In Travel on Tuesday 31st Jul, 2018

Meet the captain of the largest ship in the world

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At 228,081 tons and roughly the same length as the Empire State Building (if you tipped it on its side), the Symphony of the Seas is the world’s largest cruise ship.

So who’s in charge of this behemoth? Introducing Captain Rob Hempstead.

Being at sea is a family tradition for US-born Hempstead, who followed his father into a life on the open waves, and graduated from the California Maritime Academy before accepting his U.S. Naval Reserve commission.

He then spent nearly 14 years as a commercial fisherman in the Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean before joining Royal Caribbean International. “Fishing entailed a lot of rough weather, harsh conditions, stress, no sleep and hard work,” he says. “Now, I get to work with the greatest crew on earth!”

The Symphony of the Seas. Source: Royal Caribbean International
The Symphony of the Seas. Source: Royal Caribbean International

Captain Hempstead has been sailing with Royal Caribbean International since 1999 and has served as Master aboard six ships since 2005, including his current gig as Master of the M/S Symphony of the Seas.

We were lucky enough to be able to pick his brains about life on this epic cruise ship:

The Symphony of the Seas is the biggest cruise ship in the world.  How does this make your job different? 

“Because the Symphony of the Seas is our newest and largest ship in the Royal Caribbean fleet, and it’s currently the largest cruise ship in the world, there are certain extra demands required of the captain. Namely the increased attention from the media, onboard guests, family and friends requiring more time dedicated to answering such questions, like this one. As well, since Symphony is a new ship there are still a lot of organisational processes to be developed, administered and adjusted. We still have a host of audits and inspections to complete, both internal and external for example. This is all part of the normal process for a new ship coming into service. It takes time for her to settle.”

What’s your favourite port on the current Symphony of the Seas itinerary/route and why?

“We are currently sailing a seven-night western Mediterranean itinerary and of the ports we are calling on, my personal favourites are Palma, Mallorca and La Spezia, Italy.  I like Palma, Mallorca for its beautiful and relaxed island way of life and La Spezia for its surrounding historical seaside villages.”

What are some things on the ship that would blow people’s minds? 

“Let me start by saying there is something for everyone aboard our amazing Symphony. From the Flow Riders, The Ultimate Abyss slides (the tallest at sea), to the Studio B ice skating rink and Central Park, not to mention numerous specialty restaurants, just to name a few.  It is more than I can describe here but without a doubt any guest who has not sailed aboard an Oasis class ship will for sure be ‘blown away’. Even those who have will be as well because the Symphony is a great evolution of the class.”

What’s dinner at the captain’s table really like? How does a passenger get an invitation and what should they wear?

“If you are a Pinnacle Member you will have a special lunch arranged.  And if you are a first time cruiser, or otherwise, you are welcome to join me anytime you see me having a meal at any our restaurants; which I do several times a week. There is almost always room at my table.

Source: Royal Caribbean International
Solarium Bistro. Source: Royal Caribbean International

Read more: Getting the right visas for your cruise: everything you need to know

What things do you like to do on board in your free time? 

“Besides eating and sleeping I do like to visit the gym a few times a week.  Sounds boring I know but my busy routine demands I do all three to stay healthy.  I have however tried to take part in everything we have to offer aboard Symphony at least once.  And believe it or not it is taking me a while even given that I live here more than half my life.”

Do you ever get seasick?

“No. Not anymore, that is… I got over that a long time ago. When I was a young boy I sailed with my ‘Captain Dad’ and I don’t know if it was the cherry flavoured tobacco he smoked in his corn cob pipe or the smell of the motor oil my job it was to pour into the main engines every day in those hot, loud engine rooms that made me sick but either way it somehow cured me and I no longer feel the effects of sea sickness.”

What’s the one thing you always pack for your times on board that would surprise people? 

“A sewing kit. Sewing buttons back on my old uniforms is somehow therapeutic.”

If you could trade places with any other staff member on the ship for a day, what position would you choose and why? 

“I would choose the high diver… provided I also could have the skill to perform diving off a 17-metre platform into a tiny pool in front of 500 guests!”

Source: Royal Caribbean.
Aquanation Water Show. Source: Royal Caribbean International

When you speak to passengers on board, what’s the one thing they tell you over and over again? 

“They don’t tell me much until they first ask: ‘If you’re here, who is driving…?’ I get that question every single day from four-year-olds to 80-year-olds, and sometimes just five minutes apart. And they all think they’re the first ones to think of that clever question…  If they only knew!”

What’s the most memorable/hilarious/hair-raising/scary moment you’ve ever experienced during your time at sea? 

“I survived 14 years of fishing in the Bering Sea as captain of large factory trawlers.  I laughed, I cried, I feared for my life and I remember all of it like it was yesterday.  And thinking of it makes my hair stand straight up every time.”

Have you seen icebergs? Rogue waves? Unusual sightings/UFOs/strange lights on the high seas etc? Crazy encounters with whales/sharks/other sea creatures? 

“Yes I have, except UFOs. I did see the Space Shuttle fly overhead once while sailing down Old Bahama Channel back in 2001 and had to look twice. Thought it was a UFO at first, but never told that to anybody…”

What country that you’ve never been to is at the top of your bucket list? 

“New Zealand.”

What’s the best thing about being the captain of the Symphony of the Seas?

“Being a part of this very special shipboard team.”

What’s the best tip you’d give to someone cruising on the Symphony of the Seas for the first time? 

“Sail for two weeks because one week is not enough to see and do all we have to offer.”

Source: Royal Caribbean International
Central Park on Symphony of the Seas. Source: Royal Caribbean International

Read more: Cruise ship code words you need to know before your next trip

“After working at sea for more than 30 years, I’ve never once wished for another life of less excitement, exploration and adventure,” says Captain Rob Hempstead.

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