Norwegian Sky’s Captain Ron Chrastina shared his pride in being involved in the roll-out of the first and only U.S. registered fleet of ships and the “Aloha” spirit onboard, when he spoke to e-Travel Blackboard in the Bahamas earlier this year.
Natalie: What drew you to work in the cruise industry?
Captain Ron: I graduated from the United States Merchant Marine Academy in 1991.
I decided that I would sail for a short while, I would put away some money for a while and it would give me a nice start to start a life with my girlfriend from when I was in college.
I started looking for work along what I thought were the usual channels because really nobody at my school talked about the avenue of the cruise industry as a profession.
Normally you’re geared towards cargo ships.
That’s what I was really thinking that I would end up being on.
It was the beginning of 1992; it was the draw down from the first gulf war.
Although shipping had boomed for a about a year-and-a-half, because of all kind of supplies that needed to be brought to that theater at that point, the extra ships were put into mothballs.
All these extra jobs dried up and, all of a sudden when I started looking, nobody had anything.
So, after a month-and-a-half I wound up getting a call from my school and they said that they had gotten word about a position for a third officer on a cruise ship working out of New Orleans.
To be honest, it was not what everything was built up to be in terms of what you take home at the end of the day as a sailor.
I was a little bit concerned because it seemed like if I went and did this I’d be making less money than when I was working shoreside, which is not the general idea, but my father said something rather wise.
He said, “In just a few months time, your school is going to graduate a whole new batch of new officers and in fact the same thing is going to happen with the rest of the schools.
“They’re all going to have the same piece of paper that you have.
“If you don’t go get on a ship at some point here you’re going to have the exact same amount of experience that they do.
“You might want to think about doing this and at least getting a leg up on them so you have the opportunity to look better for other jobs.”
So I joined this ship and she was called the Enchanted Seas and she was for a company called Commodore Cruise Lines.
The ship was built in 1958.
She was not what you would consider to be a modern cruise ship.
To an extent she was an old liner and, in fact, at the end of her days she wound up being the most named cruise ship in history.
She had gone through 11 different namings if I’m not mistaken.
When she pulled up to the pier I remember looking up at her and thinking, “Wow that’s what a cruise ship looks like!”
It was just this old beautiful liner. She was built to cross oceans.
That was her job.
She was built to go from New York to northern Europe in the summer time and New York to South America in the winter time, back in the 50s.
I got on board and it was an interesting mix of different people, the Captain was German, the staff captain was Irish, the safety officer was Canadian the second officer was Italian.
There was an Argentinian third officer and I was a third officer as well…that was just the deck officers!
It was completely different to any place I had been!
The ship was 44 years old at that point…she had been around a while.
It had this old basic stuff; literally the front windows in the bridge you could roll them down like a Cadillac because there was no air conditioning!
I would be standing watch on the bridge and just begging for air because we were going through the Caribbean.
In the summer time you were baking so you’d literally roll down the windows just to get air in there.
Captain Ron: [laughs] Something like that!
It was a five month contract and, when I did my contract, I just found that I was enjoying it.
It was interesting meeting people, there was a lot to learn about the ship and about how the ship ran and what to maintain on the ship.
So it was fun, it was a good experience and I was enjoying it, so I went back again for another contract.
I went from there to a brand new ship that the company had built that had literally been built nine-months prior, so it was kind of a culture shock.
I went from the oldest stuff that was out there to brand new!
One thing led to another and, eight-and-a-half years went by with that same company.
I had gone from third officer to staff captain to second in command and then the company went out of business…
I never meant to do this but I’m glad this is how it worked out because every experience I had coming to this point has just brought me to where I am.
I spoke to a friend of mine who left cruise ships and is now working on cargo ships…he’s kind of bored senseless.
Natalie: Well there’s variety here on a cruise ship…
Captain Ron: That’s right, there’s just a lot more going on all the time, as opposed to on a cargo ship where you go from point A to point B and every day is kind of the same.
I mean, depending on the speed that your ship is going to make, you can be anywhere from a week to three-weeks for a transit before you go from one point in the ocean to another point.
You’re just pulling out your hair!
I have no regrets about how things turned out.
There are other ways it could have happened and I’d still be in the cruise industry, but this has given me a rather unique exposure to the cruise industry as a whole.
