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Captain Francolla
An Interview with
Captain Francolla
Douglas Terhune

Approximately 3 weeks before sailing aboard Carnival's MS Sensation, I spoke with Carnival's headquarters (HQ) in Miami to receive the name of the ship's captain. Through a series of calls, I found out that the captain's name was Marino Massimo. I then put a brief letter of introduction together for him indicating that I would like to interview him, at his convenience, during my sailing of September 20-27, 1997.

I faxed him a copy of my request aboard the ship and sent one to his Miami mailbox and indicated that I would attempt to contact him upon boarding. Everything was going along as planned, when I discovered a few hours after embarkation that the ship's captain was named Leonardo Francolla! Apparently the two switched that day and with the switch, I assumed that my chance to interview the captain just went overboard.

At the Captain's Welcome Party, I grabbed a few seconds with Captain Francolla and quickly explained the situation. He gave me the name of the ship's Hotel Manager, Mr. Roger McGregor, and asked that I contact him. The next day I went and spoke with Roger -- explaining that I was with a group of 40+ people from the CompuServe Cruise Forum (most of which are travel professionals or avid cruisers like myself) and that I interviewed the Head Chef of the Tropicale last year.

Roger took down the information and said he would have to speak with HQ in Miami to get their approval, but he cautioned that even with their approval, the captain, depending upon his workload, might still object to the interview.

The next evening, a note had been slipped under my cabin door indicating that Roger would call me in the morning to discuss the matter of the interview. He called right on time and said HQ and the captain had agreed to an interview on Friday at 11:30am. We chose Friday because it was a day at sea and those days are usually, depending upon weather, the days where the captain "might" have a little free time.

I met Roger, a stunningly tall man from Jamaica, at his office and made our way to the bridge. Roger warned me that the captain was a little shy, and that the interview should not last more than 15 - 20 minutes. I met the captain again, and with a few pens and a blank notebook, began the interview.

Hotel Manager, Roger McGregor

Being a novice at interviewing, I felt a little insignificant being on the bridge with the captain and his staff as the Sensation ripped through the deep blue Caribbean seas. I asked if we could sit down, but the captain, who constantly had one eye on all the instruments, opted for standing. I found a flat, open space amongst all the controls and I took my notebook out.

The first thing the captain mentioned was the golf shirt that I had on. He asked me if I played, and I said yes, but not well. He indicated that he, too, liked the game, but found little time to play. He tried to remember the name of the course on Nassau that he played at numerous times, but apparently there were too many nautical miles between that course and his memory.

Captain Leonardo Francolla stands approximately 6'2" and is as lean as the day is long. I managed to deduce his age from our conversation, but let's just say that he looks great for a man in his young fifties. His silverish hair, broad smile and tall frame might have you mistaking him for the CEO of a large company. Leonardo was born in Trieste, Italy. Trieste is located in the northern Adriatic Sea -- approximately 100 km northeast of Venice and on the Gulf of Trieste. There's lots of water there -- perhaps an early influence.

At age 15, he joined the Merchant Marine Academy in Trieste. A young boy back then had the opportunity to either continue a regular education or join the MMA. Leonardo's earlier study and love of the water made him choose the MMA, along with about 50% of his fellow classmates. So, for the next five years, he studied Analytical Calculus, Navigation, Astronomy, Algebra, Geometry, Mathematics, and languages.

There were 800 full-time students in the school, and the school was split up into two groups: Merchant Marines, and Marine Engineers. The latter, more often than not, went into branches of the armed services, while the Merchant Marines headed towards commerical concerns. Leonardo graduated the MMA as a Cadet of Merchant Marines at age 20, and went immediately to work on a cargo ship, followed by an assortment of oil tankers and iron ore ships. His first two years of service on the high seas took him to Australia, the Black Sea and all around the Mediterranean.

After two years of this, the captain had to take an examination that allowed him to further his career in the Merchant Marine. He passed the exam and earned a license -- a license that allowed the captain to be responsible for a watch. A 'watch,' in essence, is having responsibility for the ship. During the watch, you are responsible for maintaining the ship's position, taking the ship safely from point 'A' to point 'B' and watching other ship traffic. Maintaining the ship's position can be done via radar, observing the stars and constellations, radio communication and utilizing the radio directional finder.

Back out at sea with his new license, the captain then began standing watch. After a few more cargo ships and the like, he got a tour of duty on his first cruise ship, a relatively small ship based out of Italy. After a few years of this, at age 25, he received his Master's License. This license allows Leonardo to be in total command of a ship -- something that could be quite overwhelming for a 25-year-old man. But even with the Master's License, a ship's command was still a good way off. For Leonardo, it was about twelve years.

At age 37, he was given his first command -- a cargo ship out of Miami. Carrying general cargo, her routes were primarily in the Caribbean. The ship was 450' long and had a crew of 30. Leonardo enjoyed his command, but realized he was more interested in the maneuvering of the ship versus the role of boss.

After eight months, he got a telephone call that changed his career. He was to take command of a new cruise line's passenger ship that sailed out of Miami to the Bahamas. The ship was around 30,000 tons, 750' long and held 800 or so passengers. The ss Carnivale sailed under the ownership of Carnival Cruise Lines of Miami. Captain Francolla came aboard the Carnivale just three months after her launching. He was interested about the opportunity because he felt that passenger ships offered so much more excitement than a cargo ship with a crew of thirty.

