Luxurious Magazine’s Sabi Phagura caught up with Captain Steven Whitby to discuss how 2021 is looking for English Holiday Cruises in Gloucestershire.
Luxurious Magazine: Many types of travel have collapsed during the Coronavirus pandemic, but the cruise lines sector has been hit harder. How has this impacted English Holiday Cruises?
Steven Whitby: The national lockdown back in the spring meant we had to close our doors until 10th August when we could set sail again. During this time, we worked tirelessly to COVID-19 proof the vessel, ensuring we could continue as usual as soon as we were able to. We were proudly the first River Cruise company in the UK to set sail following closures due to the Coronavirus pandemic. For those who had spent lockdown dreaming of setting sail and cruising islands abroad, English Holiday Cruises offered a chance to get your cruise fix on the scenic rivers of Gloucestershire.
As international ocean cruises remained off-limits, and more quarantine restrictions make river cruises in Europe less attractive, the UK river cruise business is enjoying a post-lockdown boom. Naturally, we experienced cancellations, but from August to November, we were able to run as normally as possible with the measures we had introduced, and finish the season strong as originally intended!
LM: New dates have just been announced for the summer 2021 season. What changes have been put in place to make passengers safe?
SW: We installed several safety measures in line with the accredited new Visit England’ Good to Go’ scheme. These will still be in place for 2021, and include virucidal fogging between cruises and UVmatic overnight air sterilisation, pre-boarding health checks and baggage sanitising; contactless check-in and hand-sanitisers everywhere, a one-way system around the vessel with distancing signage, exclusive lounge/dining spaces with screening, and table service for everything.
LM: The Edward Elgar is among the largest Hotel Boats in England. Tell us about it and what makes it so spectacular.
SW: The Edward Elgar is unique because, unlike all other UK Hotel Boats, she is licensed to carry more than 12 passengers. In the case of the Edward Elgar, she can sleep up to 22 passengers in 11 twin cabins or carry up to 50 people on day trips. This is because she is a licensed passenger vessel overseen by the Marine and Coastguard Agency.
The Edward Elgar is designed to be the largest possible boat in length, width, height and depth on the River Severn and can still fit within the smallest locks – no other vessel is available for cruises in the UK of her dimensions with similar passenger numbers. We’re able to create an atmosphere on board where everyone can socialise, but if there is someone on board you would rather not talk to, there is still space to hide!
LM: Where does the Hotel Boat travel to in the UK?
SW: We are based in Gloucestershire, so we cruise along the picturesque River Severn and the surrounding canal in the glorious Cotswolds countryside. Our ultimate cruise package, The Seven Wonders of the Severn, sails over 100 miles of Britain’s longest river/ canal system. Start at the historic Gloucester Docks and cruise up the River Severn to Stourport and visit the Severn Valley Steam Railway, Upton upon Severn, Tewkesbury Abbey and Worcester Cathedral. Then, discover the highlights of the first ship canal in the world, visit Slimbridge and the famous Purton hulks barge graveyard, Berkeley Castle and more!
LM: Tell us about your own journey as a coxswain?
SW: Both my parents and grandfather had served in the Royal Navy, which is the main reason I wanted to follow in their footsteps – plus being landlocked growing up in Birmingham, I always was at my happiest when visiting relatives or holidaying by the sea. In February 1970, I signed up to become a trainee chef. I had originally hoped to train as a seaman but was told at the recruiting office that my eyesight was not good enough.
After my basic chef training, I was sent to my first ship in 1972, which was then deployed to defend our fishing fleet off Iceland during the Cold War. Unfortunately, the weather out in the North Sea can be very rough and not ideal when you’re trying to produce meals, so when I read that their lordships were looking for volunteers to serve in the submarines, I thought that it must be much calmer down under the waves.
For the next 14 years, I continued as a chef and gained promotion to senior rate level. This now allowed me to change branch and become a Submarine Coxswain and hang up my apron for good. As a coxswain, you have many daily roles to carry out, which can be from the ship’s doctor, policeman, specialist plainsman, crew’s travel rep and onboard training for escape equipment to name a few.
For my last four years, I became an instructor at the Submarine Escape Training Tank at Gosport in Hampshire. This is a 30-metre deep tank of freshwater kept warm at 36 degrees, and as an instructor, once trained, you can take a deep breath and descend underwater to complete one lap around the bottom before returning back to the surface. This takes about three minutes. I left the Navy in 1994 and set up my own successful business before returning back to waters in 2005 with the Marine Society and Sea Cadets in their various Offshore Fleet, which included utilising both my former skills as a chef and coxswain.
In 2010, I joined their new 35-metre Power Vessel TS Jack Petchey as coxswain. Over the next five years, I managed to gain qualifications as a Relief 1st Lieutenant, and more importantly, as a Relief Captain. It wasn’t until 2016 that I was looking for a change of career that I came across an advertisement by English Holiday Cruises Ltd for the position of captain onboard MV Edward Elgar. It’s been a very rewarding five seasons, and I can’t wait for 2021 where hopefully we can enjoy a full season.
LM: What’s the most interesting aspect of your job, and how has the role changed over the years?
SW: I have to say the most interesting aspect of my job is having a total cross-section of guests from all over the world who come with a huge variety of lifetimes of experiences and stories. It is also very rewarding to lead a small crew of five who work tirelessly to ensure the guests have a great holiday and leave with a smile. Of course, during this global pandemic, there have been new challenges in how the boat operates to be COVID-safe for everyone onboard.
These have all been met, which has allowed the company to reopen for cruising again. MV Edward Elgar is still the only Hotel Boat operating in the UK, which is something we are really proud of.
LM: What advice would you give someone wanting to do your job?
SW: The advice I would pass onto anyone looking to become a captain would be to have patience with both crew and guests. We must be flexible to itinerary changes at short notice, as, with the classic British weather, this happens frequently. To really make the guest experience, it always helps to engage with them in polite conversation.
I often get involved and offer my own guided tours of the sites we visit. It’s also essential to maintain a happy crew and be open to help out when shorthanded and give advice when needed. But most importantly, really enjoy all the opportunities the job brings – be yourself and be honest because the job really brings plenty of entertainment.
LM: What would you say to someone who has never been on a river cruise, especially in the UK?
SW: River cruising is one of those activities that once you have tried it, you often are itching to get back out there for your next trip, as one is never enough. Historically, major settlements were often started close to major water sources, which means that not only does river cruising offer a first-class way to see lots of wildlife between destinations (instead of the open sea like on ocean cruises), but every destination is steeped in some kind of fascinating history dating back hundreds or sometimes close to a thousand years – as is the case with Tewkesbury where we regularly take our passengers.
Often people feel they have to travel abroad to have an experience that has big landscapes and history they haven’t yet discovered, but there is plenty to discover here in the UK. We say people should really take advantage of what our country has to offer.
English Holiday Cruises – Where and How?
For more information on English Holiday Cruises, or to make a booking, visit https://river.englishholidaycruises.co.uk.
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