Captain Ashley Cook first took command of P&O Cruises' Oriana in 2012. Since then he has split his time between Oriana and other P&O Cruises' ships such as Arcadia. I asked him to share some thoughts about Oriana, her place in the P&O Cruises' fleet and her future.
The Oriana cruise experience
Unlike some cruise lines where all the ships are similar and seek to appeal to the same group of people, the ships of P&O Cruises are diverse. “The company is trying to cater to all tastes.”
P&O Cruises has some large mega ships and some smaller ships. It has ships geared to family holidays and adults-only ships. Its most recent ships, Britannia, Azura and Ventura “could be described as more relaxed. A bigger ship has more places to go. They give the passenger the option of a more diverse program.”
“Oriana is more traditional. Adult, it is a child-free ship. Far more traditional cruising.”
For example, “we still keep to a number of formal nights because our passengers do like to dress up. They enjoy the whole process, the formality, of the formal dining experience.”
“We have a very high return of regular passengers who have cruised on Oriana for years. We cater to their tastes. They want to keep the more traditional tastes, more traditional services but over the years, we like to think we have maintained the level of service. What I say to all the crew when I am working with them - - It is important to manage to people's expectations.”
This does not mean that Oriana is stagnant. “We like to think that we have caught up with modern times.”
But managing change can be challenging. To illustrate, for many years, Oriana followed the traditional passenger ship system of two fixed seatings in both of her main dining rooms. “The trouble with that is that you have this flood of people coming out of the restaurants trying to get into the theater. In order to alleviate that problem we did the alternative dining strategy with independent dining [in one of the dining rooms]. You just book a table and turn up when you want. It relieved the stress on the theater and also gave our passengers the opportunity of dining when they wanted to rather than when we wanted them to.”
How did the passengers react to this move? “Initially, not that well but in point of fact [now it is], 'yes captain, we quite like it.' You've got the option. Every challenge has to be managed quite well with repeat passengers. [They have a] picture in their own minds of what they expect. It is a fine balance and it is all about meeting the passengers' expectations.”
In addition to her traditional approach to cruising, Oriana's size attracts passengers. When Oriana entered service in 1995, the star of the fleet was the 49,000 gross ton legend Canberra. At nearly 70,000 tons, in comparison “Oriana was a big ship then. So it is all relative over the years.”
“A lot of people like Arcadia, like Oriana, like Aurora, because of their medium size. They tend to stay with us because of that. They like smaller ships because it is far more personalized.”
Oriana is also developing a new niche - - discovery cruising. Her relatively small size allows her to go to smaller, off-the-beaten path ports that new larger cruise ships catering to the mass market cannot or do not go.
“We are discovering ports. The next cruise is a good example, we are going to Belfast and Stornoway, first time the ship has been there. The trip after that we are going to Scrabster, which is a small fishing port on the north coast of Scotland, it is the first time we have been there. It is a matter of keeping it diverse, interesting and changing. Our passengers have seen and done it all. It is managing to meet the expectations of the passengers who have seen it all and done it all.”
A nautical legend
Oriana has become something of a nautical legend. “The name Oriana, everyone knows it. She is not an ocean liner as such. But she is a cruise ship with a more traditional outline.”
“In her heyday, she was the bees knees. The control system on here, in particular, was innovative and streamlined to be the best. Down below [in the engine room], she is very flexible. You can cross over your engines and your loads.”
Her propulsion plant was designed for fuel efficiency. “She has four main diesel propulsion engines.” These engines are linked to the propeller shafts through through clutches and gearboxes. At the far end of the shafts are controllable pitch propellers on which the angle of the blades can be varied. To simplify, the shafts turn at a constant rate and the speed of the ship is controlled by adjusting the pitch of the propeller blades.
“In essence, you are not slowing down the speed at which the propeller shafts are going, you are just changing the pitch on the propellers, which is a quick way of slowing down. The added advantage is that because you have the engines going at constant speed, you can then use them for electricity. So the fuel saving was quiet significant. She was innovative in that respect.”
A controllable pitch propeller system “has many advantages but as the technology in the shipbuilding industry moved forward, CPP is no longer the thing.”
Because technology has moved on, it is challenging to maintain Oriana's once innovative systems. “You need continuous service up-grades and installing them on the ship is becoming increasingly more expensive and challenging. Then to get the spares for the old system - - companies have gone bust or whatever - - that is proving very challenging.”
Investing in Oriana
Despite the challenges of maintaining an older ship, P&O Cruises is making a significant investment in Oriana with a three week drydock session scheduled for late 2016.
“It is going to be fairly substantial but that reflects the age of the ship and the company's commitment to taking her forward. She is a traditional ship with a very large following. Maintaining that is a very expensive business but she has a very good following.“
The refit will entail “a lot of upgrading and ripping out old systems and putting in new. Trying to bring the ship up to date within the financial challenges of the ship and the life expectation of the ship.”
P&O Cruises is not planning on making radical additions to the ship's public areas. “The ethos of the ship will remain the same. The line up of the ship remains the same. It will just be a matter of upgrading carpets, deckings, lighting, fittings. There will be a lot of aesthetics because our passengers are saying that she is looking a bit old and tired. British people are very traditional. They like to maintain the element of tradition and they don't like surprises. Nice and secure and safe.”
Cruise interview - P&O Cruises - Oriana - Captain Ashley Cook