This company (Norwegian Cruise Line) was actually put down for even trying to start a U.S. registered brand back in 2004.
The industry said you couldn’t do it, it wasn’t going to happen.
There were certainly challenges in bringing it to life and getting it to grow into something tangible, something successful.
At the end of the day, although it’s not exactly what the fully blown dream was at the time, it still exists.
We may only be a single ship out in Hawaii, but it’s a single ship that runs successfully, that delivers the freestyle product that does well for the company.
Let the naysayers beware because no one else is willing to do what we’re doing.
Because of that, that market belongs to us, we can keep the ship out there year ’round…it never has to leave the Islands.
It was very forward thinking of the company to do it.
Really I’m thankful that they were willing to persevere and make it happen, because it helped the organisation to succeed to the level that it has.
Natalie: Was Pride of America your first Norwegian ship to work on?
Captain Ron: No, I was brought in on August 2003
At the beginning of 2001 I transitioned directly to another job with a different cruise line.
I wound up in Hawaii joining a ship called The Patriot which was the old New Amsterdam for American Classic Voyages as First Officer which was the equivalent of our Chief Officer.
I joined there and I did a contract on board there as that position. Then I came back for the next contract and I was promoted to Safety Officer and then the very end of that contract was 9/11/2001.
I was supposed to be off just a few days after that but obviously travel was a bit of an issue after that.
Almost a week later I went home and then a month later I got a call saying well the company’s gone bust. So that’s two in a row…going really well…I was getting a complex [laughs].
I bounced to a little cargo ship for some months. I kind of took a bunch of time just to relax and take it easy basically.
Maybe I took it easy a little bit longer than I should have but I was fine.
So I wound up jumping on a small container ship which then lead to jumping on a small router passenger ship, a little ferry up in Portland, Maine going to Canada for a while.
I was staff captain there and then went on to The Waters from there which is a control ship for the U.S. Navy missile program. It would actually be the ship that fired missiles.
I went to that ship for a while and it was when I was attached to that ship that I got a call from Norwegian Cruise Line looking to kind of bring myself into the fold so I looked into it.
So I joined in 2003 in the late summer.
I joined Norwegian Dawn out of New York for a three month contract as a first officer and then first officer of safety.
That contract I wound up promoted, not on the ship but for the ship I’d be going to because they had hired me in to be part of the soon to be NCL America product.
I was going to be the chief officer on the Pride of America.
So then I went on a vacation after I left the ship and then I got a call from the office telling me I needed to come in for an interview.
It seemed a bit odd because I’d already had an interview, but then they explained that I needed to interview again.
So I was promoted staff captain while I was on vacation for that same ship!
Then I went to Malaysia to take a class for the company with a number of officers that were going to be going to that ship and while we were there the Pride of America sank at the dock in Germany because of a storm!
There was a very strong storm that came through the area, a lot of rain, very strong winds, the ship was still in the ship yard.
There were side ports that were open for passing cables and ventilation because the ship wasn’t operational yet.
She was floating in the water and, because nothing was operational, when the wind started to blow, it tipped her over a bit and heavy rain and water started to get inside.
She got to a point where the water started to actually come in from the river.
Since the balance system wasn’t working where you could trim the ship, which we would do here, she just kept going, so she literally tipped on her side.
I went home for a few weeks then I came and joined this ship (the current Norwegian Sky) in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
I came here to hand over and take over one of the staff captain positions.
I actually wound up covering the chief officer position for a while until we could get someone else to cover it before she was delivered as the Pride of Aloha.
So this was the first ship and was supposed to be the second ship in the fleet but it became the first one because of an operational need.
The Pride of America started in Hawaii about a year later…
Towards the end of 2005, I was told that I would be leaving this ship and going to Germany for the Pride of Hawaii, which was the third ship of her fleet.
I became part of the delivery team there and brought the ship over to the U.S.
I then was interviewed again and then I was sent to this ship to start the process of handing over to relieve the Captain here and become the Captain of the ship.
I went on as Captain of this ship in 2006.
In May (2008) we finished operations in Hawaii with this ship and then we took a small crew, basically a crew of just under 200 I think it was, and we sailed across.
I’m one of the few people who actually took the ship in both directions.
I brought her back through and delivered her on the second June 2008, handed her over, signed the paper work to the flag change ceremony.