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Cruise Ship Review
Marco Polo:
History
By Jay Carson


LIFE AS ALEXANDR PUSHKIN

M/V Marco Polo was originally christened as S/S Alexandr Pushkin. The ship was built by the Mathias Thesen shipyard in Wismar, East Germany, and delivered in 1965 to the Baltic Shipping Company to inauguarte their regular trans-Atlantic service between Montreal and Lenningrad. The ship had traditional styling in its hull lines and profile. Built to navigate through broken ice, it has greater hull strength, freeboard, and reserve stability than are normally specified in passenger ships. Possible use as a troopship is credited as the reason behind her large provision and stores areas, which support a cruising range of over 10,000 nautical miles, which is twice the range of many large cruise ships currently under construction.

M/S Alexandr Pushkin had a length overall of 176.3 m (578.5 ft), an extreme beam of 23.6 m (77.4 ft) and a design draft of 8.2 m (27 ft). The ship had an original gross tonnage of 19,860.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Baltic Shipping company needed cash to finance acquisition of new cargo ships, and sold off several cruise vessels. Lloyd's List, July 8, 1991, reported that the Pushkin, then one of the Soviet Union's largest cruise ships, had been sold by Far Eastern Shipping Co. of Vladivostock to London-based company Shipping & General Ltd, owned by Gerry Herrod, founder of Ocean Cruise Lines. French company Paquet Lines had acquired Ocean Cruise Lines from Mr. Herrod in 1990, paying a reported $100 million (CIN 7/16/91, p 4) for the 460-passenter Ocean Princess and 480-passenter Ocean Pearl. The Alexandr Pushkin was slated to be the first ship in Mr. Herrod's new venture, Orient Lines, as the M/S Marco Polo.

REFIT AS M/V MARCO POLO

Upon purchase by Shipping & General, the Marco Polo proceeded to Neorian Shipyards on the Greek Island of Syros for reconditioning of the main engines by the original manufacturer, Sulzer Diesels. By the end of the year, the ship had been shifted to the Perama shipyard zone near Piraeus to continue the refit work.

Greek shipyards were in a difficult transition from state ownership to privatization during this period, as the Greek Government moved to comply with European Community subsidy regulations. Neorian came up for sale, and laid idle for over a month following occupation by the shipyard workforce in protest of the sell off plans. However, the Perama area was a bright spot, with all ship repair berths reportedly occupied. Perama's Avlis yard had recently been sold to a Greek shipowner, Antonio Lelakis, who made a successful entre into the cruise ship conversion business. In 1992, Avlis completed the conversion of the roll on/roll off ferry Empress of Australia into the 700-passenger M/V Empress (renamed Royal Princess) for a reported $35 million. Avlis also undertook the completion of the hull section of an unfinished Polish-built ro/ro into the M/S Regent Sky. The Regent Sky completion was reported to cost over $200 million, and required yet another Perama subcontractor, Eleusis Shipyards, to stretch the hull and install over 7000 tonnes of steel. Perama was a busy place when M/S Marco Polo arrived, but with an undercurrent of concern over the privatization efforts.

The Perama ship repair area is an interesting business idea. A variety of relatively small shore shops band together to perform large, complex jobs pierside that would be accomplished under the control of a single large shipyard in other regions of the world. Each of the three local shipyards, (Avlis, Nafsi, and Eleusius) may perform part of the work when dock facilities are needed. These collective efforts have resulted in a number of cost-effective passenger ship conversions of impressive magnitude, including the conversion of the Marco Polo.

 

Marco Polo was reportedly gutted as part of her 2 1/2 year, $60 million conversion. The superstructure was lengthened, and the stack height was increased to keep a balance to the ship's profile. Enlargement of the superstructure resulted in an increase in gross tonnage to 20,500 tons. Denny Brown stabilizers were added, and four new auxiliary diesel generators were fitted. The ship was brought up to international regulatory standards (IMO and SOLAS) by fitting new fire detection, alarm and extinguishing systems, fitting new watertight and fire zone doors, and installing new lifesaving and navigation equipment. An extensive suite of pollution control and abatement equipment was installed, including both waste water plants and state-of-the-art solid waste sorters, compactors and incinerators. Since the ship wa intended to cruise in Antarctic waters, a helipad was added, to allow a helicopter to scout ahead for whales and marine wildlife. The former automobile garage and side loading port was reconfigured to handle and stow inflatable zodiac boats that would land passengers on the Antartic shore. Explorer Eric Linsblad reportedly provided guidance on these features.

Noted naval architect Knud Hansen of Denmark and interior designers A & M Katzourakis collaborated to transform the accommodations of the vessel for the premium market, while retaining the excellent seakeeping properties of the original ship. Reviews from the past several years confirm that they succeeded in creating beautiful public spaces and cabins, and that the motion characteristics of the ship are exceptional. Excellent views of the sea from all public spaces (except the casino) are reported in an article in Cruise Travel Magazine (July/Aug 1994). This article states that a 90% circumnavigation of the perimeter of the ship is possible on the Promenade Deck, and that a 2-level Restaurant is located in the stern, below the Upper Deck, providing comfort and features that are just now becoming standard on larger new ships.

Cabins were upgraded, and some new staterooms were installed. 800 lower berths are provided in 425 staterooms and 6 suites. 288 of the staterooms are outside. On average, the outside staterooms are 13.0 sq. meters (140 sq. ft), and the inside staterooms are only slightly smaller at 12.1 sq. meters (130 sq. ft).

