Black Watch- formerly the Royal Viking Star- in her original Fred. Olsen white livery

Having landed her passengers in Funchal, Madeira a few days ago, the fire damaged Black Watch is under way once more. The 28,000 ton, 1972 built ship left Madeira today for the Spanish port of El Ferrol, on the north west coast of the country.

Repairs will be needed to cabling in the engine room that closed down three of the ship’s eight diesels. It is understood that the Black Watch will take on supplies when she arrives in El Ferrol on Saturday, and will also undergo further evaluation by specially flown in experts at the Navantina dockyard located there.

After this, it is intended that Black Watch will proceed directly to Tilbury for any necessary further repairs. Although no exact time scale has been released for this- an unrealistic expectation until Navantina has completed due diligence- the fact that Black Watch is bound for Tilbury, rather than a dry dock in Southampton or on the continent, seems to point to the damage not being overly serious, with most of the major repairs being carried through by Navantina at El Ferrol.

Thus far, only the following July 8th cruise-a nine night voyage to the Norwegian Fjords- has been formally announced as cancelled by the line.

Some seven hundred passengers had to be evacuated and flown home on three specially chartered planes when Black Watch suffered her engine room fire. All of these will receive a full refund of their cruise fare, or the option of re-booking a comparable cruise in the same grade of cabin for free, plus a certificate for twenty per cent off any future Fred. Olsen cruise.

Stay tuned for updates.


Fred Olsen Cruise Lines has issued a statement on the Black Watch, in which it says that it ‘fully expects’ that the 1972 built ship will sail on it’s next scheduled cruise- a twenty six night Arctic itinerary on July 17th.

The nine night Fjords cruise, due to sail today, was cancelled as outlined above.

If so, it would seem to confirm the earlier prognosis laid out on here that the damage is not as serious to the ship as first thought.

Stay tuned for any further relevant updates.





Black Watch- formerly the Royal Viking Star- in her original Fred. Olsen white livery

Fred. Olsen Cruise Liner has formally announced that the next cruise of their popular Black Watch has been cancelled as result of recent fire damage sustained on her recent Canary Islands cruise.

The ship limped into Madeira, with damage to her engine cable systems. The fire was confined to the engine room, and all other on board systems remain operational.Some seven hundred passengers were flown home from the Portuguese island. At present, Black Watch remains in Funchal while technical teams assess the damage.

The July 8th sailing- so far the only one to be cancelled- was a Norwegian Fjords itinerary operating out of Tilbury.

At present, it is impossible to guess what the knock on effect might be to the remainder of the 2016 itineraries for Black Watch. This writer is currently scheduled to be aboard the 1972 built, former Royal Viking Line veteran, built as the Royal Viking Star for a short Fjords itinerary out of Rosyth.

As soon as updates become available, you’ll find them posted here. Please stay tuned.


CMV’s Astoria is leaving the fleet in 2017

Cruise and Maritime Voyages has formally announced that the Astoria, which began life in 1948 as the Swedish built Stockholm, will be leaving the fleet at the end of a 2017 charter to  a French company.

The ship- the oldest surviving cruise ship in the world- will operate a short season of cruises for CMV between March and the end of April, 2017 before embarking on her French charter. No future buyer has been announced.

The loss of Astoria from the CMV portfolio is not so surprising, given that a new flagship- the 63, 786 ton, 1400 passenger Columbus– is scheduled to enter service from Tilbury next June,

Though much speculation is already placing Astoria as being on a final, one way course to the scrapyard, this might not necessarily be the case. With the exception of her original, riveted hull, the entire ship was rebuilt over 1993-1994. Though technically sixty eight years old, almost everything on board is actually of 1994 vintage, and the ship is in astonishingly good condition. It is just possible that she might be picked up by another company.

The Andrea Doria at speed on the Atlantic

In any event, this extraordinary ship has had a career that baffles the imagination. It is now just a little short of the sixtieth anniversary of the loss of the Andrea Doria on July 25th, 1956, after the as was then Stockholm rammed the Italian liner in thick fog off Nantucket.

As the last surviving, in service vessel of the original Swedish American Line, the Stockholm holds a special place in the hearts of maritime historians and ship lovers alike. It is pretty certain that her few remaining cruises will sell out quite quickly.


The Marco Polo at anchor off Lerwick

For those used to the mega ships that now dominate the world of contemporary cruising, the Marco Polo might come as something of a conundrum. At only 22,000 tons, the ship is quite a way smaller than the new generation ships that often tower above her in the ports that she visits.

