Interview with Captain Carl Smith,
Azamara Club Cruises
This year he'll be the first Manx captain to bring a cruise ship home to the Isle of Man. Learn more about the one-and-only Captain Carl Smith. This interview took place in May 2013.
Q: Where did you grow up and where are you living now?
I grew up in the Isle of Man, a small island in the middle of the Irish Sea. Now my family and I live on a farm in the Czech republic, 100 miles west of Prague and 300 miles from the coast. It's a beautiful area known as the Western Bohemian Spa triangle. We have chickens, sheep and grow our own vegetables. I've got three sons. Joseph is seven and a half, and he recently won the gold medal in gymnastics in the under-nine competition for the western half of the Czech Republic. Richard is two years old, and Peter is our baby at four months.
Q: What hobbies do you pursue while at home?
We just spent four years building our new home. Soon I'll be going home for my first vacation without so much work on the house. So I plan on enjoying my home and garden with the family. In the summer I take the two oldest boys on a cycling and camping holiday. In the winter we go skiing.
Q: What do you love to eat on a typical day at sea?
I typically go to the bridge for a few hours and then quite often go to deck 9 aft and eat with guests. I'm very keen on breakfast. I love scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, and eat a lot of it! I try and go to the gym at lunchtime when I can. I've started running recently, so I try to get in 45 minutes or an hour on the treadmill. I try to run on shore when possible. I also officially host dinner twice per cruise, and when I'm not hosting I often go to Windows. I love Indian curry night. The buffet is fantastic. And I love cake, any kind of cake. It takes a real act of willpower to resist it. When I'm on the bridge for very long hours, my guilty pleasure is a steak sandwich and fries.
Q: Is there a code or creed you live by? A philosophy that captures who you are?
It's the company motto. It sounds corny, but it's true. “I love where I take you.” And I sign off my emails with “I love my job.” Good day or bad day, that's how I sign off. You just repeat it enough on a bad day and you start laughing and then you're having a good day. Because it's true, I really do love my job.
Q: How did you get into the sea life?
At 15 I finished all my exams, and I went to a career convention. I thought I might go into the petrochemical industry because I was good at math and science. I saw that Shell tankers had a stand there. The money was dreadful, but they had a chart that showed you how you could qualify as captain in ten years. And you could get paid to go to college, so it was an incentive. And there was a picture of a ship with a swimming pool, so I asked, where do I sign? I worked for Shell for seven years and qualified as second in command. But I wanted to live closer to home, so I went to a local ferry company, then to a boat that carried general cargo and bananas. I got very good at identifying and handing over contrabrand to the UK authorities in that job. At 25 I got my captain's license, at 26 I joined my first passenger ship as junior second officer, so had to work up from the bottom again. After four days I sat down for a discussion and told the second in command that I wanted three positions above where I was. He told me it would take a minimum of eight years to get there. But it didn't. I was promoted to third in command at 26 years old. I learned to love the navigation side of it; no one touched the controls but the captain on that ship, but I watched and I learned. I had other stints with the same company: I set up a Chinese gambling casino ship, then went to Monaco and ran a fleet of ships. So I was the boss of many captains in that job. It was incredibly interesting, but I didn't take to Monaco as a place to live. So I went back to sea again just after 9/11 happened. I was on a ship—a ferry really—that did one-day cruising out of Ft. Lauderdale. And that's where I met my wife. In a remarkable coincidence, she had worked on the R7 ship I'm on now when it was Renaissance. But Renaissance went out of business after 9/11, which brought her that day to my ship. Lucky for me.
Q: How did you get from there to Azamara?
My next job was on the ex R8, as a second in command for four years. While I was there, Celebrity did an inspection of the vessel and started to court me. It took awhile, but after three years they offered me the perfect job: three months on and three months off, and captain of my own ship. Did I mention that I love my job?
Q: What's great about being captain? Everyone wants to be CEO of their own company, but what do you love about what you do?
I love the ship handling; driving it in and out of port. It's an incredible challenge, and on these ships in particular, with their classic ship-handling characteristics. Driving them is a test of true seamanship. I'd encourage guests to watch the online video link of driving the ship to Seville. There is nothing on the planet that matches that kind of experience. We back through a drawbridge that's only 30 meters wide, and the ship is 28 meters wide. We get those big “wows” several times a year.
