You know your career’s going well when you’re having lunch with Prince Philip, chatting away about your job, having just escorted him and his wife (or the Queen as she’s also known) around a ship you’re the captain of, and which she just officially named (it’s called Britannia and it’s Britain’s biggest ever cruise ship). So yes, Captain Paul Brown is doing well.
‘I sat at lunch with Prince Philip and we spoke at length of seafaring and the many changes that have taken place over the years both in terms of equipment, design and most importantly the welfare of the crew,’ Paul tells us, employing a habitual modesty.
He’s come an awful long way since his childhood in Kingston upon Hull, where he grew up on the banks of the Humber, developing his affinity with the sea while watching ships entering the port and leaving for foreign, presumably exotic, shores.
‘Living in a major sea port, the thought of working at sea was a schoolboy dream,’ says Paul, who’s now 50 and lives in West Sussex. ‘Seeing the ships arrive from all over the world and then sail off to new destinations always intrigued me.’
At the age of 13 he joined Hull Trinity House Navigation School, after which he signed up to the Merchant Navy. In 1982 he joined BP’s tanker division to complete his cadetship, before becoming part of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. In 1989, an opportunity to join P&O Cruises came up, so he applied, got the job and over the next 18 years steadily rose through the ranks, during which time he’s seen more of the world than most of us ever will.
‘I’ve been incredibly lucky to visit some amazing far flung destinations around the world,’ he says, ‘Especially on our full world cruises. It’s not just the ports you get to visit, but the viewpoint from the ship is often better than anywhere else. For example, there’s nothing like sailing past the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco with the fog rolling in, or coming into berth in Sydney at dawn hugged either side by the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the iconic Opera House. It’s truly breathtaking.’
Not that he’s just been sitting back to admire the view. He’s gradually become one of the stars of the maritime world, having been promoted to Deputy Captain of Aurora in 2003, and in 2007, after 25 years at sea, becoming her Captain. Since then he’s mastered several other ships (all huge, all cruise ships), and it was in 2013 that P&O announced the commissioning of Britannia, inviting applications from all the captains of its fleet. After what Paul describes as a ‘rigorous’ process, he was chosen.
Since then he’s been busy ‘familiarising’ himself with the design and layout of Britannia, suggesting amendments to the design of the bridge and deck equipment, making changes to the itinerary (with an eye on both passenger experience and operational efficiency), and taking part in sea trials to ensure the ship is able to do what it’s expected to do.
‘There are lots of challenges,’ he explains, ‘However, I’ve spent much time in a simulator in the Netherlands with the whole bridge team which has been very beneficial. In the simulator we were able to practise entering and departing several of the ports we’re visiting in the maiden season. The simulator also allowed us to experience varying environmental conditions be it wind, tidal stream, current or reduced visibility to test the capabilities of the Britannia. So we have tested the ship, and ourselves, to the limit so that we’re fully prepared for manoeuvring a ship of this size.’
Oh yes, the size. It’s a 141,000-tonne ship, which means little to most of us. What means more is that there are 3,600 passengers on board, looked after by a crew of 1,350. If that still doesn’t mean anything, just look at the pictures. Meanwhile, the significance of the ship was cemented by the fact that it was officially named by the Queen in March. It was during that ceremony in Southampton that Paul welcomed the Queen and Prince Philip aboard, then escorted them around the ship. He also introduced the Queen and Prince Philip to some of the crew members.
‘I was delighted that they both took the time to stop and talk to many members of the ship’s company including chefs, waiters, cabin stewards and bar staff, as well as a number of the senior officers,’ says Paul.
After that ceremony the ship set sail on its maiden voyage around the Mediterranean and Paul’s duties became a little less glitzy. His day usually starts around 7.30am with the reading of emails and checking on the ship’s overnight progress and weather conditions. He’ll have breakfast in the Officers’ Mess, passing through the crew areas on the way, to make himself ‘visible and accessible’. After breakfast he stops by the Engineers’ Office for a technical update and to get fuel and water consumption figures. Then he calls the Hotel General Manager for an update on passenger issues and the commercial performance of the shops and so on. As Paul tells us, his job is about much more than knots and steering.
There are also a lot of meetings to attend. He chairs meetings of the senior management team, during which they discuss how each part of the ship is performing. He has meetings with the crew regarding health, safety and security. And once a week he does what he describes as a ‘crew round’, during which all the ship’s crew cabins are entered and inspected to ensure they’re clean, hygienic and well maintained.
As well as having responsibility for all that, he’s also expected to attend social functions and cocktail parties (he sticks to still water while at sea). Paul says he tries to attend as many functions as he can to meet the passengers and hear their comments regarding the ship and its staff, though sometimes his busy work schedule makes attendance difficult. Similarly, he says he’s too busy to make use of the ship’s spa and other leisure facilities – ‘I simply don’t have the time,’ he says.
It sounds tiring, and he tells us that it is, especially as he’s continuously on call, though he’s quick to clarify that although he does get tired, he never tires of it.
‘I love my job,’ he says, ‘And I couldn't imagine doing anything else.’
‘After 33 years at sea,’ he adds, ‘This is the pinnacle of my career.’
For more information or to book a trip on Britannia visit www.pocruises.com or call 0843 373 0111.