Interview with Captain Johannes Tysse, Azamara Club Cruises
It was almost a foregone conclusion that Johannes Tysse would be a sea captain. Learn how the job he dreamed about from an early age is a platform for creating unforgettable experiences for Azamara guests.
Q: Where did you grow up?
I was raised on a small island outside of Bergen, Norway. I knew at a very early age what I wanted to do and what I wanted to become. By the time I was five years old, I wanted to be captain of a ship, though I wasn’t necessarily thinking of a cruise ship. I just wanted to be at sea. My inspiration was my dad, who told me stories about times my grandpa went to America and crossed the Atlantic on ocean liners. I loved those stories of how the ship encountered storms, and how my grandpa got to meet the captain…so my very young mind was just filled with images of grandpa sailing across the Atlantic. Back then, as a little boy, the ocean was something that was mysterious and seemed dangerous, you know, being out there on the ocean and not being able to see land. My mom said the first drawing I ever drew was of boats and ships…and during arts and crafts, all I did was make wooden boat models.
Living on an island, we’d go to Bergen on the ferry. (Our island wasn’t connected by a bridge until the late 1990s.) If my dad knew the skippers on the ferries, I wouldn’t leave him alone unless he took me to the bridge. For me, getting up there with the skipper was like walking on Cloud 9.
Q: Sounds like you spent a lot of time dreaming about and imagining the life you live now.
I’m the oldest of six, four boys and then two girls. At one point all my younger brothers followed my footsteps and went to sea. My mother said she didn’t know what she did wrong to have four boys who all went to sea. Now they all work shoreside except for me.
Q: How did you become captain on a cruise ship?
I first went to sea in June of 1983 when I was still 16. I needed both of my parents’ signatures to leave the country. I flew to New York, joined a tanker and sailed around the world at 16. That may seem young, but we had a different school system in Norway. We had longer school years, so you were done with the equivalent of Junior High School at age fifteen. From there you could decide if you wanted to specialize. I was interested in seaman apprenticeship school. I did that for a year, and almost the day after I finished, I was on a plane to New York, where I became deck hand on a tanker. Then I entered and did my service time in the Norwegian Navy, where I got my lowest level deck officer license. Followed by a job as Skipper on a local ferry after getting out of the Navy, and from there to the Marine Academy. I held various other positions with different companies, working on ferries, tankers and cruise ships before joining Azamara as captain in 2010.
Q: Where do you live now?
I live in Charleston, South Carolina, with my wife. She’s a port agent and also works in a travel agency. She worked for eight years at sea as a hostess, so she knows the business. We’ll celebrate our 14th anniversary this month. We met on a Windstar cruise in 1990 when I was a young second officer on my first cruise ship, and she was cruising with her mother and sister. We didn't speak much on the cruise, but I noticed her. She was still in college, but her older sister had just graduated. I spoke with her mother a few times, who was interested in boating and sailing, and was a second generation Norwegian with relatives in Norway. So after the cruise my future wife (the youngest daughter) wrote me a nice note, and of course I remembered her, so I wrote back. We started writing, calling, and about four years later we became a couple. That was when she started working on cruise ships, so it was a real long distance relationship. We were engaged on January 12, 1998. Exactly one year later, on Jan 12, 1999, we were both in the Panama Canal at the same time, on two different ships. I could see her on the deck with binoculars, but of course it was so far away. We were married later that year in Norway…on a day that surpassed the old rain record from 1861.
Q: How do you relax, stay fit and on top of your game at sea?
I should go to the gym but really don’t do it very regularly…I’m kind of on-and-off with that. Many guests ask, what’s the secret to keeping slim when you’re spending half the year onboard with such great food. I just try to eat healthy food, and that’s not hard with all the choices we have. I try not to clean my plate completely; maybe that’s what makes the difference. I also take the staircases on the ship, not the elevator, because the staff elevators often stop at every deck. So the stairs help keep the weight off, too.
Q: Yes, the stairs…I’ll have to remember that next time I’m onboard! How do you spend your free time at sea?