But, before making a judgement based on size alone, it is worth considering that the Marco Polo carries only something like eight hundred passengers maximum. And none of these are children.

Essentially, you have a trim, tidy, adult only ship that can often slip into the smaller, more secluded harbours that the big resort ships have to bypass. That same size allows you to enjoy a more intimate, up close and personal kind of exploring.

If you’re an active type, she might not be best for you. Marco Polo does not have the rock climbing walls, flow riders and ice rinks of the modern ships. There is a small, aft facing upper deck gym and sauna complex that will help keep you in reasonable trim, and a promenade deck that wraps neatly around one of the most sublime, spectacular hulls afloat anywhere today.

You won’t find balcony cabins, either. But the cabins that are on board- both inside and outside- are beautifully panelled little alcoves, with more than ample wardrobe and drawer space. Not all of them convert into doubles so, if booking, best to check the deck plans, or ask your travel agent to do so for you.

Another strong point is the ease and accessibility to almost everything on board, from any one given spot. The restaurant is just a couple of flights down from the main lobby, which contains the Reception and Shore Excursions desks. From this central lobby, the main run of passenger lounges and bars runs fore and aft, ending in the open fantail behind the Marco Polo buffet.

Only Scott’s, the late night entertainment lounge and disco, will require you to ascend another flight of stairs. But, once you’ve checked out the room itself, with it’s stunning, aft facing open terrace allowing Olympian view out over the stern, you’ll probably make it a focal point of your sea days. Half of that terrace- the starboard side- is devoted to smokers.

On the top deck, aft of the funnel, is a trio of Jacuzzis that offer both bubbling warmth and brilliant vistas, right out over both sides of the ship, as well as astern.

Most importantly for many passengers, the Marco Polo is a very strong, stable ship. Built with an ice strengthened hull and a very deep keel for a ship of her size, she can shrug off ocean swells that would have many, much larger ships rolling about like so many drunken dowagers.

In many ways, the Marco Polo plays the part of the traditional, agelessly elegant cruise ship to absolute perfection. She is exactly what she appears to be; an enigmatic sixties throwback that offers solid comfort rather than screaming cabarets and endless, round the clock casino action.

Naturally, this might seem like ‘not enough’ for some, and that’s fair enough. But the Marco Polo does offer something of an alternative to the mega ships; a totally different, dignified and distinctive piece of maritime architecture. If she does not attract your interest, than she should certainly at least command your respect, simply because there is nothing else quite like her in the world.




Thomson Majesty is an enduring favourite of the British cruise passenger

For some people, there is nothing more appealing than the idea of setting sail on a ship surrounded by their fellow countrymen. And no other race seems as wedded to this idea than my own, British kin.

Lines such as P&O, Thomson, Cruise and Maritime and, of course, Fred. Olsen, have made their almost all British passenger sailings a cornerstone of their marketing efforts. And, while Cunard markets it’s ‘Britishness’ it has, in truth, always been more of an international product.

So, what is it actually like, setting sail with a shipload of Brits? With a certain amount of tongue in cheek latitude, here are some of my observations, based on over thirty years of making just such voyages.

Firstly, the British reputation for politeness and ‘waiting in line’ remains true. Often, they might be waiting in line to complain at the Purser’s desk, but the fact remains that we are, as a whole, true to our national trait of exercising patience, and not ‘cutting in line’ as so many of our more excitable neighbours might be prone to do.

In many ways, we are also predictable to a ‘T’, Nowhere more so than, as it happens, at afternoon tea. Whichever the ship, and wherever in the world it happens to be sailing, most Brits will partake of the whole ritual, many for every single day of the voyage, And they will be there from first to last as well.

Deck chair hogging, whereby passengers arise before the sun and place personal items on the best situated sun beds, blocking them for literally hours on end, is something most Brits sniffily like to think that they are above.

In my experience, the reverse is true. Brits are every bit as selfish, avaricious and possessive over such prime real estate as our famed Germanic cousins, the people we are so fond of lambasting for the same obsession. In an old English analogy, this really is a case of ‘pot calling kettle’ black.

Largely, the Brits still follow formal dress codes at sea, and probably do more so than any other single race. While certain standards have dropped through the floor in the sartorial stakes, the Brits do like to posh it up and put on the Ritz. The older generation, in particular, can be relied upon to do it, and God bless ’em for maintaining a proper standard.

