It is unusual to see airplane pilot's wings on a cruise ship captain's jacket. However, Captain Aseem A. Hashmi, is fully entitled to wear them. Growing up, Captain Hashmi's ambition was to fly and so he began his working career as a pilot flying Boeing 737s for British Airways. However, a downturn in the airline industry affecting many pilots led him to change course and go to sea. “Like any industry with cutbacks, you have to make a decision and go for it.”
The first stop on his new career path was as a deck officer cadet on the legendary Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2). Rising through the ranks, he has served on Cunard Countess, Cunard Dynasty, Royal Viking Sun, Sagafjord, Vistafjord, Caronia, Atlantic Conveyor (Cunard's last cargo ship) and all three of Cunard's current Queens. Along the way, he has become a passionate student of Cunard's 178 year history and even gives lectures about Cunard's history on longer voyages.
In addition to serving on Cunard ships, Captain Hashmi commanded the Arcadia of Cunard's sister line P&O Cruises. However, Captain Hashmi is quick to point out Arcadia was at one time intended for Cunard. “She was supposed to be the original Queen Victoria. If you look in the sunlight at the aft end of the ship, you can see the lettering Queen Victoria where it was ground off and Arcadia welded on. So for me, deep down, it was still Queen Victoria. It was a nice ship, different brand, different history, different traditions.”
In 2013, Captain Hashmi received the Merchant Navy Medal from the United Kingdom's First Sea Lord in recognition of his contribution to safety in the maritime industry. In addition to giving talks on safety, Captain Hashmi has introduced aviation-style checklists and procedures to his ships.
While he still occasionally wears his wings on formal occasions, Captain Hashmi does not miss flying. “Not when you have this, not when you have all of this,” he laughed while looking around at one of Queen Elizabeth's public spaces.
A unique ship
“Guests always ask me what's your favorite ship. I answer: 'The ship I am on.' If I were any other rank, I might say this ship or that ship. As captain it is different - - it is your ship. What you make of it is down to you. The success is down to you, and if anything is behind or not what you want it to be, it is also down to you. You are responsible.. As captain, it is yours. So this is my favorite ship.”
“Just like when the QE2 came out in 1969, people tried to compare her to the original Queen Elizabeth. Yes, there were parts of the original Queen Elizabeth there but she was meant to be a total new entity. No one likes change but people grew fond of her over 40 years. When guests come on this ship, I tell them that it is not meant to be the QE2, this is the Queen Elizabeth. It has some bits of the QE2 and some bits of the original Queen Elizabeth but this ship will develop her own character. It takes a couple of years to settle down and develop her character like any child “
“It is very unique and special and a privilege as captain, for guests and the crew to be on a ship with her majesty's name on the bow in her lifetime, in her reign. That gives it an edge. When you talk to any member of the ship's company and ask what do you do, I almost guarantee that they will say: 'I work on the Queen Elizabeth, I work for Cunard, and I am a steward or technician, electrician or bar waiter. They first identify themselves with the ship and the brand and then whatever their profession is. That's a difference I've found between our ship's complement and [other ships].”
“The passengers onboard and the crew onboard are the soul of the ship.” Not only does Queen Elizabeth have a high percentage of repeat passengers but “most of our crew are repeat crew. They come back again, again and again. We just had a long service award ceremony we gave 20 long service awards for 10 years, one 30 years and one 40 years.”
Cruising on your terms
As noted earlier, Captain Hashmi is quite passionate about Cunard. He sees a voyage on a Cunard ship as being much different than a cruise on other lines.
“They come into port and open the gangways and it is just hundreds and hundreds of people coming off. You queue to come on, come off, queue for the buffet, queue for the show, queue for this and that.. In a comparable size ship, you can have more than 30 percent more guests aboard and 20 percent less crew. The [passenger to crew] ratio increases geometrically and you can have 4 to 1 whereas here it is 2 to 1.”(In the cruise industry, a lower passenger to crew ratio is considered an indication of better service).
“Because you are on holiday, you don't want to be running around - - some people, it might suit them but there are other lines for them. At least on this ship, Queen Victoria and Queen Mary 2, you do as much as you want or find your own little corner and do as little as you want.on your terms, not on our terms. That's the difference.”
Perhaps more than any other cruise line, Cunard emphasizes its history and traditions but that is only part of the story. “Everyone looks back but while looking back we need to move forwards. It is a forward journey. Cunard has always been forward looking. You can build on the past but you need to move forward and that's the way you survive as an entity, You can't just go on the brand and the lion symbol, you have to be out there and listen to the guest.”
Today, guests are telling Cunard that they want choices. “Choice is the key word. Cunard has been trying hard to go back to the principle of giving all the guests a vacation on your terms and not dictate you should be eating here, you need to go there. You're not in school anymore. We are not Freestyle like NCL but choice, making sure you have enough choice. We try and fit around your desires.”
To illustrate, Cunard recently changed its dress code, replacing the term “formal” with “gala.”
“It comes down to the principle: vacation on your terms. A large portion of our guests like dressing up, which is what Cunard encourages, but also some guests may not feel like dressing up that day and we don't want them to feel excluded. If they do not want to dress up in their finery they can go to certain parts of the ship [like] the casual dining venues and the Golden Lion Pub. They don't have to stay in their stateroom and have room service. Before, if it were a formal night, if you were not dressed up in your finery, apart from the buffet and your stateroom, it was inappropriate for you to be out and about. So it has given some choice but still tries to retain the general ambiance. That's one with a lot of feedback from the guests - - keep the formality and standards but give us a choice. That's the key word - - guest choice.”
At the same time, Cunard replaced the term “informal” with “smart attire” in the dress code. “It used to cause a lot of confusion. 'Informal' - - a lot of our guests thought that [meant] totally dress down. Formal meant finery and informal meant the total opposite, which it did not. 'Smart attire' means more presentable attire when out in public, not jeans, vests [i.e. undershirts] and t-shirts. That was what we were trying to address. Even in the casual venues like the Golden Lion, the Lido or the Wintergarden in the evening it is not appropriate to wear shorts, cutoff sleeves or vests. I think the guests accept that because they have their choice. Its giving choice but keeping standards.”
Cruise ship intervew - - Cunard Line - - Queen Elizabeth - - Captain Aseem Hashmi