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Dear Smitty

Our authors write Smitty, our travel editor, about their journeys

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Our Travel Editor, Smitty

Although British by birth like his namesake James Smithson, Smitty is a gadabout who is at home anywhere from a palace to a rain forest. He sends our writers and photographers around the planet—he'd much rather be sending himself, of course, but someone has to stay home and mind the store. Still, Smitty likes to be kept abreast of what's going on in far-flung places, and so our authors write him letters about their journeys.

Dear Smitty:

As far as I'm concerned, the best place to be around a cruise ship is under it. I hope this doesn't sound extreme. Let me explain.

I've taken cruises to both Alaska and Antarctica, and they were fine. Good food, great scenery, all that stuff right out of the advertising brochures. But until I got under one of these ships, I had no clue what it was all about.

This particular piece of cruising happened in Helsinki, Finland. Few Americans cruise to Helsinki, but a lot of the cruise ships come from there. The Kvaerner Masa-Yards plant in Helsinki has been building cruise ships since 1968, along with icebreakers, ferries and other large, powerful vessels.

Inside the offices of Kvaerner Masa in Helsinki, wooden models of ships' hulls are hanging on the walls. When I first saw these things I assumed that they were decorations. I soon learned that it wasn't that way at all. These models were actually critical to the shipbuilding process. Before computers, these were the scale models from which naval architects made the templates for cutting the steel plates of the hull.

Today, the design is computerized down to the rivet, so when you go out to the huge sheds where the cutting of steel is done, you see acres of steel plate stacked up, all marked precisely with big cuts and small, ready to be burned apart then welded back together into more useful shapes.

Voyager ConstructionHenrik Segercrantz, a naval architect at Kvaerner Masa, took me to the workshops where the cutting is done. In there the most striking thing was the blue light. I've seen a lot of welders over the years, but nowhere else have I seen the blue light made by the welders at Kvaerner Masa. You can't look directly at the spark at the weld because the light will burn your eyes, but I was fascinated with the blue glow around each welder as he cut the steel. Oddly, the color reminded me of the intense blue that seems to glow from the freshly broken edge of an iceberg, or the face of a glacier. It was both cool and inviting, yet for all its intensity, it was elusive, like a taste or a memory.

The blue light happened for a prosaic reason. It was there because the welders were using a mix of carbon dioxide to do their cutting. It was all chemicals, but it looked like magic.

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