I enjoy teaching and I think it's an important part of my job, whether it's safety related, navigational, ship handling or even sharing some management techniques. I enjoy watching people learn. When you see that twinkle in the eye, it makes me smile. I also quite enjoy love the social aspects. Even in my free time I go pick up my own coffee and talk with the guests. I'm gregarious by nature.
Q: Tell us about your first Azamara voyage.
On my first true Azamara voyage we went south, and kept going south all the way to Antarctica. I was the first Celebrity captain to sail to Antarctica. I was the first non-Greek Celebrity captain, for that matter. It was a great, great voyage. And I signed off the ship in Rio during Carnival. I had my wife and two year old boy with me. A fabulous voyage.
Q: And a challenging voyage, too. Tell us about it, and about the other challenges you've encountered as captain.
Getting to Antarctica, the Drake Passage and ice navigation is tricky. You can't plan for the ice floes, so sailing from A to B is never a straight line. We went down just a few months after the Explorer hit ice and sank. The truth is that all these cruises are safe if you have a very strong bridge team, which we do. Of course there are challenging aspects to my job, and if there weren't I wouldn't enjoy it. The Norwegian fjords, the Chilean fjords, the Inland Sea of Japan, the islands off the coast of Korea, the fog on the Yellow River going into Shanghai…all of these places are wonderful and challenging. Taking the ship to Ho Chi Minh and turning around with 4 knots of current in the river, that's challenging. The trick is being in the right place at the right speed when you start your maneuver. Then you can use the currents and winds to your advantage. But if you're not in the right place the current and winds work against you.
Q: Favorite places you love to sail for scenic beauty?
I love the Norwegian fjords, and the Stockholm Archipelago is one of the most beautiful arrivals you will ever experience. I love the Chilean fjords, and Antarctica. In Asia, sailing in Halong Bay is spectacular. Summertime in the Med, I love the Dardanelles, and the Bosphorus as you pass Istanbul. My favorite Med port is Kotor, Montenegro.
Q: I understand that you were in Nagasaki when the tsunami hit Japan. Can you describe that experience?
We had to make some very quick decisions that day. There are some very unusual regulations in Japan in regard to satellite communications. So we didn't have satellite communication or Internet or anything else at first; we had only CNN and our home office for information. We had to make decisions based on limited information about forecasts and after-shocks. We were fortunate that we were in the most sheltered port in Japan. When the last guest came onboard I made an announcement explaining the situation, and we left very quickly without a harbor pilot. My judgment was that we needed to get to deep water as fast as humanly possible. A tsunami wave is just 3 to 6 inches tall if you have two or three thousand feet of water beneath you, but if you're in forty feet that wave can be 150 feet tall. We had an editor named Arnie Weissmann of Travel Weekly onboard with us. I did an interview with him and before we got to international waters he had typed a dispatch and posted it online. It went viral. So all our guests and their family back home got to read about it much sooner than most. It wasn't conventional, but it seemed the safest and wisest option for communicating at the time. The adrenaline rush just stayed there with me over the course of the next two or three days. There wasn't much sleep for any of us.
Q: How did your guests handle it?
Our guests were amazing, supportive and grateful. And very understanding. The whole country of Japan was essentially closed, but we had to get our passports stamped, so we had to go back to Japan. There was a lot of educated guesswork about which ports would open first, and we hedged our bets and hit it dead right. Many other vessels got it wrong and had to spend extra days at sea. We headed to a sheltered cargo port and arrived back in Japan at 5 AM in the morning, had our passports stamped and left immediately. If we hadn't done that, we could have been in violation of immigration law and wouldn't have been allowed back in Japan again. Then we had to change our itinerary. We advanced our call to South Korea and then added an overnight in Shanghai. All along the way our guests were fantastic.
Q: What other itineraries would you like to see added on Azamara?
I'd love a true round-the-world cruise, but to do it the Azamara way with longer stays and more overnights. Most cruise lines stay in port four or six hours, so I'd like to see it done in a leisurely manner. I'd like to see more of the Pacific. Pretty much anywhere Claudius (Azamara's masterful itinerary planner) sends me, I'm going to enjoy it. I love working with him because he gets excited about the ports, and that makes me excited.
