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Cruise Feature Article

Arturo Paniagua Mazorra

On Sept. 12, 1997, the old Rotterdam, one of the world's classic cruise ships, began its final scheduled voyage, a 19-day transcanal trip from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.. Also, the old Australia liner Canberra began on Sept. 10 her farewell cruise, a 20-day Mediterranean cruise from Southampton, her home port. Loyal fans of these vessels already had booked every cabin, and there was a long waiting list of thousands more for both nostalgic farewell cruises.

In the early days of September, it seemed both ships would fall victim to the breaker's torch, but only the Canberra was retired for good on Sept. 30. The Rotterdam has been purchased by Cruise Holdings, and will continue to exude the romance and glamour of the bygone days of ocean liner travel under a new name: Rembrandt. Holland America Line decided to sell the ship for $20 million, rather than invest the estimated $15 million necessary to bring the thirty-eight year-old vessel into compliance with the SOLAS safety standards that became compulsory after September 30, 1997.


The Rotterdam and Canberra illustrate the problem that affects all cruise ships built previous to the SOLAS 74 standard. Due to the Scandinavian Sea fire of April 7, 1990 (where 158 died due to the spread of fire and smoke), the International Maritime Organization issued in 1992 the Chapter II SOLAS 74 amendments, that are being phased in over a 16-year period that began in 1994. Depending on the design and construction of each ship, the new safety rules require major structural changes and the retrofitting of equipment and systems.

A brief description of these changes, for ships carrying more than 36 passengers in international waters:

  • Atriums Applicable January 1, 1994. Each level within the atrium space is to have two means of escape, one of which is to give direct access to an enclosed vertical means of escape. The atrium will be a vertical zone protected by sprinklers and smoke detectors, which also activates a smoke extraction system.
  • Fire safety Applicable October 1, 1997. Installation of smoke detection systems in all accommodation and service spaces and stairway enclosures. Various arrangement enhancements of hinged fire door automation and fire door indicator panels. Additional illumination of escape routes, with low level lighting or photoluminescent strips. Arrangement of galley exhaust ducts. Installation throughout the ship of a general alarm system and a public address system. If the ship was been built to pre-SOLAS 74 standard, all the spaces above combustible ceilings in stairways and corridors are to be provided with smoke detectors, and all accommodation and service spaces, stairway enclosures and corridors to be provided with sprinklers, fire detection and fire alarm systems.
  • Fire safety Applicable January 20, 2000. Stairways construction: All the stairways must be of steel and within "A" enclosures, with only minor exceptions. Category A machinery spaces must be fitted with a fixed fire extinguishing system. Various arrangement enhancements of all fire door automation. Installation of dampers in some ventilation ducts.
  • Fire safety Applicable October 1, 2005 (or 15 years from the date of construction). All accommodation and service spaces, stairway enclosures and corridors to be provided with sprinklers, fire detection and fire alarm systems.
  • Use of combustible materials. Applicable October 1, 2010. Construction of pre-SOLAS 74 ships to be brought up to SOLAS 74 standards.
Compliance with SOLAS requirements is monitored by each member country, and some countries presumably are stricter than others. The U.S. Coast Guard annually inspects every cruise vessel taking on passengers in U.S. ports, which includes San Juan, Puerto Rico, assuring that these vessels will meet the new standards.

Additionally, the SOLAS agreement covers only ships that sail in international waters. Ships plying domestic waters (among the Hawaiian or Galapagos Islands, for example) may meet the new safety standards but they are not required to do so. If you are concerned about fire safety aboard an older ship sailing only from foreign ports, ask the cruise line if the ship meets SOLAS 97 standards before you book.


The above list is quite onerous, and five years ago, many people thought that many old cruise ships would be withdrawn, due to the cost of refit. But the impact of the new regulation has been minor in that regard. About 110 to 120 cruise ships regularly call on U.S. ports, and the U.S.Coast Guard estimates that most of them will have to undergo at least some modification to meet the new safety standards.

In the last three years, eleven cruise ships have been broken up. But eight of them were owned by former Soviet or Chinese owners, and they were not used in the international cruise market. There are today 21 laid-up cruise ships, many of which won't sail again after October 1, 1997 because they don't meet the new regulations.

But the immense majority of the old cruise ships have been refitted. The big beneficiaries from the new regulations have been the repair yards. In the last two years, ships of all sizes and "markets" have been reformed: from the small and luxurious sailing ship Sea Cloud, to the big Norway; from the old Independence (built in 1951) and Stella Solaris (built in 1953), to the modern Sovereign of the Seas (delivered in 1987).

