An exceptional captain: interview with Miia Holma

We recently had the pleasure of sailing on board Hondius, one of the newest units in the Oceanwide Expeditions fleet, specializing in expedition cruises in the Arctic and Antarctica. Unfortunately, we did not have the opportunity to sail with Miia Holma on that occasion, an exceptional captain who upholds the value of women in leadership positions on cruise ships, particularly on truly special itineraries.

Recalling the on-board style of Oceanwide Expeditions and, most importantly, considering the range of incredible itineraries the company offers in the most remote areas of the Earth, we wanted to interview Captain Miia Holma. Our aim was to learn more about her experience and her relationship with the expedition cruise company, but above all, to understand her journey and approach to such extreme and unique travels.”

Miia, first of all, thank you for agreeing to share a bit more about yourself and your relationship with the sea. I believe that being at the helm of a cruise ship is already a particularly challenging and demanding commitment, both in terms of the necessary training and experience and the management of such a complex profession, both on board and due to the distance from home. However, I also think that being the captain of an expedition ship navigating through ice every day is something even more captivating and extraordinary. But let’s take a step back first. How did your journey on the sea begin? What were the steps that led you to first approach a maritime career and then rise through the ranks?

I made my decision to be a Captain when I was 5 years old. I am from a small town located by the sea. The harbor with the big cargo vessels was one of my favorite places, which I visited with my Dad. So, I was very determined about my career and I started Nautical studies after I graduated from high school. My goal was always to become a Captain, but I knew it was a long way. When looking for a company to start my trainee period, I ended up sailing on chemical tankers. I was very fortunate, and I grew up in this same company starting as a Cadet, being 3rd Officer, 2nd Officer, Chief Offier and finally, for the last five years as a Captain. Eventually the company was sold. I had an offer to stay on those vessels in a new company, but I decided it was my time to do something different.

How did you come to work at Oceanwide Expeditions? Were you more interested in the company’s philosophy and the position offered, or were you already seeking experience in the expedition cruise industry?

I had sent my CV to several companies, cargo and cruise ships as well. I received several offers and options, especially from tanker companies. I even had an opportunity to start studies to become a commercial airplane pilot.  When  I received an invitation from Oceanwide to come for an interview, I can’t explain, but the I felt like this is something I need to check out. I followed my feeling and put the airplane pilot school on a hold, since I already had a scheduled starting date. I was aware that, Oceanwide is in the expedition cruise industry, but since they told me on the email, that I seem to be a perfect candidate for them, I had to google again. Having my all experience on cargo ships, I could not believe that this would be true, that I get this opportunity. As soon as I arrived to the office and realized, that it actually was true, I had hard time to hide my excitement. I felt the great atmosphere and family like relation between the office and the employees immediately.  It was not even necessary to think. I was convinced that this would be my favorite job. To sail to Antarctica had been my long lasting dream.

Even those who have not yet experienced an expedition cruise, I believe, can imagine how different the approach to routes and calls must be to ensure the safety of guests while offering them the maximum experience on board. For many, going to Antarctica or perhaps Greenland is a lifelong dream, and an experience that rarely happens more than once. How does all this translate on the bridge? What are the major challenges that await a captain of an expedition ship compared to managing normal cruise itineraries?

Even I had been sailing as Captain on cargo ships, I did not even apply as Captain on expedition ships. I wanted to start as a Chief Officer to gain experience and to get familiar with the industry and the polar regions. The areas where we sail, are extreme due to weather conditions, remoteness, lack of surveys and information, etc. which are the major differences compared to other areas. It is very common that the itinerary must be changed due to wind, sea state or ice conditions. At those moments the knowledge and experience is crucial to improvise another sailing plan.

