to your blog, but happy to send it to an email address or another site. It was fantastic meeting you, Karen, Karen, Linda, Victoria and Hazel – Please say hello to them for me!

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