Thursday 23rd February, the day after our 31st wedding anniversary, we were up with the birds. The cruise liner, Norwegian Star, was making its inaugural visit to Wollongong, berthing at Port Kembla.
This was the fourth cruise ship to visit our shores, following on from the Radiance of the Seas (October 30th, 2016 ) and two calls from the Voyager of the Seas (December 27, 2016 and January 18, 2017). Each time, Bill and I have donned our T-Shirts and Caps designating us as volunteer ambassadors and headed into town to welcome the passengers and crew.
The first time, we were “volunteer information assistants” part of the large contingent posted around the city to provide advice as required. Here is a short video from that day, including an ad-hoc interview from yours truly. I’m not sure how many takes we needed to make it look this easy – just rest assured, it was not!
The Norwegian Star was an unscheduled visit and was coming to us with a bit of history. During December and again in January it had developed engine propulsion issues, and rather than off-load passengers and send the ship to dry-dock, the decision was taken to send engineers to repair it on board which threw its schedule out of whack. Subsequently it suffered the greatest indignity for a world-class liner; it completely lost propulsion en route to Tasmania and had to be towed back to Melbourne. It was quite something to watch the news footage of two little tugboats pulling a 294 meters (965 ft) long ship through several hundred kilometres of open waters.
So we were expecting that we were going to have to win the passengers over to enjoying Wollongong, but that was not our experience at all. After the first vessel visit, Destination Wollongong had negotiated that the shuttle busses bringing people from port-side to city-centre could have a volunteer on-board. I had landed the job as ‘team leader’ and Bill as one of the hosts on board. As Team Leader I get to have a white T-shirt, and I joke to everybody that signifies I am the boss – because I can be trusted to keep the shirt clean. Why? Because everyone knows the bosses never get their hands dirty, ‘cos they don’t do any work. I completed the look by running around with a clipboard and pen, trying to keep track of the number of visitors.
One of the ‘gimmes’ of this role is that shuttle hosts get to go port-side where I allocate each volunteer a bus, and they accompany the passengers back into town, giving them an introductory and orientation talk along the way. It is a great privilege to get up close to the ship, as it is a secure working port, but we can’t wander around the dock, hence I could only snap a portion of the vessel from the bus door. The early morning sun is glinting off a top deck as we wait for the crew to organise barricades and start handing over the passengers a busload at a time. What is not in shot is all the refrigerated and container trucks providoring the vessel. Twenty tonne forklifts whizzing around is another reason to be careful about where one walks!
What a fabulous group of people we welcomed from Norwegian Star! They came from the UK, America, Germany, Venezuela, Brazil, Singapore, Philippines and many other countries. Nearly 600 elected to go on shore excursions – which meant that many of the experienced shuttle hosts were diverted to a role as “tour-guide Barbie“. I tried to get picked for that but told I was too valuable in my current role. Again I joked – “wish it was as hard to get sacked from a paying job”, but I have to confess, I do enjoy organising the other volunteers, keeping track of the busses pulling in and out every few minutes, and mingling with the passengers as they are coming and going. Another 1400 or so passengers and crew decided to come and see what Wollongong had to offer.
They were all so enthusiastic and many took the time to give us positive feedback and to thank us. I kept hearing over and over, “we heard Wollongong is the friendliest city in Australia and it’s true!” As the day wore on and the tide turned to passengers returning to the ship, we had many photographs taken with various groups of happy campers.
Perhaps it was all due to one of our local women. Jennifer Gray is a fabulous entertainer who includes cruise ship performances in her repertoire. From Melbourne, the Norwegian Star had travelled on to New Zealand, and she had boarded in Auckland, booked to do a number of shows on board. Out of the blue she was asked to present a talk on Wollongong before arrival. Three hundred lucky passengers heard what she had to say, and many must have told others. Jennifer was such a hit that Norwegian Star has invited her back on board, and she flies out tomorrow to rejoin the ship in Singapore. This article from the Illawarra Mercury explains more.
(If you are interested to know the lyrics of the song she is singing in the Australia Day video, I am Australian, you can find them here.)
Well, the T-shirts are now washed and ironed, ready for another day. Although we don’t expect another cruise liner until much later in the year, we do hope we have done our bit to promote our patch. Locally, the Wollongong Ambassador Program has been recognised by receiving the Community Group Award in our recent Australia Day celebrations, so we are basking in that glory.