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

FALSE STARTS AND BROKEN HEARTS- TITANIC II, QE2, AND A WHOLE SUPPORTING CAST (UPDATED)

It has been a long goodbye for the classics

It has been a long goodbye for the classics

So 2013 chugs wearily towards it’s end, and the shipping fraternity has suffered a series of shocks, losses and complete non starters perhaps without parallel in living memory. It has, indeed, been both emotional and farcical by turns.

At the upper strata of heartbreaking farce is the seemingly endless, hopelessly unfunny circus that continues to surround the QE2. Hopes were raised for an October departure for a Chinese shipyard, and subsequent conversion into a 300 room hotel. There was even talk of a three month tour, a kind of ‘greatest hits’ voyage around the Far East, to showcase the ship’s legendary charm and alleged, newly ‘enhanced’ elegance.

Of course, none of this has transpired, Today, QE2 remains, slowly suffocating in her Dubai sarcophagus, surrounded by silence and with almost all of her lights switched off. Whatever faint credibility her current owners might once have had has now disappeared as completely as Atlantic fog. People are just so weary of lies, half truths and fatuous bluster that any future pronouncements will simply be greeted with a mixture of apathy and scorn.

Losses aplenty have manifested themselves, too, as the first generation of purpose built cruise ships begins to succumb to a lethal cocktail of age, apathy and sheer indifference on the part of most everyone, save for the owners of those ever hungry scrapyards. The grim procession to the block has already claimed Pacific Princess, Song Of Norway, Cunard Adventurer, and even the 1984 built Fairsky. And, with no word on the stance or condition of Ocean Countess since the fire that partly ravaged her at Chalkis on November 30th, we might yet be looking at another victim coming early in the new year. And, sadly, this list of the lost is by no means exhaustive.

Still marking time

Still marking time

We were also treated to the sobering sight of the partially salvaged Costa Concordia, as her sad, shabby carcass came back onto something of an even keel. Meanwhile, the equally sad, shabby carcass of her former Captain, Francesco Schettino, continues to be butchered in a parallel exercise by an Italian court of inquiry.

People continue to watch with a kind of vaguely uneasy hope all the goings on surrounding the SS. United States, where all concerned are hoping fervently for some Prince Charming to come to the rescue of this legendary ship. Unlike QE2, there is no questioning the sincerity or dogged determination of those fighting so hard to save the ship, and it is to be hoped that their efforts prevail in 2014.

All of which is a million miles away from the ghastly charade called Titanic II. Delayed more often than a First Capital Connect train, it was supposed- yet again- to have a definitive launch date set this December. But since the fickle ambitions of the brilliantine swathed, bon vivant Clive Palmer became gradually more attuned towards Australian politics over the previous summer, the prospect of his much touted ‘ship of schemes’ ever seeing the light of day has vanished as completely as his famously once bruited zeppelin project. Feel free to insert your own jokes regarding hot air and/or serially self obsessed windbags.

So, you will be seemingly deprived forever of the chance to move, with all of your luggage, between each of three classes every two days. Nor will you be able to pose for tasteful ‘Jack and Rose’ style shots on the prow, even as you sail over the gravesite of the real thing. Oh well, it’s all back to the Queen Mary 2, then.

On the other hand, it also neatly deprives Celine Dion of any excuse to get back into a recording studio somewhere.

I suppose every cloud has a silver lining.

AUGUST 19TH 2014 UPDATE

The brilliantined buffoon that is Clive Palmer has just had an extraordinary national meltdown on world wide television. On the subject of China- where he was supposedly going to have his Titanic II built, Palmer has fumed that ‘They shoot their own people; they are mongrels, they have no rule of law, and they want to take over this country.. . (Australia).’

Phew. While it is good that Clive has noticed all of this, it is just a shame that none of it seemed to register with him while he was attempting to get them to build his ‘ship of schemes’.

Amazing how quickly grapes can go truly sour these days, no?

I guess we can also call time on that guard of honour from the Chinese navy as well?

Thanks and goodbye, Clive; it’s been emulsional.

GET THEM WHILE YOU CAN- CLASSICS STILL SAILING IN 2014

The classical, on board styling of Portuscale's Lisboa has few modern equivalents

The classical, on board styling of Portuscale’s Lisboa has few modern equivalents

Last week delivered a trio of heavy shocks for lovers of the traditional, smaller cruise ships. First came the sad news that the pioneering Song Of Norway, the start up ship for Royal Caribbean, had been sold for scrap. More than anything, this brought home the shaky mortality and status of that maritime ‘Brady Bunch’ of older vessels.

There followed the indescribably painful sight of the Pacific Princess, famed as the original Love Boat, hauled up to be butchered at a Turkish slaughterhouse. Listing painfully, shabby and dilapidated, the once graceful ship has been reduced to a sad, squalid shadow of her former glory.

Then, only yesterday, the beloved Ocean Countess caught fire in the Greek port of Chalkis as she was being readied for a new charter season next year. The fire, now extinguished, seems to have centered on her midships pool and forward observation lounge. No impartial assessment of the resultant damage has yet been put in the public arena, but it hardly helps the prospects of the 37 year old former Cunard stalwart.

Even worse, 2014 will see the withdrawal from service of the Saga Ruby, the former 1973 built Vistafjord. This legendary ship, the last passenger ship to be built in the UK, is facing a very uncertain fate, and optimism regarding her future employment- if any- is very thin on the ground.

Louis Aura, the former Starward of Norwegian Cruise Line

Louis Aura, the former Starward of Norwegian Cruise Line

All of these point up a simple, salient fact for anyone wanting the chance to sail in one or more of this dwindling band of thoroughbreds; get out there and do it, while you still can. The clock is ticking, and options are really running out now.

With that in mind, here’s a list of some of the classically styled ships still sailing out there. I’ve tried to be as inclusive as possible, and apologies in advance for any unintentional omissions.

Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines still operate the classic duo of Boudicca and Black Watch, a pair of 1972 beauties originally built for the Royal Viking Line.

Competitor Cruise And Maritime offers cruises on the Discovery, the former Island Princess (and sister ship of the Pacific Princess) as well as the 1965 built Marco Polo.

All four of these ships can be embarked from a series of different ports around the UK. Looking further afield increases your options a lot. Here’s a few more options for your consideration.

Louis Cruises will sail the Louis Rhea, the former 1971 built Cunard Adventurer, out of Piraeus this summer. She will be running with her former Norwegian Cruise Lines fleetmate, the 1968 built Louis Aura, best remembered as the famous, fondly remembered Starward.

From Israel, the Golden Iris operates cruises for Mano Maritime. She is the former Cunard Princess and, by an ironic coincidence, she is currently laid up for the winter alongside her former sister, the fire ravaged Ocean Countess, in the Greek port of Chalkis.

Flamenco is still sailing as a cruise ship for the Chinese market

Flamenco is still sailing as a cruise ship for the Chinese market

Most potent of all, the Lazarus- like resurrection of Portuscale Cruises in Lisbon has put a quartet of platinum chip, beautifully styled former ocean liners back on the market. Azores, Funchal. Lisboa and Porto will all be sailing full schedules over the 2014 season and, while some of these will be on European charters, there are options to board the exquisite Funchal in the UK over the summer. Many of those cruises are being marketed by Travelscope Holidays in the UK.

The future prospects of all of these ships are, of course, directly related to their profitability as going concerns. That being so, 2014 might well be a good time for true lovers of the ocean liners of the past to turn those fond, romantic dream voyages into a more practical, eminently rewarding reality.

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.

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.