The fully upgraded main machinery is comprised of two Sulzer 7RND76 slow-speed diesel engines, delivering 21,000 brake horsepower through ice-strengthened propellers. The ship has a maximum speed of 20.5 knots, and consumes 63 tonnes of heavy fuel oil each day at full speed.

M/S Marco Polo is now classed by Bureau Veritas and is certified to meet 1990 SOLAS and IMO Rules. New ship's equipment was reportedly purchased to US Coast Guard specifications.

The ship's inaugaral voyage was delayed from 10/30/93 to 11/19/3 due to a strike in the Greek shipyard where she was being completed. It is unclear whether this was Avlis, Nafsi, or some other unnamed berth. Shortly after delivery she sailed on a South Africa cruise from Mombasa, which was reported as a successful voyage by cruise industry reviewers. (Cruise Industry News 10/29/93 and 12/3/93).

OPERATIONS SINCE REDELIVERY AS M/V MARCO POLO


The M/V Marco Polo is staffed with 350 Scandanavian officers and Filipino crew, similar to Mr. Herrod's previous operations with Ocean Cruise Lines.

This ship is commonly placed in the 'premium' class by cruise industry reviewers. It is reportedly known for its cuisine and interesting, seldom-visited ports of call in the Far East, Mediterranean, and Africa. Menus were originally developed by the famous Los Angeles chef Wolfgang Puck, offering a cuisine a step above comparably priced ships.

Antarctic cruises were envisioned as part of the regular itineraries for this ship, and were part of her voyages in the first season. However, environmental regulations in Antarctica limited the maximum number of passengers on each voyage to 400, less than half of her maximum capacity. Additionally, only 100 persons were allowed ashore at a time, in order to protect the fragile Antarctic environment, but complicated operations using the zodiac boats. The Antarctic voyages were not a commercial success, and they were dropped from the 1994-95 schedule when Orient Lines decided to concentrate on its Far East itineraries. [Editorial Note: The Antarctic cruises have been reinstated for the 1996-1997 cruising season.]

In March 1995, Orient Lines announced it would offer cruises in the Eastern Mediterranean from May - October 1996. Deborah Natansohn, Executive VP reportedly stated that "The Far East may not be strong enough for year-round cruising". Other industry analysts suggested that the weather in the Far East created seasonal problems that prevented year-round cruising. (Cruise Industry News 3/31/95and 4/20/95)

M/S Maro Polo was forced to divert from her visit to Pireaus port on the first voyage of the Eastern Med cruise program. The Greek Federation of Seaman organized a protest that M/S Marco Polo, with her Scandanavian/filipino staff, violated Greek cabotage law which prevents embarkation/disembarkation of passengers in Greek ports by a foriegn ship. The Harbor Master of Pireaus reportedly denied the ship a berth, tug crews boycotted, and port pilots went on strike to prevent Marco Polo from using the port. Ironically, in the previous month the Greek Ministry of Merchant Marine had ruled against Orient Lines on the question of cabotage compliance, but the Minister of Shipping, Kosmas Sfryriou, had reversed the ruling, and declared Orient Lines' Pireaus - Istanbul and Pireaus - Barcelona cruises to be legal. ( Cruise Industry News 5/15/96)

The dispute continued to escalate through the next three months. In late May, angry Greek seafarers clashed with coast guard personnel assigned to protect the ship and the crew. By mid-June, a temporary injunction allowed the ship to return to business on its scheduled itinerary.

"Discretion is the better part of valour" , or so goes the old saw. The management at Orient Lines may have had this in mind when they engineered a compromise. In August they announced that Marco Polo would concentrate on the Western Med in summer 1997, but that they would maintain their market presence in Greece by chartering in the Greek-flagged M/V Ocean Majesty (500 passengers) from May through October 1997. Clever, those London fellows. Everyone appears happy.

AFRICA CRUISES AND COMPETITION

Marco Polo will continue her program with Africa and Asia cruises. Of the Africa cruises, Ms. Natansohn says, " Orient Lines packages all African cruises with safaris, combining the relaxation experience with the ability to see very exotic destinations which are difficult to get to any other way." (Cruise Industry News, 9/16/96).

Also competing in this market are Princess and Fred Olsen Lines, with M/V Black Watch and M/V Black Prince. These ships are not as large as Marco Polo.

If you like Marco Polo, you might be interested in a relatively new ship, M/V Minerva. This smaller ship, 12,000 GT and 388 passengers is operated by P&O's Swan Hellenic Lines, and marketed by Classical Cruises in the USA. It was converted by T. Mariotti in Italy from a Soviet research vessel, and delivered for cruising in 1996. M/V Minerva does 12-16 day cruises in North Africa, the Med, Red Sea, Baltic, British Isles, and Black Sea, but so far hasn't gone after Marco Polo's niche in the Far East.

Fun, huh? Marco Polo sounds like a ship I'd like to cruise on.


Jay Carson is a founding partner of Steller Carson Associates, LLC, a management consulting firm that specializes in marine transporation. They bring together market research, technical knowledge, economic analysis and project management to assist ship owners in developing new concepts. Mr. Carson is a naval architect and marine engineer, graduating from Webb Institute in New York in 1973. He received an MBA from Boston University in 1985. His work includes engineering and project management on a number of naval and commercial vessels, and development studies for two small cruise lines. Jay can be reached for question or comment at: 103402.1054@compuserve.com.


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