WILL FRED. OLSEN BUY ANOTHER SHIP SOON?

Riding high on the obvious success of its big fleet ‘get together’ in Bergen yesterday, the good people at Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines will enjoy basking in the glow of public acclaim that they have enjoyed from right across the cruising fraternity.

And quite right, too. Because Fred. Olsen- like it’s rival, Cruise and Maritime Voyages- does offer something totally unique; a hugely welcome alternative to the serried ranks of megaships that now form the bulk of fleets such as Cunard and P&O. And, with excellent levels of food and service allied to a warm, intimate scale, I suspect that the allure of both the smaller British operators will grow markedly over the next decade or so.

And, in the case of Fred. Olsen, we are talking about what is, in essence, still very much a family owned firm. Sea minded since day one, the Olsen family takes a keen interest in the handling, development, and even the day to day operation of the fleet. It’s a symbiosis that is rare indeed in an age where balance sheets rule the waves.

Many people were saddened when the pioneering Black Prince, the original, inimitable Fred. Olsen cruise ship, was retired from service in 2009. At the same time, some expressed unease at the acquisition of the 43,000 ton Balmoral- a ship then quite a lot larger than anything that the company had ever owned before. Would the age old Olsen attributes of intimacy and ease of access be lost with this larger vessel, the first in the fleet’s history to boast a passenger capacity in excess of a thousand?

The naysayers were proved wrong. Balmoral has become a very popular and successful ship since entering service, and an ideal foil to the already established, classic trio of Braemar, Boudicca and Black Watch. Her bigger capacity allows for enhanced dining options and a bigger entertainment handle that have made her ideal for longer, round the world voyages, while giving away nothing in terms of warmth and spaciousness. I have sailed on her twice- both before and after her purchase by FOCL- and still consider her to be one of the finest and most stylish cruise ships afloat anywhere today.

So, with things looking quite good at the moment, is it the right time for Fred. Olsen to consider a modest fleet expansion and, if so, what kind of ship might they be looking at?

It’s pretty much a given that the line does not ‘do’ new builds. It has made the purchase and prudent conversion of second hand ships into gracefully enhanced, eminently serviceable vessels, into something of an art form over the years.

The great advantage of such a strategy is that the line is not kept waiting three or four years for a purpose built new ship. A vessel bought ‘off the market’ can be upgraded and improved in less than a quarter of that time, and at infinitely less cost. And, having been so successful on the second hand market, I’m guessing that this is the road that FOCL will take again. The only real question is; what ship would they buy, given the chance?

It is no secret that the line has long been interested in the Prinsendam of Holland America Line for quite a few years. Originally built as the Royal Viking Sun for the legendary Royal Viking Line back in 1989, she was- and still is- one of the most exclusive and opulent de luxe ships at sea; one so totally individual in style and character that Holland America advertises her as their ‘Elegant Explorer’.

In the past, Holland America have always declined to part with her. But, in the last few years, the company has been slowly divesting itself of smaller ships in favour of larger, more diverse vessels such as Eurodam, Nieuw Amsterdam, and the forthcoming new flagship, the Koningsdam, which is due to debut next year. What seemed unlikely three or four years ago may well be more of a possibility now.

Certainly, the Prinsendam would be a perfect fit for Fred. Olsen. At just under 39,000 tons and with a current capacity for some 740 passengers, the ship is roughly in line, size wise, with Balmoral, though I expect FOCL would probably increase her passenger capacity by around 100-150. Probably, the line would like to add more balcony cabins- a popular facility that the line no longer swims against the tide on.

And it would also make for a happy reunion with two of her former Royal Viking Line fleetmates- Boudicca (the former Royal Viking Sky) and Black Watch (once the Royal Viking Star). And, no doubt, the Olsen family would enjoy the chance to preserve and enhance this classic piece of traditional Norwegian cruising excellence.

This would certainly be a transition that would make sense for both lines, if the price was right. Obviously, the Prinsendam would need a certain amount of cosmetic surgery to bring her in line with her quartet of prospective sisters, but nothing too radical. The Prinsendam is a very finely styled lady as she is.

A fascinating prospect, and a possible future Fred. Olsen project? Stay tuned…..

is it time for Fred to become five?

is it time for Fred to become five?

THE SURVIVORS; NORWEGIAN NOMADS STILL AT SEA

Balmoral, once the beloved Crown Odyssey

Balmoral, once the beloved Crown Odyssey

In the mid eighties, in what ultimately proved to be a case of ‘too much, too soon’, NCL went on what amounted to a buying spree straight out of the Carnival play book. Over fourteen years- from 1984 to 1998- the Caribbean cruise line originally founded by Knut Kloster absorbed a trio of famous cruise brands.

After suffering the maritime equivalent of acute indigestion, the restructured company aborted these same brands, and either sold their ships to other lines, or ultimately watched them go for scrap.

But many of those same names are still sailing, often easily recognised as their former selves. For lovers of cruise ships and ocean liners, there are few things more poignant than the sudden sighting of an instantly familiar ship, years later and half a world away. Familiar and wistful at the same time. It’s like seeing an old flame with a new hairstyle, often as not knowing that she’s now with another love. Bittersweet, indeed.

So let’s look at what is still out there these days, and just where they ended up….

ROYAL VIKING LINE

That company originally flaunted a trio of sleek, bridal white show stoppers- the Royal Viking Sea, Star and Sky. They emerged in 1972-73 and, despite each ship being lengthened in 1981, all remained tremendously popular and upmarket; in fact, they were the benchmark for the likes of later, sybaritic show stoppers from Crystal to Silversea.

