Hans van Biljouw, the captain of the motor ship Volendam, is as jolly as Santa Claus, but even he goes quiet as the big ship heads toward Snow Passage in darkness and fog. "It’s only about two cables wide there," he says quietly as he stands on the bridge, watching the pilot give instructions to the man at the helm. A cable measures 608 feet. The Volendam is 106 feet wide and 780 feet long. At 60,906 tons it is considerably bigger than the ship that was once the symbolic apex of technology, the Titanic. But it is going to go through a very small place.
Snow Passage is a pinch of deep water between rocks, a gap among islands in Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage. Here, wind-whipped tides can build seas big enough to capsize small boats and currents strong enough to drive big ships aground. But though the radar screen shows rock closing in on each side, we can’t see anything out the slanted windows of the bridge but black fog.
"Did the Dawn Princess say anything about fog when she went through here?" Captain van Biljouw asks the pilot. The answer is no. The captain says nothing. Everyone is silent.
The big Holland America Line ship shudders with power. It is racing at its target like an arrow shot at a keyhole. All five of its huge diesel engines roar, pouring out 43 megawatts, enough power for a city of 44,500. Its two electric propulsion motors are using 26 of those megawatts to drive the ship. The ship is going almost full speed—22 knots (about 25 miles per hour)—trying to get to the pass while the tide turns, to avoid dangerous currents. But except for the hum of electronic equipment on the bridge and the occasional blast of the ship’s horn as a warning to anyone else moving in the fog, there is no sound. Eight people stare out at the night, and wait.
Almost no one else on the ship knows what is going on. It is shortly before 5 A.M. All but a few of the 1,479 passengers are asleep. They have no idea of the tension on the bridge, and they will never learn of it. That protection is part of the package. The huge business of cruising, one of the fastest-growing pieces of the booming travel industry, is built on the intricate elaboration of the illusion that, for a week or two at least, complete comfort and security can be had on earth.
I am on board with my wife, Suzanne. We’re on a cruise from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Glacier Bay, Alaska, and back. We chose to take a seven-day cruise to Alaska because that’s one of the most popular single venues in the industry. Every year more than half a million tourists take cruise ships through the Inside Passage. We’re here on an unusual assignment, which is both delightful and unsettling: to revel in the illusion and to look behind it. The story begins, like every ship, with the cutting of steel.
A pond burns in Finland
In a vast building in Turku, Finland, a pond was burning. The pond was a tank about 2,500 square feet. Deep in the tank intense blue fire danced, and streams of silver bubbles rose to the surface, where they burst into smoke and steam that was whisked away by fans. The pond looked as if it were burning because steel plates two-thirds of an inch thick were being cut underwater by computer-controlled plasma cutting devices. This was the beginning of a cruise ship.