From the Carnivale he was appointed captain of the second Carnival ship -- the Mardi Gras. And then, around his sixth anniversary with Carnival, the company launched their first "new" ship -- the Tropicale, a 36,000 gross ton ship with passenger capacity of over 1000 and a crew of 550. The Tropicale subsequently helped define the cruise line industry today, as gone were those funny-shaped rooms, and welcomed were standard-sized, well-appointed large cabins for everyone.

It was hard to get Captain Francolla to admit that he enjoys sailing the larger vessels and megaships of today's cruise industry. I got the feeling that as long as the captain was at sea, he would be happy! His interest in the larger ships is based primarily on technology., and the newer the ship, the more advanced the controls and navigational equipment become.

Captain Leonardo Francolla

At this point, I had asked about all the questions I could muster, and keeping a close eye on my watch, I figured it was time to go. But before leaving, I had a journalistic duty to ask a few questions that the cruising public would probably want to know. I started with the obvious: "Are you married"? I had only had a chance to size up the captain as a sailor until this point, but knew that I was in the presence of a man who had met hundreds of thousands of guests and crew members in his career. He met his wife about 13 or 14 years ago on a Carnival ship. She worked in the ship's casino as a dealer and they married 5 years ago. His wife lives in Miami and the captain always tries to escape to their house the few hours the ship is in port on Saturdays.

Once a month or so the captain's wife joins him aboard the ship for a week -- and those are the weeks he always looks forward to the most. She is now in the travel industry in Miami and loves to cruise, which is a good thing if you are married to a man who spends the majority of his time at sea!

I asked the captain if it ever gets lonely at sea being away from his wife, home and friends, and he said that as a captain of a ship the size of the Carnival Destiny (which he has also been), that it's hard to be lonely with 1100 crew members and 3400 passengers. When he is not on the bridge or greeting the passengers, the Captain likes to read scientific books or mystery/suspense novels. And the captain is a big fan of the Net, but cannot justify using it while at sea, since it can tie up their (very important) communications link.

When we discussed what it is like to be a captain, he said that the biggest difference is that, on a ship, you are really on standby at all times. He went on to say that he feels he deals with many of the same management issues and people situations as his passengers do in their daily jobs -- it's just that his place of employment floats! But you could tell that this man likes being captain. In the hour we spent on the bridge, he kept one eye on the controls and one on his men. The times the captain must be on the bridge are when the ship is coming in or out of a harbor, and when the ship is experiencing foul weather.

And one question I could not resist, knowing that we were sailing during historically the busiest hurricane week of the year, is whether or not he has ever been affected by a hurricane. To my surprise, in twenty years with Carnival and over thirty years at sea, Captain Francolla had avoided hurricanes like an ice sculpture attempts to avoid the sun.

On the Sensation (which is one of the Fantasy Class ships weighing in at 70,000 gross tons), the captain is responsible for 960 crew members and 2,000+ passengers. Just before the interview, the captain held his weekly staff meeting, which includes his Chief Engineer, Casino Manager, Hotel Manager, Staff Captain, Cruise Director, Food and Beverage Manager, Chief Purser and Chief Steward.

Since he had seen the industry grow at such an alarming rate for twenty years, I asked him what he thought of the growth, and he replied that he, along with everyone in the Carnival Cruise Lines management, has been pleasantly surprised at the tremendous growth. Together, we guessed that back in 1976 when he first started on the Carnivale, that the weekly berths out of US waters had to be less than 10,000. Today, that number is over 100,000 and headed towards 150,000 in the next several years. "Everyone in Carnival knew there was a good market here, but no one in their wildest dreams ever anticipated this type of explosive growth," according to the Captain.

We talked briefly of what the future of cruising in the Caribbean holds for the cruise line industry, and while he immediately denounced his ability to be a company forecaster or marketeer, he said that new ports of call will be a priority down the road, if they are to continue getting repeat customers. But most of the brand-name islands in the Caribbean are already ports, and, planning the correct itinerary with the proper amount of time and nautical miles in between each port is also important.

I pressed the captain for a favorite island, and as I watched his eyes, I could tell he was playing back probably hundreds of ports that he has encountered in his time at sea. Cleverly, he said his favorite island is . . . his next port of call!

After a quick tour of the bridge and a peek into his quarters (which are wood-paneled and adorned with nautical memorabilia and his wife's picture), I bid the captain adieu and headed back to the last hours of sun on our last day at sea. One would not know that I had just spent an hour-and-a-half with the most photographed man on the seven seas; he averages over 1000 pictures a week and sails probably 40 weeks/year, so for 20 years, he has had well over one million pictures taken of himself with happy passengers -- happy because they know that they are in the hands of one of the nicest and most knowledgeable men of the seas: Captain Leonardo Francolla.

Doug Terhune aboard Sensation

Photos by Douglas Terhune

Douglas Terhune is an avid cruiser and frequent contributor to the SeaLetter. He can be reached at: 75074.171@compuserve.com

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