The new rules are the death kneel of the old ladies of the sea
By Arturo Paniagua Mazorra (21-10-97)
The Rotterdam and the Canberra
On Sept. 12, the old Rotterdam, one of the world's classic cruise ships, began its HAL final scheduled voyage, a 19-day transcanal sailing from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
The liner Canberra also began on Sept. 10 her farewell cruise, a 20-day round Mediterranean cruise from Southampton, her home port.
Every cabin was booked by the loyal fans of these two old ladies of the sea.
In the early days of September, both ships seemed convicted to the breakers torch, but now it seems that only the Canberra will be retired.
The Rotterdam has been purchased by Cruise Holdings and will continue the romance and glamour of the bygone days of the ocean liners under the new name Rembrandt.
Holland America Line decided to sell the ship for $ 20 million and not to invest the estimated $15 million necessary to bring the thirtyeight years old vessel into compliance with the SOLAS safety standards, that became compulsory since September 30.
The new maritime laws
The Rotterdam and Canberra problematic future is the same that affects all the cruise ships built before the SOLAS 74 rules.
Consequently the Scandinavian sea fire occured the 7/4/90, with 158 dead due to the spread of fire and smoke, the International Maritime Organisation introduced in 1992 the Chapter II SOLAS 74 amendments, which becaming operative in 1994 were distribuited in a 16-year period of application.
Depending on the design and construction of each ship, the new safety rules require mayor structural changes and the retrofitting of equipment and systems for ships carrying more than 36 passengers in international waters.
These changes regard Atriums (applicated since 1/1/1994) that have to be protected by sprinklers and smoke detectors, which also activates a smoke extraction system, Fire safety (Applicated since October 1st 1997), concerning installation of smoke detection systems in all accommodation and service spaces and stairway enclosures, Fire safety (applicable from 1/10/2000) regards stairways construction, Fire safety (applicable from 1/10/2005, or 15 years after the date of construction) concerning accommodation and service spaces, stairway enclosures and corridors that have to be provided with sprinklers, fire detection and fire alarm systems, and Use of combustible materials (applicable from 1/10/2010).
Compliance with SOLAS requirements is monitored by each member country, and some countries presumably are stricter than others. The Coast Guard annually inspects every cruise vessel calling at U.S. ports, San Juan, Puerto Rico included, assuring that these vessels will meet the new standards.
The SOLAS agreement covers ships that sail only in international waters, ships that operates in domestic waters (among the Hawaii or Galapagos islands, for example) may meet the new safety standards but it is not required them to do this.
The impact on the cruise fleet
The above list of requirements is quite onerous, and five years ago it was common thinking that a lot of the old cruise ships would be withdrawn, due to the uneconomical costs of the obliged refitting.
But today we can see that the impact produced by the new regulation has been scarce.
About 110 to 120 cruise ships regularly call on U.S. ports, and U.S. Coast Guard estimates the most of them will have to undergo at least some modifications to meet the new safety standards.
In the last three years eleven cruise ships were broken up, but eight of them are owned by former Soviet or Chinese owners, and they were not used in the international cruise market.
There are even today 21 laid up cruise ships, many of them will not sail anymore due the impossibility to fulfill the new regulations, but the majority of the old cruise ships have been refitted.
The big beneficiaries of the new regulations are the repair shipyards. In the last two years they have reformed ships of all market niche and size: from the small and luxurious sailing cruise 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 (deliverd in 1987).
In old cruise ships massively converted, the needed refit is a very sensitive task due the top weight additions.
A conventional sprinkler system complete with water, piping, plant and control system not only generates major destruptions on board during installation, but weight and destabilising effects may render it useless in any case.
The converted cargo ships Universe and Heng Li are two examples of these unresolved problems.
The effects on the market
The newest vessels generally incorporate most of these safety measures, but older ships (mainly old passenger liners built twenty or more years ago) don't.
