Check-in Check-out. Check-in at Forth Ports was simple. Parted from baggage, passengers were then corralled with 700+ souls of a similar age (60 -90 years) before being taken in small numbers by bus to the pier where the Black Watch was berthed. Disembarkation is best likened to the discharge of a battle weary army with a simple order - pick up your kit and get out. Forth Ports have a lot to learn about simple courtesy and their capacity to do so might even be in doubt.
Boat Stuff. Built in 1972 it was sumptuous for it's time but with three major refits increasing passenger numbers from 539 to 820, it is now a crowded old tub with old tub problems and only a few old tub graces. Having visited accommodation on decks 3,4,5,7 and 8 I hold the view that decks 2 and 3 fall far short of what I would recommend to people for whom I have only a cool regard and deck 5 could only be recommended as basic but probably value for money. I occupied a mini suite on deck 7 by default and at very little extra cost : a very large cabin, double windows, sofa, chairs, wardrobes and drawers aplenty, thick pile carpet, TV, fridge, comfortable queen size bed, spotless mattress, ensuite with bath, basin and shower with no tell-tale black fungus on the grout. Every thing was clean and kept clean. The lobby opened into a hallway corridor rather than passageways smelling of the last two cruises. Normally I would have taken a standard outside cabin at time of booking.
The onboard public areas including the lounges and corridors were in good condition, well carpeted and decorated but all were characterized by low deckheads (ceilings). The theatre was barely adequate for the population and with no real elevation of the floor, dodging heads was a show-long exercise. The inescapable problem of overcrowding was most manifest in the dining room where tables were packed in with little room to move while meal service was underway.Unfortunately practically all tables were rectangular,2s, 4s and 8s which are asocial by design.I was fortunate being placed, as requested and at a cost of £28, at one of the round tables. These deficiencies, created by Olsens in the interest of profit, detracted greatly from an otherwise excellent restaurant with a superb menu served by overworked Filipino waiters who did all they could to please. There was a small flexible dining buffet area but the vast majority elected to have fixed dining with the social benefits of meeting familiar people at each evening dinner. Complementing these facilities are the Observatory lounge at the for'ard end above the navigation bridge where the sea-hardy could watch the bow dive into the swell and throw heavy sea against the for'ard windows of deck 7, the cinema in the bowels of deck 3 - a refuge for those suffering mal de mer, two bars, a gymnasium restricted due to noise transmission and a delightful library and card room which was rapidly colonised by lodgers who held and guarded their seats throughout the 14 day cruise. On the outside, weather permitting, there is a promenade deck too narrow for multiple activities. Ardent walkers, including those with mobility problems, must navigate past various obstructions, structural narrows and wind bafflles at the rear to prevent passengers being swept off the after-end or into the pool. Yes! there is a mini pool with waves suitable for wind surfing and jacuzzi in which to thaw.
Entertainment. Olsen staff organised oodles of activities for all tastes and there were several good films as well as middle-of-the-road stage shows but the real bonus came from the guest lecturer and his pre-excursion talks. A stowaway Peer of the Realm also popped up to amuse for an hour or two and was probably not missed at Westminster for the duration. Strange choice.
Itinerary. Cruise non-stop to Iceland, two nights in Reykjavik, circumnavigate calling at two important settlements with a wide choice of excursions. Fascinating. Must be seen but not by ship. Cruise non-stop to the Faroe Islands - gems in the Atlantic. Not to be missed. Cruise to Norway and two of its most picturesque fiords with a final day in Bergen.
Excursions. Well done Olsens. Excellent extensive choice of well chosen and well organised tours with local guides included. Many tours were influenced by the poor weather but should certainly not to be missed. They were reasonably priced which is unusual for cruises.The geophysical opportunities in Iceland are boundless.
Weather. This is a significant factor when considering a cruise on this little ship at any time in the north Atlantic. It may have been built forty years ago with this maritime geography in mind but at 200m by 25m it is not suitable for the bulk of the population who chose to hitch a ride, with or without stabilisers. One hour west of the Pentland Firth the Captain announced that we were heading for a depression with a changing sea state reaching storm force 8 to 9. The Captain will be remembered for his honesty. For the next 30 hours Black Watch pitched, heaved and corkscrewed it's way north only finding relief in the darkness as we approached Iceland. Only the most infertile imagination could fail to picture how 700+ pensioners coped with these challenges and there was more in store enroute to the Faroes, from there to Norway and on the final dash from Bergen to Rosyth. A great many people were inconvenienced, many were nauseated and sick, the dining facilities became surprisingly spaceous while the stair-wells and public rooms were decorated with garlands of free vomit bags. Despite these conditions I was not aware of any concern on the part of fellow passengers with regard to the Ship's safety or the capabilities of the crew.
