The world’s most challenging cruise ship routes

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(CNN) – Navigating a huge ship is not a common feat under any circumstances, but certain routes, such as the possibility of sandstorms, narrow Suez Canal – infamous Blocked by container ship last year – or stormy, Alaskan glacier-lined waterways, especially challenging.
Andy Winbo, a master sailor who has operated ships around the world, says CNN Travel Those difficult routes are often characterized by “unfavorable weather conditions, lack of space to maneuver due to natural hazards, and lack of navigational aids”.

These factors will affect any ship, but multi-decorated cruise ships may be more affected by their full bulk.

As David Pembridge puts it, “the higher the ship, the bigger the windage.” Pembridge is a retired cruise ship captain who has worked for decades on ships operated by P&O Cruise and Princess Cruise.

When tall ships are swept away by the wind, they are dangerous for slide slipping – a term used to describe a ship that blows sideways. To cope with this effect, the ship must be driven at an angle.

This maneuver is more difficult when crossing waterways such as the Suez Canal or the Panama Canal. In these narrow channels, ships should also avoid colliding on the sides of the canal.

“If they pass at speed, it causes the shore to erode, and pulls some sand away from the sides and into the middle of the canal, which is not good because it makes it less shallow, so it causes it to become shallower.” Pembridge explains.

A cruise ship navigates the Panama Canal on April 23, 2022.

A cruise ship navigates the Panama Canal on April 23, 2022.

By Luis Acosta / AFP / AFP Getty Images

While the Suez Canal and the Panama Canal have some unified features, there are also major differences between the Egyptian waterway and the South American Channel.

Where the Panama Canal is mostly surrounded by forests and vegetation, the Suez is surrounded by flat deserts, meaning poor visibility due to sandstorms.

And while the 120-mile Suez is mostly straight, the nearly 50-mile Panama Canal “flows in and out of the islands,” as Pembridge says, adding another dimension to this topography challenge.

Pembridge explains, “It’s a different kind of difficulty, but it still requires a fairly intense concentration to get through it.”

Ships passing through the Panama Canal must also pass through three different locks. In recent years the locks have been widened to accommodate larger ships, but when Pembridge regularly sailed on the route, his ship was only two feet apart from the sides of the locks.

In Panama, mechanical locomotives also help pull cruise ships through locks, while in particularly narrow parts of the Suez, tug boats help guide larger ships.

“It’s usually a long day for the team on board, because you start and you don’t stop until you reach the other end,” says Pembridge, passing through both channels.

The role of the pilot

Cruise ships are assisted in the Suez Canal by local expert sailors, called Marine Pilots.

Cruise ships are assisted in the Suez Canal by local expert sailors, called Marine Pilots.

Soeren Stache / picture-alliance / dpa / AP

All ships operating in the Suez and Panama are assisted by local sailors.

These sailors, known as sea pilots, board the ship at the beginning of the channel and work with the crew of the board to ensure a safe passage.

Both the Suez Canal and the Panama Canal are “compulsory pilotage areas” – meaning pilots are not optional, they are required by law.

Pembridge suggests that a working relationship between a pilot and a captain is not always an easy journey.

“It’s one of the help and one of the obstacles, sometimes, depending on the level of competence and the personality involved,” he says.

“The pilot must legally direct the cause and speed of the ship. But at the same time, the ship’s master is always responsible for the safe navigation of the ship and that pilot cannot be canceled.”

In some areas, the role of the pilot is less crucial, and is not necessarily a legal requirement. But in more challenging ports and waterways – such as the Suez and Panama, or the waterways around Alaska, their role is essential.

Captain John Herring was the captain of a research ship before becoming a sea pilot in southeastern Alaska.

Herring tells CNN Travel that there are two main reasons why pilots need to board ships in certain areas.

“First, we provide local knowledge about road hazards, tides and currents, weather, concentrations of marine life and more,” he explains.

“Second, being independent of the ship, we make objective decisions because we are not subject to the economic pressures of the ship’s schedule. The captains are experts on their own ships and we are Alaskan water experts.”

Southeast Alaska is a mandatory pilot area, partly because of its potential for strong winds and currents, and partly because of its marine ecosystem.

