The Rotterdam's Grand Finale

Observations on the final voyage.

By John and Anita Zavacky

Arriving at Vancouver's airport for the Rotterdam's Grand Finale was somewhat of an ambivalent feeling; Anita and I look forward to our cruises but not to saying "good-bye." There was an atmosphere about the passengers and the Line's staff as we drove from the airport to Canada Place to meet the Rotterdam. It was that atmosphere of having one last good time with an old friend and then never seeing her again. This was evident from the moment we all got comfortable on the bus that would take us to the pier, and the Line's agent came to greet us. The agent himself was teary-eyed saying that he will miss this wonderful ship. We all got "a little misty." And we got all over it once we got back into the swing of things on board our ship.

Luggage was unpacked; we prepared for the boat drill; checked-out our dining room table; all the "usual stuff," and we met an old friend from the Line visiting the Rotterdam one last time. Our friend had worked for Holland America as an officer from the late 1940s up until 1990. He was on the Rotterdam's maiden voyage to Hoboken in 1959. Our friend and his wife put a touch of reality on the Grand Finale: "If we had the money that is spent on this ship for paint alone, both our families could retire in considerable comfort!" Yes, she's old and wears a lot of make-up, but what character! And, wonderfully so, the Rotterdam was going to show us her character over the next eighteen days.

Sailing from Vancouver at 5 PM on that Friday afternoon was bittersweet. No fireboats with a good-bye; no ships returning the Rotterdam's salute; but there was the beauty of some twenty-or-so Holland America staff cheering the ship as she pulled out into the channel. One even popped a bottle of champagne for the ship as we pulled away. And we headed away for San Francisco.

The first day at sea looked like a veritable feeding frenzy in all the ship's shops. Anything and everything that has Rotterdam on it was bought! That night was the Captain's Cocktail Party, and with a sense of good humor Captain Bos wanted to compliment the passengers for having successfully passed the "screwdriver check." He told us that he really does want to deliver the ship intact at the end of the month. And, as is the custom at the Captain's Cocktail Party to introduce staff and particularly the Employee of the Month, Captain Bos introduced the employee with just over thirty-eight years of service, without whom this voyage would not be possible; the Employee of the Month was the Rotterdam herself.

We made our call at San Francisco; a beautiful late summer's day. And at night, we left quietly, as we had in Vancouver, with so few understanding the finale departure of this Grand Dame.

Monday evening was the CEO' Party. Mr. Lanterman, the Line's CEO, spoke of the Rotterdam's history, SOLAS, the required changes, the expected disappointment as the ship looses her character and soul, and the acknowledgement that she "will never be the same." He discussed the city of Rotterdam's consideration and their decision to not purchase the ship. Mr. Lanterman made a toast to a great ship that has created so many wonderful memories and friendships; not a dry eye in the Queens Lounge that night.

Wednesday, the day to call at Cabo San Lucas, to go ashore, to shop, to swim. On what appeared to be a beautiful day, Captain Bos announces that we shall make a brief service call only to discharge some staff from Seattle, Cruise Holdings people, and an ill passenger. We needed to depart immediately to avoid the consequences of Hurricane Nora.

Hurricane Nora was situated just southwest of Acapulco and proceeding north-northwest. To avoid placing the ship between the hurricane and landfall, Captain Bos sailed due south from Cabo San Lucas and for, would you believe, Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica! For the Rotterdam, Mexico was cancelled. And something wonderful happened among the passengers: under normal circumstances (that is, any sailing other than a Grand Finale) passengers would complain about missing two consecutive ports. The passengers were all here to celebrate the ship; we were here for her and were glad to be aboard. (Near the end of the cruise at the Dutch Crew Show, there was a mock "CNN Report" in which it was announced that from now on Holland America would have only 7-, 10-, 14-, and 99-Day Cruises to Nowhere since these cancellations turned out to be so popular with these passengers!).

It was 7½ days without sight of land or another ship. So, this is what a crossing would be like. And the Rotterdam showed how an ocean liner performs in fifteen-to-twenty foot seas. Our ship glided along, leaping from one swell to the next, no rolling, reminding us of how her hull and superstructure were designed for times like this.

Captain Bos took us around Hurricane Nora, heading southeasterly on Thursday morning and finally due east on Friday morning right on the 10th Parallel. This was a six-hundred mile detour burning about an additional US$40,000 worth of fuel (there went the engineer's budget!).

During this 7½-day detour was the Salmon and Blue Officers Ball. This was on Saturday night, the 20th. What a treat in this day and age, when you read on the Internet how people hate to get dressed up on cruises, to see absolutely everyone "dressed to the nines." Gowns and tuxedos all over the place. It was a spectacular and classy evening; an elegant reminder of what cruising is meant to be.

Sunday, the 21st, came, and all of us, crew and passengers alike, were all saying "Land, ho!" After all, it was just over a week since we've put our feet on dry land. The Captain had decided that when we dropped anchor we would have "one heck of a party" (those were the Captain's words). There would be a barbecue out the pool and with free drinks for everyone! By the way, have I mentioned that it rained everyday since Vancouver; not all the time, but, nevertheless, everyday. As we were closing in on Puerto Caldera to drop our anchor that evening, the skies opened to deposit all the rain that was left over from what we hadn't received over the last nine days. The party was moved into the Lido and Queens Lounge.

