MS Birka Stockholm Chief Sture Nylund

When a well-oiled machine is just that

What makes a ship sail without hiccups? And keeps the customers as well as the crew happy? It’s all in the planning, from the entertainment to the engine room. On board the MS Birka Stockholm, Twentyfour7. magazine learns the value of looking ahead.

Text: Campbell Black Photo: Ann Törnkvist


There’s a frisson of anticipation in the crowd. You can feel it at airports, too, but it’s diluted by those who travel out of necessity. In this Stockholm cruise terminal, everyone’s here by choice. They voyage for joy, not duty.

The passengers file through security and up to the ship. During the peak, they are more than 1800. The most come in summer, but autumn offers its own treats. The term “a well-oiled machine” is a well-used one, yet it never loses its relevance, not when you see it in action. That’s so clear here. Order and calm.

So what keeps a crowd happy? Who knows what they need? It’s all in the planning, of course, such as the chief purser’s tweaks of amusements and music. But also the chefs, hauling lobsters and trimming steaks in preparation for tonight’s feasts. And the crew below deck, but we’ll go there later.

MS Birka Stockholm Terassen

As we set sail, the world slips by in the Baltic night. Tomorrow the sun will rise over open sea. Then, as the MS Birka Stockholm turns around and takes us back, the islets and sounds, beaches and bays will stitch the patchwork quilt of the archipelago around us.

While the passengers ready to relax, the crew tune their instruments. It’s no simple solo to make sure the cruise goes smoothly; it’s like conducting a symphony. From below deck, the whir of engines adds to the gentle din of passengers chatting.

Another symphony plays on the screens of the engine control room. The MS Birka Stockholm was built eleven years ago. Chief Sture Nylund was with her since the drawing board and knows her inside out. He’s so used to her that the schematic outside the control room has become part of the wallpaper, rather than the map of the engineering wonder that an outsider sees.

MS Birka Stockholm map

We climb down to meet the engines. First, we pass the electrics, a quiet and cold room that looks much like a data terminal or a server hall. From here, one can hear the engines purr. But open that door, and the purr turns into a growl. A walk down the aisles between main and auxiliary engines, then another door that will take us to the second engine room that’s in use today. A word of warning from Nylund. Yellow earplugs fished out from pockets. He hits a button and the door slides slowly open, for each inch the sound changes character, from growl to a roar that grows in strength. We step inside. At sea, just one aux and one main are in use.

To one side hangs a cluster of wrenches by size. By a wall, absorbents cushion oily joints. It’s clear the ship owners, Rederiaktiebolaget Eckerö, take health and safety as seriously as their maintenance providers Wärtsilä do, with their zero lost-time injury vision. There’s a Swedish proverb that comes to mind as I stand down here in the orderly belly of the beast: “Ordning och reda, löning på fredag.” The translation does sacrifice the rhyme, but here goes: To put things in order and clear up, pays off on Fridays (that would be the end of the working week, on shore at least).

MS Birka Stockholm engine room
MS Birka Stockholm Chief Sture Nylund

Fuel for thought

The engine room is the ship’s guts where food turns into forward motion. Nowadays, we’re talking light fuel oil, since the sulphur-emission requirements dropped so low that heavy fuel oil had to go. The transition took some fine-tuning of the engines, but it didn’t take long to make sure the vessel was good to go.

“For us, it is important that we can guarantee that our engines are running optimally to reduce any negative impact on the environment,” says Daniel Olsén, the ship owner’s Technical Manager, Ship Management. “Our service agreement with Wärtsilä includes performance verifications and corrections. This allows us to operate the engines optimally.”

At most times, like now and in port, the ship has one main and one auxiliary engine fired up. In the archipelago, where the hull can pass just a few metres from an exposed spit of rock, the crew use two mains to steer her safely through the seams of the quilt. Tight margins.