In old cruise ships, where the extent of conversion can be massive, the needed refit is a very sensitive task due the addition of weight on the upper decks (stability). A conventional sprinkler system complete with water, piping, plant and control system not only entails major disruptions on board during installation, but weight and destabilizing effects may render it impracticable in any case. The converted cargo ships Universe and Heng Li are two examples of this problem and have been broken up.


The newest cruise ships generally incorporate most of these safety measures, but older ships (mainly passenger liners built twenty or more years ago) do not. The owners have several options: retire the ship and see her broken up; sell her to another operator; upgrade her to the new SOLAS regulations; or use the ship in a static or coastal role. The owners' answer to the SOLAS deadline is the following:


The biggest cruise ship owner in the world, the USA-based Carnival Corp. simply eliminated from their fleet all the ships built to pre-SOLAS 74 standard. Its main branch, Carnival Cruise Lines, which caters to young, party-oriented vacationers, solved its age problem by divesting itself of its three oldest ships. It sold two of them (the Carnivale and the Mardi Gras) to Epirotiki Cruise Line (which only refitted the Carnivale that now sails as Olympic in the Mediterranean). The Festivale was sold to an investment group. and recently upgraded at a total expense in excess of of $10 million.

Carnival's upscale branch, Holland America Line, also decided against spending the money to upgrade the oldest ship in her fleet: the Rotterdam, and put it up for sale. Built in 1959, the Rotterdam has remained a favorite of passengers who prefer old-fashioned elegance over the high-tech attractions of more modern cruise ships. HAL wants to concentrate on operating a younger fleet, and the new Rotterdam made its debut in Venice just last week.

But there were other factors that weighed heavily in the decision to retire the Rotterdam. The required modifications would have detracted from the ship's interior appearance and would have taken away her most visual and identificable trademarks: her grand curved staircase would have had to have been enclosed, and the lacquered teak used in the Ritz Carlton lounge's massive wall murals would have had to have been pulled out and replaced.

We should remember that the Rotterdam, although delivered in 1959, was extensively refitted for $15 million at the Northwest Marine Ironworks in 1988. This refit was a combination of technical improvements and accomodation overhauls. But the ship's original interiors were retained, with considerable expanses of wood on board. Even though she had more than 4,440 sprinklers on board, she would have needed a similar investment in order to continue sailing according to the new regulations; and the interior decoration would have been unrecognizable to her loyal repeat passengers. The withdrawal of the ship seemed inevitable. In the Spring, it was rumoured that she would be sold to the city of Rotterdam as a floating hotel, as part of a major urban renewal project. But finally, the Rotterdam was sold to a new owner that has bought all the old cruise ships put up for sale: Cruise Holdings, now operating under the Premier Cruises brand name.

The fleets of the other branches of Carnival, Seabourn and Wind Star Cruises, are composed of modern ships that already fullfill the new regulations. As regards Carnival's latest acquisition, Costa Crociere, as of now we don't know the fate of her old passenger ships such as the 1963 Costa Riviera (SOLAS-refitted).


The P&O group has taken a mixed posture: two ships have been retired but another has been refitted:

The Canberra left service at the end of September. Constant upgrading had changed some public rooms and added new features and decor. But many exits had lots of good wood paneling, and she had a deep draught, and 236 of the 780 cabins on board were not private facilities. With the delivery in 1995 of the new P&O flagship Oriana, the marketing of the budget-priced Canberra was more and more difficult. How do you sell in the same brochure cabins without bath, and luxurious suites with balconies? P&O decided to substitute it for the Star Princess, operated from its delivery in 1988 by their American branch Princess Cruises. After a refit to adapt her to British tastes, she will be renamed Arcadia in December. The fate of the Canberra is now uncertain: in August, it was rumoured she woulld be sold to South African interests to become a hotel ship in Durban. [Editor's Note: Sadly, the Canberra was "sold for scrap" within the past two weeks.]

But P&O decided to reform the Victoria (delivered in 1966), and spent $5.5 million in Lloyd Werft in October of this year. Why? Simply because she is most compatible with the Oriana and the new Arcadia, and so her fine wood-paneled cabin walls are not a problem. The P&O marketing director, David Dingle, says in Internet: "The introduction of our new superliners has raised the standards of accomodation and facilities offered to British cruise passengers.This major refit will ensure that Victoria meets these standards, but on a more intimate scale."

As for the American branch of P&O, Princess Cruises, the last "Grand Class" ships were built to the new SOLAS specifications. The remainder of the fleet has been undergoing upgrading on an ongoing basis since September, 1992. However, in the Australian market, P&O decided to break up the old former troopship Fairstar and substitute her with the aged Fair Princess. This change was brought about more because of the Fairstar's trouble-plagued engines than because of the SOLAS deadline.


