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Cruise to Alaska

Visiting the 49th state by sea means you're in for scenic grandeur and grand hotel comfort

That night we ate a typical meal of Alaska king crab legs, salad, baked stuffed prawns Del Rey on spinach fettuccine, and chocolate cake with our assigned tablemates: Michelle and Rob Rone, from Texas, and Randal and Jan Hundley, from Arkansas. Rob, a tall, young salesman, said they’d gone on the cruise because "I like to be pampered." Randal, a wry and cheerful cardiologist, had bid on the trip on the spur of the moment at an art center benefit auction. "We always wanted to go to Alaska," he said.

In the past, meals on cruise ships were usually set up as ours were: you were assigned to a table with a few other passengers. It forced socialization and was easier for the cooks. That’s all changing. "Choices" is a catchword in cruise marketing. On the Volendam you can also dine at a cafeteria on the Lido Deck or make a reservation at a more intimate restaurant called the Marco Polo. On other ships, even more dining options are offered, and some have developed marketing relationships with onshore restaurant chains.

Recreational choices, too, have come a long way from shuffleboard. Now there are huge fitness centers and spas where you can buy a massage, a seaweed wrap or a course of therapeutic vitamins. There are also multiple swimming pools, jogging tracks, paddle-tennis courts, miniature golf courses, video-game parlors, art auctions, first-run movies, karaoke machines and—on the biggest ships—ice skating rinks and rock climbing walls.

Some of the real advances in cruise liners, however, are not visible to passengers. These are technical developments so fundamental and innovative that people and designers from all over the world, including the United States, have visited Kvaerner Masa-Yards to check them out.

This innovation comes in two parts. First, most new cruise liners are what are called "diesel-electric ships." This means that instead of running propeller shafts directly, via a reduction gear, from the enormous diesel engines, the shafts are connected to electric motors that get their power from diesel-driven power plants. These plants, not much different from generating stations onshore, just provide electricity, and it’s up to switches whether the power goes to propulsion or services. This allows flexibility in the amount of power generated, as well as in things like choosing whether to make the ship cooler or make it go faster, and in deciding where to put the engines to provide the best balance and the most living space. "On these ships," said Captain van Biljouw, "when you ask for the power, you have the power."

The second innovation, which derives from the first, is a revolutionary idea called the Azipod. This is a huge thing that looks almost exactly like the little motor and propeller combination on the end of an electric outboard trolling motor, except for two things: first, an Azipod weighs 200 tons and is bolted on under the ship; second, instead of pointing aft, as on an outboard, the propeller on the Azipod usually faces forward, as on an aircraft engine.

Because an Azipod can turn a full 360 degrees on its mount, it does away with rudders, which means less drag and far greater maneuverability—all of which equals more efficiency. It can save up to 10 percent of the hundred tons of fuel or more that a midsize cruise ship burns each day.

"One Meter Ahead"

Innovations like rotating Azipods, which the Volendam doesn’t have, and powerful side thrusters built into bow and stern, which the Volendam does have, make these cruise liners so maneuverable that a ship can pull up beside a dock and just sidle into place. On the Volendam bridge one day, when we were docking, I heard Captain van Biljouw tell his bridge crew: "One meter ahead." The ship was moved one meter. The captain chortled. He turned to me and said, "Piece of cake."

Azipods and side thrusters, plus advances in electronics, have led to what seems to me a marvelous technological irony. The largest ships in the fleet, the 140,000-ton Voyager-class ships Kvaerner Masa-Yards is building for Royal Caribbean, can be entirely controlled on the bridge by a single joystick that is far less impressive than the one I use to blast aliens on my home computer.

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