Q: What are you most proud of about working with Azamara?
The crew. I've been at sea 23 years, and the crew we have both on the Quest and on the Journey don't exist anywhere else. Honestly, there's nothing else that matches the genuine friendliness and happiness you find here. You hear that a lot from guests…but it's true in our working relationships as well. I have a wife and three sons at home, and when I leave them and get on an airplane to come to work, that's really difficult. I feel badly, right to the moment when I see the first smile of a crew member at the bottom of the gangway. Then I smile. Because I've come to my second family.
Q: What do you do to encourage that as captain?
I've tried to learn to say hello, good evening and thank you in all their languages. We're all proud of where we're from. If you recognize that in people and can say even a few words in their language, there's a bond that develops. That's part of it, along with having a genuine interest in their welfare.
Q: What's your experience of the Azamara guest? How would you describe them?
The vast majority of our guests today are the right people on the right cruise. More and more we're getting guests who know what they want from life. We get a lot of first time travelers who have traveled a great deal but haven't cruised before. And we get many guests who have cruised before, dozens and dozens of times, but don't enjoy the experience of the big ships. They want something nicer and more refined. They want a more intimate cruise.
If I had to use one word to describe our guests, I'd say curious. They're adventuresome, but obviously you can't key everything to big adventures, so there's a mix. Our guests like to get off the ship and see things. They may well have traveled in an area before, but we have so many experiences that if you've been there and done that, we'll still have something new for you. That's why we have overnights, and people take advantage of them.
Q: You're known for being a lot of fun. Are there other experiences you can tell me about? I heard you went water jousting recently…
(Laughs) I'm not 100% sure how that came to be…It was our second AzAmazing EveningsSM event, and I was asked if I wanted to go to Setes Joutes, a classic French water jousting competition, and I thought yes, I can do this. So at lunchtime I was introduced to the seven-time world champion. I kept looking up from his feet…and up and up and up until my neck hurt…he was huge. But what a gentle giant, he was so funny. I knew there was no actual competition. It was a pure putdown. And an awful lot of fun.
Q: I can't imagine another captain doing this.
The last one was a party at Chateau de la Napoule, a medieval castle in Cannes. I was riding a horse and the hotel director was walking around with a sword! These events have been great fun; where else in the world would you get to be at places and events like this? It's lots of work for the team aboard, but it's really paying dividends. I'd say about 98% of the guests are really enjoying it. You can go ahead and simply enjoy the evening in these beautiful places. Or you can enjoy the event. Or both. It's the best of local culture and entertainment in one place. These are one-off events, all the best brought into one place.
Q: Tell me about some of the best things you've heard from guests. And the hardest.
One of the best things ever was a poem a guest wrote about me after the Antarctica cruise. He read it aloud in front of other guests, and it was really beautiful. The gentleman who wrote it shed a few tears when he recited it, and I nearly did myself. I'll never forget it.
One of the hardest things is standing in front of guests when the cruise hasn't gone perfectly. One time when we were arriving in Recife it was clear we were going to be late. I had been honest, but it was clear some guests hadn't understood. So on the last evening I had to tell them listen, honestly we're 12 hours late. That night as soon as I stopped talking I said to the hotel director, okay I'm going out to every single guest and every dining venue to talk with guests. I immediately went through the smoking section by the swimming pool. I was met with a massive round of applause. They had been placing bets that I wouldn't show my face! From there I felt more comfortable and went around to every guest. If you are honest it works out.
Q: What are your favorite places for nightlife?
I tend not to go out, but I'll tell you the places guests shouldn't miss. Asia is really fantastic. Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore, Shanghai, Osaka…to be overnight in any of these places and go ashore for an authentic meal is wonderful. In Venice, I'd say walk ashore at 4 in the afternoon and have coffee in St. Marks Square, then stay for dinner when the tourists have gone home. And if you're overnight in Montevideo, there's a barbecue place to die for; I'm building a BBQ pit at home like one I saw there.
Q: Final question: what books about the sea would you recommend to guests?
I personally tend to read either fantasy or classics. But I enjoyed Two Years Before the Mast; Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage; 1421: The Year China Discovered the World; and Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe.