Interview: the Captain Raffaele Russo

34 years spent sailing the World’s sea, 24 of them with the highest-ranking on board an MSC Cruises ship. The Captain born in Piano di Sorrento, Naples, opens the doors of his studio on the deck 12 to answer our questions.

What it means for you and what let you to choose to work on board the cruise ships?

It’s difficult to give a complete answer in a short time, anyway I’ll try to respond in a satisfactory manner. I’m of maritime origins, I come from Piano di Sorrento, with its beautiful beach, where my grandparents and my father were fishermen, but they were also sailors and sail boat enthusiasts, so since my birth in my DNA there is passion of the sea. I attended after primary school, the Nautical Institute Nino Bixio and once graduated I started my career with the Flotta Lauro. In 1982 I entered MSC, starting command aboard cargo ships, then to container ships, sailing for most part of the world: China, Korea, Japan, South Africa and many others country. After these experiences, the Company has offered me a chance to take command of passenger ships, so once on board i was in another world but I liked it and still like it.

What are your responsibilities?

Commander’s responsibilities are the same on all types of ships, however, there are many differences between the cargo ships and passenger ships, a container ship works with 20 or 25 people of crew maximum and no passengers, while on a cruise ship, and specifically here on MSC Poesia, we have to manage about 4000 people and 1000 of crew. So take care of a ship like this is more difficult, it entails more obligations and I can’t absolve them all alone. For the Navigation Code I’m the only one responsible for everything that happens on board, I have a team of collaborators that helps me, the officers, the second commander and other figures with specific expertise, they helps me in all the management of this hotel on the water of 5+ stars. My figure coordinates the whole ship’s process, even my team, because by definition the Commander is the leader of the expedition and he should always ensure the secure navigation of the ship and that it has the galley well stocked for all needs before it leaves the port and begin the journey. That’s why I lead the officers involved in each sector, which inform and assist me in control practices and management of the ship, all activities governed by the Navigation Code, with rights and duties of the role that I cover on the ship.

In addition to your responsibilities that you have explained what other special roles the Commander plays on board?

Many people mistakenly think that the Captain plays its role only on the bridge to lead the ship from one port to another and for the other areas that I’ve just listed, but it’s not so. The Captain performs other functions, for example the figure of Civil State Officer with which I can celebrate weddings. The wedding on board can have two functions: symbolic, during a peaceful holiday; or with an effective value if celebrated in an imminent danger of death, with the presence of witnesses and it is noted on the logbook. This last type of celebration has all the effective value.

How is your typical day?

Let’s start saying that my work on cruise ship is not comparable to that of a simple office on the ground with timetabled hours and established business hours. My typical day changes depending on circumstances: if we are in port or we are in navigation. For example, if there is a day with bad weather conditions, for the Maritime Navigation regulations and for the SOLAS (Safety Of Life At Sea, an international convention of Maritime International Organization, which serves to protect the navigation safety, with reference to the safety of life at sea), I can’t leave the bridge, I have to coordinate maneuvers and all operations on the deck, so that navigation is safe. This is for the departing and for the entire navigation’s too. Another example is he when we are in port and there are events that are held on board, as this morning, for example with your interview, that honours me, with the meeting of some Travel Agents, journalists, artists and the Port Authorities that I must follow, they controls the security systems on board. In addition there is the administration work, like in a real office, where I read the E-Mails that I receive from the Company and by the various agencies. I must also provide to sign documents relating to personnel that embarks or disembarks, if there are also licenses or particular procedures if there is a medical emergency.

Captain, under the last thing you said us, that is the example of a medical emergency, you can shortly describe how you manage a particular moment like this?

If we are still in port, the passenger receive the first aid in our ship’s hospital, where the doctor does an examination and evaluation of an initial diagnosis, filling a medical record that will deliver to employees of the rescue vehicle, meanwhile I call, via our agency, an ambulance for an immediate transport to the most suitable hospital near the port, where they will ensure appropriate care for the passenger. There are more difficulties if the ship is at sea. Near the coast we can reach the Coast Guard, who comes to us with a patrol boat or a helicopter according to the urgency or severity of the passenger an they levying. If we are on high seas, we can do the same procedure but with the satellite communication, and the passenger is picked up by the helicopter.

What do you love most about your job?

I love everything about my job, I love it in all kind of situations. As I said I love the sea, I was born and lived in a seaside town and so I could not work “at sea”! My house is right on the beach, wave’s sound is part of my life.

