From Ro-Ro to Luxury Cruise Ship: History of the Song of Flower
The Norwegian owner Fearley & Eger awarded the construction of two "ro-ro" (roll on-roll off) ships in 1973 to the Norwegian yard Kristiansands Mek.Verksteds A.S. They were built according to a design of the Trosvik group, also of Norway. They were ships with a single shelter deck and were equipped with bow visor and ramp, stern ramp, and trailer lift between the main deck and the weather deck, where there was also trailer stowage. They had 1,000 cubic meters of ro-ro capacity, and the free height of the main deck was 5.80 meters. The names foreseen for these ships were Fernbay and Fernhill.Before their delivery, they were transferred to a Dutch company controlled by Fearley & Eger since 1973, N.V. Stoomv. Maats. Ostzee, which registered both ships under the Netherland Antillies flag, and renamed them Begonia and Gardenia.
THE RO-RO DAYSAfter their delivery, the Begonia was chartered to transport trailers between Florida and the West Indies. Later, both ships operated in Baltic waters, and between 1977 to 1979, also in the Mediterranean. In 1980, the Begonia returned to trade between Florida and the West Indies, while the Gardenia remained in Europe. In 1984, in an apparently complex arrangement, the shipowning division of the German yard Lloyd Werft purchased both sisters for cruise ship conversion. Fearley & Eger was also behind Exploration Cruise Line, a U.S. company that was going to lease and operate the ships. The Begonia did not have a name change, but the Gardenia was soon renamed Ro-Ro G. Earlier reports indicated that the first conversion was to be named Explorer Starship 1, and that when the conversion of the second ship was confirmed, it would be Explorer Starship 2. The subsequent failure of the intended market for three ships (the other was the North Star, a fishing vessel conversion that now sails as the Caledonian Star) to grow according to predictions led to the postponement of the second conversion. Later, the order for the second conversion was cancelled, and the Ro-Ro G was sold in 1989 to Badia Shipping Corp, and renamed Skarboy.
CRUISE SHIP CONVERSIONThe concept of transforming the Begonia into a cruise ship was developed by the Norwegian naval architect Petter Yran, and the complete work was done within nine months by Lloyd Werft. The reported price was $34.8 million.
The old forward superstructure, the twin funnels aft, the whole machinery plant, stern ramp and weather deck were removed and scrapped. The bow visor was permanently sealed. Six new decks, as well as new bulkheads, were built for Decks 3 to 8, with much of the new upperworks having been prefabricated in aluminum. One hundred twenty-four cabins on five decks were built, following the same vertical segregation as in the Europa: public spaces aft, and cabins forward, far from engine noise. Only 250 passengers are accomodated on board.A complete new propulsion system was installed, with two Wichmann WX28V10 medium-speed engines, new controllable pitch propellers, clutch couplings, and reducing gears. Auxiliary power is supplied by one Wichmann. The ship speed was then 16 knots.The steering gear and bow thrusters were retained, and new fresh water generators, stabilizers, incinerator and sewage plant installed.
Aestheticaly, the tall, twin funnels give a squat profile, and most people think that the bow should be longer to give a sleeker appearence. I think that the ship looks like a ferry (mainly at the stern, which houses a sports platform and a big aluminium make tender), rather than one of the world's most luxurious cruise ships. The later Seabourn trio, also a Petter Yran design, are the logical evolution of this ship, with the same main configuration, but with an extremely raked stem, streamlined superstructure, and rounded stern and funnels.
THE EXPLORATION YEARSThe ship, under the Bahamas flag, was delivered in 1986 to Exploration Cruise Line, which presented it as the newest ultra-deluxe small cruise ship in the world. Their brochures spoke of the passengers as "explorers," and described destination-intensive itineraries: more wildlife, more glaciers than the big ships of the rival owners. Exploration began operations in 1980 with the 80-passenger Pacific Northwest Explorer, a US flag ship designed for coastal cruises, and entered the deep sea cruise industry first with the North Star and later with the Explorer Starship. She cruised placidly in her first two years: going between the American west coast and Alaska in summer, and cruising the Caribbean in winter. During her first Alaska season (1987), she carried out eighteen weekly cruises from Prince Rupert to Anchorage, visiting the Hubbard Glacier, which in those days was forming an immovable ice dam, closing the inlet of Russell Fjord and turning it into a freshwater lake. Passenger satisfaction was very high, but some of their itineraries were more successful than others in filling the ships. However, the cruise world was completely taken by surprise when, on November 16, 1988, Exploration Cruise Line filed for protection from its creditors under Chapter 11 of the US bankruptcy laws. Eight small ships, six of them flying the American flag, were involved in the collapse. The Explorer Starship returned to Fearley & Eger, which at that time was planning to build eight 116-passenger ships (the Renaissance fleet), and was laid up at Willemstad (Netherland Antilles) awaiting a buyer.