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“Alaska’s coastal waters are rich in marine mammals,” says Herring. “Watching whales is a favorite pastime for travelers, but requires constant vigilance on the bridge to avoid a close encounter.”

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Similarly, viewing icebergs and glaciers may be an Alaskan cruise specialty, but these icy formations can cause difficulties for ships.

“That ice is hard and it can damage hulls or propellers,” Herring explains, adding that strong winds and currents make it more difficult to navigate in icy water.

In recent years, technology has advanced, making it a little easier for ships to navigate unexpected routes.

But Herring suggests that pilots are still integral to the age of satellite technology.

“The local pilot can still safely bring the ship to port without GPS,” he says.

Water depth and local topography

Chile's fjords and channels, including the Murray Channel in southern Chile, pictured here, could pose special challenges for ships.

Chile’s fjords and channels, including the Murray Channel in southern Chile, pictured here, could pose special challenges for ships.

Wolfgang Kehler / Lightrocket / Getty Images

Ships sailing around Alaska should also struggle with different depths of water. In shallow water channels, ships need to move at a slower pace so as not to create a low-pressure area beneath the vessel that could push the vessel to land at sea level.

“Ships can ‘squat’ if they travel very fast and thus have insufficient clearance below the knee,” explains how master sailor Andy Winbo.

Cruise routes around Norwegian fjords and fjords and Chilean channels also include occasional navigating in shallow water.

Other cruise ship routes present problems because their topography is constantly changing.

Pembridge exemplifies the Amazon River, parts of which sometimes pass on South American cruises.

“The bottom of the Amazon is constantly moving and so on the ocean chart it will show an island, and when you get there the island will not be there, it will be moved somewhere else,” he explains. “After that it’s very dependent on the pilot – the local pilots are people who know the river and know how to move it.”

City ports can also pose challenges.

Pembridge points to the Dutch ports of Amsterdam and Rotterdam and the German port of Hamburg, as well as Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.

To dock in any of these cities, cruise ships must first pass through a narrow channel, and how easy it is depends largely on weather conditions.

Planning and unexpected moments

Pembridge took this photo of a lock on the Panama Canal while steering the MV Aurora cruise ship of P&O Cruise.

Pembridge took this photo of a lock on the Panama Canal while steering the MV Aurora cruise ship of P&O Cruise.

David Pembridge

An easy trip requires a solid travel plan. Pembridge explains that cruise ship passage plans are usually drawn up by a junior officer and then approved by the captain. Plans will always take into account any known potential challenges – such as wind, waterway width, tides and surrounding terrain.

“If you’re in the open ocean, it’s a relatively simple briefing – this is the course we intend to take, this is the speed we want to do. Once you get closer to the ground and get more involved, then you Start highlighting the risks, any trends and the potential weather effects of anything, ‚ÄĚsays Pembridge.

“And then when you get into really stagnant water – that’s it [Suez and Panama] There are canals – then it’s more intense briefing. “

The risk of piracy is another factor to consider, although Pembridge suggests it is less of a problem than once.

He remembers helming ships speeding past the Gulf of Arden, turning off the lights at night and organizing passenger drills.

Capt. Capt. David Pembridge, who retired in 2020, near Cape Horn, Chile.

Capt. Capt. David Pembridge, who retired in 2020, near Cape Horn, Chile.

David Pembridge

The weather is also taken into account when planning a trip, but not all preparations in the world can be responsible for the completely unpredictable.

Pembridge recalls a time when he was the captain of a ship sailing from the Falkland Islands to South America. The winds were forecast to be strong, but when night fell the violent storms were stronger than expected.

Throughout the night, Pembridge and his team slowly entered the waves to cope with the effects of the wind. When daylight came, they saw what they were dealing with.

“They were very, very big waves. And the front of the ship was burying itself in it and coming up again, it was perfectly safe, but very uncomfortable.”

By the time the weather subsided, the ship was about 30 miles away. The ports had to be rearranged and the voyage had to be rescheduled.

But Pembridge points out that while ships may face unforeseen challenges, ships and those in charge are generally prepared for obstacles.

“Modern cruise ships are well-equipped to meet all the challenges that come their way,” says Pembridge.

Top photo: A cruise ship sails across the Margery Glacier in Alaska’s Glacier Bay. Photo credit: Tim Ru / Bloomberg via Getty Images

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