MV Greg Mortimer anchored near the island of St. Kilda

After All: Call it ‘ex-cru-dition’, or ‘exped-ruise’ – the journey was still great!

Image credit: Vitali Vitaliev

In his first 2022 summer holidays column, Vitali describes the ship that took him to the remote islands of Scotland.

“Dear expedition members! Good morning!” The loud velvety voice of David Berg, the expedition leader, coming from a carefully concealed and un-switch-off-able (like a KGB bugging device) intercom is filling my spacious cabin.

It is 6am, and initially everything in me rebels against waking up. I want to stay in my super-comfortable king-size bed, to keep being rocked gently by the ocean waves, soothed even further by the ship’s cutting-edge stabilisers.

But my travel-hungry mind is already half-awake and ready for another day of adventures and close encounters with the magnificent wild nature of the remote Scottish islands. The question that is bothering me now is whether the Zodiac landing on the island of St Kilda (or Foula, or Staffa) is going to be ‘wet’ or ‘dry’, and that should dictate a ‘dress-code’ for the day: water-proof trousers and rubber boots, or jeans and trainers.

The Wild Scotland ‘expedition’ on board the brand-new purpose-built MV Greg Mortimer was like nothing I had experienced in all my peripatetic life.

To begin with, I had never sailed on a ship named after a living person – this time, an acclaimed Australian mountaineer and engineer Greg Mortimer, God bless him! Perhaps it is a peculiar (and rather nice) Australian tradition (she is run by Aurora Expeditions, an Australian company) to name sea vessels after the living rather than the dead (another expedition ship to join the company’s fleet in November 2022 is MV Sylvia Earl, an American marine biologist, still active at 86). It is like unveiling a large floating monument to a living person – something that I had thought only Russian oligarchs, dictators and royalty could get away with. Americans tried it too in the early decades of their history, but soon gave up.

What an incredible small ship she (I mean the Greg Mortimer) is! Built in 2019, it is the first passenger vessel ever to feature the inverted Ulstein X-Bow to ensure that her farthest forward point is not at the top, which increases the ship’s fuel efficiency, stability and safety.  In combination with Rolls-Royce dynamic stabilisers, this offers unrivalled steadiness, so you feel fewer vibrations due to the reduced rocking and pitching.

To be honest, I am not a great sailor and have always been prone to sea sickness. That is why I was carrying an impressive supply of travel sickness tablets, most of which listed ‘dizziness and nausea’ as their most common side-effects!

I am proud to report that, despite crossing some of the roughest parts of the North Atlantic, including the notorious Cape Wrath, not monikered so for nothing, I had not taken a single pill and felt the Greg Mortimer’s tremors only once on the first night of the voyage, when we were sailing past the Western Isles. The sensation then was close to the one experienced by my favourite Soviet writers Ilf and Petrov during a transatlantic journey on the SS Normandie in 1935: “In the stern where we were located everything trembled. The deck and the walls and the easy chairs and the glasses on the washstand and the washstand itself trembled. The ship’s vibration was so pronounced that even objects from which one did not expect any sound made a noise. For the first time we heard the sound of towels, soap, the carpet on the floor, the paper on the table, the electric bulb, the curtain, the collar thrown on the bed... If a passenger became thoughtful for a moment and relaxed his facial muscles, his teeth at once began to chatter of their own free will...”

In my case, the vibration chorus was joined by the near-​agonic throbs of the iPhone on my bedside table, and the flap-flapping of the open door of the safe, hidden inside the wardrobe. It took me a while to locate the latter and stabilise the door with a folded map of Edinburgh, our starting point.

MV Greg Mortimer carried 15 Zodiacs – inflatable shuttle boats, made of flexible tubes with pressurised gas, which we could board from the four dedicated sea-level launching platforms to explore the coastline, the grottos, and the wildlife (including seals and whales) from close-by, or to land right on the rugged shore or on a beach. These platforms were designed by Greg Mortimer, and I can testify that even for someone like myself, long past his best athletic form (and shape), jumping into the Zodiacs was almost as easy as boarding a bus.

The vessel’s chief engineer Dimitar Vasilev told me proudly that the Greg Mortimer operates with low energy consumption, virtual anchoring (to hold her position using a combination of GPS, steering technology, propellers, and thrusters), and a world-class return-to-port equipment, which duplicates the propulsion system, enabling the ship to keep moving, even in the event of engine failure.

We were talking inside the brightly lit and squeaky-clean engine control room, which resembled that of a small nuclear power station: monitors, buttons and blinking lights. Yet, my own favourite onboard gadgets were the two hot tubs on the upper deck, right under the radar. Sitting in them (alternately), I kept imagining myself a fulmar or an albatross (if not a puffin) whooshing forgetfully above the waves.

So, what was it – an expedition or a cruise? I have even jotted down two separate columns in my memo pad, listing features in favour of the former or the latter. On the expedition side, there was total lack of black-tie (or any other) entertainment, apart from excellent lectures by the onboard experts: ornithologist and historian John Love and archaeologist Carol Knott, as well as the Zodiacs, the mudroom (for drying wet kit) and the occasional ‘wet landings’.

Among the cruise-like features were super-comfortable five-star cabins, the above-mentioned hot tubs, the super-efficient international crew (86 crew from over 20 countries, including the expedition team, for 70 passengers!), but above all the food. Having been on many luxury cruises, I have never encountered such versatile top-​quality cuisine, even if it was limited to three and not four meals a day, like on many cruise ships. And, to crown it all, a whole roasted suckling pig as the culinary highlight of the Captain’s barbecue!

I wasn’t sure in which column to place Puffin Post, the ship’s daily newsletter, written and produced to high editorial standards and full of useful information about the journey, which – whether we call it an ‘ex-cru-dition’, or an ‘exped-ruise’, was an unforgettable voyage of discoveries, which I am planning to share with you in future ‘After All’ columns. 

Vitali was a guest of Aurora Expeditions.

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