THE SONG OF FLOWER BORNThe Explorer Starship was not idle for long: she was acquired in mid-1989 by the Japanese-owned (Bahamas-registered) Meiyo Corp. While the ship underwent another major refurbishment in Norway, a society was formed in order to operate the ship: Seven Seas Cruises. The ship was re-christened Song of Flower Mamiko Matsunari in February, 1990 in Singapore. In her first year, she was marketed primarily in Asia for the Japanese market, offering fly/cruise packages from Singapore. But on October 1, 1990, K Line gained 70 % ownership in Seven Seas through stock purchases by several of its subsidiaries, and switched the marketing emphasis to North America and Europe. The ship began attracting a passenger balance of about half Japanese and half American for its summer season in Alaska. The program in those days was a mixture of short and long cruises in order to satisfy both markets. In 1993, the ship was repositioned for the first time to Europe for sailing in the summer months, with an American and European clientele. Although the ship was Japanese-owned, she sailed under the NIS flag, with Norwegian officers, an international crew, and Western cruise and entertainment staff. But the cruise market was in a time of change, and in 1993, Seven Seas Cruises merged with Diamond Cruises, which operated the luxury SWATH cruise ship Radisson Diamond, forming Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA. This company also began to indirectly market the exploration cruise ship Hanseatic in the USA. In March 1996, K Line announced their withdrawal from the cruise market, with the sale of the Song of Flower to Taiship, Hong Kong, and the closing of their Seven Seas branch in the Bahamas after an accumulated loss of $74.7 million. Radisson Seven Seas continued to operate the ship on bareboat charter from Taiship. That year, it was also announced that the Bremen and Paul Gauguin (to be delivered in 1998), will be operated by Radisson Seven Seas Cruises.
ITINERARIES AND SERVICEThe Song of Flower is one of the most rewarding and recommended cruise ship experiences, with a destination-intensive, relaxed environment philosophy. She cruises with only 172 guests on board. Her ratio of crew menbers to guests is one of the highest in the industry: 1 to 1.2. Also, her passenger space ratio is very high: 48.15. All gratuities are included, with no further tipping allowed, but port charges are extra. Their already classic cruise schedule, South Asia in winter and Europe in summer, has some of the most fascinating itineraries in the cruise industry. She began this year (1997) with six Singapore to Rangoon sailings, and some Vietnam, Indonesia and China cruises. Later, the ship sailed the Persian Gulf for the first time since the war (the itinerary was so successful that they will be repeating it on November 11, 1997, and two times in 1998), and then to the Red Sea and Mediterranean. In June and July, she goes to the Baltic and the Norwegian fjords, and then moves back into the Mediterranean for autumn. She returns to Asia in late October. The "Turn of the Millenium" cruise of the Song of Flower will be an unparalleled experience: on December 29,1999, she will embark on a ten-day cruise to Penang, Bangkok, Manila, and Kota Kinabalu, and disembark in Bali on January 8, 2000.
A DESCRIPTION OF HER DECKSOn Deck 3 (Galaxy Deck), the Galaxy Dining Room aft accomodates 200 diners, with tables for two, four and eight (always set with fresh flowers); the ship offers single, open seating dining, and maintains the highest culinary standards. On this deck are also twenty-one double and four-berth cabins. The Main Deck (Deck 4), houses twenty-seven cabins, as well as the main lobby area, the shopping arcade, and the Purple and Pink Night Club (which now also houses the casino). Also on Deck 4 is a 30-seat alternative restaurant (designed by Vincent Kwok Interiors) added during its last drydock -- it is open for lunch and dinner by reservation. This additional restaurant capacity also means that the vessel capacity was increased to a maximun of 180.
The Promenade Deck (5) houses nineteen double cabins forward. Aft is the Main Lounge (capable of accommodating all the passengers, and done in pastel tapestry upholstery with a bar at the rear, projection equipment, and a marble dance floor) and the 2,000-book Library, with a spiral staircase connecting it to the deck below.A further twenty-three double cabins are to be found forward on Sun Deck (6), which also houses the ship’s outdoor pool and other sport facilities aft. This deck features casual outdoor dining, with deck tables and chairs with big blue and white umbrellas. Also located forward is the bridge; guests are welcome as observers during daylight hours.
Ten cabins on Observation Deck (7) are the ship’s top passenger accomodation. Each cabin measures 30 square metres [323 square feet -- Ed.] in size, and is fitted with a private verandah and full-sized bathtub. Forward on Deck 7, directly atop the wheelhouse, is an observation lounge for 60 passengers, with floor-to-ceiling windows.
The Observation Lounge
CONCLUSIONThe Song of Flower is a very lovely vessel, with her pastel fabrics, beige marble and polished wood throughout. She is unpretentious, friendly and accessible. Many think the Song of Flower is the top bargain among five-star plus vessels, especially in the Far East. The ship is very well maintained, and spotlessly clean. The owners have invested $75,000 in low level lighting, and a new sprinkler system has been installed in order to fulfill the latest SOLAS regulations that will go into effect October 1, 1997. This ship should stay in the vanguard of the deluxe cruises for the foreseeable future.
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