Review of Cruise W1610 Black Watch: Arctic Adventure and Exploration
July 17th- August 12th
“Not again, even with discounts….”
PART 1 THE REVIEW:
This is at best a mixed reaction and review of a specialist cruise, which was anticipated with great promise, but was compromised by a series of running flaws.
Not many ships visit Greenland, certainly not with an itinerary that lasts just short of a full month, crosses the Arctic Circle and visits Norway, The North Cape, Spitsbergen, Iceland and Greenland. This means that the cost factors were comparatively high, and the ship was –at least initially- full to capacity.
Things got off to a bad start after a drive to Tillbury found me and three suitcases (plus numerous other confused passengers besides) on a dockside with no ship in sight: in the event it was stuck at Dover so emergency coaches had to be quickly ordered as many hundreds of people began asking why they had not been informed of this so that they could have made their own arrangement to go directly to Dover. Fred Olsen’s explanation that it was simply not possible to contact everyone at short notice looked like a more than lame excuse when they had been sending passengers sms texts for some days reminding us all of arrival times, etc.
No refreshments were provided for the journey and the coach driver- who could barely speak English- was completely flummoxed by the air-conditioning, which only worked intermittently. (“Oh my God, Oh my God” was all he was heard to utter.) Apparently a passenger’s plastic walking stick somewhere towards the coach’s rear began to melt!
Fred Olsen’s Black Watch is by now clearly an ageing vessel and one desperately in need of a complete refit, severe updating, or putting out to pasture. The carpets were manifestly ancient and everywhere- corridors and public areas- covered with stains as if previous passengers and simple expired there (well maybe they had). The staff tried to cope with this on a more-or-less daily basis by soaking them thoroughly then aiming massive blower heaters on them (result: much noise plus humidity). My cabin (outside with view) was the size of a cramped prison cell with what seemed to be beds for four- all narrow and no more than 20” wide with two metal ones slung from the walls, presumably to accommodate a family, and reminiscent of primitive holiday conditions more suited to Butlins in the 50’s. The outside view was provided by two (I assume) original portholes bolted shut with rust all around on the outside. I asked for a change of room, for which I was fully prepared to pay additionally if necessary, but none was available and I was not informed of any subsequent vacancy although passengers did leave throughout the voyage. The walls were not well soundproofed and a noisy party next door allowed me to participate in most conversations, should I have chosen to, from a very short distance. (PS There is ALWAYS another cabin available; believe me I know this from friends who work in the business.)
Here I must introduce another cautionary note: this cruise is adult only and attracts a comparatively aged group of guests. Indeed I think the average age was well over pension age, and to be amongst such a group was certainly a double shock; firstly in the realization that oneself is now probably perceived as an “older person” , but secondly as to how infirm many of the passengers are. Wheelchairs, walking frames and many with stick struggling in the public areas, particularly in rougher seas. I was unable amongst the 750 or so guests on board, to spot anyone under the age of 50: the downside of a combination of destination, price, length of voyage and ‘adults only’ appellation. (Just as I am completing this report I have spotted two who might just qualify not to compete in a senior tournament.)
Food was reasonably good but on sea days always taken in very crowded conditions. Entertainment was of varying quality with an enthusiastic troop of young dancers who barely mixed with passengers, except when obliged to (on “Captains Cocktail Night”, etc.) a good trio, an excellent guest violinist and a very good pianist for the lounge areas.
One thing I have noticed with Fred Olsen is that extras such as photography packages are increasingly “pushed” at guests, as are future cruises with added discounts and inducements. I suppose people fall for these ploys or else there would be much less activity of this sort, but it is a very unwelcome part of the Olsen cruise experience, in my opinion. Also, beware of hidden extras even with an all-inclusive package. I bought the drinks package @ £10 per day which in theory allows unlimited house spirits, wine and soft drinks. However, even though I presented my inclusive card to bar staff I was still charged for a Bloody Mary although the ingredients of tomato juice and vodka are part of the package. When I challenged this at the Guest Services counter a couple of days later this produced a dramatic encounter enjoyed by many staff and guests. The Bar Manager was called who explained that a Bloody Mary was a cocktail requiring expert preparation, hence the charge. When I explained that I had been making them for years by simply putting these ingredients together, I was repeatedly told, again and again, that it was classed by Olsen’s as “a cocktail”. When I said this should have been made clear by the bar staff and that I considered £8 excessive for 6 drops of Worcester sauce a guest listening nearby turned her prune-moon face at me and said “do be nice!” “That’s all very well madam,” I countered “but it is not your bill that’s been docked twenty four quid!” I was promised a complete refund and left the scene through a wave of clapping and supportive passengers.
