Q&A: Charlie Mandigo Talks Ship Security

You could say that Holland America's Charlie Mandigo literally does sit in a -- if not the -- hot seat. That's because Mandigo, whose credentials include a long stint with the F.B.I., heads up fleet security for Holland America, a big ship cruise line that's just about the industry's most global in orient.

Prior to joining HAL in 2003, the closest Mandigo -- a long-time Seattle resident and then cruise virgin -- ever got to a ship was a white-collar fraud case. Though tight-lipped about the details (we suspect that's a professional requirement), he does reveal that eight years ago a purser on an unnamed Holland America ship walked off the vessel in South America with a hefty wad of cash. The case was solved (naturally) and ultimately proved a calling card for Mandigo.

As director of fleet security, a job that has become increasingly critical in the wake of terrorism fears, Mandigo oversees efforts both onboard and at corporate headquarters for Holland America. On the dry side, he's responsible for "compliance with all security directives by governments and other regulatory agencies as to terminal, ship, crew, and passenger security practices and procedures."

After 27 years with the F.B.I. (where his focus was on anti-terrorism, intelligence and criminal matters), what intrigued Mandigo most about joining Holland America was that it posed a challenging new twist. "Can you have more impact on safety being inside the organization," he questions rhetorically, "or by fighting it outside? Working inside, in this case at Holland America, is it easier to effect changes than to try to regulate and enforce them?"

The ultimate objective in both careers, he notes, is "trying to protect people from harm."

Beyond his professional goals, Mandigo's personal goals include one that would seem pretty major for most readers of Cruise Critic: Married with a daughter and son, he has yet to take his first "pleasure" cruise. "What is vacation?" he asks, laughing, "but I really do want to take my family on a cruise so they can see what I'm working towards."

We sat down with Mandigo to address a few questions that will give you an idea of the kind of background he (and security chiefs at other cruise lines) is required to possess.

Cruise Critic: What's been your biggest surprise thus far with Holland America or Windstar?
Charlie Mandigo: As a brand-new person to the industry, I was very impressed with what was already being done on our ships by the people in place. Of course, we continue to have post-9/11 regulations, but the security base was already there.

CC: Do competing lines cooperate on the security front?
CM: Coming out of the F.B.I. and law enforcement in general, I've been amazed at the degree of cooperation between various lines when it comes to security!

CC: What was your first job?
CM: My first professional job was with F.B.I. and I was in New York City investigating white collar crime. After progressing through the ranks, I seriously focused on terrorism my last four or five years. That experience has been huge help. I ran the Seattle office, where we fought a wide range of terrorism efforts -- giving me a good perspective on what we face today.

CC: Did you cruise much before you started this job?
CM: I hadn't taken a single cruise before this job -- I was too busy working for the F.B.I.. We actually did have a case with a cruise line, so I did have some experience and exposure with cruise lines. I also drove by the Holland America offices every morning on the way to work. I've just shortened my commute a bit.

CC: How often do you go on ships and what kinds of things do you spot once onboard?
CM: I'm on our ships or in their ports pretty often, but we generally have anywhere from 8 to 11 security people onboard at all times. Most of my time is spent on the policy side and the larger-picture threats out there. I do also coordinate new equipment as security threats change and increase. We had two ships at the Olympics in Athens, so I spent a fair amount of time there! We also had three ships at the Super Bowl. Security was a big deal at both ports!

CC: What's your favorite port of call?
CM: I mostly just get to see the ship and the dock. However Athens was enjoyable before crunch time. They made huge steps in security between the first time I visited and the Olympics.

CC: Which port seems to have the most hassles?
CM: U.S. ports have obviously become more intense, with increased customs and border control concerns. It's amazingly varied between ports. It can make you a bit schizophrenic as far as standards when we go to a particular port -- especially when it's a first-time or occasional port call.

CC: Is post-9/11 cruise travel safer than ever?
CM: I think cruise travel has always been one of the safest travel segments out there. The record is quite good if you look at the numbers, thanks to the layered security -- especially since 9/11. Ships are much less of a target for catastrophic events versus, say, planes.

CC: What would you recommend Cruise Critic readers do to make embarkation easier, as well as returning to the ship after a day in port?
CM: It's very similar to airlines. It's made more difficult when passengers start to bring on too many hand-carried items. That's when the lines start at the gangway.

CC: We know you can't place film in luggage you check with airlines. What about luggage you check at the port for them to deliver to your cabin?
CM: It's still safe, unless it's super-fast film.

CC: Are than any basic security measures every passenger should take?
CM: Our ships have great security in place and passengers should feel comfortable with that. Given the numbers of varied guests onboard a typical cruise, passengers should take the normal precautions like any other vacation or hotel stay. Look for unusual behavior and report it -- don't let it go! By its very nature, cruise travel is very secure -- where would the criminals go?

CC: Do you also handle in-port security?
CM: We indirectly work on that, in that security is layered. What goes on in the terminal is very important to us, in that it reduces the threat before anything gets to us. If security in the terminal fails, we're certainly more vulnerable. The terminal provides an outer shell of protection.

CC: The issue of children having "free reign" on ships is a problem throughout the industry and one we suspect falls under the "security" umbrella. What is Holland America's approach?
CM: We place wrist bands on children so there is a degree of accountability. No question that during spring breaks and other holidays when there are more children on board, we have a higher need for security patrols to keep a damper on things. Children having free "reign" on the ship is okay, but there are limits, based on age and when conduct becomes an issue. The problems start when parents have young children -- and I am talking as young as 5 to 7 years old -- that they just leave to their own means to include meals (they can help themselves at the buffet), and may even leave them onboard when they go off ship for shore excursions. This is fine if they are left in a supervised environment, like Club HAL, but we do have occasions they are just "abandoned" by the parents for part or the duration of the cruise -- I guess the attitude is that the "ship" will take care of them. And the other aspect is the teenagers who are allowed to roam without supervision or curfew. They can get out of hand, but a visible security presence serves as a good deterrent.

For more information on security procedures and practices impacting the cruise industry, check out Staying Safe in Port and Travel Rules and Regulations.

Williams' Q&A was conducted by Lynn Seldon. Lynn has written numerous feature stories for Cruise Critic and Cruise Critic's Cruise Reviews and News and particularly specializes in soft adventure voyages.

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