A Grand Strand couple taking a 25th anniversary cruise around the Hawaiian Islands on the Pride of America was shocked when their captain, Ron Chrastina, announced that he was from Myrtle Beach.
“We had cruised with Norwegian before and were invited to a cocktail party with the captain so we thought we might as well go and see who he is,” Abby McCrary said. “When he got up and said he was from Myrtle Beach we just couldn’t believe it.”
During the evening as the captain made his rounds to greet his passengers, the McCrary’s were able to share some cell phone photos of the massive flooding occurring back home while they were on vacation.
“It was during the October floods of last year and Roger kept the captain’s attention so long an envious passenger spoke up and said she had photos on her phone, too,” Abby said, chuckling.
It’s a different lifestyle
Captain Ron Chrastina has made unusually long commutes to work from Myrtle Beach for most of the time since moving to the area in 2001. He chose to live here, he said, because he could live anywhere he wanted and still work on a ship. In 2006, he was named captain of the Pride of Aloha sailing the Hawaiian Islands. It was in 2013 that Chrastina was assigned as captain of the Pride of America, a U.S. flagship and the only one still cruising the Hawaiian Islands 365 days a year.
Flying into Honolulu, Chrastina endures the more than 4,800-mile (4,178 nautical mile) trip that can take 10 hours or longer depending on how many times he has to change planes.
While Chrastina’s job on a cruise ship takes him from home 10 weeks straight, the upside is that he is then home for 10 weeks straight.
“Going to sea is not for everyone,” Chrastina said. “I tell my new crew if it was, then everybody would be doing it. It’s a mindset you have to put yourself in to be away from home wherever it is and then jump right back in when done.”
During those long days and nights, however, he is working with all the responsibilities on his shoulders that come with being in command.
Working on a passenger ship is quite different from experiences Chrastina had earlier in his career working port to port on cargo ships that took him to many locations around the world. He sometimes worked contracts for months on end and has cruised around the world several times.
“You are not always going someplace that is tourist friendly or glamorous. Definitely, going somewhere like Casablanca is an interesting visit…but ports around the world are not the place to walk around in. Those kinds of places can provide more challenges,” he said.
Initially not anticipating he would ever work on a passenger ship, Chrastina became captain of the Pride of America, a member of the Norwegian Cruise Line fleet and the first new U.S.-flagged cruise ship in almost 50 years, where he guides his ship exclusively in the Hawaiian islands.
“I am lucky enough that for 10 weeks, seven days a week I am captain and when I go on vacation, my relief comes and he is the captain,” Chrastina said.
While he is away for such an extended time, having such a lengthy break in between helps him make up for lost time with family. During his most recent 10-week “vacation” as Chrastina calls his time away from the ship, there was a lot of action going on at home with military veteran spouse Shelby who entertains herself while he is away by bee keeping and raising her two bunnies Salt and Pepper. This year, she has been busy preparing to deliver the first Chrastina baby.
Arriving home on Sept. 11, Ron Chrastina’s time at home became even more precious due to the arrival on Oct. 4 of son Ryder, especially since the couple became aware at 21 weeks into the pregnancy there was a problem. Ryder was born with his intestines developed outside his body, a condition known as gastroschisis. This condition is a defect in the abdominal wall where the intestines stick through a hole beside the belly button. To correct the problem, Ryder had to remain in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at the Medical University of South Carolina for more than five weeks.
As if that was not enough for the couple to handle, they were evicted from the hospital during Hurricane Matthew, which made landfall in South Carolina Oct. 8. They returned home and went two days without seeing their newborn that had been moved along with all the infants in the NICU to a safer part of the hospital.
Through their faith and with the support of hundreds praying for them, including those on the ship, Ryder Adam Chrastina was delivered safely and recovered quickly from his surgery.
Developing a career at sea
Spending his life at sea was not something Chrastina dreamed of as a child growing up just outside New York in suburban Parsippany, N.J. His education was leading him down the path of engineering, he said. His father, a Navy veteran who had enjoyed the travel involved in military service, however, preferred taking the family on vacations near water but not the Jersey Shore. Their trips were to places like Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport or Groton where the U.S. Navy built nuclear submarines along the Thames River.
“He was in the Navy and got to travel and see things. I think he wished he had stayed in because of the travel and being paid to be there. I think he was quietly nudging and showing us things to see if we had an interest,” he said.
In his senior year, Chrastina said he still had no plan for his future. His father sat him down, looked at his grades and advised him that he could really go wherever he wanted but he needed to look beyond community college and the affordability. Appointment as a mid-shipman at Annapolis required Congressional support but Chrastina had waited too late to apply and there was no space for him.
“Ironically, I found out years later that the person who got the appointment was someone I went to grade school with. He got the scholarship and retired from the Navy as a commander,” Chrastina said.
During a phone conversation with his Congressional representative’s office, he was given the option of going to community college and reapplying the next year or considering Kings Point, a place he had never heard of.
“Kings Point is the common name for the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and from a pure cost benefit of all the federal academies, it is called the best kept secret in the U.S.,” Chrastina said. “Two days later, I was appointed to Kings Point.”
Operating differently than other military academies, Kings Point focuses on producing officers to work on commercial vessels to support the sealift needs of the United States, Chrastina explained. Ships can move enormous amounts of cargo cost effectively and across oceans. During World War II, a U.S. Navy Armed Guard was created to provide protection for the merchant marine ships.
“Our school is the only academy that has lost students in time of war,” Chrastina said. “They are sent out into the fray on cargo ships with no weapons.”
As a Kings Point graduate, Chrastina had options to serve as a ship’s officer at sea, ashore in the maritime and intermodal transportation field, or to become an active duty officer in the military. Since the federal government pays for the student’s education, there is a service obligation. Chrastina chose to work ashore in the commercial sector initially as there was a need for sealift (transportation of equipment and supplies at sea) at the end of the first Gulf War, he said. He is also a reservist serving two weeks a year for eight years to fulfill his commitment.
A fun job that carries a heavy weight
Captain Ron Chrastina said his job is “fun” but “I’m also that guy who if at the end of the day makes an error or someone else does, I’m the person who walks down the gang way in hand cuffs. That is the level of responsibility and authority I have to accept.”
To help ensure each trip is successful, he said he has to make sure his crew of 900 has the right frame of mind to successfully run the ship and please a maximum capacity of 2,700 passengers. While sailing his 80,435 ton, 921-foot long ship, Ron Chrastina said he has to model the behavior he expects from his crew.
“There are a lot of different ways to handle a ship. I have sailed with a lot of different captains. For me, if I’m showing enough attention to ask questions, then they [the crew] are getting enough attention in a timely manner. I’m in charge but I am also another set of eyes and may see something that needs to be handled.”
Additionally, the captain is in constant demand by the passengers, many who have never sailed before and find the uniformly dressed captain of great interest. Pride of America incorporates the more updated freestyle cruising platform so guests have more control over their vacation, eating when they please and dressing more relaxed at dinner. Rather than the more formal dinners with the captain of the past, Chrastina said there are specific times set up around his schedule for him to mingle with passengers and provide photo opportunities. A young and personable individual, he never minds taking a few minutes while walking from one location on the ship to another to take a quick photo if asked unless there is urgency in his mission.
“I’ve been known to be at a buffet and sit down and talk to guests,” he said.
Another plus for him, his wife, who also used to work on cruise ships as a massage therapist, has been able to join him on cruises. Now with little Ryder part of the family, Ron Chrastina looks forward to eventually spending some time on ship with him as well. In the meantime, Skype will help keep his face familiar to his newborn son during his absence.