The departure from Greenland and the subsequent 3-4 days at sea was a terrific strain both on the inner resources of the ship and the passengers, many of who did not cope well with rocky sea conditions. Also, we steamed rapidly past the Faroe Isles, which seemed to me to be madness given that everyone was begging for a break from the lengthy sea days, and many would have given their eyeteeth for the chance to stretch their legs on dry land.
From the reactions I canvassed from many guests, most thought well of the cruise and enjoyed much of the itinerary; although quite a few criticized the cost of many of the shore excursions which were all extras to the original cost (for example £90 for a guided 2 mile walk on one of the islands, easily accessible on your own from the ship, and therefore unguided and potentially cost free).
I went for three reasons: Icelandic waterfalls, Greenland icebergs and to complete the draft of a novel. Frankly I was not too interested in local craftsmen weaving winter apparel from seal dung or whatever regional materials they use. So this made my reasons for travelling quite specific and probably unusual. But for those in general I noticed a measure of “British stiff-upper lip-ness” which I have to say I admired, but did not feel obliged to participate in.
Cabin TVs looked like something out of “Crossroads” circa 1960s and performed about as well. Internet access was totally unreliable and very expensive, and I insisted of refunds of £41 and £13 respectively for connection to the server but thereafter NOT to the internet. If few other passengers complained then someone was making a lot of money out of this failed service. Much better to wait for a port day and connect to Wi-Fi in a local café for cost of a coffee (and very often entirely free.)
In conclusion if you require dance lessons, craft and art classes (the art teacher’s own exhibition was a severe embarrassment to any half-competent watercolourist) basic lectures on ports of call, or geology, being sold overpriced jewelry and branded goods, expensive snaps of your trip et al, then this might be the one for you. But, I’m sorry to say, as I have travelled in the past with Olsen and have a soft spot for Fred Senior’s determination to continue with his pet loss-leader, this is not one for me, not again (even with 5% plus 4% plus 5% special offers off.)
PART TWO: THE REPORT
This part of the review has not yet been substantiated or commented on by The Fred Olsen Company. Currently I am waiting for confirmation that the following information is basically correct. I sent this directly to the M.D of Olsen who declined to respond or comment personally, and his Customer Service Dept. demanded 28 days to reply. I’m afraid, again, this is not good enough Messrs Olsen!
The delay at the start of the cruise at Tilbury/Dover was due to a severe engine fire on a previous voyage, which had to be curtailed as a result. The marine authorities were not apparently satisfied with the quality of the repairs undertaken and requested that additional works be carried out. This meant The Black Watch was unable to sail to Tilbury due to a statutory entitlement for the crew to rest before setting out.
It was fairly clear during our Arctic Adventure trip that problems with the engine(s) persisted. On our return from Greenland (three days non-stop at sea) in the mid-Atlantic and well over 24 hours from any safe haven, mechanical trouble seemingly struck again resulting in a severe loss of power. Speed reduced to approximately 8 knots, from 14 knots, and the ship began a series of circular manoeuveres transmitting a much greater degree of motion on board, sending many passengers to their cabins. This mechanical problem apparently manifest itself –at least as it was recounted to me- with a degree of panic on the bridge, and also seemed to affect the ships stabilizers which only appeared to operate spasmodically.
A total engine failure in our position in the mid-Atlantic could have been a major calamity, and whilst it would clearly be unwise to transmit any kind of panic from crew to passengers, a blanket of silence is not a good solution either. In an era when transparency is a worthy goal to aim for, it seems that Fred Olsen have only managed to score one entirely of their own.
This is like a Butlins Holiday camp in the 60s. Two narrow bunks and two metal contraptions presumably for kids which pull out from the wall.
Costly organised trips- better to make own arrangements
Although the embarkation was to be from Tilbury, due to a previous fire on board the ship was docked at Dover so all of us had to take uncomfortable coaches there!