Meet Ben Lyons, QM2's Chief Officer (part 2)

| July 11, 2008

We interviewed Ben Lyons, at 29 years old and a U.S. citizen, one of youngest chief officers ever hired by Cunard.

Q: So you were in the academy and you were required to work on ships; where did it go from there?

A: During my last two years at the academy, I spent six months at sea and six months at school. My first jobs were not on cruise ships, they were on cargo ships, container ships. I was on a bulk carrier for awhile and even an oil tanker.

Q: Did you find that interesting?

A: Absolutely. At the time I was not even thinking about cruise ships. I had nothing against them and had been on many cruises, naturally, but I was happy doing what I was doing.

Steering Joystick and Pod Accelerators   View Back from the Bridge wing on the QM2   View to the Bow from the QM2 Bridge

Q: It is rare to see American officers on cruise ships. Most lines tend to hire officers of the nation where the company was conceived. Norwegian Cruise Lines hires Norwegians, Holland America hires Dutch, and Carnival uses many Italians and Brits. Cunard tends to use mostly Brits as they were conceived as a solidly British company. So, what happened?

A: There used to be a cruise line called American Hawaii Lines which later merged with Delta Queen and bought the old Holland America ship, Nieuw Amsterdam. They renamed the company United States Lines and re-flagged the Nieuw Amsterdam as The Patriot, a U.S.-flagged ship.

Q: I remember it well. She was the sister ship to the old Noordam, and what Holland America then called the "N-ships." They were two tiny ships of only 34,000-tons and holding about 1,200 passengers apiece.

A: That's right. They acquired her in 2000 and only had about a year of operation before 9/11. Then the company went bankrupt. After that, the Hawaii cruise market went out of business until NCL revived it a few years later. I was working as a deck cadet, making only about $500 a month.

Q: So that was your first experience on a cruise vessel. What did you think about it?

A: I had been brainwashed on the cargo ships not to think of work on a cruise ship as real work, but once I worked on the Patriot, I think I was hooked. I wanted to stay on passenger ships. But after the line went bankrupt there were no U.S. cruise lines of size for awhile. So I spent another year on a cable ship (laying fiber optic cable on the sea floor) and another two years on a cargo ship. I used to take cruises during my vacations. Then in 2003, I got my job with Cunard. I was recommended for the job by the Master of the Cunard QE2, Paul Wright.

Q: How did he come to know about you?

A: I had met him on QE2, having sailed on her a few times, and by the time of the interview, I had a fair amount of experience.

Q: Were you surprised they took you, and what clinched it?

A: I flew to Miami and only had one interview, with Paul Wright. I didn't get the job on the spot but I felt my chances were good. By then the Queen Mary 2 had just been announced and it was to be the first Cunard ship designed with the pod engines, and I already had experience with them on the cargo ships. When I got word I was shocked, I couldn't believe it. I started as a 3rd officer for six months, went to second officer for a year, first officer for a year, and now I am Chief Officer.

The Bridge Wing of the QM2   Realtime Chart Shows Ship's Course Near the Grand Banks Ice Shelf   A Chart Depicting the English System of Cadetship

Q: How long have you been in this position, now, third in command?

A: I am just starting my first contract. This is my second cruise as chief officer.

Q: Now that you are here, what is it about passenger ships that draws you in?

A: It's the people. Without being too crude about ship cargo, they are your cargo, but there is a new element to it, the human element. I love being responsible for the operations of a cruise ship, and "responsibility" is the key word. I am charged with making sure thousands of living, breathing, people get transported form point A to point B. I love everything about having people as my charge; the safety systems, timing the cruise, the use of stabilizers, fire drills, lifeboats, etc. I just see it all now as a valuable service much the same way the old-fashioned ocean liners did. They were lifelines back in the day when people crossed the oceans in them. And that is why I love working on the Queen Mary 2, because she is a true ocean liner, with magnificent equipment, and she is (occasionally) completely under my control.

Q: What else factors in? Is it the social factor of being an officer on a cruise ship? You would rather be with people than barrels of oil?

A: That is part of it, but I spend more time thinking about the ship than the passengers. My main love is operating this ship in a way that I fulfill my part in making sure the passengers are satisfied with what Cunard brings to them. I am responsible for their creature comforts, and for getting them into port on time. I have to monitor the safety systems, think about possible safety procedures, even evacuations, if something were to happen, and so on.

Q: So you think about the things we passengers never have to worry about, because you are already thinking about them for us.

A: That's right, the safety systems, fire fighting, air conditioning, plumbing. When I operate the ship I see it as a self-contained life support system for human cargo.

Q: What is your single most favorite activity in your job?

A: Probably not surprisingly it is navigation. So many things have to be factored in to getting a vessel like this from point A to point B. Although I don't actually plan the routes, I am partly responsible for executing the plan. So, I need to understand what the design of any given route is meant to accomplish. For example, some parts of a route are designed for safety, some for fuel economy, sometimes speed is more important than economy if we need to be docked in a certain place by 6:00 a.m. for example. It is executing every aspect that makes up my job to the best of my ability and that gives me the most satisfaction.

Continue Article >> What is your favorite itinerary? (Part 3)

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