An interview with Jan de Bruijn, Captain, AMA Waterways

“When I was first sailing on the Danube, the rules were not necessarily followed. Maybe it was a Western/Eastern European thing, but it’s gotten a lot better.”

At 67, Dutchman Jan de Bruijn is eligible for retirement. But he isn’t going anywhere. As the most experienced captain of the river cruise operator AMA Waterways, the company needs him.

River cruises have become more popular than ever – there are currently about 250 passenger ships in operation up and down the Danube – but the industry is struggling to find qualified people to captain the growing number of ships. AMA Waterways, with 21 ships and cruises on European, Asian and African rivers, builds a new ship a year.

Perhaps this is why “the younger generation” can now get licenses as early as 21. Starting out on a cargo boat, De Bruijn got his license at 23, and was one of the youngest at the time.

However, getting a license is not easy, and very different from de Bruijn’s day. Ships’ systems have since become fully computerized, which means training is longer and highly technical, and includes courses in management skills.

“You can always see when young captains have been trained this way – we call them ‘map captains,’” he said, winking.

Before they can get their licenses from a municipal water and shipping authority to pilot on the river, new captains are required to travel the entire 2,780 kilometers of the Danube, up and down, at least eight times.

De Bruijn has traveled the lengt of the Danube well over 500 times and knows it like the back of his hand. He is often the one to break in new ships.

While the AmaLea, AMA Waterways’ newest ship on which we met, had already been on three of four trips, de Bruijn pointed out the box of champagne for the upcoming christening.

For de Bruijn, being with his crew, most of whom follow him onto each new ship, is his favorite part of the job.

“When I’m off for two weeks, I already miss [them] after a couple of days. It took a while for my girlfriend to understand that,” he grinned. “But now she gets it.”