It’s A Ship Jim, But Not As We Know It

June 16, 2017


Just in case anyone hadn’t noticed, cruising is Our Thing. It’s what we do, the holiday choice that is always No.1, 2 and 3 for us, and we are pretty much happy sailing the briny in any kind of vessel. Until the mega-ships came along.

Prior to 1996, the world’s largest cruise vessel was the original Queen Elizabeth. You know, the one launched in 1938. That Queen Elizabeth, all posh frocks and la-di-da. Things didn’t come much more well-heeled and well to do than a trip on the old QE, or her older sister, the Queen Mary. Except, perhaps, for a voyage aboard the French Line’s Normandie.

What these three doyennes of transatlantic style had in common, apart from their vintage, was their size. Each in excess of 80,000 tons, they were the pinnacle of their engineering art form for fully 58 years. In all that time, the only ship that came close to rivalling them for size was the 1962-built SS France, which clocked in at 66,348 tons, and the venerable QE2, which tipped the scales at 69,057 (the France was, of course, the longest liner ever built at that stage, at a massive 1,037ft).

Of the modern era of cruise vessel, nothing came close to the vintage vessels until 1988, when the first of Royal Caribbean’s Sovereign-class trio broke the 70,000-ton barrier for the first time in 50 years. Carnival quickly followed suit with their Fantasy-class two years later. Celebrity, Princess and Costa would also join their enlarged ranks and, suddenly, cruising was in an ‘arms race’ to be bigger and bolder than ever before.

Historically, the scale was forever tipped in November, 1996, when the Carnival Destiny set sail on her maiden voyage. The first ship to break through the 100,000-ton barrier, she seemed implausibly large even for those inflated times. How little we knew!

After waiting 58 years for anyone to surpass the Queen Elizabeth, it was only another TWO before we went bigger still, with the Grand Princess at 107,517 tons. Remember the old adage about London buses? Well, it also applied to this new breed of ship. In the next 10 years, there would be a stunning THIRTY-TWO vessels that all went bigger still. Cunard, Costa, P&O, Celebrity and MSC were all involved, while Royal Caribbean and Carnival built ever larger.

Norwegian, Disney and Aida Cruises added to the frenzy and then, in 2009, we jumped from the era of the mega-ship to something bigger still. Royal Caribbean had already pushed the cruise-going limit to 155,000 tons with their Freedom-class ships (2006-2008) when they delivered the most powerful statement in the ‘Look At Us, Aren’t We Big!’ stakes with the uber-colossal Oasis of the Seas.

At 225,282 tons it was fully 70,000 tons larger than anything we’d seen before. Which is a telling statistic because, just 20 years earlier, 70,000 was about as large as it got!

Now, with three sisters in their mind-boggling Oasis-class, Royal Caribbean have just rolled out their latest successor in the shipyard at STX in St Nazaire, France. Once completed in early 2018, the Symphony of the Seas will take the company’s Larger & Largerer mentality to fully 230,000 tons, and with a passenger capacity of 6,870. That’s nearly the population of Liechtenstein.

More importantly, it bears about as much resemblance to the cruise liners of yore as an articulated lorry does to an Aston Martin.

How much larger do we have to get before someone points out the obvious, that these super-mega-ships are about as cruise-like as the MGM Grand hotel in Las Vegas?

It’s all very well adding every bell and whistle you can conceivably think of, but being at sea with 6,000-plus souls (plus another 2,300 crew) is hardly the stuff of sea-going insouciance. It’s like taking the island of Ibiza and setting it free from its earth-bound constraints to wander the Mediterranean in peripatetic freedom. In fact, it would be better. At least Ibiza has enough beaches to cater for 6,870 comfortably, and with umbrellas and sun-loungers for all. And you wouldn’t risk having to walk through one of those ghastly casinos.

You can see this mania for mass getting larger still. Why stop at 230,000 tons? What’s wrong with 250,000, or even 300,000? That way, it will be so big it won’t actually matter if it even leaves port. You will spend seven full days just trying to find your cabin, grabbing life-preserving snacks at the dining outlets you discover along the way.

Then you can disembark and find your luggage again, safe in the knowledge you never even saw the sea, let alone risked getting wet in it.

It is an obvious direction to move in. After all, if you don’t need to leave port, you don’t need to muck about with lifeboat drill, possible seasickness, shore excursions, tendering ashore or faffing about with customs and immigration requirements.

Just stay in one place, remain firmly on an even keel, provide 24-hour food and drink, then help roll everyone down the gangway after seven days of over-eating, garish shows and clanging casinos. Throw in 10 rock-climbing walls, six ziplines and a couple of rollercoasters, and you’ve cornered the market on the ultimate cruise.

Wait a minute. It sounds like we’ve just described Florida….

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