GOING, GOING, GONE- CRUISE SHIPS ON BORROWED TIME

The pool of small, stylish cruise ships is getting steadily smaller

The pool of small, stylish cruise ships is getting steadily smaller

With yesterday’s announcement that the pioneer Royal Caribbean ship, the 1970-built former Song Of Norway has been sold for scrap in China, a harsh light has been shone once more on the fate of the first real generation of small, purpose built cruise ships. With a still depressed financial outlook and the continuing public love affair with amenity laden mega ships, the real surprise is perhaps that many of these ships have lasted for so long.

There were ominous straws in the wind, principally with the long drawn out end of the Pacific, the former Pacific Princess. Nothing brought home the mortality of these ships like the sight of the shabby carcass of the world famous Love Boat, hauled up to be butchered at a Turkish waterfront breakers. And she was preceded to the block by the Atlantic, a ship built as recently as 1984.

So, with the maritime equivalent of death row looking like it might soon be full to capacity, what other ships are there in the background that look as if their days might be numbered? The actual roster is as illustrious as it is worrying.

The beautiful, 1973 built Saga Ruby ends her final stint of service with Saga Cruises next year and, with no future buyer yet in evidence, the smart money is on this gorgeous, iconic ship following her sister ship, Saga Rose, to some wrecking beach somewhere. I hope I’m wrong, because this wonderful ship would make a good fit for Fred. Olsen or, indeed, the rival Cruise and Maritime.

The excellent Aegean Odyssey is happily still sailing

The excellent Aegean Odyssey is happily still sailing

Speaking of Cruise and Maritime, they were the last company to operate the now laid up Ocean Countess, better known as the famous Cunard Countess of 1976. The ship has been laid up in Greece since her final sailing in October of 2012 and, barring a sale to a company like Louis Cruises (who did actually own her at one time) the pretty little ship has got to be looking at the distinct possibility of one final, one way trip.

I hope this is not the case, having been lucky enough to enjoy a sunny, fun filled weekend around the Greek Islands on this lovely ship a few years ago. Sadly, sentiment does not impact the steely resolve of scrappers, and their almost limitless lust for fresh blood.

Also looking more than a bit dodgy is the MSC Melody, the former Atlantic of 1982. Laid up in Naples and offered for sale since January 2013, the former Home Lines matriach has yet to find any gainful future employment.

This is a ship that would be a much better fit for Louis, with a decent passenger capacity that would allow relative economies of scale, especially on short, destination intensive cruises. The fact that she also has a sliding glass roof over her central lido pool would also mean that the company could consider operating her year round, perhaps in the Mediterranean, or even further afield. The one downside to this is that she has no balcony cabins, but this is less of an issue on short Greek Islands cruises.

P&O's original Sun Princess was last sailing as the New Flamenco

P&O’s original Sun Princess was last sailing as the New Flamenco

Sadly, the truth is that the future for these ships- and many others of their size, style and heritage- is not looking particularly bright. Owners want bigger, more fuel efficient and less labour intensive ships, while passengers- long since conditioned to ever larger, more diverse mega ships- want bigger, shiny new toys.

This dovetailing of owner/passenger desires and expectations, combined with what still amounts to a depressed market in the Eastern Mediterranean, sadly amounts to a perfect storm for those vintage vessels still in a state of limbo. With the warm weather, short cruise season at an end for 2013, it might well be that some lines will keep their powder dry and attempt to snap up a bargain or two at the start of the new year.

Let’s hope so and, if they are indeed playing Russian roulette, let’s also hope that at least a few of these storied, sophisticated ladies manage to dodge the proverbial bullet.

As always, stay tuned.

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