Three cruise ships to drop anchor in Astoria MondayA week and a half before the first cruise ship of the fall season docked in Astoria, the cruise committee met at the Port of Astoria to make sure everything was ready.

Port deputy director Bill Cook stood at the whiteboard with five colored markers at his disposal to map out Pier 1. A restricted zone needed to be in front of the ship, and fences, concrete barricades and security guards or U.S. Coast Guard auxiliary members would be stationed there as well.

The passengers would go through Customs and INS on the ship, then be directed through a gate at one end of the pier, which he marked on the board.

Committee members chimed in and the diagram began to fill up.

Where will tour buses line up? What about the shuttle buses? Where is parking allowed, and what about parking spots required by the Americans with Disabilities Act? Where would the best location be for the visitors information booth and shuttle ticket sales?

How should the Never on Sunday Market vendors be arranged to encourage browsing without making it gantlet-like?

Where should taxis and rental cars park, and what about signs to direct people to their location? Or signs to direct people to the tours?

And where can we get 5-gallon concrete-filled buckets to hold these signs?

A total of eight cruise ships will dock in Astoria this year, including the Norwegian Star, a ship with the Norwegian Cruise Line fleet that pulled into Astoria today carrying 2,247 passengers and 1,140 crew members. Although organizers have ironed out the basics of cruise visit preparations, the cruise commission still meets before every visit to make sure things will go smoothly - and again after each visit to see if any problems need fixing.

LORI ASSA - The Daily Astorian

Never on Sunday Market vendors display their wares for cruise passengers.

"The port is very serious about pursuing cruise ships to come to Astoria and the North Coast, and the only way we can succeed is to not become complacent," said Cook, who chairs the committee.

This is especially important in planning for a day like Monday, when three cruise ships carrying more than 5,000 passengers, plus crew, will pay a visit to Astoria.

Slow startThe cruise committee first convened in June 1996 at the suggestion of Astoria Mayor Willis Van Dusen, with Rita Fahrney representing the port, Mitch Mitchum representing the city and Bruce Conner of Sundial Travel and Cindy Howe of Sunset Empire Transportation District. Cruise ships had stopped in Astoria in the 1980s to visit Mount St. Helens, but had stopped coming, and the city wanted them back.

In March 1997, the port ran a booth at the annual Sea Trade cruise convention in Miami and in September that year a Norwegian Cruise Line vessel stopped in town.

"It started off very slow, we had a very limited number of ships for several years, and then it's just kind of grown," said Mitchum, Astoria's public works director.

With the growth of the local cruise ship business, the cruise committee has grown. The port started running the committee in 2000, and expanded the existing programs, said Cook.

More than a dozen people were at the meetings this month, representing the police, Coast Guard Auxiliary, Port security, bus company, the Columbia River Maritime Museum and Clatsop County Historical Society, the Never on Sunday Market, the cruise host volunteers and other interests.

"They're all dedicated, they all have the interest of Clatsop County at heart in providing those folks the very best experiences when they get there," said Cook. And one essential aspect of a port of call is the volunteers that act as "cruise hosts."

These volunteers, organized by Astoria resident Marian Soderberg, greet passengers as they disembark, offer maps and brochures, and direct people to the tour buses, shuttles, rental cars or the trolley. They operate a stand at the Liberty Theater, where they give directions, dispense advice about stores and restaurants and field questions.

"What we try to do is cater the information to what kinds of questions people ask," said Soderberg.

"People love our hospitality, it says to them they want to come back," said volunteer Kathleen Hughes, stationed at the Liberty to help visitors from the Silver Seas. With that, a bus pulled up and dropped off visitors, who were full of questions for the volunteers.

"Where's an antique store?"

"Where's the Maritime Museum?"

"I hear there's a trolley..."

To organize this "army" of approximately 100 volunteers, Soderberg has them fill out questionnaires about the times that they are available and what they would like to do. She then creates and distributes a master schedule.

She's got the system down so well and is confident enough in the abilities of the team captains, that she went on a Mediterranean cruise with her husband and will miss today's visit as well as the three visits on Monday.

"I am not worried for one single moment," Soderberg said. "I know it's going to go very well."

Things to seeWhile somewhere around two-thirds of a ships passengers will get off the boat in Astoria, about 20 percent to 25 percent take advantage of shore excursions, estimates Conner, who organizes these tours.

Cruise lines can choose from the 13 tours he offers, including trips to Mount St. Helens, Seaside and Cannon Beach, a historic Astoria tour and a visit to the Seafood Center and a local wine cellar.

So much effort goes into organizing these excursions that Conner said he is planning to hire an additional person at his agency to work full-time organizing these visits.

On Monday, 12 buses will guide passengers on local tours, while four busloads of passengers will visit Mount St. Helens.

Logistics for the three-ship visit Monday had to be altered from the regular routine, but organizers said things should run smoothly. More shuttle buses will be running, including some buses used through an arrangement with the schools, More volunteers will be on hand to help passengers.

One ship will dock on the north side of Pier 1, while another will pull into the slip to the west of the pier. The third will anchor off the 17th Street pier and passengers will be ferried between the boat and the dock.

"The coordination of putting three ships at berth is no small task," said Cook, who has been in contact with cruise line representatives about details like where the gangway will be, where the ships can tie up or which direction they should approach from.

The port had to revamp its security plan as of July 1 because of federal Homeland Security requirements, but has worked with the Coast Guard's Captain of the Port to ensure everything is in order for each port of call. That included adding a second restricted zone on Pier 1 where the second ship will dock.

Although Astoria could see an influx of people, increasing the population of the city by 50 percent, residents should not be too inconvenienced, said Mitchum, who urged locals to be friendly and helpful.

"Because they're well fed on the ship, they're not going to jam up all the restaurants, they will just walk downtown and visit the museums, so I don't see any conflict," he said.

And Astoria's efforts seem to be paying off - at this year's Sea Trade convention and at a Northwest Cruise Association business cruise that Cook attended, Astoria was cited as an example of what a port of call should be like.

"What I think that tells us is that the Port of Astoria, the community of the North Coast and all of the volunteers have really stepped up ... to make this a very viable port of call for these cruise lines," said Cook.

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