On the other hand, there are some these days- a worryingly increasing number- that feel it is perfectly OK to come out of an evening, sporting a look best described as ‘dragged backwards through a hedge’. No. It isn’t.

Brits rightly show disapproval aboard foreign accented ships when people move around ash trays to designated, non smoking areas to suit their whims. But some of us are far from being above doing the same things themselves in certain situations. It is often done ever so surreptitiously, in the hope that us non smokers will either fail to notice, or simply accept it as a fait accompli.

We do notice, love. Cut it out. Nobody wants your second hand cigarette smoke as a post dinner culinary treat.

While Brits are fond of lambasting our American cousins for their often overly enthusiastic penchant for buffet food, the fact is that many Brits are just as bad. That sweet, little old lady who smiled as you held the door open for, will turn into a whirling dervish, her elbows sharper than a Sultan’s sabres when it comes to getting exactly what she wants from a food outlet. And all at a speed that would make a rampaging Panzer division seem as benign as  a Sunday school picnic.

And yes, we like our money’s worth. If we do not get what we perceive to be proper service, we will frown over our frappes, mutter darkly over the froth, and then make a point of thanking the server that delivered it as we leave, never to return..

So, there it is. Just some of my observations. Thoughts?


Orkney Islands sunset, June 2016

Over two world wars,  the vast body of water known as Scapa Flow has been the main base for the Royal Navy. If all of the big decisions in those fateful conflicts were taken in Whitehall, then most of them were carried through from those fast northern waters, lying off the north east coast of Scotland.

Almost completely ringed in by islands, and with a series of old merchant ships eventually deliberately sunk to block hostile access from the gaps in between, Scapa Flow has as a big a place in British naval history as, say, Portsmouth, Malta or Alexandria. It was the only safe place where the capital ships of the Royal Navy could gather in sufficient strength to confront the Germans, if and when they ever chose to come out into the North Sea or the North Atlantic.

Lobster pots on a stone quay, St. Margaret’s Hope

Scapa Flow is a bleak landscape of low, rolling hills, dry stone walls, diving gulls, sheep, and grazing cattle. There were almost no leisure facilities for the men sequestered there, often for months on end. For the sailors of the RN, being posted to a capital ship based at Scapa was only mildly more appealing than being billetted in Alcatraz. Boredom and routine were very much the order of the day, week in and out.

But certain moments in history lit up the Flow-sometimes quite literally- to such an extent that the mere mention of the place evokes the ghosts of legend past.

At the end of World War One, the entire German High Seas Fleet was interned at Scapa Flow, awaiting news of its fate while the victorious Allies squabbled over details at the peace treaty at Versailles.

St. Margaret’s Hope

In July 1919, rumours began to surface among the interned German sailors that a  large part of their fleet would be handed over to France. Rather than submit to such an indignity, the entire German fleet- battleships, battle cruisers, cruisers, destroyers and auxiliary vessels-committed mass hara kiri, scuttling themselves in the waters of the Flow before the British guards could intervene. For decades, their hulks littered the sea bed. Even today, coal washed ashore from the remaining wrecks sometimes burns bright in Scapa hearths on long winter nights.

Scapa Flow, Orkney Islands

The Home Fleet returned to the Flow again in September of 1939, when war once again blackened the skies. Then, in an act of incredible daring, a German U boat managed to sneak through the defences of Scapa Flow on a raw October evening. Surrounded by a plethora of unsuspecting targets, the captain of U47, Gunther Prien, slammed a trio of torpedoes into the nearest battleship.

Aboard HMS Royal Oak, most of the crew had already been stood down from the daily routine of cleaning and maintaining the ship. Most of them were down below, eating, relaxing, playing cards, reading or writing, when the side of the ship burst in on them. The Royal Oak capsized with frightening speed, most of her crew simply overwhelmed by a deluge of freezing Orcadian seawater as it surged through the shattered hull. The ship sank within minutes, taking more than eight hundred of her crew down with her.

Going with the Flow?

In real terms, the loss of the ship herself was not such a disaster. At twenty five years old, the Royal Oak was almost at the end of her active career. None the less, it happened at a time when literally every ship was desperately needed. But the loss of her highly trained crew- combined with the sheer shock engendered by the U-boat actually having penetrated the Flow’s defences as they stood- was a terrible blow, and a profound wake up call to all concerned.

Just eighteen months later, a pair of great, grey shapes stole across the waters of Scapa Flow, en route to one of the most epic encounters in naval history.

