On board the SS Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Dutchman Frank van Eijnatten has returned to the water. More than forty years after he first served on the SS Rotterdam, he’s back on board, looking after a whole new group of international travellers.
Frank looks like the kind of man you expect to find a cruise ship. At 68 years of age, his hair has all but disappeared and his stomach has done the opposite.
He has the complexion of a Northern European and is dressed in thin spectacles and the casual uniform of a seaman.
He’s a friendly fellow who introduces himself with a warning that he will talk a lot. It turns out to be no lie.
He laughs as he tells stories, chuckling as he explains that each week more of the original crew are dying from old age. I’m not quite sure why that’s humorous but Frank makes everyone believe they’re in on the joke and his laughter is contagious.
“I started here in 1962,” he says, “which is 4 years after the ship has been started.”
“I was a student. I had a feeling I was ready with school and I had to wait for my military service job and I decided I should have a look at the other side of the Atlantic Ocean to see how New York was looking like, so I booked for a job in the pantry to make coffee and things like that, and I stayed there for three weeks.”
“And after that they talked me into a longer career on the ship and it ended for a total period of seven years.”
What is the SS Rotterdam?
The SS Rotterdam was the pride of The Netherlands when it was completed in 1959. It was a luxury cruise ship like nothing the country had seen before.
Ornate decorations throughout the interior made it feel more like a dancehall or a Manhattan club than a boat.
It hosted celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Jackie Onassis. The Dutch Royal Family used it for transportation west and its main route between The Netherlands and New York was extremely popular.
“Especially in the first class, it was luxury all over,” Frank explains.
“But also in the tourist class section, it was very nice to have people get the feeling they had a very nice life here. So everything was possible – whatever someone liked we would be able to serve them in a very nice way so everybody was very very fond of being on this ship.”
Luxury wasn’t for everyone, though, and the reality of economics eventually became unavoidable. As the prices of air tickets came down, people started to fly the transatlantic route rather than take the long journey by ocean.
In 1969, the SS Rotterdam stopped its flagship crossing and was refitted for decades of cruising in places like the Caribbean and Alaska. What the tourist classes of Americans and Australians in the 1980s made of the 1960s glamour is hard to imagine.
The SS Rotterdam was sold to another cruise line in 1997, renamed the SS Rembrandt, and sailed for another three years before finally being decommissioned in 2000 – more than 40 years after its maiden voyage.
Those later years aren’t important to Frank van Eijnatten. It’s the early voyages that are special for him.
That was a period when a cruise ship like the SS Rotterdam leaving port was an event for the whole city. It was a time when the bars of the ship mid-voyage were, quite literally, the hippest places to be for thousands of miles.
And for Frank, they were some of the happiest years of his life.
“It was nice to meet people and I still have the feeling it was a very important time for me,” he remembers.
“I had to speak other languages, which as a Dutchman was not very easy because we were a small country and our language was very isolated. The nice thing was I had a job in a public room so I served coffee and tea and other drinks to people and had time plenty to talk to these people.”
“Also, when we were in a harbour we could go out because all passengers were on shore as well so I didn’t have any job so I could visit other countries. I have been on this ship seven times around the world and during those seven times I visited all harbours we were going to.”
A tour of the SS Rotterdam
Nowadays the SS Rotterdam is moored permanently at home at its namesake, Rotterdam, the second largest city in The Netherlands. It has been restored to its former glory with original furniture and decorations.
Part of the boat is a hotel and there’s also a restaurant and a function centre. But much of the public areas of the boat have been left unoccupied and visitors can take guided tours to see the ballrooms, the lounges, the decks, the bridge and even the captain’s bedroom.
This is what Frank now does one day a week, he comes home to the SS Rotterdam and tells people the stories of life on board.
“It’s a very nice occasion to be able to talk to people about the period I was on this ship,” he says, “and it’s also very nice to see the reaction of people who see that a nice thing like that was already produced in the sixties of last century.”
“A lot of people are very excited about visiting this ship.”
Probably none more so than Frank van Eijnatten each week.
Time Travel Turtle was a guest of Rotterdam Marketing but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.