THREE STRENGTHS OF
A Conversation with
Captain of Norwegian Pearl
Richard H. Wagner
Cruise ship interview - Norwegian Cruise Line - Norwegian Pearl - Captain Lars Bengtsson
The Caribbean was bathed in sunshine. However, a deep swell had developed
overnight and while the passengers aboard Norwegian Pearl were enjoying their day at
sea, Captain Lars Bengtsson was concerned. The ship was en route to Norwegian
Cruise Line’s private island in the Bahamas, Great Stirrup Cay, where passengers go
ashore via large tenders that ferry them to and from the resort.
“If the sea conditions are like this tomorrow morning, we won’t be able to make it,”
Captain Bengtsson said looking out the floor-to-ceiling windows on the ship’s bridge.
“Then, of course, people think that we should go to Nassau. But Nassau is full on
Fridays and one of them is Oasis of the Seas and she takes two berths. So, we have no
option. If we can’t go to the island, we have to cancel because there is nowhere else to
As it happened, the swell did subside and the ship was able to call at Great Stirrup
Cay as scheduled. However, the incident highlights the fact that there are numerous
cruise ships sailing the Caribbean/Bahamas, especially in the winter. Indeed, for some
ports “you have to book [a berth] three or four years in advance.”
When asked why people should select Norwegian Pearl for their cruise vacations over
the other ships prowling the Caribbean, Captain Bengtsson cited three reasons.
The Ability To Be Your Own Boss
The first reason cited by Captain Bengtsson was: “We have the Freestyle concept,
which according to my belief, is coming more and more.”
Captain Bengtsson is very familiar with the Freestyle concept. “I was there when it
started.” Before coming to NCL, he commanded ships for NCL’s parent company, Star
Cruises, which operates in Asia. Asian passengers did not like the traditional cruise
ship system of having an assigned time and table for dinner. Consequently, Star
developed the idea of allowing passengers to decide when and where to eat. Star
brought the idea to NCL when it purchased the line and NCL has developed and
refined the concept.
“I think people are getting more and more into it. They want to eat when they are
hungry, not at 8:30 at Table 28 for a whole week. You can eat when you want.”
“People want to do their things when they want themselves; not in a regimented way.
Of course, you can’t do anything you like but you are free to do things when you want,
not when someone tells you you can.”
“We get people who do not like Freestyle - - that is inevitable - - but the big majority
enjoys it. We see that in our Latitudes members - - our repeat passengers - - who come
back again and again and again.”
“It is also gaining ground at other lines. You also see our competitors putting in
specialty restaurants and so on, which we have been doing for a long time”
“I think that is our strength.”
A Friendly Ship
Norwegian Pearl’s second competitive advantage is: “We have quite a friendly crew.
If you treat them like human beings, they behave like human beings. I have 65 different
nationalities onboard - - different cultures, different beliefs, different traditions. But if
you still treat them like human beings, they will respond that way.”
This philosophy is at the core of Captain Bengtsson’s style of command. “We are all
different. We have different management styles. I am not really into sitting on top of
the players. When they have gained my confidence, I’ll let them get on with it. If they
are unsure, then they come and ask me.”
As master of the ship, Captain Bengtsson is not just responsible for driving the ship but
is in charge of the entire operation. The heads of the deck department, the engineering
department and the hotel all report to him.
“They have their areas of responsibility. To be quite honest, I cannot run the hotel
operation because that is not my [area of expertise]. Of course, I keep my eye out and I
see if it is working or do we have problems somewhere - - then I have to interfere. But
if there are no problems that I am told about, I leave them to do what they are supposed
Good communications is key to this management system and Norwegian Pearl is set up
to facilitate such communication. For example, the Captain shares an office with the
ship’s Chief Engineer. The office is located just behind the bridge and has a large
picture window looking out onto the bridge.
“It gives me a much better idea of the technical operation because I see the Chief
Engineer face-to-face many hours a day. I get the information about what is going on.”
A Superior Design
Norwegian Pearl’s third strength is that: “She is a nice ship.” Indeed from a nautical
perspective there is much to admire about the Pearl.
To begin, she was built with a deeper draft than most cruise ships. “Eight and a half
meters - - that gives her stability.”
She is also equipped with the new azipod propulsion system. The ship’s propellers
are on two large casing called pods that are suspended below the stern. The pods can
be turned 360 degrees so that the force of the propellers can be directed in any
direction. “From my point of view, they are excellent, absolutely excellent. You get
much better maneuverability. A big ship like this can go in wherever you like more or
less as long as you have water under the keel.”
Unlike traditional ship propellers, the propellers on the azipods face forward and are
mounted on the front of the pods. They pull the ship through the water like the
propellers on an airplane pull the plane through the sky. “You get much better flow of
the water; you get less disturbance. The other way, the actual pod itself would disturb
the water [before it reached the propeller]. This way, it comes straight under the hull,
straight into the props and the disturbance is after.” The net result is that the propellers
propel the ship more efficiently through the water.
The Pearl was also built so that she can go faster than most cruise ships. “We can do
25 knots. Today, ships are rarely built, as far as I know, with a maximum speed of over
This gives the Pearl at least two advantages. First, it gives the cruise line more
flexibility in deciding how to deploy the ship. A slower ship has to be deployed close
to the popular cruising areas or else too much of the passengers’ time onboard will be
taken up getting to and from the popular destinations. A faster ship can be deployed
further away, closer to the passengers’ homes. For example, Pearl’s sister ship
Norwegian Gem has spent the last few winters based in New York but still sailing to
The second advantage of more speed is that it gives the ship a greater ability to avoid
bad weather and to handle such weather if she does encounter it.
Still, this does not mean that the Pearl spends her time racing around the Caribbean or
to Alaska. She has the speed if she needs it or if NCL decides to deploy her on
itineraries that require greater speed. Her current itineraries only call for an average
speed of 21 knots.
“We have the ability to do 25 knots but it does not mean that we have to operate at that
speed. I can run this one on three engines and do 21 knots - - 2.7 tons of fuel per hour
per engine. If I start up the fourth engine, I gain four knots but I burn 12.7 tons more an
hour. With the fuel prices today, if I had to operate on full blast, we would probably
have to raise the ticket price quite considerably to cover the fuel price.”
Captain Bengtsson with Pearl's Hotel
Director Denis Prguda.