I don’t watch TV. Sometimes I just read magazines or books to relax after long hours of work…I also have various meetings and discussions with staff and crew. And I spend a lot of time on the ship chatting with and meeting our guests, frequently at Windows or Mosaic Cafe. Being on a small ship is much more intimate than the big ones. You get to know people, and it’s nice when they come back time and again. You also get feedback about the good things we’re doing and what we can do better.
Q: What are some of the positive comments you’ve heard?
I hear the same thing over and over. The number-one comment from guests is about the crew, how they love their friendliness, their smiles, their attitudes and how well they work with each other. Many guests have sailed with our competitors, and they say the crew really makes a difference. And they like the visibility of Azamara officers onboard our ships compared to many other cruise ships out there.
In terms of requests, another thing I hear a lot is that guests want us to sail the waters of Australia and New Zealand. Every time we have a Q&A we get asked that. It’s a nonstop repeat request. I tell our guests if you want that, just book another cruise, and another one after that, and pretty soon we’ll get another ship and get you there. The sooner you book another cruise, the sooner we’ll be in Australia!
Q: What are some of your own favorite ports?
I like the smaller, more intimate ports the bigger ships can’t get into, either because the ports are physically too small or because the number of guests onboard the big ships would overwhelm the place. These are unique places, like sailing up to Seville and docking right downtown. We are the biggest ship that docks there. Also docking in my hometown of Bergen, in the heart of town near the fish market. It gives guests a very different view when you dock close to the heart of town. Bordeaux is like that too, and you’re just minutes away from the shops and restaurants. Or docking in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) downtown—it’s a slow four minute shuttle bus drive to the famous Rex Hotel. You don’t get any closer than that. Same as in Bangkok. We dock downtown, and from what I’ve heard it’s a two-hour bus ride each way on the other ships.
Q: What are some of your most memorable voyages?
There are a few that come to mind. One was in Iceland in 2010. When we left Rejkjavik I asked the pilot if he could show me some good fishing banks off the coast. Earlier I had called our CEO, Larry Pimentel, and asked if we could fish from the ship. He said he would check it out, and then advised me to “Proceed with caution.” My wife was on that voyage, so we went ashore and bought fishing gear. When we departed I told the guests we would go out for about an hour and a half and then try to get some fresh fish for dinner. I don’t think too many of them believed me, but it got a good laugh. But the ones that did, they were up on the deck and their balconies, watching as we caught about 50 or 60 pounds of fish in an hour and half from the tender platform. Nobody wanted to touch the fish, of course, so I got the job of cleaning it. Our chefs served it as catch of the day from our specialty restaurants. Straight from the sea into the pot!
The year before last, Sir Roger Moore—the Roger Moore of James Bond fame—was on board with his wife. His wife is Swedish and he commented on how she loved brown cheese and goat cheese. In fact a number of guests were asking about Norwegian goat cheese. So I got the idea after we left Flåm on the Norwegian coast to stop at a little village known for its goat cheese production. The entire village has 100 inhabitants and 500 goats, along with the smallest church in Scandinavia, with 40 seats. I asked the Hotel Director, Heike, if she had money to buy some cheese. So the executive chef and the safety officer went ashore with the rescue boat and bought 12 pounds of goat cheese and some smoked lamb sausage. When they came out of the store and held up the bags, all the guests watching from the ship were clapping and cheering from the decks and balconies. We served it for breakfast the next morning at the buffet, and it was all gone in a couple of hours. A couple of days later it was on the front page of the regional newspaper in the Sognefjord: Cruise ship stops to buy goat cheese.
On that same trip we stopped to buy fresh seafood. We left Bergen at 6:30 in the evening. An uncle of mine had a cabin a few hours north of Bergen. So I knew there were local fishermen on the island, and asked my uncle if he know any who could deliver fresh seafood and crabs. I got in touch with one of them and he came out with his fishing boat, we stopped in the middle of the fjord and loaded up with fresh salmon, codfish, and 350 live stone crabs and live langoustine. So the chef made a special appetizer out of the stone crab claws and specialty dish out of the langoustine. Again, that’s something guests come back and talk about.