Summertime Scapa Flow

Standing looking over the vast, sunlit expanse of the Flow, it was all too easy for me to visualise the Hood and Prince of Wales moving slowly downstream. I could almost hear the hiss and clatter of the anchors, rattling through the hawse pipes as they came up from the bed of the Flow, on the evening of May 22nd, 1941.

It was all too easy to imagine the excitement of their young crews, the adrenaline running through them at the prospect of sudden action. Word had reached Scapa Flow that the new German battleship, Bismarck, had put to sea, intent on attacking the vital North Atlantic convoys. She had to be intercepted and stopped at any cost.

The sailing of Hood and Prince of Wales from Scapa Flow on that fateful evening in May, 1941, marked the opening chess moves on the British side of the board. For those on board the two British ships, the Bismarck was a completely unknown quantity. Well trained and battle hardened as many of them were, those lads would have been less than human not to have felt at least a twinge of uncertainty about what lay beyond their safe harbour.

It is almost too poignant for me to take in that the last sight of land those poor souls on Hood ever had, would have been of the same promontory that I now stood on, on a warm summer day in June, 2016. It is not only the battlefields of Verdun and the Somme that have their ghosts; there is something indefinably sad about the fabled waters of Scapa Flow, even to this very day.

Scapa Flow is bleak, barren, and indescribably majestic during the long summer days. Waves of gorse and fresh heather flutter along the sides of dry stone walls that slope right down to the sparkling expanse of the Flow, almost devoid of any kind of shipping these days.

If you happen to be in Kirkwall, the best way to get to Scapa Flow is to take a local bus from the station that adjoins the local tourist information centre. The journey takes around 25-30 minutes, and you should alight at the post office in the small village of St. Margaret’s Hope. Of course, you could also take a taxi.

This gorgeous little nook is worth the journey in it’s own right. But once there, take a left turn and walk up and past the large wind turbine ahead of you, and you will reach that incredible vantage point over Scapa Flow itself.

Like me, you might be moved to pay your respects to all of those brave lads, those who sailed from these secluded, sheltered waters, never to return.

I made my way back into St. Margaret’s Hope, and raised a pint in memory of them all; whether from HMS Vanguard, Royal Oak, Glorious, Ardent, Acasta, Hood, Prince of Wales, or HMS Hampshire. I went to the Murray Arms hotel, a beautiful little watering hole where I found the locals to be as warm and friendly as the cider was cold and thirst quenching.

St. Magnus’ cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney Islands

In terms of memorials to the Royal Oak, there is a compact, but truly moving tribute housed in an enclave of St. Magnus’ cathedral, the impressive, 12th century red sandstone construction that stands mere minutes from the harbour itself.

There, frozen in time and suffused in memories, stands the bell lifted from the great battleship herself. It is flanked by a pair of flags, also retrieved from the wreck. Anyone in the cathedral will direct you to the chancel in which it stands.


Atlantic sunset as the Marco Polo heads northwards for the Faroe Islands

After leaving Lerwick, the Marco Polo stood out into the Atlantic, heading north west towards our next stop in the Faroe Islands. The ship rolled gently in a series of long, gunmetal coloured swells that ushered us ever further north. And a magnificent sunset seemed to augur the promise of a bright and sunny day on the morrow.

Wrong. Very wrong.

Daylight found the Marco Polo tied up, on schedule, at the village of Kollafjordur. a twenty minute run by regular shuttle bus into the town of Torshavn. With a population of some 20,000 people in total, Torshavn is often claimed to be the smallest capital city in the world.

Kollafjordur, Faroe Islands

Kollafjodur itself nestles at the head of a long, winding valley, flanked on both sides by jagged escarpments in forty shades of green that tumble right down to the waters of the fjord itself. On a sunny day, I imagine it would be an exhilarating place.

Alas, this was not a sunny day.

Thick, icy mist hung like a baleful wraith all along the tops of the valley. Just two days from actual mid summer, I found myself swaddled in four layers of clothing as I took a quick walk along the banks of the fjord itself.


But what magnificent scenery unfolded as I strolled this silent landscape, one seemingly frozen in both time and space. Small, gently sloping pebble beaches played host to gaunt, brightly coloured small boats that seemed desperate to shelter inland from the biting wind. Here and there, small houses in shades of rust red and blue hunkered at the edges of the fjord, their roofs coated in thick turf grass.