MS Birka Stockholm cruising the archipelago sea

That’s true also for the cruise industry. The competition’s no laughing matter so keeping the engines as healthy as possible isn’t just about tender loving care. It’s about the bottom line. “We have such small margins. Actually, we barely have any margins anymore,” says Nylund. “While I can personally miss that we don’t maintain the engines ourselves, the Wärtsilä guys do this all the time; their knowledge’s fresh in their minds when they work.”

Small adjustments stack up over time to big gains, as they prevent wear and tear and thus the cost of any downtime. “The downtime for our passenger ships is difficult to valuate since our traffic is season-related. But a service stop during high season would be a major loss for us,” says Olsén.

On board, if Chief Nylund ever spots a reading on which he wants a second set of eyes, he contacts Wärtsilä to analyse the data and find a technical solution, if needed. “Many can monitor data, but we have the best skills to interpret it,” says Wärtsilä’s Peter Guldbrand, General Manager Sales, Service Unit Baltic and Black Sea. “The analysis, that’s our core offering. We compare the engine data to our CBM (Condition based maintenance) centre data and then decide what to do, with the help of our best practices.”

Wärtsilä also supplies Dynamic Maintenance Planning (DMP) to Rederiaktiebolaget Eckerö, used on MS Eckerö, to continually analyse data and step in and advise the customer when needed, not before nor after. So actual data, rather than running time, set the schedule. No unpleasant surprises. No unwanted downtime. And with less wear and tear, the need for spare parts lessens. Wärtsilä’s philosophy on the subject is this: “Proactive, preventive action is always preferable to after-the-fact, corrective procedures.” 

MS Birka Stockholm Stockholm from the running track

Tallying dreams and expectations

The MS Birka Stockholm is just one of five vessels that Wärtsilä maintains for the ship owners, who added its two ferries MS Eckerö and MS Finlandia when they renewed the fleet’s maintenance agreement this year. “Tailor-made contracts are a huge deal when it comes to supplying the customer with what they need,” says Peter’s colleague Thomas Liljeqvist, Sales Manager. “A maintenance contract doesn’t only include engine services; it also includes other Wärtsilä product lines. Propulsion shafts seals and catalysator services, for example, apart from the scheduled engine services.”

“Wärtsilä is able to offer a complete service, from shaft seals to main engines, with same contact team,” explains Olsén about renewing the contract. “We have also agreed with different levels of service per ship type, depending on the actual need. We have an historical, long relationship together with Wärtsilä. Since we were happy with the results, we extended the agreement in 2016 and included our entire fleet.”

Leaving the control room, Nylund and I pass the schematic of the ship on the way up, then walk past a nest of neatly folded towels about to be brought up to the passengers and the woman who keeps them happy – Chief Purser Chatarina Israelsson. She hasn’t got wrenches and data terminals to help her. She walks with the quiet confidence of a woman who knows she can rely on her problem-solving brain. “What I like about this job is that if there’s a problem, you have no choice but to fix it with what you have on board,” she says. “You just fix it.”

While Nylund can tally up the hours each engine has run, Israelsson must tally dreams and expectations. “There are as many expectations as there are guests, so we have to cater to them,” she says.

MS Birka Stockholm Panorama at night

Read more: Bounty on the Baltic - how to keep passengers happy at sea

My own expectations are simple. Speak to the passengers, collect some data – everyone’s delighted to share their thoughts. Fill the tanks – the veal burgers are exquisite. Get scheduled downtime in the form of a good night’s sleep – on deck seven the roar of the engines has muted into the soothing flight of a humming bird. And finally, to look after myself – the spa beckons in the morning.

As I slip into a bathrobe the day after, I start to think of crank shafts and pistons in a new way: as tendons and bones, muscles and joints. I know what happens when a machine falls apart. I can feel the dull ache in my shoulder right now, after many years of competitive sports. But I’m better after my physiotherapist identified the mechanics of my discomfort, analysed the wear and tear. I just wish I’d had a physio – preventative maintenance – to help me avoid that injury altogether. Thankfully, I didn’t need spare parts.

So, full steam ahead then.

Stockholm Old Town view from MS Birka Stockholm

Leave a comment

Load more comments