The Captain’s Table: Rob Hempstead

Location:     Sawyer Glacier, Alaska             

Aboard:       Rhapsody of the Seas

Captain Hempstead aboard Rhapsody of the Seas.

Captain Hempstead aboard Rhapsody of the Seas.

Captain Rob Hempstead, Master of Rhapsody of the Seas, talks with Honest Cruiser about his career and the ship he now commands.

1.      How has your career developed?

When I turned 18, I got my Inland 100 ton license. That got me a job in Newport Rhode Island driving a single screw, diesel engine harbor launch. I would run that launch all day, every day during summer. That gave me the skills to get my next big step when I went to the Coast Guard Academy. I used my license to get a job running the Mare Island ferry in Vallejo. I would run the ferry for 1.5 hours in the morning before going to class and the Captain of the Academy gave me permission to leave my last class early so that I could also run the ferry in the afternoon. With a 65 foot hull and a single screw, I was running across the Napa River with 4 knots of current. Had to use a lot of aggressive maneuvers and that was a great learning experience for me and it taught me a lot of ship handling principles that I use even today.

2.      When did you first go to sea professionally?

 After graduating from the Coast Guard Academy in 1986, I went to work on a gasoline tanker. Climbing in and out of gas tanks wasn't a healthy environment and decided I needed a change. I knew some people from the Academy that were up in Seattle running fishing ships up to Alaska so I decided to try my luck.

3.      What was it like working in the fishing industry?

I worked in the industry for 14 years and I was Captain for the last 10 years on 7 different ships in the Bearing Sea, Japan and West Africa. 

In the beginning I was on a Factory mother ship going up Alaskan coast and sailed as the mate for a year and a half until the captain had to leave. The company VP was on-board at the time and when they needed a replacement Captain, I was it. At 28 years of age, I had my first ship and responsibility to look after her 150 crew.

My first command was the Katie Ann built in 1969 by Maryland Shipbuilding and Drydock. She’s a 300 foot, 3,800 ton floating factory ship for American Seafoods that follows the fishing boats. We would follow the fleet as they fished for Herring up to Norton Sound. Then we would go after Salmon back down to the south and finally fish for crab all the way out to the Aleutian Islands. Finally we would head back to Seattle to refit in May and after a few months we would start the loop all over again.  

Katie Ann at sea.  Photograph courtesy of Captain Hempstead.

Katie Ann at sea. Photograph courtesy of Captain Hempstead.

4.      What kind of extreme places did you fish?

Probably the most extreme was when we would go to the Sea of Okhotsk on fishing contracts with the Russians. We fished for Pollock in heavy, heavy ice up there and it was brutal. When it was time to resupply, we’d push the ship into the ice and the resupply ship would pull alongside where we would tie up together. While stuck in the ice, we would offload fish and back load supplies After a couple of days, when we were finished, we’d hope that we could get back out of the ice again.

In order to fish in those waters, we had to re-flag our vessel as Russian in the Aleutians in addition to taking on a certain amount of Russian crew. We would sometimes stay at sea up there for 6 months. Eventually after 4 years, the whole operation was sold to the Russians.

Arctic Storm loading supplies.  Photograph courtesy of Captain Hempstead.

Arctic Storm loading supplies. Photograph courtesy of Captain Hempstead.

5.      How similar were the guys on your ships to those portrayed in the Discovery Channel reality TV show, Deadliest Catch?

Our crew was very similar in character although our factory ship was much larger than those on TV. The deck gang, engine gang, and the factory crew (the processors) work in a very similar operation. As long as we had fish and the factory was busy, everything ran fine. But whenever there was down time, then the crew got bored and then it would become a challenge with such a bunch of rough characters.

The catch. Photograph courtesy of Captain Hempstead.

The catch. Photograph courtesy of Captain Hempstead.

6.      When you arrive back in Seattle at Pier 91 and you see the fishing trawlers, what do you miss most from your days working in the fishing industry?

There is a certain element to excitement working in that industry. Something about fishing gets into your blood and once you've felt the satisfaction of catching a lot of fish, it is an amazing high. I would say it can even be called addictive, a certain thrill. That was a wild time and I'm glad for the experience but I've outgrown it.

7.      How has your career developed with Royal Caribbean?

 After the last ship I was working on with American Seafoods got sold, I decided it was time for change. I knew a few people at Royal and decided to make a change.

When I came to RCI, I had to work my way up. I joined as a second officer for a short contract. Then very quickly, I was promoted to first officer. After several years, I was then promoted to chief officer and in little less than 2 years, then to safety officer. After another 2 years, I made staff captain and then final captain. I’ve been with Royal for 15 years and the last 9 as Captain of my own ship.

Even though I was Captain before, it took about 6 years to learn how things work in the cruise industry. Technology was changing, the ships were getting bigger and I needed the extra time to get my head around the operation.

Since 1999, I’ve been on; Freedom, Explorer, Enchantment, Grandeur and Rhapsody for the last 2 years.

8.      Do you get to choose the ships and locations or is it based on your experience?

It's both. You want to expand your horizons and you also want to be where you are most effective. I’ve worked all points from Texas, Caribbean and up to Eastern Canada. I’ve been in the Med and of course on the West Coast but I hadn’t been to Australia. Rhapsody has been doing Alaska and Australia and this would give me exposure the growing market down under.

 9.      With over 700 crew members on-board you have an important leadership role. Do you have any guiding principles that you use to motivate and encourage the behavior of your team?

I like leading a team that is motivated for results. My philosophy is simple, it is a workplace where we live and where we make work fun. Ultimately we need to let people be them be themselves and make sure they respect each other. Cruise ships are very much like a military organization with structure and policies that are enforced. If you do it in the right way, it works very well. When we genuinely look out and care for each other, it makes for a great place to work. 

10.  What is the theoretical maximum range of Rhapsody?

We could go about 3 weeks before we would run dry, running about 3/4 speed. As an example, if we steam at 18 knots, it takes us 5 days just to get Hawaii from Seattle which is only 1/3 across the Pacific. So we can do 14 days comfortably. If we travel 500 miles a day, that means we could go about 7,000 miles before needing to refuel. We could comfortably cross the Pacific but of course you never want to run your fuel tanks less than 20% as a general rule. 

11.  How do you spend your time?

On port days, navigation always plays a key part. We also have drills, inspections, staff meetings, guest interactions and administrative activities like answering emails and completing reports. On average, I probably spend about 80% of my time doing management activities compared to 20% navigating.

12.  What are the medical capabilities aboard a ship like Rhapsody with over 2,500 guests?

We have 2 doctors and 3 nurses and the equivalent to an emergency room. Stabilize, treat and maintain is our primary focus until we can get to a professional hospital services. We aren't really set up to do major operations unless it is really a life or death situation. Most of our doctors are emergency room doctors and the nurses are qualified anesthetists so they really are good at what they do.

Atlantic Star at sea. Photograph courtesy of Captain Hempstead.

Atlantic Star at sea. Photograph courtesy of Captain Hempstead.

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