Behind the Scenes on the Westerdam

We love technology, how things work, and digging in behind the scenes and so an important part of our trip around the world in a small boat has included stops to tour ice breakers, mines, manufacturing plants, container ships. We even tried our hands at the helm of a 5,000 HP tractor tug. Some highlights from this interest:


Last summer I got a chance to tour the Holland America Westerdam. The Westerdam works the Seattle to Alaska route during the summer months and when I visited, the boat was docked at Pier 99 in Seattle. Each Sunday during the summer the ship arrives in and docks at 6am, the entire load of 1,848 passengers and tons of baggage are disembarked, a similar load is brought back on board, the ship is provisioned to keep the 1,848 passengers and 800 crew well fed and happy for a week, and somehow the ship leaves the dock at 4pm that afternoon. All this is done in only 10 hours on the dock. Just watching the logistics team at the dock is exciting.

This is the butchering and meat preparation area on Westerdam. I asked the forklift operator if she had any idea when she was a kid that she was destined to grow up and drive a Lamborghini at work.
One of the many store areas that need to be fully loaded during the 10 hours the boat will be at dock. In this short period they need all that is needed to keep 1,848 passengers well fed and happy and the 800 person crew will all they need for the week as well. These stores need to be loaded fast but they also need to be secured against pitching and rolling if the ship encounters rough seas as it heads north to Alaska in the open ocean outside of Vancouver island.

The Westerdam is an impressive feat of engineering. It is powered by three V16 diesel engines each producing 15,400 hp and two V12 diesels producing 11,575hp each. It also has a GE LM2500 gas turbine producing a booming 18,760 hp by itself. The ship is a diesel electric design much like large train locomotives where the engines drive generators and the propulsion is via electric motors. This is very common in cruise ships and it allows them to adjust the number of engines running to match the combined hotel load (the electric power required by the ship itself) and propulsion for increased efficiency. At high speeds, more engines are needed and at dock fewer are needed. It also allows engines to be taken out of service without impacting speed or the power available for on-board consumption. At some docks including the Seattle Pier 99 facility, power is supplied directly to the Westerdam via large cables so the engines don’t need to run at all, improving the air quality in the area.

One of the multiple turbo chargers from one of the five diesel engines. One cylinder bank from a 15,400 hp V16 diesel engine.
One cylinder head of one of the 5 massive diesel engines on Westerdam. The 40 kn crane used to service the 6 engines and generators on Westerdam.

The gas turbine on the Westerdam is a bit less common. It was installed when the Westerdam was built to ensure the ship would be in compliance with expected regulations disallowing any visible exhaust smoke. It didn’t end up being needed and, since the other 5 diesel engines are much more fuel efficient, they are used exclusively. The gas turbine is maintained and available if needed but, in normal operation, it is not used.

General Electric LM2500 gas turbine generator. Injection lines and control system from the GE LM2500 gas turbine.

To propel and maneuver the ship, there are two Asea Brown Boveri (ABB) azipods at the stern capable of producing up to 24,000 hp each when operating forward. At full output, these engines will turn the props at 142 RPM and attain a ships speed of 24 kts (27.6 MPH). When maneuvering, the two props can be rotated through 360 degrees and, in this mode, output is limited to a still very high 13,500 hp each. At the bow of the ship, there are three bow thrusters to move the boat sideways while docking. These are also electric motors driving props and each can produce 2,500 hp.

One of the Azipods. Below this pod is a 24,000 hp electric motor running one of the two main props. The Azipod can rotate through 360 degrees allowing the boat to powered forward, backward, toward a dock, or any other direction. In the hands of a skilled operators, these two pods at the back of the Westerdam can move the boat in any direction including directly sideways through skilled use of opposing thrust vectors from the two units. The dual redundant electric motors that run the hydraulic pumps that control the rotation of the 24,000 hp ABB azipods.

The Westerdam is one of 11 Vista Class Cruise Ship and it was built by the Italian shipyard Fincantieri Marghera for Holland America Cruise Lines and it was delivered in 2004. The ship is a Panamax design so (just barely) capable of navigating the Panama Canal at 936′ long and 105.8′ wide. It draws up to 26′ and comes in at 81,811 gross tons.

