Terry Hutson's Cruise News & Views

Sep 22, 2007
Author: Terry Hutson

A fascination with adventure cruising

Just when you think that there surely can’t be any new cruising destinations waiting be discovered, along comes someone with a packaged surprise.

This is one you can blame on the weather. The German cruise ship HANSEATIC (8,378-gt) of Hapag-Lloyd Kreuzfahrten, has just completed not her first but the seventh crossing of the fabled Northwest Passage, sailing between Greenland in the North Atlantic and Alaska in the Pacific.

Some 162 passengers enjoyed the latest experience, which is made possible by climate warming, say the experts.

I once flew over Greenland and all I saw was a white landscape stretching into infinity… and I’m not altogether convinced there’s much to attract in the Far North other than being able to say afterwards that you’ve been there… you know the brag to your cronies… “Oh I’ve done the Northwest Passage.” After all it’s supposed to be all ice covered land and water, not so? I guess there might be the odd polar bear to look out for and there’s always the chance of seeing an Inuit in his kayak (he’s more likely to be in a motorised inflatable, with GPS fitted alongside the fish finder).

And if the profits of doom are correct there might a lot less ice to see, considering how fast the earth is warming. And who is to argue with them, after all, if an ordinary passenger ship, not ice strengthened so far as I know, is able to make the journey in relative safety, they must surely be right.

On the other hand Hanseatic was built at the Finnish Rauma shipyards (in 1993), and the Finns are a people familiar with ice and stuff like that, so maybe I’m wrong… perhaps the ship is built for such conditions, even though her bow doesn’t look ice strengthened, judging from its shape. Does anyone out there know for sure?

Hanseatic was originally named SOCIETY ADVENTURER, so you can see she was clearly intended for going to all these out of the ordinary places. Adventure cruising is becoming big business nowadays, particularly among the younger cruising set who look for something more than mere idyllic days at sea coupled with countless visits to old temples and cathedrals.

On that score, why is it that the older we get the more our fascination grows with seeing the inside of churches and temples – is it perhaps a case of ‘Nearer my God to Thee’?

HANSEATIC cruising off Greenland. Actually it’s more than just flat. Picture courtesy Hapag-Lloyd

But let’s get back to Hanseatic. In recent years the ship has undertaken several cruises along the East and Southern African coast and is due to return to the Indian Ocean islands, East Africa and southern Africa in November 2008. I went on board her one time in Durban and was told by several passengers that she is a very comfortable ship and they were enjoying the experience.

And as for the Northwest Passage, as well as another across the top of Russia and Siberia, these have long been in the sight of cargo ship owners, because having such access could mean considerable saving in distance and time, and distance and time costs money to ship operators. According to the European Space Agency there is now clear evidence that the Northwest Passage across the Arctic is fully open and photographic evidence reveals how the ice has shrunk to its lowest level since satellite measurements became possible about thirty years ago. Several container lines are thought to be looking in this direction, although the cruise industry appears to have beaten them to the punch.

But with such developments the next question to settle will be that of sovereignty of the oceans formerly covered by pack ice. Both Russia and Canada are already at odds with their neighbours and Russia, would you believe it, is claiming the North Pole which it says is actually an offshoot of Mother Russia. As you might have guessed there’s a sniff of oil in this somewhere, but please don’t let George W. know. The world has had enough of wars for now.

On the bright side, such natural changes to our geography will mean even more new adventures will become possible. Already US- based Lindblad Expeditions has taken the bull by the horns and intends adding another two ships to its fleet, bringing the total to something like eight vessels of varying size each involved with adventure exploration type cruising. Lindblad has a joint agreement with the National Geographic Society and uses its cruise ship NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ENDEAVOUR (the former Caledonian Star).

They don’t get any bigger than this… or will they?

One of the world’s largest cruise ships, the 160,000-gt INDEPENDENCE OF THE SEAS, tasted water for the first time this past week when she left her Finnish Aker Shipyard drydock and moved across to a fitting out dock.

It will be another eight months before Royal Caribbean International’s mammoth ship enters service making her homeport at Southampton and becoming the largest cruise ship to be homeported in Europe.

This is an indication of the strength and growth of cruising in Europe, although one supposes many of her passengers will still be Americans ‘hopping across the pond’ to spend some quality time on board among the waters of the ‘Old World’.

It may also be that with her sister ship, FREEDOM OF THE SEAS, operating in the Caribbean there simply isn’t enough business around to keep her ‘at home’. Both Royal Caribbean and rival company the Carnival Corporation are anticipating a downturn in passenger numbers for the Caribbean next year, whereas Europe including the Mediterranean is enjoying something of a boom as more Europeans discover cruising. The Baltic is said to be the latest ‘discovery’ although heaven knows why, it’s been there all along and has many fascinating cities and countries along its shores.

It’s customary with ships like Independence of the Seas to talk about their size – I recall the purists complaining at great length about this when journalists ran out of superlatives to compare the sheer size of Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 when she was introduced not so long ago. And yet here she is, already relegated to becoming the third largest passenger ship.

The Freedom class of ship stands 237 ft high with 15 passenger decks and is 1112 ft long. She carries over 3,600 passengers – that’s more than enough to fill a small South African dorp. When they launched the Freedom in 2006 it required a special bottle with the equivalent of 34 bottles of champagne to send her on her way – after all everything has to be in proportion. Rather a waste of good champers one might think but sailors are a superstitious bunch and somewhere someone began a tradition that to launch a ship with good wine ensured good luck would follow. As the opposite also holds, who will be brave enough to argue with such a conviction.