Monday, we are in Puerto Caldera. Everyone goes ashore! Even the Captain goes on a Shore Excursion! But when he gets back he learns that the ship has not been refueled. Normally, we would have refueled in Acapulco, but Nora changed our plans. The port authority in Puerto Caldera informs the ship that the port has no fuel to spare; it has "just enough for an emergency." Reflecting on this situation, Captain Bos decides that we shall cancel our scenic cruise of a Costa Rican bay and head straight for Balboa for refueling. Another cancellation, and we are beginning to think that with the way things have been going with calling on ports and the like, that the Panama Canal would be closed!

The Rotterdam quietly departs Puerto Caldera for a rendezvous with an oil barge at Balboa. Tuesday at sea was uneventful, and we met the tug with her oil barge laden with Bunker C at midnight.

Our daily program indicated that we should have been entering the Panama Canal sometime around 7:50 AM. It was just after 8 AM, and we moving along very, very slowly without the Canal in site. There were so many heads peering over the starboard side that I thought we might start listing. What was happening was an inspection for a possible oil leak and speculation of whether or not the ship could pass through the Canal with a problem of that sort! As the ship was underway, an oil slick appeared from near where the fuel barge had been tied to the ship. After a close-up investigation, it was discovered that the barge had left a stain of heavy oil on the side of the Rotterdam just above her waterline. As the wave action hit the stain, it washed off leaving the slick. With this resolved, it was on into the Canal. The Rotterdam was the last northbound ship that day; if we had not moved when we did, we would have lost our turn for passage.

So far, it was Hurricane Nora, no fuel in Costa Rica, an oil slick in Balboa. We all wondered what would be next. Then, going into the Gatun locks "just a little bit crooked" put some dents, dings, and scratches on the starboard side to complement the oil slick.

It rained heavily as we passed from the Miraflores locks to the Pedro Miquel lock. Finally, as we approached the Continental Divide, the rain stopped, the sky cleared, and the warm Caribbean sun shone upon the ship. And the air conditioning could not keep up with the heat. That night in the dining room the menus served as fans. We thought of it as "hot flashes at thirty-eight."

I should mention that John Maxtone-Graham joined the Rotterdam in Costa Rica. He graced us with several fine talks about crossings, the Holland America Line, and research he had done for his new book on the Titanic. What a marvelous speaker. And not to be outdone, the Chief Officer, Albert J. Schoonderbeek, gave a wonderfully detailed talk about the History of Holland America Line. Mr. Schoonderbeek spoke for just over 1½ hours, and it was the shortest, most fascinating 1½ hours ever.

Thursday evening, the 24th, was the Green-and-Gold Ball. Again, the Rotterdam was beautifully decorated, and the passengers again rose to the occasion "dressed to the nines."

Friday, we arrived in Curaçao. As the Rotterdam tied up at her berth, we all got just a little bit misty. On the shed by the ship's berth was a banner reading, "Goodbye Old Girl, Thanks for the Memories." And on the starboard rails on the Upper Promenade Deck banners were also hung, reading, "I Will Miss You" and "Tot Ziens." Anita and I went ashore, and we stopped in at the Curaçao Tourist Board's office to get directions to a particular market (others go souvenir hunting; we go grocery shopping). The individual in charge at the Tourist Board's office told us he was very sad that this would be the Rotterdam's last visit to his island, AND he wanted to know if it was true about the new ship's bearing problems during its sea trials. What a small, and well-informed, world.

That night as we sailed from Curaçao, the port put on its usual fireworks display. We all wanted to believe that this display was just a little more special than all the others the port had done in the past. Finally, something special done for our Rotterdam.

Saturday, it was Aruba. With nearly everybody ashore, Anita and I walked the ship from top to bottom, Observation Deck to D Deck, taking photographs of a nearly deserted Rotterdam. That evening as we sailed, and the ship headed on a northerly course, there came that realization that we were now looking at the end.

Sunday, a Silent Auction was held. Some one hundred of the plaques, certificates, and other objects presented to the Rotterdam on her various calls and for various occasions over the last 38 years were made available to the highest bidders. The proceeds went to the Dutch Seamen's Fund. Nearly everything went, and Anita and I became the proud owners of a plaque presented to the ship on her entry into the Panama Canal on the Canal's 70th anniversary, and a Proclamation signed by then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller declaring 12th April, 1973, as "Holland America Line Day" in the State of New York.

That evening was the Black-and-White Farewell Ball. Again, it was a wonderfully classy evening. The chefs put together their most wonderful displays that night, and they also assembled an ice sculpture of the Rotterdam that was as long as the Lynbaan shop is wide and about 6½ feet high complete with orange life boats and GPS domes! But this night did not have the exuberance and life that the earlier ball nights had; only thirty-two or thirty-three hours left.

Monday was the Rotterdam's last full day at sea. The sea was as calm as it could be without looking like deep blue glass. It seemed as though the sea wanted to give the ship a gentle send-off as well. After dinner, addresses were exchanged, good-byes were said, and those that could celebrated the remainder of the evening. Some of us just stood on the forward part of the Upper Promenade Deck out in front of the forward hold for the last night ever.

And it became Tuesday. The Rotterdam slipped quietly into Fort Lauderdale. We all quietly went about our pre-disembarkation breakfast and then did our last-minute packing. And your disembarkation number is called.

This day, nobody turned in their Cruise Membership Card, and nobody made a point of asking for it either. As passengers went to the gangway, each did something in their own way to say good-bye; mine was just to rub the hull as I have done each time I have boarded, either as a visitor or passenger, since 1959.

We all did whatever they could to get just one more look at the Grand Dame, just one more look at our Rotterdam. And, we all left, quietly.

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