OCEAN COUNTESS FOR THE SCRAPYARD

And another one sails off into the pages of history...

And another one sails off into the pages of history…

And another one bites the dust….

In a move that will probably sadden many and yet surprise few, the fire damaged Ocean Countess is listed as being ready for an imminent final journey to a Turkish scrapyard at Aliaga.

She follows hard on the heels of the Pacific Princess and, ironically, her former fleet mate Louis Rhea, originally the 1971-built Cunard Adventurer.

The ship was originally built in Denmark as the Cunard Countess, back in 1975. Together with her almost identical (and still intact) sibling, Cunard Princess, she spent several decades in Caribbean cruise service for Cunard, mainly from San Juan. Not until 1996 was she sold for a brief lived, soon ended Asian cruise service, before passing on to Epirotiki Cruises in 2001.

It was that now defunct company that renamed her as Ocean Countess, employing her on short, destination intensive Greek Island cruises from Piraeus. Her intimate size and large amount of open deck space made her perfect for just such a role.

She was taken over by Louis Cruises in 2007 after a brief lived German charter. That company was in need of tonnage to replace the recently lost Sea Diamond, and she was put back on her old Greek Islands run, under the name of Ruby.

It was in this guise that I spent a short but memorable weekend aboard her. Even then, the Ocean Countess still had many little reminders of her Cunard heritage dotted around the public areas. She was a feisty, funky little ship with a lot of soul; I liked her a lot.

Her subsequent 2010 charter to Cruise And Maritime for ex-UK cruising seemed encouraging, especially as the ship was given some three million pounds’ worth of cosmetic updating, prior to entering their service. Sadly, the charter was ended in September 2012, and the Ocean Countess came round to lay up in the port of Chalkis, Greece.

She spent all of 2013 laid up here, but was actually in the course of being refurbished, ready for a 2014 Russian charter,when fire engulfed her on the afternoon of Saturday, November 30th.

Five workmen on board were safely rescued from the flames, which seemed to engulf the forward observation lounge, as well as part of the adjacent pool deck. Though the ship burned and smouldered overnight, the flames were actually extinguished by the next day, and the ship remained on an even keel.

What followed was a wall of deathly silence, and the inevitable tidal wave of media speculation.

Today’s sad, yet expected news puts an end to all that as, sadly, another classic lady slips away from our sight.

RIP Cunard/Ocean Countess, 1976- 2013

LOSING LOUIS RHEA- ANOTHER EX CUNARDER BOUND FOR THE BLOCK

Louis Aura, the former Starward of Norwegian Cruise Line

Louis Aura, the former Starward of Norwegian Cruise Line

A report from Peter Knego in Maritime Matters today brings the sad news that Louis Rhea, the former Cunard Adventurer, is about to head off to the scrapyards of Alang.

This comes just days after the fire that seems to have consigned her successor in the Cunard fleet, Ocean Countess ex-Cunard Countess, to a similar fate. The timing is grimy ironic, to put it mildly.

Cunard Adventurer was one of a pair of sisters acquired in 1971. The other ship, Cunard Ambassador, was rebuilt as a livestock carrier after a major fire, and has since subsequently been scrapped.

After six years with Cunard, the ship was sold to what was then called Norwegian Caribbean Lines in 1977. Renamed Sunward II, she was then used for many years on twice weekly, three and four night cruises out of Miami to the Bahamas. It was a role in which she proved very popular for several years. While with NCL, her original tall, single funnel was replaced with a pair of twin, side by side uptakes, angled slightly outboard, to bring her into line visually with the rest of her fleetmates,

In 1991, the ship went firstly to Epirotiki Cruises, the Greek operator, who ran her in the Aegean and Mediterranean as the Triton. She continued in their service when the company name changed to Royal Olympic Cruises, staying with them until the line’s eventual, drawn out demise in 2004.

A move to Louis Cruises followed, when the 14,000 ton ship was renamed again, this time as Coral. A refit included the conversion of her former Observation Lounge, high above the bridge, into a block of de luxe cabins but, otherwise, her appearance had changed very little over the decades.

Coral went to work, both on short, three and four night Aegean cruises, and sometimes on longer, ten night Mediterranean cruises that allowed embarkation in both Genoa and Marseilles. It was a role she was to largely maintain right through 2011, when the ship was laid up at the end of that season.

There was an ambitious plan to bring the ship back into service as the Louis Rhea, running a series of seven night itineraries that would also have allowed for the welcome addition of an overnight stay in Mykonos. Sadly, this very promising option never did come to pass, and Louis Cruises has finally decided to call time on the career of the now forty-three year old veteran.

Ironically, another of her former Norwegian fleet mates- the 1968 built Louis Aura ex-Starward- continues in service for Louis Cruises, with a French charter in the offing for the first part of 2014.

The impending loss of Louis Rhea raises the decibels on alarm bells ringing for that first generation of purpose built, Love Boat era cruise ships. With Song Of Norway and Pacific Princess already confirmed casualties of this maritime cull, it looks as if the procession to the block is getting longer by the week. Deeply sad and inevitable.

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.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW PART TWO: MORE SHIPS YOU LOVED AND THOUGHT YOU’D LOST….

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

The first part of this narrative detailed the ‘after lives’ of several former favourites that sailed for cruise lines such as Carnival, Celebrity, and Royal Caribbean. The reaction to that piece was both surprising and very gratifying, hence this follow up.

