Interview: Aurora Expeditions’ Robert Halfpenny

Sam Ballard speaks to managing director of Aurora Expeditions, as the line moves into the future with its first new-build ship 

It’s an exciting time to be at the helm of Aurora Expeditions. The company, which, for 28 years, has been running expeditions to the Polar regions on older Russian research vessels (“doing it dirty” in the words of its managing director), is to launch its first newbuild at the end of the month.

The Greg Mortimer, named after the company’s co-founder, is a 120-passenger expedition ship that will bring a whole host of firsts to the industry.

Arguably the most important among them is the X-Bow, the ship’s unique beak, which will help make the Drake Passage crossing smoother and faster.

“In three to four metre swells in the Drake Passage, a ship with a typical bow will have to slow down to seven knots because it will be crashing against the waves,” explains Robert Halfpenny, the line’s boss. “With the X-Bow, we will be able to maintain a speed of 12 knots, so we can cross in one-and-a-half days instead of two and use less fuel doing so. That means more time in Antarctica, more landings, more often.”

Throughout the vessel, there are a number of features that show how much of a say the company’s on board crew had in the build. One such example are the landing bays that will make life a lot easier for those embarking on a kayak or Zodiac excursion.

“Previously we had 54 passengers [on the Polar Pioneer] and one gangway. Now we’ve got 120 passengers and we’ve got four. On the Polar Pioneer, our crew would pass the kayaks down to someone in a Zodiac and our passengers would climb down a rope ladder like they were at D-Day. With this [The Greg Mortimer] they will walk straight off the back of the ship and use the landing bays.”

The Greg Mortimer is a world away from the line’s previous vessel, which was built back in 1984. “Ships normally have a 30 year lifespan – we are way past that,” says Halfpenny. “So you either have to make a massive investment in refurbishing it – and negotiating with the Russians – or purpose build your own.”

There is arguably no more important feature than the capacity of the ship, however. If sailing full, Halfpenny anticipates that at least 20 people will take a kayak or Zodiac – meaning that everyone on board the ship will be able to get on to the Antarctic ice (which is limited to 100 people at a time). 

“Environmentally, we are using way less fuel and it’s also low emission,” explains Halfpenny. “It’s actually a hybrid ship, which is the same as Ponant, but we’re not pushing that element because while you can turn the engines off, you’ve then got to turn them back on again. We might use it when whale watching and it pays to be silent. 

“The ship also has dynamic positioning using GPS, so if we’re sailing over coral reefs we won’t damage them.” 

In the UK, the line is pushing things forward, too. In the last issue of Cruise Adviser we revealed that Aurora was investing heavily in the UK – aiming to hire two business development managers.

Craig Upshall, Aurora’s UK & Europe sales director explains: “We want to get some BDMs on the road to get the brand out there and start hammering home the differences about Aurora. We want to be top of mind. We’ll also be implementing an online booking system with an agent portal so the trade will have a lot more access.”

The investment in the UK comes on the back of Upshall delivering decent numbers in his first year with the company. 

“It’s a lot of investment but we wouldn’t have done this if Craig hadn’t done a good job,” Halfpenny explains. “Do Brits go on expedition cruising? It’s in your DNA. We’re still talking small numbers for us, but it’s big for expedition.” 

Upshall adds: “We’ve exceeded the trade targets we were set. We’ve laid the foundations over the last year and in the last couple of months we’ve seen our plans to come to fruition. Those agents that we’ve met at events are now coming through with enquiries and bookings. 

“We’re small and nimble enough to be able to listen to agents and make changes.” 

Sam Ballard

Sam Ballard is the publisher of CRUISE ADVISER and has been writing about the cruise industry for a number of years. His CV includes the likes of shipping magazine International Cruise & Ferry Review and the digital publication Cruise News. He can be contacted on:sam@cruise-adviser.com.

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