Besides the current command of MSC Poesia, which other ships in the fleet have you got to work? What is your favourite?

I don’t have a favourite ship among all those I’ve been in command, I’m fine as long as there is a quite and harmonious relationship with the crew. For me, the ship is very important, it is my home during working days, I love meeting people that make me a big smile, this makes me very happy and makes me prefer all ships in which I cover my function, for me it creates a feeling and a real symbiosis with the ship and all that regards it, I can only say, and I think you will understand, although I love my work, my favourite ship still remain my house on the ground.

The pilot who comes on board when the ship enters or leaves the port or pass in a channel, how he interacts with you, what role he plays on the bridge?

We must change the common belief that when a cruise ship is near a port, the pilot comes on board and commands the ship all alone, bringing the ship to dock. According to the Navigation Code, the pilot suggest to the Commander the route to follow and gives advice on docking procedures in a port, because he is “the practicos del puerto” as it is called by the Spanish, who from the word definition makes us understand that it is a person who has a good knowledge of the port, marine currents included. But this doesn’t mean that the Commander can’t enter the harbour without the pilot’s help, also because there are some ports, such as in the United Arab Emirates, where there isn’t the pilot’s figure, then the Commander maneuver equally by itself with the only help of charts and instruments on the bridge, which allows to bring the ship safely to the dock. Then the pilot is simply a support to the Commander, because according to the board hierarchy, he is likened to a First Officer, and he hasn’t any responsibility in the maneuvers, such has the Commander instead. Finally, the pilot obligation applies on ships above 500 gross tonnage, the Port Authority does not allows (for compliance with applicable rules on navigation) entry without this figure to vessels that exceed the relevant measure. To conclusion, the pilot who’s normally a former officer who has attended a piloting course is to support at the maneuvers, but always remains the Commander to operate. Even so, the pilot on board don’t know all the cruise ships, from the technologically advanced equipment.

What are the most difficult ports where dock? What is your favourite?

I can give a generic answer, ships are becoming larger, while the ports remains of the same size, so I would say that all the ports are to be approached very carefully, understanding that in those small ports a large ship cannot enter. So when we planning a port call, the “Port Captain”, who coordinates us and is interested in the dock, he goes first and he visit the sea area where we’ll have to moor, and then we have the ok to dock in the harbor. Or if a port is very tight, or in bad weather conditions, with strong wind and sea current, there are special precautions to be implemented: the ship remains at anchor, and take passengers on an excursion on the ground with the tenders or in case of bad weather, the captain may decide to skip the step and continue to the next port.

Can you tell us the weirdest thing that a guest asked you?

One day, while I was passing on a deck, a passenger stopped me and asked me: “Commander, I have to visit your cabin!”, To which I responded: “I’m sorry ma’am but that’s my private area!” she pressed, “no, no Commander I absolutely have to see, I’m curious and I do so!”, puzzled for a moment I tried to dissuade the lady, making her understand that it wasn’t the case and she could not, but she insisted saying: “but Commander, they told me that your cabin can be visited by all the passengers!”, at that point, I realized she had confused the bridge with the Commander’s cabin.

About the innovations of the Company (MSC Seaside, MSC Meraviglia) what do you think?

The cruise sector is expanding more and more and the need for larger and high-tech ships presses greatly, so it is implementing a more advanced standard, to make real also the wishes of the passengers, who are hungry for novelty. The new ships that will be launched are spectacular floating city with all kinds of comfort and fun, yet I remain committed to the charm of the old small ships. Because they’re less dispersive, we all knew from since the start of the cruise and we became from the first day of sailing like a big family, but also for the unique construction of the interior, which reminds me of my birthplace in a sea location. The small cruise ships also gave me the opportunity to stay more with passengers, in fact, often after having familiarized with cruise passengers, it often happened that I was invited to visit them in their places of residence and spend a weekend with them, thing that I’ve done and they still call me on the phone to greet me. Even during the navigation’s days, I entertained them and taught the sailors knots, macramè, to carve or engrave the wood to create pieces of art and their liked it so much and they were quite numerous participating. Practically I transmitted my hobby to passengers.

Why do you think people who love travelling on a cruise should choose this Company?

Because the passenger is pampered and the crew is attentive to the needs of the cruiser. We are a big family and I am part of it since 34 years, including 24 as Commander. I noticed, going from cargo to cruise ships that passengers really needs the human touch and I often stop to chat with them and I’m very happy about it. I believe that this attention and ensure make the choice on this Company.