What led to the sea, and to Azamara Club Cruises as captain of a ship?

I was born by the seaside in Portugal. My family at that time owned a fleet of trawlers, so I grew up on the ships. On my 14th birthday I went to work in the shipyards to earn money for a bicycle.

I have three cousins who are captains…I guess I knew at an early age that I wanted to someday be a captain too. Though at the time I thought it would be on a fishing trawler. But after four years in nautical school, my experience in the codfish industry was a disappointment. So I went from fishing vessels to tankers to cargo ships to get different experiences.

After a long contract on a big tanker, I got a call asking if I’d like to join a world tour on a cruise ship operating from Portugal. During six months onboard, I made my decision that I wanted to be on a cruise ship. I really liked it.

I continued to find my way to cruise ship experiences. I joined Renaissance in 1999 as it launched construction of eight new ships, including two that now carry the Azamara name. It was all good experience and background, and working with so many different captains and crews taught me a lot.

Today I have my dream job. A nice mid-sized ship, sailing around the world, traveling and meeting so many interesting people.

And what did you learn from those early experiences?

Three things.

First, try to be like a sponge and learn from everything. Learn from the good and the bad, from every experience, from good leaders and from people you don’t particularly admire. Squeeze the sponge, and only the good things will remain.

Second, if you have a goal, fight for it, your time will come. Be patient. I thought my time had come and I would finally be a captain of my own cruise ship, but then 911 happened. Not my time yet! The company who bought one of the eight Renaissance ships I had been working on told me, “If you want to stay with us you have to be staff captain; our captains are always British.” But I didn’t want to do that. I had to train a new staff captain…guess who? It was Carl Smith. So our paths crossed, but didn’t cross again until I came to Azamara.

Then, almost exactly ten years later, the day came when I got an offer from Azamara. It was perfect, just what I had been working for. Maybe that’s why I feel so at home here. You really get linked with the ships a different way when you help build them.

The third lesson is safety. My grandfather always told me, “Bigger ships, bigger problems.” I believe small and mid-sized ships are the way to go. When something goes wrong, it’s generally one of two issues: a comfort issue or a safety issue. You may disappoint guests from time to time, but safety is always first and I know that’s true with all our captains.

My very first voyage as captain on the Quest was to the West Indies. By the second island we had a blackout and went seven hours without electricity. So I explained to guests what had happened, why it happened, and how it would be fixed. I learned that the best way to deal with any problem is to tell the truth. I got so much support from guests, and I was happy about that.

What makes you proud about working for Azamara, other than reaching your long-term goal of being captain of your own ship?

After working with so many different ships, what makes me proudest is the excellent crew on our ship. I’ve worked all my life with different nationalities and I’m astonished by the quality of crew we have onboard. Many have been with Azamara for years. Our shoreside management is responsible for that. On the ships we are on a first name basis—communication is very open. Communication is the secret key.

I have great support from shoreside, and always know there is someone behind me if I have a problem or question onboard—any time day or night. This is remarkable. At other companies I faced many things alone. After my first contract with Azamara, I knew I was in a special place. In 30 years at sea, it was the first time that I was called by my first name, Captain Jose, not Captain Vilarinho.

This makes me very honored and loyal to Azamara. And as captain, I try to transpose this to my crew and onboard staff; we’re in this together. There is freedom to approach the crew and let the crew approach you. This makes Azamara different, from captains down to the newest crew member. You can’t imagine the difference it makes, not just in our experience but also in the guest experience.

A cruise ship is a floating hotel. It’s the crew that makes the hotel different. Whatever we do, we do it for the benefit of the guest. Yes, I have to move that hotel from Point A to Point B. But a ship sailing without a fine crew is an empty vessel. Our attitude and service is what differentiates us.

The Hotel department is our most important interface with guests. From the perspective of guests, these are the most important people on board, providing the best service a hotel can supply. And of course all departments on board work with guest satisfaction in mind, that’s our job every bit as much as sailing the ship.

What are your favorite ports and experiences?

The Norwegian Fjords are a wonderful part of the world, and I always love sailing there. I like tiny ports, and the fjords include challenging maneuvers and so many scenic rewards for guests.

