Noel O’Driscoll, captain of the Holland America Line Nieuw Statendam, talks to Irene Feighan about his West Cork roots and how the sea has always been in his bloodline.
Carrying some 3,600 souls, the14-deck Holland America Line’s Nieuw Statendam has docked in a sun-splashed Cadiz.
Captain Noel O’Driscoll, a native of West Cork, is on the quays surveying the giant ropes that tether his ship to the shore.
As he walks, there is something of the ancient mariner about his gait — legs slightly bowed, hips rocking from side to side as if countering the endless rolling motion of the waves.
The sea and its ways are in his bloodline. The O’Driscoll clan has had a long association with West Cork — historical references date back to the 16th century. Five centuries later, and its members are still making their living on the high seas.
Born and reared in the fishing town of Castletownbere, Noel’s life always revolved around the industry. His father Kieran, one of 15 children, was raised on Sherkin Island — all the boys in the family went on to become fishermen.
But it was not just his family who influenced him, it was the entire community.
“Fishing was always something I wanted to do — all my friends were there, all the conversations were fishing related,” he says with a distinct West Cork lilt, though he has been working abroad for more than 25 years.
The young Noel’s first experience at sea did not augur well, however. Aged 14 he asked to join his father who was heading out on MFV Draíocht na Mara to finish a fishing quota.
It turned out to be a baptism of seasickness.
He likens the experience to being in a washing machine: “It’s rolling in all different directions continuously — there’sno let-up”.
Even though he was of no use to his fellow crew members this time, his dad was positive about it, knowing that this was simply “a right of passage”.
He encouraged Noel not to give up, assuring him it would get better with time and experience.
He gradually found his sea legs.“The next time I was fishing it was nearly a year later. I was doing tuna fishing — it was a 10-day trip. This was a big risk,” he says laughing.
“There was no going back — two days to the fishing grounds and two days to return home.
“I just felt a bit funny [at the start] and then after a day or two I adjusted and I was good.”
Though many of his friends finished school after the Junior Certificate to start work in the fishing industry, his mother Kitty (from Lehanbeg, Cathermore) was determined that he would get a third-level education.
“I was the youngest of five — at the time you didn’t take much notice but she was very subtle about it — not discouraging me to go fishing but encouraging me to try everything else.”
He studied nautical science in Cork Institute of Technology, graduating as a master mariner and kick-starting his international career.
To begin with, he was sponsored by the Glasgow-based ClydeMarine Training, which assigned him to MobilShipping Company Ltd to work as a cadet.
In the days before the internet transformed how we communicate, information about globe-trotting careers were thin on the ground.
Inspiration instead came from a family friend, a merchant ship captain, who by preternatural coincidence, shares his first name, surname, and birth date.
“He would have been good friends with my mum and dad. Every time he was home from the sea he’d make a call to my parents, they’d have a cup of tea and a chat and he’d be telling stories about his seagoing.
“I don’t remember those stories but it must have rubbed off on me — or gave me a fascination of some description to check out this avenue of going to sea.” Memorably, he got to sail with his namesake before he retired in 1998.
“Noel was short a third mate and called my mum from the ship. She told him that I’d just resigned from Mobil Shipping and I wanted to try something different.
“He quickly got on to his manning agency and got me on board for three weeks [to fill the gap]. It was on the container ship, OOCL Bravery, sailing from Hamburg to Montreal and back.”
From there, he went on to work on the Baltic Eider a roll-on, roll-off ferry.(One of the main attractions was the ro-ro working conditions — three weeks on, three weeks off.)
In a further coincidence, the ship’s chief officer was Fergus O’Driscoll, his mentor's son. “I got to sail with the dad and the son in the same calendar year.”
With his appetite whetted for ocean travel, he set his sights on cruise ships. “They always go where the sun is, the ships look amazing and there are lots of people to meet, it seemed exciting. I had to try it.”
He approached VikingRecruitment in Dover and was told they’d put his name on file. “It was a bit disappointing. It was the only manning agency I applied to so — I didn’t take rejection well.” Eight months into his work with the ferry, he got a life-changing phone call. It was Viking Recruitment.
On June 14, 1999, he joined the Holland America cruise ship Veendam in Vancouver. “The ship was doing Alaska which was absolutely amazing —glaciers, bears, whales, you name it — the stuff you’d only see on TV.”
He was aged 24 and having the time of his life.
Twenty years later, on September 17, 2019, the man from Castletownbere is navigating the new $750m (€674m) Holland America Line cruise ship into Cobh harbour, a stop-off on a 12-day European tour.
It is his first time to enter the port as captain and it’s the undeniable high point of his career.
“It really felt like my entire career was leading up to this day. Twenty-five years at sea and now I’m a captain on Holland America Line’s newest ship — and the ship is going to Cobh. It was a great moment, a great personal feeling.
“The guests all knew we were going to Cobh because I was talking about it from the day they boarded and each day until we arrived. I kept on about it for many days after too, I don’t think a single guest did not know where I was from by the end of that cruise.”
It was Ireland at its best — just the welcome at Cobh, with the Cobh Heritage centre coming out to greet us with music, was amazing.”
He really wanted to share the moment with family and friends — 80 of the clan, including his brother Finbarr, his wife Marian, and boys Robert and Daniel, and father Kieran, were invited onboard for the day.
“He was especially curious about the bridge and all the gadgets a state of the art ship would have”.
He felt his mum was there too “in spirit”. She sadly died in 2002, aged 64 —“I miss her every day”.
There was another important memory made that day. The harbour pilot was Schull native Kevin O’Callaghan, a friend who was a year ahead of him in college, had also worked Mobil Shipping and whose dad is also a fisherman.
“I found out last October that I would be on a ship that’s coming to Cobh,” says Noel.
“I told Kevin and he said, ‘I’ll make sure I’m on the roster for that week’.”
You can hear the excitement in his voice as he recalls how Kevin boarded the ship.
“The pilot boat comes alongside and we rig a pilot ladder, he climbs up the ladder and comes on board and up to the bridge — then, of course, we had to be very professional.
“It was a very strange experience — because most ports I visit I don’t know the pilots and now the pilot is one of my best friends and so we have a quick hug and a handshake and straight into the business of safely bringing the ship into port.
“Once we were docked, we started having a bit of a chat and a catch-up about all the fishing news.”
Though born for a life on the sea, he still misses home a lot.
“It was an unusual career to pick because I was very homesick when I went away.”
It’s an ache which makes his return journeys home all the more important.
During his time off he is well accustomed to the transition from sea legs to land legs. But what he notices most is the silence.
“There is always background noise on the ship — there is always the possibility of a phone call in the middle of the night.
It might be once or twice a trip — assignments are typically three months on, three months off — but still, there is always that possibility. I’m never fully asleep.”
He met his wife Anita, who is from Hungary, onboard Holland America’s MS Westerdam in 2011.
“She worked in the Ocean Spa and later in the shore excursions department.” They married six years later.
Now living in Budapest, on November 21 they become parents for the first time to a boy, Ryan Noel.
A new adventure has begun.
This time it’s not the sound of the sea that's calling Noel, but the sound of family life.