Fjord panorama

Long abandoned boat houses stood with gaping, exposed beams, some of them still draped in old fishing nets. Here and there, launch tracks for local boats snaked down to the water’s edge. All along the fjord, small piers poked out into the water itself like so many skeletal fingers; some built from steel, others- clearly much older- fashioned from ancient, weathered stone. The sense of stillness was almost overpowering.

Heading on a local bus into Torshavn allowed me to take in the vast, majestic sweep of the valley. Dried up trails left by long vanished waterfalls sprinkled the hinterland like so many spider’s webs. A long, harshly lit, seemingly endless tunnel engulfed us as it snaked through the sides of sheer granite mountains. Actual road traffic was almost non existent.

And then, from this harsh, majestic vista, the slow, rolling outlines of  large town gradually emerged; a jumbled clutter of brightly coloured clapboard houses, piled in ramshackle layers up toward a central, focal point. This, then, was Torshavn.

The Faroe Islands to these days belong to Denmark. Essentially, they are a cluster of eighteen small, rocky isles, flung like random specks into the harsh, menacing embrace of the open Atlantic ocean. The look and feel of these islands is very different to any of the other, Scottish islands that our cruise would embrace.

Torshavn- the name translates literally to ‘Thor’s Harbour’- is often claimed to be the world’s smallest capital city. On this freezing, fog shrouded Sunday, it almost felt like the world’s most deserted. I strolled in a state of mild disbelief through the winding alleys and flower strewn streets of what seemed to be a ghost town. Almost everything seemed to be closed.

Artillery piece at Havnar Skanska fortress

I wandered around the battlements of Havnar Skanski, an ancient harbour fortress built back in 1580 to protect both the port and the main town. It shears above the town like some jagged, moss topped molar, studded here and there with ancient naval guns that have simply frozen, both in place and time. Their barrels still point with ghostly menace out over the sound. In all likelihood, not one of them ever fired a shot in practice, let alone in action.

Torshavne harbour

The harbour itself is a tidy, trim little confection, with row upon row of perfectly manicured small boats that looked like so many colorful insects, forever preserved in aspic. There were stout, no nonsense fishing trawlers and a local, inter island ferry with wisps of smoke curling upwards from it’s brace of stubby funnels. Wooden trestle tables, empty on this day, were liberally draped across stone cobbled quaysides. On a warm summer night, I suspect the place would be quite magical in the eerie half light.

And suddenly there were people, too. Huddling across tables that flanked the glass walled bistros and restaurants that ran parallel to the quay; even a few brave souls walking their dogs here and there,

Carrying on, I wandered upwards through winding lanes of immaculate, flower draped clapboard houses in shades of blue, red and canary yellow. Brightly coloured swings, slides and roundabouts sat like so many lazy butterflies, draped across empty lawns.

From the summit, the long, expansive sprawl of Torshavn was a magnificent reveal; the big ferry sat centre stage, looking like nothing more than a wind up toy. Skeletal yacht masts barely splintered the skyline. Below me, the serried, snaking tiers of houses looked like something from a Monopoly board, rearranged in winding rows by some incredibly patient child.

Part of the Tinganes complex

Back down at waterfront level, the area called Tinganes is the seat of the old Faroese government. It comprises a fascinating brew of jumbled buildings, painted in a deep terracotta red, with grass roofs. Some of them are coated with black tar, with many dating back more than five hundred years.

The overall effect is instantly reminiscent of the Bryggen on the famous Bergen waterfront, but the actual site itself is even older, dating back as far as 850 AD. From them, winding alleyways and rows of stone steps form a series of haphazard routes back down to the broad reaches of the harbour itself.

Tinganes, overlooking the harbour

In many ways, seeing Torshavn on a Sunday proved something of a blessing. Shorn of the usual, week long hustle and bustle of domestic shoppers, commuters and, yes- sightseers- it was much, much easier to take in the sheer beauty and contours of this northern gem. Easier to appreciate the near perfectly symmetrical allure of that waterfront. And, most of all, to actually get some kind of an appreciation- a feel for how the places once must have been-when the harbour played host to Viking longships, rather than ferries and fishing boats.

Back aboard the Marco Polo, I gradually thawed out with the help of some truly welcome mulled wine. We began the slow, stately procession down Kollafjordur, past rocky headlands, and then out once again into the open Atlantic.

But now our course was set firmly to the south. Over the might, the Marco Polo shrugged off the cold embrace of those secluded Nordic hinterlands, and set a course for the Orkney Islands, just off the north east coast of Scotland.



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