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In this youth obsessed world of ours, is it any surprise cruise ships are judged on their age and looks?

The cruise industry loves new ships. Take this month, for instance. Princess Cruises' Emerald Princess, MSC Cruises' MSC Orchestra, Royal Caribbean's Liberty of the Seas, and Costa Cruises' Costa Serena will all debut. Over the next couple of years, the building spree continues. Like new cars and new clothes, some people just gotta have the latest model. With each new ship, cruise lines vie to come up with the next biggest gimmick -- bowling anyone? -- that will continue to feed the human drive to one-up thy neighbor.

To stay fresh, cruise lines build not only brand new $500-million-plus ships, but also pump big bucks into refurbishing their existing fleets. Years of corrosive salt water and wind, not to mention constant use, takes its toll. Still, ships are routinely retired from service for the North American market when they're as young as 15 to 20 years old. Considered over-the-hill, they're shifted to a cruise line's Europe- or Asia-based divisions or sold to foreign lines whose clientele isn't as picky about age.

But imagine that Americans embraced age and celebrated getting old, just how long can a cruise ship actually stay afloat? What does it take to keep a vessel ship shape for as long as possible?

To find out more, we had a little chat with ship expert Atle Ellefsen, a naval architect and a senior executive at Det Norske Veritas (DNV), the Norwegian classification society. Here's what he had to say.

Heidi: While current statistics peg the average life expectancy of a North American human at 78, how long can a new cruise ship expect to survive?

AE: A passenger ship's design life is normally 30 years. It's the age used as the basis for the design and production of all major elements, including the steel structure and machinery. To keep everything running smoothly for three decades or so, the shipyard gives the owner (the cruise line) a maintenance schedule to follow, like the service recommendations from a car dealer. So no one forgets when a tune-up is due, ships have in-built computer-based maintenance programs that automatically generate work orders for everything from replacing cabin coat hooks to reconditioning propeller bearings. For cosmetic maintenance issues, from removing rust to painting steel, it's up to the owner's own policies and standards. Any issues related to safety are subject to regulatory requirements and inspections from the country where the ship is registered (often tax-friendly places like the Bahamas, Liberia and Panama), from classification societies (like the DNV) and from governments of the various ports visited.

Needless to say, the better the maintenance, the longer a ship's life.

Heidi: What about the handful of older cruise ships still in operation, how do they make it past 30?

AE: There are ships from the 1950s still in operation, but it costs. Realistically, after about 30 years of a relatively efficient life, things start to happen. Normally, a cruise operator receiving a run-of-the-mill new ship will keep it and maintain for about 25 to 30 years. Then it is sold down-market and maybe operated for another 5 to 15 years before either it's scrapped or deployed for a few more years in special circumstances, such as for duty as a Mercy ship (floating hospitals for the poor) or as means of transport for developing countries.

Only in exceptional cases, where the vessel itself sells and makes money as a symbol of national prestige -- like the 1969-built QE2 -- will the owner keep it beyond sensible technical operating age. When a passenger ship reaches about 30 to 40 years, it has to undergo major rebuilding. Keeping a ship operating more than 50 years is possible, but on an economical scale there needs to be a special reason for the board of directors to justify the escalating costs to keep it. Ship-owners are not particularly known for being driven by feelings in keeping their classics. Take the P&O liners Canberra and Oriana, both worth restoring from a historical and emotional point of view, but nevertheless scrapped with a cold heart.

Heidi: What tends to wear our first on a cruise ship? Is it the engines, propellers, air-conditioning system or what?

AE: In order to keep the ship up to code (based on guidelines from classification societies like DNV, for instance), all engine components are replaced and maintained on a regular basis. A main engine body will last for eternity and still work, provided the moving parts and attachments are renewed. Likewise, rusted steel is replaced according to classification requirements. Cruise ships are docked for a week or two about every second year so that upgrades can be made.

The more difficult areas to maintain are typically the piping, ducting and cabling, because these systems are complicated and have limited accessibility. HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning) plants are also an issue, as they can still work more or less even if they are in lousy condition, for example, riddled with rust and dirt.

Then there is the smell. No matter how much you clean and refurbish it, an aging ship will start smelling. A stuffy mixture of fuel, mould and dust with a tinge of sewage and food spillage inevitably seeps deep into a ship's bones. The hard-to-reach, behind-the-scenes grime above the ceiling, under flooring and in other nooks and crannies takes its toll.

Heidi: How do safety and environmental laws factor into the life expectancy of a cruise ship?

AE: A big challenge for older ships stems from new SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) regulations, an evolving convention of amendments implemented by the IMO (International Maritime Organization) and first drawn up after the Titanic disaster in 1914. For instance, rules now mandate no dead-end corridors, no lobbies between escape stairs and rooms, and full fire sprinkler coverage. Likewise, new regulations on emergency escape routes such as corridor widths and the location of lifeboats in relation to cabins may necessitate major rebuilding.

There are also environmental requirements to contend with, including emissions and waste discharge. In the future there will probably be limitations on fuel consumption, which also is connected to cost-efficiency and will require replacement of main engines. Overall, new energy-economizing technology covering propeller efficiency and hull form may eventually render old ships economically unviable or even unacceptable.

To use the now retired Royal Yacht Britannia as an example, no matter how beautiful she is her interior logistics eventually became so cumbersome her crew suffered. Modern crews have rights concerning their working environment, controlled by the ILO (International Labor Organization), and reasonable expectations of comfort and ease of work. Old ships will involuntarily end up as defunct, cramped and awkward even if they were fantastic when they came out 50 years ago.

Old-School Cruiseships

Well, cramped and smelly may be the realities of age, but there are those of us who still appreciate the old timers. Call us sentimental fools if you like, but for anyone with a nostalgic streak, here are some old timers still in operation. Catch 'em now before it's too late.

Cruise Liners

QE2, 1969
Cunard (tel. 800/728-6273; www.cunard.com)

Regal Empress, 1953
Imperial Majesty Cruises (tel. 954/956-9505; www.imperialmajesty.com)

Sailing Ships

Sea Cloud I, 1931
Sea Cloud Cruises (tel. 888/732-2568; www.seacloud.com)

Legacy, 1959
Windjammer Barefoot Cruises (tel. 800/327-2601; www.windjammer.com)

Mandalay,1923
Windjammer Barefoot Cruises

Yankee Clipper, 1927
Windjammer Barefoot Cruises

Polynesia, 1938
Windjammer Barefoot Cruises

Steamboats

Delta Queen, 1927
Majestic America Line (tel. 800/434-1232; www.majesticamericaline.com)

Mississippi Queen, 1976
Majestic America Line

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