Savoring Ryndam’s Last Westbound Atlantic Crossing

Mid-Atlantic view from Verandah Suite // All photos by Maureen Stone
Mid-Atlantic view from Verandah Suite // All photos by Maureen Stone

The November transatlantic cruise of Holland America's Ryndam from Barcelona to Tampa was dubbed “The Spanish Farewell,” but for many of the almost 1,100 loyal HAL passengers making the crossing, the sentiment onboard was about the much-loved Ryndam itself. This was the last voyage of the ship from Europe to America before it is scheduled to be refitted, renamed and transferred to the P&O Line in Australia at the end of 2015.

There is much good news to report to your clients based on our experience of the voyage. The party atmosphere of the 15-day crossing overcame any bittersweet feelings about the Ryndam’s retirement from the HAL fleet. We agreed with many fellow passengers that expectations were exceeded on almost a daily basis. The stunning success of the repositioning was largely thanks to the attentive service attitude of crew members and officers who will be posted elsewhere in the HAL fleet after the Ryndam is gone. The English-speaking passenger mix, according to Captain Mark Rowden, included 665 Americans, 242 Canadians, 62 British, 36 Dutch and 26 Germans among a guest list drawn from 26 countries. There were 600 ship staff, primarily Dutch and English officers and crew from Indonesia and the Philippines. 

Many savvy passengers will seek out the right opportunity to sail again with these Ryndam officers and crew on other vessels. There may still be time to book Ryndam’s last eastbound trans-Atlantic voyage (The “Azores and Normandy Expedition”) departing April 19, 2015, from Tampa to Harwich, England, or its final Holland America voyage departing Oct. 3, 2015, from Venice via the Suez Canal to Singapore.

As noted by one officer during the crossing, “Holland America is all about the food.” Indeed there was no disappointment. Dining was superb from the moment we left Barcelona on the first of November until we stepped off 16 days later in Tampa. One bonus for this passenger was that the west Florida disembarkation was only a 40-minute drive from home.

The easy rapport between passengers and ship officers was stimulated by a series of “coffee chats” in the Ryndam’s Crows Nest lounge on deck 12. The chats were hosted by the amiable and entertaining cruise director John Clelford. A native of the UK, Clelford kept the packed Ryndam entertainment schedule flowing with announcements delivered ina stentorious voice reminiscent of a master of ceremonies in an old English music hall. Clelford’s coffee chat interviews, which allowed passengers to ask questions, drew large audiences. A conversation with Captain Mark Rowden filled both levels of the Showroom at Sea theater. The entertaining chats revealed much about the officers’ career paths, onboard duties and even aspects of their personal lives.

SRO crowd welcomes Roman Emperor Hotel Director Darren Lewis to a culinary cook-off. // All photos by Maureen Stone
SRO crowd welcomes Roman Emperor Hotel Director Darren Lewis to a culinary cook-off. // All photos by Maureen Stone

Officers’ Lives

We learned that Sanjay Bhatt, the Ryndam’s culinary operations manager, earned a degree in culinary arts management in his native Mumbai, India, before entering the kitchen of the famed Taj Hotel in the same city, where he worked for six years. After five years with Celebrity Cruise Lines, Bhatt joined Holland America Line in 2004. He worked in all of Holland America’s main and alternative dining rooms, and advanced to assistant culinary executive manager before being promoted to his current job. 

Bhatt, who is responsible for all of Ryndam’s kitchens, said one of his biggest jobs is home port provisioning to guard against food item shortages during each cruise. Bhatt lives in Gdansk, Poland, with his wife, a native of Poland, with whom he says he shares housework when home from sea. “She says when I go on the ship I am on vacation,” said Bhatt, drawing much laughter from the passenger audience. 

Rynadam’s executive chef Udo Sandering competed against Bhatt, hotel director Darren Lewis and even Captain Mark Rowden in the highly entertaining “Chef Wars” cook-offs in the ship’s Culinary Arts Center during the cruise. Sandering has been a chef for 33 years. He makes his home in Bremen, Germany, where his brother runs a popular restaurant in which he sometimes assists during time off the ship. He supervises 60 chefs onboard, including a staff dedicated to the Ryndam’s Pinnacle Restaurant which, like all Holland America ships, offers a fine dining alternative to the main dining room.

Ryandam hotel director Darren Lewis, a chef by training, started his career at age 15 as a cook in a fish ‘n chips shop in his native England. “My father and two brothers were engineers. So you can imagine the reaction when I announced I wanted to be a chef,” said Lewis. After youth training college, Lewis took apprenticeships at the London Hilton and Le Meridien Hotel in Paris. He worked in Switzerland, then Italy for five years and in Germany where he worked at Movenpick Hotels and helped open a brewery. Lewis’ cruise career began at Celebrity, followed by Silversea, and the last 10 years at Holland America, where he became hotel director three years ago.

“I love what I do. I love Holland America,” said Lewis. “The beauty of my job is that life is never boring. There is something different every day. It is a pleasure working with our staff.”

Captain Mark Rowden and his wife Valerie cook with host Barbara in the Culinary Arts Center. // All photos by Maureen Stone
Captain Mark Rowden and his wife Valerie cook with host Barbara in the Culinary Arts Center. // All photos by Maureen Stone

Meeting the Captain

Captain Mark Rowden is the son and brother of sea captains who “came home with all the exotic tales of the sea.” After attending sea training school from age 16, Rowden worked on a cargo ship “hauling bananas from Guatemala to New Zealand.” His first days at sea were spent in the hold cleaning pantries. “We used to run down to watch the cruise ships in Guadeloupe and think, ‘that looks like a nice job,’” said Rowden. Rowden spent more than six years hauling oil across the globe on one of the world’s largest tankers before winning his first cruise job.

Rowden got his first contract with Holland America on the Veendam in 1988 as a first officer. He mentored under HAL Captain Hans van Biljouw (“a great captain from whom I learned a lot”) as the only British officer among Dutch colleagues. Rowden joined HAL’s newbuild team and helped build the Westerdam and the Noordam, where he became staff captain. He left Holland America briefly as captain of a $335-million floating “royal palace yacht” for the Sultan of Oman in the Persian Gulf before returning to HAL’s Seattle headquarters as a trainer of deck officers. He trained men on the Amsterdam, Oosterdam and Veendam before being promoted to Captain of the Ryndam in 2008.

“I have not moved,” said Rowden. “They wanted me back on Zuiderdam, but I will stay here….I will be on the last voyage of the Ryndam with Darren (Lewis). I don’t know where I will go after the Ryndam and I don’t want to know. I want to focus on our guests.” 

The captain earned plaudits from his passengers by working with HAL headquarters to change the final pre-crossing port call from the scheduled Portuguese island of Ponta Delgada in the Azores to the more southerly Funchal, Madeira in the Canary Islands to avoid rough seas from an Atlantic storm. Hundreds of Ryndam passengers who heard Rowden’s story, and enjoyed the calmer sunny waters gained from his change of course, will pay attention to where he goes next.

Stay tuned to www.travelagentcentral.com for our ongoing coverage of Ryndam's final few voyages, including a look at the trans-Atlantic sea days and HAL's Signature of Excellence ship upgrade program. 

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