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After three years of planning and a huge team effort, on Sept. 16, Crystal Serenity successfully completed a 32-day transit of the legendary Northwest Passage — becoming the largest ship ever to make the journey.
The Arctic Passage is usually choked with ice, but global warming has changed that. It’s a different world from the early 1900s, when explorer Roald Amundsen made the first documented transit in a small wooden fishing boat. However, roughly a century later, Crystal Serenity still had to navigate through uncharted waters and narrow channels, in weather known to become treacherous quickly.
Perhaps if Crystal could have foreseen the ice-rated expedition ships being built since the company was sold to Genting Hong Kong in March last year, it would have waited. But it moved mountains to arrange the journey for the 1,000-plus-passenger Crystal Serenity.
Crystal president Edie Rodriguez says the project was extremely expensive, as the company worked with entities from the U.S. Coast Guard to Canada and the Arctic Council to make it happen. Crystal Serenity ended up carrying two veteran Canadian ice pilots, and there was ice navigation simulator training for the bridge officers. The ship was installed with forward-looking sonar, a thermal imaging system, ice searchlights and ice radar. In addition, there were a number of issues to be addressed in this environmentally sensitive region.
As an added safety measure, Ernest Shackleton, a Royal Research vessel operated by the British Antarctic Survey, escorted Crystal Serenity as a first response ship in case of emergency.
Ernest Shackleton has ice-breaking capability and carries two helicopters that were used on the trip for special excursions.
Crystal Serenity departed from Seward, Alaska, with 1,070 passengers and 655 crew members for its Aug. 16 sailing around Alaska; up the Bering Strait and to the Northwest Territories and Nunavet, Canada; to Greenland; down past New England; and to New York City, its final destination.
Passengers and crew viewed the Northern Lights, misty rainbows, stunning scenery and plenty of wildlife. They ate blueberry pie and saw traditional dancing in Nome, Alaska. In Ulukhaktok, Canada, a group of local dancers in handmade costumes came onboard to perform.
Using Crystal Serenity’s zodiacs, passengers got close to polar bears and whales, and some intrepid guests had a Crystal Adventures overnight at a Greenland Ice Camp, trekking through glaciers to sleep under the stars.
Crystal Serenity’s captain, Norwegian Birger Vorland, says he had never seen such investment from passengers in his 38 years of experience as a mariner.
Crystal also worked hard to benefit the Far North communities the ship visited — chartering cargo flights to access regional fresh ingredients for restaurants, bringing locals on board and arranging to give guests easy access to crafts and cultural performances while cautioning them not to deplete limited local resources. In addition, Rodriguez says the cruise line is creating a coffee table book using guest images, with 100 percent of the profits going to Inuit communities.
“The guest photos are incredible,” she said. “They reflect the passion and enthusiasm the guests showed throughout.”
Rodriguez says she has never seen guest satisfaction so high, and, more significantly, nearly all of it came from past Crystal guests who are veteran, discerning travelers. When the books were opened to past Crystal guests in August 2014, the voyage sold out in just three days, and more than 700 people wait-listed themselves until the ship departed. When it did, all but six of the 1,070 passengers were past Crystal customers.
“Our guests have traveled the globe, and they collect unique experiences,” she said. “If you give them a new experience, they will come.”
Social media has been crammed with injunctions to “do it again!” and Crystal is doing just that: The books are open for the Aug. 15 to Sept. 16 sailing in 2017. And when the company’s first new polar ice-rated ship launches in 2018, Crystal will be able to visit destinations from the North Pole to the South Pole.