The owners have several options: retire the ship, broken up, sell it to another operator, upgrade to the new regulations or use the ship in a static or coastal role.
The choices of the cruise operators
Carnival Cruise Lines sold two of its three oldest ships (Carnivale and Mardi Gras) to Epirotiki Cruise Line (which only refitted the Carnivale that now sails as Olympic in the Mediterranean) and the third, the Festivale, to an investment group that recently upgraded the ship for a total expense in excess of $10 million.
Holland America Line's old Rotterdam was sold and the new Rotterdam will debuts in Venice in November.
The fleets of the other branches of Carnival Corporations, Seabourn and WindStar Cruises, are composed of modern ships that already fullfill the new regulations.
Concerning Costa Crociere, latest Carnival's acquisition, at this moment the future of Costa Riviera (built 1963) is unknown.
P&O chose to retire two ships and to reform a third one.
The Canberra went out of service at the end of September and will be substitute in December by Arcadia (former Star Princess), operated by the American branch Princess Cruises since her delivery in 1988.
The future of the Canberra is actually uncertain meanwhile the Victoria (delivered in 1966), was reformed in October with an expence of $ 5.5 million.
P&O decided to refit the Victoria because she is more similar to Oriana and Arcadia.
The P&O marketing director, David Dingle says: "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".
The English operator decided to break up the Fairstar substituting her with the aged Fair Princess.
This change was mainly due to the Fairstar trouble plaged engines than to the SOLAS deadline.
Concerning Princess Cruises, the American branch of P&O, the "Grand Class" vessels were built to the new SOLAS specifications while other ships of the fleet were upgrading since September 1992.
The new Royal Caribbean's "Vision Class" ships meet the SOLAS rules.
The Sovereign trio need only minor work and the other RCC's ships, Song of America, Nordic Prince and Viking Serenade, need moderate works.
RCC's recently acquired new branch, Celebrity Cruises, stays in a similar situation: the Century trio were built to the new SOLAS rules and both the Horizon and Zenith need only to be refitted with low level lighting and smoke detection systems.
Norwegian Cruise Line sold its "White fleet", (comprising Starward, Skyward, etc). built to the SOLAS 60 rules with the exception of the Norway, built under the terms of SOLAS 48 and delivered as France in 1961.
Constant upgrading has changed radically the ship but the big old lady needed a further refit to fullfill the new SOLAS rules as a matter of fact in September 1996 begun a four week $ 4,8 million refit in Southampton.
Other popular old ships
Cunard Line's QE2 and Saga Holidays' Saga Rose (ex Sagafjord) will remain in the cruise business after expensive refit, while other historical ships, like the Constitution, which cruised the Hawaiian Islands, was taken out of service in 1995 because much of its structural steel needed replacing.
The modern cruise industry satisfies its clientele with the latest standards of accommodation and service required by the highly competitive market and the actual lifestyle.
New ships means more space, more dayligth on board, simplified layouts, spacious atriums and stairtowers, best fitness facilities and more informal daytime dining options.
From the technical side, modern ships are also more "green" (ecological), they consume less fuel, are less noisy and need less crew.
Further they appeal more to young families, an important segment of the cruise business, and travel agents often advice first-time cruisers to choose new ships.
Older vessels can be perfectly safe, but today standards are higher than 30 years ago.
There is no compelling technical reason to explain why a older liner could not be brought to the latest SOLAS standards, but in all cruise ships retired or laid up always exist, besides the new rules, other problems concerning engines, structures, etc.
Old ships are loved by old passengers, desirous to remember the days of the transatlantic liners and so we can see the apparition of new operators that own only old ships like Cruise Holdings Ltd, that will be marketed as Premier Cruise or Saga Holidays, specialized in cruises for people older than fifty.
Only in these market segments the old ships could be competitive. The future is for the new ships, always bigger and supported by giant marketing organizations.
In the next years marvelous old ladies like Rotterdam and Canberra will be ever more "rara avis" at sea.