Holland America Line made big attempts to upgrade its fleet in the mid eighties, well before the spectre of a takeover by Carnival began to loom. To that end, the company commissioned a pair of spectacular, mid sized sisters in 1983 and 1984, respectively; the Nieuw Amsterdam and the Noordam.

These two ships were very popular and successful, cruising mainly in the Caribbean and Alaska. However, after the Carnival takeover in 1997, Holland America began planning and construction of the new, far larger Vista class vessels that populate the fleet today. It was then  obvious that Nieuw Amsterdam and Noordam were on borrowed time.

The Nieuw Amsterdam was sold to Louis Cruises in 2002, and Louis then chartered her long term to Thomson Cruises UK. She continues in service for that company as the Thomson Spirit, operating cruises in the Mediterranean and Baltic regions.

The Noordam also found a second life with Thomson, she cruises mainly in the Aegean and Adriatic regions as the Thomson Celebration.

Another former ‘Flying Dutchman’ that has found new life over at Thomson Cruises is the Thomson Dream. This famous ship started life in 1986 as the Homeric, the last newbuild for the ailing Home Lines.

Purchased by Holland America in 1988, she was renamed Westerdam, and then ‘stretched’ in a German shipyard. She then moved on to Costa as their Costa Europa before finally winding up with Thomson back in 2008-9, where she remains to this day. She typically spends her time making seven night cruises around the Mediterranean each summer, and relocates to the Caribbean for winter cruises out of Barbados.

Dreams and memories: the perky little Ausonia was the perfect 'mini liner'

Dreams and memories: the perky little Ausonia was the perfect ‘mini liner’

Another former Home Lines survivor is the 1982 built Atlantic. She went to MSC Cruises in 1997 as the Melody, and had a long and successful career with them. Put up for sale in January of 2013, she has yet to find an official buyer. I saw her laid up in Naples in October, still in her MSC colours, and still looking very trim indeed.

Back in the mid 1970s, Cunard tried to shake off it’s dowdy old class conscious image, when it commissioned a pair of 17,000 ton sister ships expressly for the Caribbean cruise trade; the 1976 built Cunard Countess and her 1977 sister, the Cunard Princess. The latter ship was christened in New York by Princess Grace of Monaco.

She is still sailing in the Eastern Mediterranean as the Golden Iris for Israeli-owned Mano Cruises, and has been since 2009. After a long spell with Louis Cruises, and then UK firm Cruise and Maritime, the Cunard Countess is currently laid up in Chalkis, Greece, under the name of Ocean Countess, awaiting a new buyer or charterer.

PARADE TO THE BLOCK: SAVED OR SCRAPPED?

Heading for a new life next year....

Heading for a new life next year….

With the recent arrival of the former Pacific Princess at the Aliaga scrapyards, it seems to be open season on all currently redundant seventies tonnage, and even for some eighties stalwarts, for that matter. Nothing better illustrates the rise of the mega ships- and the demand for more and more balconies- than the sudden fall from grace of several once storied names in the maritime firmament.

Currently languishing without comment or interest for several months are the MSC Melody of 1982, and the Ocean Countess, late of Cruise and Maritime, and best remembered as the original Cunard Countess of 1976. While there is no doubt that both ships would make ideal acquisitions for short, destination intensive cruises- such as those operated by Louis, for example- the lack of apparent buyer interest has to be worrying. Both of these ships surely have a few years left in them at least.

What really brought home the true state of play was the tragic scrapping of the 1984-built Atlantic. Here was a beautiful ship, doomed and dragged to her death simply because she was built as a steam turbine ship. Five or six years ago, some enterprising company would have thought little of buying and re-engining this smart, stylish vessel. Instead, she is being recycled to make razor blades.

It’s a worrying trend. After her 2008 sale to Louis fell through, the former Norwegian Dream endured almost five years of warm layup, before being finally revitalised this year by sister company, Star Cruises, as their Superstar Gemini. We’re not talking about some antiquated old dowager here; the ship was built in 1992, lengthened in 1998, and has at least a few dozen desirable balcony cabins.  Yet still, she has endured five wasted years.

Also currently in limbo- and of the same vintage- is the pretty little ship that was the original Superstar Gemini, now known as the Gemini. Also built in 1992, this ship- the twin sister of Fred. Olsen Lines Braemar- was last heard of being used as an accommodation ship for the 2012 Olympic games, based in Tilbury, where I saw her last October. Again, she would be an ideal choice for Louis.

Classic styling on the Orient Queen

Classic styling on the Orient Queen

But it’s not all doom and gloom. To the amazement of just about everybody in the maritime community, the former Classic International Cruises fleet has made the most amazing comeback since Lazarus, or even Take That. Against all the odds, the oldest quartet in maritime history- the seagoing equivalent of the Rolling Stones- is being lovingly restored and prepared to sail again, under the hopefully benevolent banner of Portuscale cruises. The oldest of the quartet- the 1948 built Azores- predates the legendary SS. United States by a full four years.

Few things in the cruise industry are as sublimely contradictory as the way that these ships have gestated, while vessels thirty years their junior are being run onto Turkish beaches like so many gutted carcasses.

In the industry’s headlong pursuit of the newest, biggest and the glitziest, some perfectly good ships are meeting the chop long before anyone might expect. Sadly, this is one trend that I see continuing over the next few years. I hope and pray that I’m wrong on this one.