Fellow Travellers. Olsens alone have the statistics but I believe there were in excess of 670 passengers over 60 years of age with most being in their 70s. A small number were probably well preserved in their 80s, many were frail elderly powered by determination, others were assisted by sticks and tripods, a few had wheeled assistance while others talked of various spare parts embedded somewhere in their anatomy. To complete the picture four courageous children appeared from time to time while a similar number of teen-aged youths suffered in silence. From conversations in which I participated or overheard and pill-taking witnessed at various breakfast and dinner tables, I would estimate that 50% of passegers were travelling with significant illness managed successfully by medication including anticoagulants, antihypertensives, arrhythmia mitigators , beta blockers, diuretics, steroids, minor psycotropics, and prescription-only-analgesics. While these issues are normal in any civil population they may constitute another dimension for concern if that same population is threatened by additional illness such as prolonged vomiting as in motion sickness or Norovirus or both with disturbance of fluid intake.
This was the first time we had travelled as qualified members of a geriatric group and it was probably the most important mass social experience since our student years. 43,000 cumulative years of life experience to share, no illusions about immortality, pretentions and ambitions abandoned, greed muted in recognition of simple need and a sound belief that the hourglass is inverted. The company could hardly have been better and our dinner table group was excellent. But why? Why had so many elderly people gravitated to this old ship? The excellent food and table service are available elsewhere and better shipboard facilities and hotel services likewise. The itinerary can certainly be enjoyed by other means, earlier in the season, or on a larger ship and from my own observations few, if any, could not afford a greater outlay. Perhaps it is because word has spread that the Black Watch and other Olsen ships are very friendly, that lots of people say the same (although evidence is not made available), that there are no lager louts, no badly behaved children, no social mountaineers, no Louis Chopard watches on over-exposed wrists, Garrard trinkets dripping from ears and no Donatella Versace labels flaunted. Yet this social milieu is not the invention of Olsens , though they are quick to exploit it commercially, it is the by-product of this type of passenger population, their expectations, their attitudes, their challenges and their shared predicaments, sticks, wheels and all. What a pity they are not rewarded with a better ship.
Norovirus - The self limiting minor communicable illness from which all but the frail and immuno-compromised are expected to recover. What an understatement. The first authors of these words should have a bout and reflect on the likely experience of the population described in these notes and in the environment also described.
As Black Watch ploughed it's way to the Faroes the Captain announced that the virus had joined ship and passengers started to look around for missing faces. Slowly people began to disappear as cabin quarantine took it's toll and public life on board changed character - catering staff donned blue gloves, passengers were isolated from all buffet contact, storm troopers attacked with sani-sprays, butter portions and tea bags were moved by tongs and finally the Captain announced that he and his officers would not shake hands with passengers at the gala dinner. We had become dirty, dirty fare-paying people. Semantics aside if one did a pencil audit of Olsen's management of the outbreak in relation to the controls, set out by the US Maritime & Coastguard Agency and the UK Health Protection Agency, faults were not in abundance. The sad fact is, the outbreak continued and the two follow-on cruises suffered also. Perhaps of greater importance is the potential impact such events can have on a captive population of elderly people, many of whom have significant pre-existing medical problems, many affected by motion sickness, all of whom are located in storm bound waters with limited onboard medical facilities, one doctor and two nurses.
Conclusions. The Icelandic tour has a high probability of bad weather which may make the ship experience unpleasant and in some personal circumstances pose a threat to the impaired health of certain passengers. In 2013 the ship demonstrated an inability to free itself from norovirus.between cruises. The Black Watch, in my opinion, has long since sailed past its sell by date as regards the physical provisions for contemporary hospitality and elderly people particularly, deserve better. There are some charming features about the ship and the actual domestic and catering services were of a high quality. In many other matters too Fred Olsen demonstrated qualities worthy of praise but I view this particular cruise from the perspective of a reasonably fit senior citizen who has sailed with others less fortunate in this respect and find it difficult to recommend the cruise on that basis for this section of the touring public.