Beside the ship, it’s absolutely massive but those that have been at the helm of even small boats, it really feels huge when seen from the bridge. The captain has to be incredibly precise to ease this nearly quarter-mile-long vessel up to the dock. And, to make things truly challenging, the passenger loading dock at Seattle’s Pier 99 doesn’t move so the boat has to nail the disembarkation mark precisely from 100s of feet away.

Looking across the breadth of the Westerdam bridge. It’s a very big boat. Bridge Wing Thruster and Azipod controls
Bridge RADAR and ECDIS (Electronic Chart Display and Information System)

The view from the bridge wing is incredible. From here you are actually out over the dock in a part of the bridge that extends out beyond the side of the ship. It’s almost scary in that you standing on a glass floor surrounded by just about only glass with all the controls for the azipods and thrusters at hand. It is from here that the captain brings in the ship very carefully metering out thousands of potential hp to gently draw to a stop up against the dock. The combination of azipods and bow thrusters allow the ship to be docked without tug assistance. But one false move, and a few million dollars of damage will result. If you get a chance to watch a cruise ship docking, put binoculars on the bridge wing to see a master at work.

The view the Captain has when docking the Westerdam. This is from the starboard bridge wing. This glass bottomed bridge extension protrudes out beyond the side of the boat which really helps. The challenge is he also need to line the boat up fore and aft with pedestrian walkway just visible in the distance behind the white crew walkway. Most shore side facilities are able to slide fore and aft to accommodate different boat positions but, in Seattle, the Captain needs to get it right. If you look carefully at the row of semi-spherical lights down the side of the boat, you will see that one is painted red. He needs to line up the red painted light with the pedestrian walkway base while docking the boat. Easy :) This is the reason the side of the Westerdam is unblemished and shiny white. The Westerdam Captain needs to be aware of depth risk, on shore risk, currents, wind conditions, listen to the pilot, and get position information from the crew and give line handling commands while bringing a 936′ vessel up against the dock without tractor tug assist (the crew hates those nasty black marks the tugs leave).

As an example of running the ship from the bridge wing, here’s is a shot of the bridge of a cruise ship passing closely beside us at Margerie Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska. The captain had radioed us to assure us he was going to be careful and he inched past at less than 2 knots but so close we could talk to passengers on the lower decks without yelling.

Looking up to the bridge of the Sea Princess as the ship inches by us at Margerie Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska.

Thanks to the entire crew of the Westerdam, but especially the Captain for the detailed bridge tour and the Chief Officer who was incredibly generous with his time and really showed me the details of how the Westerdam worked. It’s an amazing ship.

More reading:

Westerdam Fire Warning System Backup Analog Fire Warning Systems
The main engine control room. Looking across the main engine control room with the engineering staff keeping an eye on things.
The main oiling system on a V16 diesel showing current oil temperatures, oil filter restriction, oil cooler operation, oil tank level, and the spot temperatures each crankshaft main bearing throw. The electrical room where power from all 6 generators is managed.
The Westerdam IT center where many internet and many video channels are managed and distributed throughout the ship. The machine shop where custom parts and replacement equipment can be fabricated.
The least desirable job on Westerdam. This job requires suiting up in a disposable suit and air filtration system to go inside the sediment tanks where the waste fuel substances that have settled off or been filtered out of the heavy oil the ship runs on when off shore. I asked the Chief how late and how often you have to sleep in to earn this job :-).


If your comment doesn't show up right away, send us email and we'll dredge it out of the spam filter.

15 comments on “Behind the Scenes on the Westerdam
  1. Tim C says:

    BTW – looks like “Tim’s” are the most interested in this post! :>)

  2. Tim C says:

    Great write-up James. Brought back a flood of memories from early in my career when I was GE’s lead systems engineer for the US Navy’s DDG-51 Destroyer Machinery Control System. We had responsibility for all propulsion, electrical plant and damage control systems. Four LM2500’s – can’t say her top speed but she could get up and go. I appreciate you taking the time to write-up these articles.

    BTW – how is your Raspberry Pi project working out? I’m heading down and arduino path right now with cellular connectivity for my basic monitoring system. Have found Wifi to still be quite unreliable in marinas and I don’t have the advanced communication systems you have on Dirona. I will probably throw the Pi back in with Wifi for those instances when connectivity is good. Just need to experiment some more.

    Safe travels!

  3. Tim H says:

    Thanks James for the tour. Interesting that they have the LM2500 installed but don’t use it much. That gas turbine is installed in many US Navy war ships. But I guess the Navy is not as fuel conscious as the cruise ships industry.

