TAMPA, Fla. - She is a formidable dance partner to say the very least.
And yet, Norwegian Cruise Line's 965-foot, 91,000-ton Star cruise ship never misses a step in her tightly choreographed weekly visit to Tampa. It is a dizzying ten-hour turnaround on Sundays; a lesson in efficiency that helps to explain how cruise lines can offer travelers the best value in vacations.
"It's incredible," said David Murray, a Norwegian entertainer.
To those on land who go to bed gazing at the Tampa skyline Saturday night, it will look as if the city gained another building overnight – minus the jackhammers.
The twinkling Star slips into port before dawn each Sunday. Her carefully orchestrated replenishment begins under the cover of darkness and in near silence.
But it is not quiet long.
Just as the sun rises, the first tractor-trailer truck arrives at the pier. Deliveries will drag on for hours. And by the time restocking is complete, a total of 18 big rigs will have helped prepare this ship for its next weeklong sailing.
UNLOADING & LOADING
The scene is one of fast-paced bulk buying like nowhere else. Fruit, vegetables, meat, seafood, and, of course, kegs and kegs and kegs of beer.
"The beer is already in the front of the ship," says Chef Ralston Dyer.
"First in, first out," he jokes. He's the only on one the pier with a bright white chef's hat.
Dyer's job here is to verify that cruise line is getting exactly what it has paid for. He not only has discerning taste, but a keen eye for quality.
"We check each box to make sure there's no spoilage," he said.
In towering a gangway overhead, there's an equally grand shuffle of human cargo. 4,600 passengers will walk the gangway -- 2,300 off, then 2,300 others on.
The captain watches the transition unfold from an even taller vantage point: the bridge.
"Before I think about hospitality, my first priority is safety and security," said Capt. Kenneth Harstrom, master of the Norwegian Star. "It's amazing, the whole logistics."
Aboard the Star, just a floor or two below the brightly-colored restaurants and lounges, lies the white-walled heart of the ship. It is bland by comparison. But what it lacks in color it makes up for in organized chaos.
"We call it I-95," said Hotel Director Yannis Kazalis, no doubt referring to the busy East Coast interstate that stretches from Miami to New York and beyond. The Star's I-95 is a bustling crew-only corridor that stretches three football fields. At varying points throughout the day, it is lined with food, bags, linens employees, or all of the above.
I-95's most eye-popping off-ramp is the ship's gargantuan non-stop laundry.
"It's 24/7," said officer Dennis Gilbuena, who helps oversee the laundry.
Gilbuena notes that the washing machines are so large and powerful that they are poised on hydraulics.
"They can load up to 275 pounds of bed sheets, linens, towels," he said. "At one time."
Nearby, the kitchen is already open for business. Really, though, it is also an around-the-clock operation.
"Good food fast," explains Executive Chef Barrington Burke. The fresh ingredients that were just pulled from the portside big rigs are already on the chopping block.
Burke points to a stainless steel steam table where early preparation is underway for tonight's welcome-aboard dinner.
"This will all be lobster; this will all be steak," he says.
Burke says many meals are made-to-order, so as to reduce waste and contain costs. But Burke says quality is key.
And so, he grills each cook about their contribution to the night's meal. Select servers then taste test each entrée and provide immediate feedback.
They use plastic spoons. And they joke that if the passengers don't eat the lobster, the crew happily will.
It is the stuff of reality TV, but this is real – and it's all part of a carefully crafted routine.
NOT ON THE PIER
A 40-minute drive north of the port the ‘routine' is truly a routine. Inside a nondescript beige building in Wesley Chapel, dancers rehearse the numbers that will soon appear on the cruise ship stage.
Every dancer on every Norwegian ship trains here, in our backyard.
"We have formed an in-house company and we need a place to rehearse all these ships all at once," said Robert Hertenstein, Norwegian's manager of theatrical operations.
It's a homecoming of sorts for Hertenstein. Early in his career, he worked as a Festhaus entertainer at Tampa's Busch Gardens.
The sight of Norwegian's dancers is still a novel to the troop's neighbors.
"We kind of surprise the locals here," said Murray, the dancer.
One surprise aboard the Star is her sprawling top-level suite. At 6,000 square feet, it is 42 times larger than an ordinary stateroom. It boasts its own outdoor play area, including a private spa and sun deck.
Hotel Director Yannis Kazalis stretches his words to understate the sheer opulence.
"It is...quite nice," he says with a grin. "This is the best on the Star."
The indulgence is complete with a concierge and a butler. However, such service comes at a price: roughly $2,000 per day depending on the sailing.
Even better? There are two such behemoth suites on this ship – adjoining one another.
Kazalis says he'll be happy to join them for you. "That way you can have the whole 12,000," he beams.
That's $4,000 a night.
When it is time to go, this model of efficiency remains completely intact. But there is one outsider who ventures inside, by design.
As the 965-ft. long Star navigates the channel from downtown Tampa to the Gulf of Mexico, Master Harstrom is not calling the shots. Instead, it's a local harbor pilot with the con.
"The pilot is intimately familiar with the tides, the currents, and the depth of the water," said Capt. Carolyn Kurtz of the Tampa Bay Pilots Association. Kurtz said it is helpful to have objective eyes on the bridge that are not under the control of the cruise line.
On this particular sailing, the pilot is Rick Van Enige. He stands at the helm surrounded by Harstrom's officers and calls for gentle course corrections to safely pass through Tampa's winding channel. He will steer this Star under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and into the Gulf of Mexico. The voyage takes about four hours in all.
But harbor pilots like Van Enige do not remain aboard the Star for the full seven-night sailing.
Approximately 10 miles west of the Skyway and in the newly dark night sky, Van Enige passes command back to Harstrom. He grabs his gear and rushes downstairs.
Van Enige now literally jumps ship.
A small Pilots Association boat as pulled alongside the Star. It has expertly matched its speed to the cruise ship's, almost as if the two are joined.
Now, through an open hatch just a few feet above the water, Van Enige climbs down a small rope ladder. At the base, he turns and hops onto the waiting boat. The 965-foot ship and the roughly 50-foot pilot boat are just inches apart – chopping through the Gulf in near-perfect sync.
The precision of this maneuver is astounding. There is truly no room for error.
"It can be treacherous, depending on the weather," said the Star's Harstrom. The Star's captain said passengers who are unaware of the pilot often see him or her leaving and fear there are pirates. Harstrom says he chuckles and reassures his startled guests.
With Van Enige now safely aboard the small pilot boat, the Star closes her hatch. The two vessels gently part ways – but only temporarily. They will meet again next Sunday when the whole routine is repeated.