Of course my background helped me, and I was offered a promotion to Captain relatively soon, which I truly appreciated and was grateful. Even though I decided not to take that opportunity. I know how stressful the job can be, and I want to feel truly ready to make the right decisions not to risk the safety of the vessel or people, but still to give the best possible experience to everyone. I realize, that for most passengers this is an unique experience and maybe once in a lifetime. I feel that it is our responsibility to make the best of it. And is is only possible with enough experience.  Now I am working as Staff Captain and stepping up as Captain when required, since there  is no permanent position available at the moment. Even being very determined since young age, I have never been in rush for too fast promotions. I want to feel ready for the responsibility that is given to me.  

What is the place where you have taken your ship that has impressed you the most? What fascinated you the most? And were there moments of particular difficulty that you had to face during a route from the Arctic to the Antarctic?

Antarctica is the most impressive place to me. And of course South Georgia as well. The landscape and wildlife is overwhelming and breathtaking. It never stops fascinating me. Each time I try to appreciate and think, that this could be the last time I see it. It just makes you very humble. But these are also the areas were we meet the most demanding conditions due to weather and ice. The difficulties are mostly related to those, and mainly in the Antarctica. During the crossing from Arctic to Antarctica we might encounter some rough weather sometimes, but it is still more extreme in the South.

What aspects do you like the most about an expedition cruise? Perhaps plotting a new route every day and always being ready to improvise some unplanned events? Encounters with animals? Offering unforgettable experiences to your guests?

My favorite part of the job is, that your day, and even your whole life can change in a second. I mean that some wildlife encounters can really be life changing experiences. It is truly amazing to encounter whales, penguins, polar bears, etc. in their natural environment. I feel the excitement each time, and it is just amazing, when I can see the happiness on passengers’ faces, when they see it for the first time. It is a privilege to be able to offer and share those moments.  

In this industry you need to be able and willing to improvise. If you are not ready to change plans or you feel uncomfortable with being flexible in multiple situations, this job is not for you. It is very demanding industry, but also I would say, the most rewarding.

How do you experience relationships with colleagues on relatively small ships? Are there many other female figures in roles related to navigation within the fleet? Or is your presence still rather unique among the crew? And how do passengers perceive your role? Do they appreciate having a woman in command, showing interest in your experience?

There are not too many women in the maritime industry in general. It is hard  and challenging to combine  your maritime career with the family life at home. Of course on cruise ship, there are several women in the hotel department especially. On the cargo ships I was mostly the only woman on board.

I was a bit worried in the beginning how the passengers would take a female officer in a higher rank and especially Captain. Honestly, I felt more pressure than on cargo ships. However, my experience has been really positive, and I have received a lot of great and heartwarming feedback. I want to believe that if you are professional, it does not matter if you are female or male.

How many months do you spend on board and how many on rest? How do you reconcile your challenging work with your private life?

I spend about half of the year on board and half at home. The contract lengths are normally about 2.5 months, and the same time off. I do love my job, but it breaks my heart every time, when I have to leave home. I see how much it affects on my family and other people around me. I do not have children, but instead I have my beloved dog. I guess having this dream since my childhood, I have never had a desire to have any children. The job definitely puts a lot of challenge also to the partner. But, it also makes you appreciate lots of things in each other, and not to take anything for granted. Makes you give an extra hug every now and then, when you think that in few days or weeks he will not be there next to you.

Do you think the Expedition sector represents the pinnacle of your maritime career, or do you plan to explore other realities in your future?

I am open with my future. For the moment, I do love what I am doing, but if ever I am in a situation, that I don’t enjoy it anymore, I have no hesitation to change it. I can easily imagine myself doing this for the rest of my life.

Thank you very much for your time and availability, Miia. We understand how living on a cruise ship can be demanding, and how the reality of the expedition sector always presents daily challenges and requires adaptability. We wish you a long and successful career and, of course, we truly hope to meet you on board during our next cruise with Oceanwide Expeditions.

Don’t miss further news, updates and reviews of Oceanwide Expeditions on Cruising Journal with photos, videos and cruises on offer.

Gabriele Bassi