Being able to do special things like that…it leaves memories, and our guests go home and share the Azamara experience with friends and family. And compared to many other cruise ships, these experiences are unique.
Last year we were at Seven Sisters waterfall in the Geirangerfjord. Other cruise ships just go by at cruising speed while heading for the next port. We stopped for half an hour, then did a 360-degree turn so guests on all sides could get a look. Being with a small cruise line like we are, and having a CEO like Larry Pimentel who gives us a bit of freedom, we are able to do things like this. When we see special opportunities we plan accordingly with our home office and local authorities to make them happen.
And there’s spontaneous fun onboard, too. One night I walked through the specialty restaurants and a guest made a joke about “How come I don’t get to see the sunset on this side?” So when I finished greeting guests and got back to the bridge, I made an announcement that all guests should see the sunset, then did a slow 360 degree turn so they did. They still come back and talk about that. And for the rest of the voyage I had guests coming up and saying, I’ve been on 35, 50 or 70 cruises and never had anything like this happen. Our guests love these personal touches.
Q: The sense of community that people talk about on Azamara, and the open friendliness of staff and crew... how do you encourage that and play a role in making it happen?
For me it starts with being approachable. In the old school, some captains look up only to themselves, and you don’t get much time with the captain unless you’re being reprimanded. We’re not like that. I’ll chat with the guys washing pots in the kitchen, or go to the crew mess and have lunch with them. I’ll sometimes go to the division meetings. I want staff and crew to be able to come to me or their supervisor directly if they have issues on the ship or something’s happening at home. It’s an open door, and I—and really our whole crew—want to be helpful with big or small issues. They know I’m available along with the rest of the senior management onboard, and that makes a difference. It leads to a staff and crew that’s relaxed, not stiff, and focused on doing the best possible job.
Q: What are your favorite foods onboard?
Almost every night they have a special in Windows Cafe—I love the Indian food. The Indian chefs are proud of their cooking skills and put their heart and soul into it. I love the sushi up there, too, and in general the variety we have at Windows Cafe is wonderful. I have favorite dishes in our specialty restaurants, but it would be hard to choose. And I love the smoothie bar. And I have a terrible sweet tooth. I like chatting with guests in the Mosaic while enjoying those incredible macaroons.
Q: What’s your motto or creed you live by personally? A philosophy of life, or something that guides your leadership style?
I came here three years ago as captain, straight from the outside, and as one way of communicating my leadership style I started sending out daily quotes—they could be inspirational, funny or uplifting. I had a set of 29 quotes, and had managers print them and post them. I heard back from a number of people, “I love your quotes,” and thought, well then, I’ll do some more. So I came back onboard after my first vacation and asked the crew to send me their favorite quotes, too. I tagged their names to them when I posted them.
So that’s been my thing. Once a year I repeat the 29 that I first sent out. Here’s one of my favorites: Leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders. To me it means if someone does a good job you don’t take the credit, and you don’t shy away from blame when things go wrong. Basically put your people out there and give them credit for a job well done, and don’t get down on them when something goes wrong. Lessons learned are important; instead of an “I did” or “You did” culture, we work as a team.
Q: How would you characterize Azamara guests?
Very mixed in terms of nationalities. On my current voyage, we have 25 different guest nationalities. The most we’ve had are 38 nationalities on one cruise. If it’s less than 15 or 20 nationalities onboard, it’s unusual. Most of our guests are well traveled. They’ve cruised a lot. But about 20 percent of our guests have never cruised before. And they choose us because of more time in port, the overnights, and in general because we have a great reputation.
Q: What’s your favorite onshore nightlife?
If I had to pick my favorite idea of relaxing nightlife, I’d choose dining outside on the piazza in Sorrento. I do that when my wife is with me onboard. There’s fantastic food on the Amalfi Coast and that kind of experience is very relaxing for me.