As an aside and nothing to do with cruising, I recall a few years ago that in Durban a certain company launched its new service vessel – a bunker barge - without the traditional bottle being broken across the bows. The chairman of the company, a hard-bitten businessman who brooked little nonsense from anyone, apparently muttered something about it (the tradition) being rubbish and a waste (he probably preferred to drink the stuff). After the ceremony, with the vessel safely in the water and all the dignitaries having retired to the tent for the afterwards party, the marine manager - an old salt himself - and his crew of seafarers who would serve in the vessel disappeared into one of the tanks with an object held firmly in their clutches. It was a bottle of the good stuff and it certainly wasn’t taken into that inhospitable place to be drunk that afternoon.

As I said, sailors are a superstitious bunch and they take these things seriously.

Coming back to the new Independence of the Seas and her sister ship, Freedom of the Seas, they’ll tell you that if you could stand them on end they’d be taller than the Eiffel Tower and as someone else has said, they’re as wide as the White House, as if that matters. What does matter is that their size limits the places where the ships can go and more time may be spent at sea than on a smaller cruise ship. So if you like lots of company, and you enjoy being at sea compared with overnight cruising between ports this one could be for you.

Once on board the Independence, what can you expect of something that has cost the owner a cool £400 million ($1 Billion). With up to 3,600 people on board you may expect and find a wide variety of restaurants to choose from where according to publicity blurbs 2,000 people can be seated at any one time. We won’t even think about how many meals with be prepared daily.

If you are the energetic type there is a climbing wall with 11 different routes to the top and elsewhere there’s a FlowRider wave simulator that lets you go surfing in waves that travel at 10km/h (how does that compare with the real thing, I wonder?). Or you can try the ice rink, while other activities include a 9-hole miniature gold course, full size boxing ring, cantilevered whirlpools and a Royal Promenade.

When you finally at the end of an exhausting day retire to the peace of your stateroom, it comes fitted with full size flat-screen television and the ship is extensively fitted for WiFi and cell phone connectivity.

Royal Caribbean has obviously done its homework and is confident the customer base will find the ship in Southampton harbour. For the port it is a real fillip and a money spinner for local businesses with all that coming and going of people with money to spend. Here in South Africa we don’t pay enough attention to the landside value of the cruise market – every ship that brings someone to one of our ports, be that person an ordinary seaman or a well-heeled passenger, generates money to be spent and on this prosperity can be structured. For Southampton this promises to be a return to the good days when passenger ships were a constant feature of the South of England port.


Arrest warrants have been issued against five people arising from a cruise ship named DREAM which suddenly developed a 10-degree list. Initially it was thought to be caused by a ballasting error and it was said that a broken down pump had caused uneven distribution of water in the ballast tanks.

It now turns out that police on the island of Rhodes have evidence that suggests otherwise. Following an underwater inspection of the ship during repairs authorities discovered makeshift repairs to the sea valves of the engine cooling system which they say placed the ship in immediate danger. Warrants of arrest have now been issued against the ship’s owner representative, the company superintendent, master of the ship, chief engineer and chief officer.

Authorities have pointed out that had the list developed while the ship was underway and at sea a disaster might have occurred. Of course it is unlikely the ship would have been reballasting at sea but who knows. The moral of the story is to choose your cruise with care, and then hold thumbs you’ve made the right choice.

For the 931 passengers on board at the time, mostly from Israel, it was the wrong one and the end of a holiday with all having been flown home after a shortened cruise among the Aegean and Greek islands.

The Dream was launched into service as Royal Caribbean’s SONG OF NORWAY, later renamed SUNDREAM and then DREAM PRINCESS, with the royal connotation being dropped in 2006. However, since the incident the ship’s operator, Caspi Cruises has decided to end the vessel’s cruise season prematurely, at least for 2007, and Dream will not be returning to Ashdod and Haifa.

A number of shipbroker’s websites indicate the ship has been for sale for some time.

Carnival remains confident

Carnival’s ECSTASY (70,367-gt), which is among the ships to undergo a facelift costing a total of $ 250 million

Carnival Cruises says it remains confident that the US downturn will not have any really adverse affect on the cruise business and believes the company is well placed to ride out any financial bumps. It ought to be, having just posted a neat $1.4 Billion profit for the quarter ended 31 August. This represents an increase in earnings of 12 percent for the quarter while profits for the year to date are up 10 percent to $2.05 Billion.

Carnival says higher prices on bookings made closer to departure time, and the addition of new ships are the reasons for the good results.

Yet despite this confident approach Carnival, like its close rival Royal Caribbean, is busy diversifying into other regions, notably Europe. It pays to hedge your bets and for cruise companies with huge asset bases and cost structures the bets are high. Besides, cruising is growing in other regions so it makes sense to move into those zones with a real presence, to show you’ve arrived, so to speak.

Tough on those companies that thought they had these markets all to themselves, though.

In their effort to remain successful, cruise lines have to constantly reinvent themselves and Carnival has some innovative ideas aimed at getting those bunks filled (not that they call them bunks anymore).

Taking a leaf out of landside theme parks, Carnival intends spending $250 million on a project they call ‘Evolution of Fun’, which includes erecting children’s water parks on the ships which will be introduced between now and 2009. Even the popular swimming pool will undergo change with new features introduced among the surround areas. And for those adults who came on board a ship hoping to get away from the kids, there will be ‘Serenity’ adults-only deck areas.

Interior changes include remodelled staterooms, New York style delis for the Lido restaurants, a revamp for the spas and theatres and other public areas, special flat-screen television and so on. All this effort is to ensure that Carnival stays successful. As someone wise once said, ‘you gotta spend a buck to make a buck.’

The first ships to undergo these makeovers will be the 70,637-gt Fantasy class vessels, with INSPIRATION and IMAGINATION leading the charge and followed by the FANTASY, ECSTASY, FASCINATION, SENSATION, ELATION and PARADISE.

That’s it for now
More cruising news next week



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