Marco Polo is Tilbury's 'year round' cruise ship

Marco Polo is Tilbury’s ‘year round’ cruise ship

Happily, all three of these classic ladies are still sailing. The Royal Viking Sea today sails for the German company, Phoenix Seereisen, as the Albatross. The other two sisters were to enjoy a reunion, and are now both running in tandem for the Norwegian owned Fred. Olsen Cruise Line.

For Fred. Olsen, the Royal Viking Star now sails as the Black Watch, while the Royal Viking Sky is now the Boudicca.

In 1989, in an attempt to regain past glories,  Royal Viking Line built a new flagship, the Royal Viking Sun. After a shaky period with Cunard/Seabourn, she also happily still sails on as the Prinsendam of the venerable Holland America Line, the company’s self-styled ‘Elegant Explorer’.

In 1990, the line took delivery of a small, 10,000 ton ultra deluxe cruise ship, the Royal Viking Queen. After a brief spell with Royal Cruise Line in 1996, she was sold to Seabourn Cruise Line, where she rejoined her two original sister ships under her current name of Seabourn Legend. She is currently slated to join the fleet of Windstar Cruises next spring.

ROYAL CRUISE LINE

The first major eighties pre- Kloster new build for this company was the glorious, 1988 built Crown Odyssey, a ship that soon gained a reputation for elegance and on board excellence rivalled by few.  After Royal Cruise Line was wound up, this lovely ship spent four years being employed like a ping pong ball between NCL and its last acquisition, Orient Lines.

Sold to Fred. Olsen in 2008, the ship was taken to Germany, and enhanced with the addition of a new mid section. Now sailing as Balmoral, she is the flagship of the Fred. Olsen fleet, as well as the largest ship. Cruising mainly out of Southampton, she remains a tremendously popular ship to this day.

Some of you will also remember the funky little Golden Odyssey, the diminutive little start up ship for this line. The 1974 built little beauty is still sailing today, though only as a casino ship out of Hong Kong. A far cry from her one time glory days.

ORIENT LINES

Gerry Herrod’s legendary, as -was one ship line was bought by NCL in 1998, but the Orient Lines brand was struck from the company portfolio of offerings in 2008. Happily, the 1965 built Marco Polo continues to sail on for UK company, Cruise and Maritime Voyages. Still popular and beautifully styled, the veteran former transatlantic liner celebrates her fiftieth anniversary in 2015.

Long may all of these great, highly regarded and affectionately remembered ‘ladies of the sea’ continue to grace the oceans they still sail with such proud, singular style. Each and every one of them is an important, intrinsic link to our maritime past. And for the current, massively resurgent Norwegian, these are still the self same ships that proudly ‘flew the flag’ and enabled the brilliant, world class fleet of today to come to fruition.

LOOKING AHEAD; SOME SNIPPETS, AND A FEW QUESTIONS

Is HAL downsizing?

Is HAL downsizing?

February has broken with some possible welcome news in the cruise industry, an unfortunate accident, and a few question marks that have been hanging around for some time. Let’s take a look at some of them

Following the fire that ravaged part of her lido deck and forward superstructure at the end of November, 2013, there is still no word on whether or not the veteran Ocean Countess might possibly see a return to service. Indeed, the pall of silence that has enveloped the blackened, but seemingly only superficially damaged ship, is far thicker- and potentially more noxious- than the smoke that shrouded the burning ship.

I’ve already touched on the Marco Polo accident in a previous blog, but owners Cruise And Maritime now also have to contend with the second punch of an awful double whammy; the news that partner company, All Leisure Cruises, is putting the chartered MV Discovery up for sale.

This puts CMV- who only recently dipped a first tentative toe into European river cruising- in a bit of a bind. Do they buy the Discovery outright themselves, or perhaps look elsewhere to charter? Ironically, the Ocean Countess, mentioned above, was at one time also chartered by CMV.

Meanwhile, seemingly reliable (that is to say, non official) sources in Dubai are saying that all of the engines aboard QE2 are  now back on line, and that her whistle has been heard, bellowing around the bay. The same sources have intimated that former Cunard staff are on board the veteran ship; all straws in the wind that indicate that her much hyped voyage to China via Singapore, originally scheduled for October 2013, may indeed finally be on.

Is QE2 finally about to move?

Is QE2 finally about to move?

Though her future is still shrouded in uncertainty, my feeling is that any sign of regeneration right now must be viewed as a positive. Past experiences tell us all too well that official pronouncements must be taken with a ton of salt. And even so, we can only watch, wait, and hope.

Still on the veteran ship front, seemingly great news comes from Oman, where the former Kungsholm is still moored. A return for the 1966 built Swedish American veteran to either Stockholm or Gothenburg seems on the cards, together with the restoration of her mutilated forward funnel. With her interiors already adapted for hotel use during her stay in Oman, the only real obstacle to returning the beloved liner to her home country seems to be the securing of a permanent berth for her. Negotiations for that are, apparently, ongoing right now.

It also appears that the 1992 built Statendam is up for sale. The ship, the first of a ‘new’, five ship series, built for the Holland America Line, would perhaps make an ideal fit for Fred. Olsen, long known to be interested in acquiring her smaller fleet mate, Prinsendam.

Also welcome news from Star Cruises, who have now ordered a second new giant ship from Meyer Werft of Papenburg, Germany. My guess is that these two ships will be modified versions of the hugely successful Breakaway class, now sailing for sister company, Norwegian Cruise Line.

That’s it for now. As ever, stay tuned.

UPDATE: 

Ocean Countess is scheduled for scrapping at Aliaga, Turkey, this month according to a report on merseyshipping.blogspot.com

My grateful thanks go to Chris Thompson for pointing me in this direction.