The new Vision Class ships all meet the SOLAS rules. The Sovereign trio need only minor work, and the other RCI ships, Song of America, Nordic Prince, and Viking Serenade, need moderate work. [Editor's Note: The Nordic Prince was sold in 1995 and is sailing now in foreign waters as the Carousel, marketed by Apple Vacations.] In August, RCI sold the last of the Song of Norway class trio, the Sun Viking, all built under the terms of SOLAS 60. So, all RCI ships are built in accordance with SOLAS 74 (or later) rules. Their recently acquired new branch, Celebrity Cruises, was in a similar situation: the Century trio were built to the new SOLAS rules, and the Horizon and Zenith need to be refitted with low level lighting and smoke detection systems.


Due to their financial problems in the mid-nineties, NCL sold its "White Fleet," comprising her pioneering Starward, Skyward, etc., all built to the SOLAS 60 rules. NCL thereby trimmed out of its fleet the older cruise ships, with the exception of the Norway, built under the terms of SOLAS 48, and delivered as SS France in 1961. Constant upgrading has radically changed the ship: the addition of new decks, the reduction of engine power, changes to the generating engines, etc. But the big old lady needed a further refit to fullfill the new SOLAS rules. So, on September 11, 1996, a four-week, $4.8 million refit in the King George Drydock in Southampton (where all the Cunard ships have been repaired for many years) began.

With the stretching of the Windward and Dreamward, and the possible construction of a new cruise ship in Finland for 2,000 passengers, the Norway fits well into NCL's new Caribbean megaship strategy, reversing their former tendency toward medium-sized ships. The Norway holds, therefore, a unique position as NCL's largest and most prestigious ship -- a good product tuned to the marketing of its owner.


Other popular older ships, including Cunard Line's QE2 and Saga Holidays's Saga Rose (ex-Sagafjord), will remain in the cruise business after expensive refit. But other historical ships, such as the American-owned Constitution, which cruised the Hawaiian Islands, was taken out of service in 1995 because much of its structural steel needed replacing. The refit of her sister ship Independence included some of that very work, and included with the cost was litigation with the shipyard. The SOLAS deadline was only a secondary aspect.


The modern cruise industry must satisfy its clientele with the latest standards of accommodation and service, which the highly competitive market and actual lifestyles dictate. Newer ships mean more space, more daylight on board, simplified layouts, spacious atriums and stairtowers, the best fitness facilities, and more informal daytime dining options. On the technical side, they are also more "green" (ecological): they consume less fuel, are less noisy and need less crew. They also seem to appeal to young families, an important segment of the cruise market, and travel agents often steer first-time cruisers to new ships.

Older ships can be perfectly safe. But today's standards are more demanding than when they were built 30 years ago, and they need to be brought up to requirements. There is no compelling technical reason to explain why an older liner could not be brought up to the latest SOLAS standards. Retired or laid-up cruise ships have always existed; besides the introduction of new regulations, there have always been other reasons: engine troubles, structural problems, etc.

But the old ships are frequented by old passengers desirous of remembering (or recreating) the days of the transatlantic liners. This important segment means the appearance of new owners that own only old ships: Cruise Holdings Ltd, that will be marketed as Premier Cruises. It owns a six-ship fleet, the newest of which is the Oceanic (marketed as The Big Red Boat), delivered in 1965. Saga Holidays is specializing in cruises for people older than fifty years, and they bought the old Sagafjord from Cunard in order to cover this market. Only in these market segments could the old ships be competitive. However, don't forget the lessons of Regency Cruises's bankruptcy in 1995, with a fleet exclusively composed of old ships: none of their ships sail today in the Caribbean.

Meanwhile, many older and smaller ships are being dispatched to South Africa, the Far East and South America. By doing so, the cruise lines eliminate some of the overcapacity in US waters and the Mediterranean; they are raising the fares and creating new itineraries for travelers looking for more exotic destinations. So, the Symphony of MSC was sent to South Africa, and her place in the Mediterranean fleet was covered by the Melody, thirty years newer than the old fomer Costa liner.

In conclusion, the future of the cruise market are the new ships, ever bigger, and part of some gigantic marketing organizations. All the changes are coming about because of a combination of aging fleets, increased government safety and environmental requirements, and consumer demands for what they see as "better" products. The solution to this three-part challenge has been to construct new cruise ships. Seeing ships with the marvelous sheer of the Rotterdam and Canberra will become a rara avis of the sea, indeed.

Arturo Paniagua Mazorra resides in Madrid, Spain and can be reached for questions or comment at: paniagua@pa.uc3m.es.

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