Venice and Kotor are two beautiful ports, and I could go there so many times. On some days when we approach Kotor, it looks like a fairy tale book. The ship feels like it’s floating on fog, and you see the end of the fjord floating over the clouds. It’s not every morning you see the fog just floating level on the water like that; it’s really magic.

Malta is a great port, and another challenging maneuver. So is sailing the Guadalquivir River to Seville—a wonderful experience for navigating and wonderful for the guests.

I could go to St. Petersburg every year, and anywhere in the Baltic Sea. I love Tallinn. It’s like entering another world, another century.

In truth, after so many years at sea, I still don’t have a favorite voyage or port. I see beauty in them all. I always tell my guests, depending on what you are looking for and expecting, you will find it on an Azamara voyages.

Tell us a bit about daily life as a captain on Azamara.

The best thing about every day onboard is going around and meeting all our guests, which I can do because we are a small ship. I’ve got so many guests I can now call friends, people who choose to travel when I’m onboard. It makes a voyage even more personal and fun for all of us. You can probably tell that I love people!

My day starts at the gangway after docking and wishing guests a good day. And then my day is divided between my office, meetings and work, and time walking around the ship. I have a pedometer and on a normal day, I walk 6-7 kilometers around the ship. On an embarkation day with a few trips into the terminals I walk up to 11 kilometers.

I’ll usually have breakfast and lunch at Windows. I always spend 30-45 minutes going from table to table. I’ll go to Discoveries or the specialty restaurants for dinner, chatting with guests about what they did that day and answering questions. For me this is not work. I like to do it.

And I love espresso, so I go to Mosaic and chat with guests and have my coffee. You get a good feeling for those who like to spend more time onboard; this is where you find guests who just really like being with us.

At the beginning and end of shows at night, I also greet guests when I can.

What are your favorite foods onboard?

I love seafood. I love Indian night at Windows. I’m crazy for curry! I eat at Windows on a regular basis, and love all the ethnic nights. For dessert, Petit Gateau—baked chocolate lava cake. It’s the best.

I go to crew areas on a daily basis too. I like the crew mess. And I love tasting their foods—we have some great cooks on the crew! I want the crew to feel we can be friends, while still respecting the lines of division. What the crew sees you doing, they will do. So I like eating with them and mingling with them when I can.

Favorite comment from a guest?

“What is important, different, and the best about Azamara? The crew.” We are so happy that guests recognize that. We hear it not only verbally but also on the comment cards. The word for how we work is collegial. The first people who notice this are the guests because it affects their entire onboard experience.

Which AzAmazing Evenings are your favorites?

For the time being, all are new for me. Ephesus is number one because of the location in the Odeon. The cello player in Croatia was also wonderful. A wedding party celebration in Crete was a great fun. In Batumi, it was an amazing show in an amazing venue. These evenings are not about drinks and food, but about close encounters with cultural experiences—that’s what I try to remind guests. We give them what others are not giving them.

Where else would you like to see Azamara ships sailing?

I would like to have itineraries that include Spitsbergen and Greenland, to see pack ice, wild life, polar bears and glaciers. It could be a great adventure for our guests.

We have many more choices than the megaships and I’d love to take advantage of them all with our destination expertise and longer stays. That’s what people are looking for: original, unusual and unique experiences to places you cannot go on your own.

Is that why most guests choose Azamara, other than the fantastic staff and crew?

I met a young couple and asked why they were with us. They told me they chose Azamara because we have a lot of tendering ports in the West Indies. On that voyage we tendered on six out of seven days. At first that might seem like an odd answer. But what they were saying is that tendering means the port is small and big ships don’t go there. That’s the way to see the West Indies—the small ports. And they were there to see nature, not to shop in tourist traps or be in crowds.

Do you have a motto or creed you try to live by?

My motto grew out of the understanding that when you live away from home, you never get back the time you lost with family. It’s part of life at sea, not looking back with regret but understanding that this is the way it is. So from that I’ve learned to live fully whether at sea or home. Slowly, we can all learn to live the life we want.

So my motto is “Try to make the most of ordinary things; you can make the ordinary extraordinary every day of your life.” That applies to life in many ways, and to port experiences too. Even the tiniest ports are filled with extraordinary moments and wonders if we pay attention.

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