    I wonder why that once the ship is dock and aligned with passenger walkway, they don’t paint a mark on the pier directly under the bridge wing?

    • Yes, the gas turbines are used on Navy ships and I’ve seem them on ice breakers as well. But most of the designs I’ve seen have both diesel and turbine power and only use the turbines when full power is demanded when ice breaking or running at flank speed. Turbines are beutiful engines with impressive power to size ratios, nearly unbeatable power to weight ratios, and low maintenance requirements. But, it’s hard to beat the cost effectiveness of heavy oil burning diesels.

      • Alex Goodwin says:

        James, yet another possibly-dumb question: Do you know if that LM2500 also doubles up as an analogue to Dirona’s wing engine – something mechanically as diverse as possible to ensure that das Boot still have _some_ power?

        Not something you would necessarily want to rely on for a long period of time, but enough to leave you very confident of getting home.

        • Yes, absolutely. All the cruise ship engines effectively backup the rest. It’s a deisel electric so has 6 generators that run the hotel loads as well as the two main props and the 3 bow thrusters. They run the number of generators needed for the expected load. Any of the generators can be brought down with the rest of the generators supporting the load. Taking a couple of generators off line won’t have much impact on the overall capabilities of the boat.

          The more common large cruise ship design is to have 6 diesel generators. This ship is a bit less common wiht 5 diesels and the turbine with the turbine able to carry the entire load allowing all the rest of the engines to be off line. Diesel electric gives up a bit in efficiency over mechanical drive but it’s super versatile and space efficient.

      • Marc King says:

        Spruance class (DD-963) destroyers used 4 LM2500’s for propulsion. 2 per shaft. Of course through very large reduction gears.

        • 4 LM2500s? Now that is a smokin’ fast boat. It’s amazing what tax dollars in large concentrations can achieve :-)

          • Tim H says:

            The LM2500 was a work-horse for the US Navy during the 80s and 90s. More than 800 were installed in US ships (FFG-7s had two, CG-47, DD-963, and DDG-51s all had four LM2500s).

            Newer US warships are going with a different gas turbine and diesel combination.

            I remember we swapped out an LM2500 engine in less than 24 hours. The engine modules were located on tracks allowing the engine to be ‘rolled’ up the exhaust stack (with the assist of a crane).

            • The LM2500 more than 50 years after it’s first release is still getting heavy use. It’s hard to get 25,000+ HP in a smaller and lighter package. They are reliable and can fit in a shipping container. But efficiency advantages will continue to have reciprocating engines winning for commercial shipping.

              • Louis Messer says:

                Celebrity’s Millenium class ship use a pair of 2500+ and the exhaust gas heat is partially recovered by a boiler and steam turbine boosting the total efficiency to almost 50%. That is a little better than these diesels. However the turbines require jet fuel which is a lot more expensive than the bunker oil the diesels use.

                • Interesting design point on the Celibrity Milleium use of a pair of gas turbines. There are lots of upsides to the design including no visible exhaust, far smaller than comparable output reciprocating engines, higher efficiency, and long life between overhauls. You covered the downside, they need to run on jet fuel rather than being able to chose to run on either diesel or bunker crude. I would think that even extremely efficient running on jet fuel would be more expensive than reciprocating engines on bunker crude. There is no question that the turbines are better for the environment. Given that fuel is a high percentage of overall ship operating costs, I’m surprised the turbines came out ahead on the Millenium class ships. Thanks for passing that along Louis.

    • Louis Messer says:

      Because that would be unique to Westerdam. Many cruise ships use this same pier, and each one would need a unique mark. The port would not allow this, and their would be cases of mix up.

  4. Timothy Daleo says:

    Great article and thank you for taking the time to document the ship tour. I have always wanted to do the one on Royal Caribbean but they charge $150! It is amazing that they can offload, clean and prepare the ship starting at 8:00 am and leave by 5:00 pm with so much precision. It is also amazing whether you are here in Pasadena at my cafeteria, on a cruise ship in Seattle or watching the sunset in St. Lucia we all end up eating Sysco.

    • We used to live at Pier 66 in Seattle and during the cruise ship season, we got 3 ships a week arriving at 6am and sailing at 4pm Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Having watched them load countless times it was fun watching it from the other side. They have fast loading and stowing down to a fine art.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.