Jill Russell, captain of the expedition cruising ship Safari Endeavour, talked to Steve Newman about Un-Cruise Adventures and sailing on the Sea of Cortés and in Southeast Alaska.
Do you come from a sailing background?
No, my family are all Navy aviators; my father, brother and cousin are all Navy pilots. I think I’m something of a disappointment! I trained as a cartographer and land surveyor, but I found that boring and joined the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uniformed service (NOAA Corps), a federal agency charting the oceans and examining the conditions of the atmosphere.
Why did you chose a career at sea?
As a surveyor and researcher, I spent three years on the oceanographic survey ship NOAAS Surveyor and fell in love with the sea then. I started by doing 90 days at Kings Point, New York at The United States Merchant Marine Academy. I was transferred to Seattle as a junior officer on the ship and was mentored by a senior officer. I got my captain’s licence in 1991.
What is it like to serve on Safari Endeavour?
Both the ship and the company are great to work with. You are given plenty of responsibility, and essentially run the ship like a small business. The places we visit in the Sea of Cortés and on the Alaskan coast are phenomenal. My job combines my love of ship operations with creating a fantastic guest experience.
What specialist knowledge do you need to work on
Diplomacy, a knowledge of customer service, logistics and management skills. I work closely with the Expedition leader and the Hotel Manager. We have an open bridge policy, and this is a small ship, so I am constantly chatting with the guests, helping them launch their kayaks, seeing them on and off the ship for onshore excursions. And as such I am very much the ‘face’ of the company.
How does poor weather affect you?
In the adventure cruising industry the weather is vitally important. Strong winds can make a landing dangerous, or snorkelling with the sea lion pups impossible for the guests, so we have to substitute other activities. It is not just a case of having a plan B – you also need a plan C, D and sometimes E. But we know the area so well that we can go and shelter in a cove, and if there is rough water ahead we stay at anchorage so the guests can have their meal in comfort before we set sail.
What are the challenges of managing the ship?
In the Sea of Cortes, we rely so much on local knowledge and the use of charts, as the last time the area was surveyed was in the 1800s. My heart still beats faster when we are approaching an anchorage that we have not used before. But, the safety of the ship and guests is our primary concern, so, despite checking with local experts about a new anchorage, I will still send a small vessel ahead with a portable depth sounder to ensure there are no surprises ahead.
What has been the most useful innovation introduced during your time at sea?
Advances in navigation, such as GPS and the electronic chart, are certainly useful, but without a doubt the launching platform we use at the stern of the ship has been the biggest advance in Expedition sailing I have seen. It allows us to safely and efficiently launch and recover our fleet of kayaks, paddle boards and skiffs. Other expedition cruise companies have to tow their kayaks to the shore and stack them on the superstructure. When we’re sailing, the kayaks are secured to the platform which is raised up out of the way. We can lower very quickly after we anchor, and have guests kayaking moments later. I am very proud of the fact that no other company has this innovation, and it is one that we developed here, in house, at Un-Cruise Adventures.
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