Credit: Viking

Rocket launches & first world cruise - Viking ship Captain on 'best job in the world'

Author: Grahame Anderson

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Viking Cruises has counted Captain Atle H. Knutsen among its staff since the ocean fleet launch. We interviewed one of Norway’s finest exports to give cruisers a fascinating insight into his role.

Viking cruise ship captain Atle H. Knutsen has served on most vessels in the company and also enjoyed overseeing Viking’s first world cruise in 2018 - but how did he get to where he is today?

As a six-year-old growing up on the West coast of Norway, this future captain’s love affair with the sea really began to make waves on spotting his first cruise ship. Two years later when his father was working at sea, the family joined him on the vessel in Germany where Alte was placed at the helm to help steer the ship. Unbeknown to the youngster, of course, the ship was on autopilot – but the magic took effect.

So began a tide of ambition, and when he wasn’t at school Atle was never far from the docks at Bergen looking at the ships. He eventually started work at the tender age of 15. He learned how to navigate in local Fjords on ferries, eventually training and earning nautical degrees at Maritime academies in Norway.

This charismatic Master mariner also spent two years in the country’s navy as a radio operator, picking up priceless skills along the way.

It’s true to say his experience literally comes from starting at the bottom and working his way up. Life as a deckhand could mean painting, cleaning, mooring and a whole host of other duties as he explained: “It taught me so much about not just all the jobs associated with life on the open sea, but also about working in a team with people from different walks-of-life. This really proved invaluable when moving up the ladder to the bridge."

Atle has served on every Viking ship knowing everything there is to know about how the fleet operates. He has a high reputation for getting the best out of his crew and this also means supervising a large group of talented people.

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Captain Knutsen pointed out: “When cruising we generally carry a crew of between 465 and 472 people. Each one is just as valuable as the other, so we pride ourselves on working as a close-knit team.

“In the days of the super tanker the captain may well have had a slight feeling of isolation, but all that has changed now, and we all need to sleep of course. When we cruise there is always at least one quartermaster on the bridge at any time. The second and third officers are a vital part of the team, and there can be up to six people on the bridge at busy times, so I certainly don’t feel lonely.

“In terms of passengers, we normally welcome between 800 and 900 people aboard. All Viking ships are identical and carry a fantastic amount of food. For example, guests will get through more than 30,000 eggs in one trip. That’s a number I remember well.”

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His love of people also stems from a past life as captain of a private yacht owned by American business magnate David Geffen.

“I was responsible for getting the vessel from A to B for more than two years, but it was a magnificent vessel with room for 18 guests and 50 crew. It proved to be a wonderful experience.”

And there can’t have been many cruise-ship Masters who can boast taking charge of a rocket launching vessel specially designed for the sea. Sea Launch’s Odyssey was a collaboration between the USA, Norway, Russia and Ukraine, facilitating the launch of satellites and technical equipment into space from the equator south of Hawaii.

The Hawaii archipelago is made up of eight major islands and 129 other smaller islands and islets.

He told me: “No-one was left aboard when a launch took place as we were all transferred to a support vessel out of harm’s way for a good few hours. It made for an amazing scene witnessing the power of a 60-metre-high rocket reaching for the heavens. The vessel itself weighed around 500 tons – it was a self-propelled semi-submersible mobile spacecraft launch platform converted from a mobile drilling rig in 1997.”

But it’s clear his real passion is cruising, and in a world where meeting interesting people is the norm, he gets plenty of questions on life at sea.

“People often ask if just like aircraft we are in constant contact with a control centre, but once out at sea we’re left to our own devices though of course we must follow the rules of the ocean just like any other vessel.

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“Once we approach port, there’s radio contact, and these days an electronic chart display and information system or ECDIS is what we use for navigation. Radar can help steer the ship.”

The system is one of the only computers of its kind which complies with the International Maritime Organisation’s stringent safety regulations.

He added: “The days of using charts are gone but I must confess there was nothing quite like mapping out on a chart with dividers and a ruler.

“I have a small boat back at home, so that gives me the chance to have the chart experience and it’s actually a superb way of unwinding, along with my passion for car mechanics.”

Viking cruise ship Captain Atle Knutsen: It’s clear his real passion is cruising. Credit: Viking

When cruising the vessel will hit a steady 14 knots using its two smaller engines – there are also two bigger engines capable of reaching a top speed of 20 knots.

In fact, he fully admits to feeling at his happiest knowing he’s in control of his vessel, and it’s always exciting when entering a new port as he was keen to point out: “I must admit my favourite port is my home port of Bergen because it’s always been special to me.

“When it comes to sightseeing, you actually see much more as a deckhand than being captain, as you spend most of the time on-board, but there can’t be a better job in the world as far as I’m concerned. Each day is different and comes with new challenges – It’s definitely a labour of love and it’s so nice to meet so many amazing people.

Viking cruises feature a range of resident experts and historians, many offering fascinating lectures to the passengers on a plethora of topics. Atle revealed: “We have amazing guest lecturers on board, and I’ve had the great honour and pleasure to have met many of them.

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“Being a Norwegian sailor, I have to admit any topics to do with maritime or the history of the Vikings holds a special interest for me; however, highlighting a particular lecturer would be like picking your favourite child - or in my case, favourite ship.

“To be honest there are so many fantastic ports around the world, but I really enjoyed going into the port of London. There’s always something going on and it can certainly keep you on your toes. The variety is what makes the life of a ship’s Master so wonderful.

“There have been many highlights, but if I had to pick one it would be taking delivery of the Viking Sea. I started my career on cruise ships as a 22-year-old as a deckhand on the Royal Viking Sea. Decades later I had the privilege of taking out her namesake, the Viking Sea, as Master.

“When we brought the ship into Bergen, which is where I was born and raised and where all the Viking Ocean vessels are registered, for the first time the local Captain’s Club presented me with a plaque made from the teak deck, I used to sand and scrub, of the Royal Viking Sea. At that point I knew I had come full-circle in my career.”

Captain Knutsen: “There have been many highlights, but if I had to pick one it would be taking delivery of the Viking Sea." Credit: Viking

Cruising the oceans is without question one of the world’s most exciting experiences, but given the impressive choice of shipping lines, why should people travel with Viking? Atle was in no doubt: “In my opinion, Viking is what cruising is meant to be. They have found a unique niche in the market that appeals to like-minded people.

“The ships are elegant and reflect and honour our Scandinavian heritage. We also have an incredible crew onboard devoted to the product and they consistently deliver the incredible service for which Viking is famous.

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“The Hagen family is personally involved in the success of the company, and it means a lot to me to be working with them rather than working for a large corporation where I would just be another employee. I am proud to be a part of the Viking team and I am excited we are expanding into different areas and types of cruising. Take a liking to Viking is my motto!

“Last year, Viking launched Viking.TV, to enable curious travellers to explore the world from home. we feature extraordinary hosts and guests from around the world on our daily interactive livestream sessions.”

And talent for marketing aside there can be little doubt anyone sailing with this dedicated professional at the helm can rest assured they’ve been in the very best hands. The story of Captain Knutsen’s love of the sea has many more years to run.

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