The word “tender” is very confusing. It is another archaic nautical term, and not a customer-centric one, either. At a typical cruise port, the ship pulls up alongside the dock, and cruisers pour off the boat by walking down ramps or gangways.
At a tender port, the ship cannot get close enough to the dock to extend a ramp, typically because the water is not deep enough next to the dock (the Crown Princess requires water more than 30 feet deep to avoid running aground), but sometimes because the dock is already full of other ships and there is no more room.
When that happens, the ship “tenders” the passengers to the port, instead of letting the passengers present themselves, by ferrying them from the ship to the port in small boats.
Tender ports are an annoyance because you can’t just get off the ship, you have to wait for the little tender boats to arrive, and then you have to travel by boat whatever distance the ship is from the dock, and then disembark the tender boat, which is just time and trouble.
However, I was surprised in Santorini how fast, simple, and easy the tender process was. For example, the tender boats are “little” compared to the Crown Princess, but they aren’t “little” in any other sense. Santorini’s port provided a fleet of double-decker tender boats that each held 180 passengers. The tender boats were continuously loading, so even if thousands of people left the ship, this could be accomplished with a dozen or so trips.
Typically the ship arrives at a port around sunrise, and if it is a tender port, then the first tender might leave the ship at 7am.
Here is how you get yourself on the first tender off the ship.
First, loiter outside the Michelangelo Dining Hall on Deck 5 until a line starts to form at 6:45am. Next, join the line and wait until they hand out ticket numbers. If you're lucky, you'll get tender ticket #1, but all you need is a number low enough to be in the first boat, which depends on how many passengers will fit in the first boat, which you don't know. It might be 38 or it might be 60 or it might be 150. If the tender boat holds 60, then numbers 1-60 will be called all at once, which means you get the privilege of being in the first boat, but you do not get a privileged position within the boat.
How important is it to be in the first boat? Not at all important, but I know people who do it. On Santorini, at least, early tender gets an advantage, because a line at the cable car has not yet formed.
My first moment of real affection for Princess Cruises occurred in the tender line to return to the ship. We were boiling hot from our excursion and from the summer sun. A Princess representative came down the line handing out not only ice water, but also ice-cold refrigerated wet towels. What a life saver!
At Kotor, the tender service provided by the port deployed relatively small tender boats (38 passengers) and in any case was overwhelmed by the simultaneous presence of three large cruise ships (Crown Princess, Sea Princess, and Norwegian Star).
No problem. The Crown Princess just lowered as many life boats as necessary to serve as tenders. Each life boat holds 150 passengers, so it didn't take very many boats to provide continuous loading and unloading service, and the lines to return moved quickly.
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A double-decker tender boat heads for shore.
Two Crown Princess life boats pass each other as they tender passengers back to the ship in Kotor.
I will always be grateful for the Crown Princess's Chilled Face Cloth and Water Service.
Inside a relatively large tender boat -- 180 passengers.
Inside a smaller tender boat -- 38 passengers.