LITTLE ROYALS- SHORT EUROPEAN BREAKS ON CUNARD IN 2016

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QM2 is sailing full speed ahead for some substantial enhancements in 2016

Interested in trying the classic Cunard on board experience for yourself, but unwilling to make a first time commitment to a long, potentially expensive voyage?

Or maybe you’re already a die hard fan, short on time, but looking for a tasty little top up of that famous on board ambiance?

Both of these can be realised on a short, two to five night break on one of the storied ‘Three Queens’ in Europe next year.

Queen Mary 2, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth will offer a whole raft of trips between them. Starting in January, you can visit prime European short haul ports such as Zeebrugge, Amsterdam, Guernsey and Hamburg, while still lapping up the on board vibe.

To coincide with some of her Atlantic crossings that embark in Hamburg, there are options to sail on the Queen Mary 2 from Southampton to Hamburg, or indeed vice versa. These jaunts give you two full days on the Cunard flagship-fresh from a substantial refurbishment and upgrade in the late spring of 2016.

In July, Queen Mary 2 also offers a special, four night round trip cruise from Southampton. Smaller sibling, Queen Elizabeth, offers a similar itinerary in May.

The voyages, running through until December, offer a cost effective way to experience life on board one of the famous famous trio of ships at sea, plus the chance to step ashore and enjoy the lifestyle in some of Europe’s more invigorating ports.

Worth a look for sure.

QUEEN MARY 2 SUFFERS SMALL FIRE IN GAS TURBINE

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Queen Mary 2 Mid Atlantic funnel shot

The Queen Mary 2 has suffered a small fire in one of her gas turbines today while docked in the port of Lisbon.

The fire is under control and the damage- described as minor- is currently under assessment. Right now, the liner is still scheduled to sail on time for her next port of call- the Spanish port of Vigo- later tonight.

However, one of the pods is not coming on line right at this moment.

The Queen Mary 2 is currently in the last stage of a twelve night, round trip cruise from Southampton to the Canary Islands and Portugal, that sailed from Southampton on December 3rd. The ship is due back in the Hampshire port after her Vigo call on December 15th. Later that same day, she is scheduled to sail on her final, westbound crossing of the year to New York.

Stay tuned for news.

My grateful thanks go to Ron Acosta for this on the spot update.

QUEEN MARY 2 SAILS ON 250TH ATLANTIC CROSSING TODAY

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The great QM2 will embark on her 250th Atlantic crossing in November this year

The Queen Mary 2 will embark passengers today for an historic Atlantic crossing- her 250th such voyage since she first entered service in January of 2004.

The great liner will sail from the Red Hook terminal in Brooklyn, New York, on an eight day eastbound transatlantic crossing this afternoon.

Following her arrival in Southampton on December 3rd, the Queen Mary 2 will conclude her 2015 season with three additional sailings; a twelve night round trip cruise to the Canary Islands will be followed by a return, seven night crossing to New York departing on December 15th.

Following her scheduled arrival back in New York on the 22nd December, the Queen Mary 2 will sail her customary, round trip Christmas and New Year’s cruise to the Caribbean, before embarking once more for Europe on January 3rd, 2016.

Next summer, the Queen Mary 2 will embark upon the most complete and comprehensive refit since her aforementioned debut. Carried through by the SMC Design company, the work will see the installation of some forty five new cabins; thirty new Britannia Club balcony cabins, and a long overdue, dedicated fifteen single cabins.

Also of note is the transformation of the current Winter Garden into a new venture called the Carinthia Lounge. Located on Deck 7, the redesigned venue will hosts breakfasts and light lunches, as well as champagne afternoon teas, and evening entertainment.

Elsewhere, the interior of the liner will be refreshed to give her more of a classic Art Deco feel, a process should help to emphasise her North Atlantic heritage.

The refit is slated to be carried through in Hamburg over the period from May 27th to June 21st 2016, inclusive. Queen Mary 2 will then resume service with a ten night, scheduled transatlantic crossing from Hamburg and Southampton to New York.

The extent of the refit makes this the most eagerly anticipated refurbishment of the 2016 cruising season so far announced. No doubt it will also prove to be the most extensively scrutinised one as well.

As ever, stay tuned for updates.

 

DOG-GONE! QM2 RAMPS UP THE ON BOARD ACCOMMODATION FOR 2016

Some details of next years’ long anticipated refit of Queen Mary 2 have begun to surface.

The 25 day refit will take place at the Blohm and Voss shipyard in Hamburg, Germany, and will begin on May 27th. The ship is scheduled to leave the dock on June 21st.

No less than thirty balcony staterooms for Britannia Club passengers will be added to the ship. To accommodate an extra sixty potential diners, the area currently occupied on board by the Britannia Club annexe will be extended.

Significantly, the ship will also gain some fifteen new, dedicated cabins for singles, thus bringing her into line with smaller fleet mates, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth.

And, just to prove that it’s not really a dog’s life on the Queen Mary 2, the ships’ kennel complex will benefit from both a new water hydrant and a lamp post. And, in response to demand, an additional ten kennels will be installed in the ships’ aft placed, upper deck dog compound, bringing the total available to twenty two in all.

The company is also getting ready to announce further enhancements in the future. One of these will almost certainly include a massive change to the centrally sited Kings’ Court buffet area, a perennial cause of customer complaint.

More details will be posted here as they are made public.

As ever, stay tuned.

QM2 is sailing full speed ahead for some substantial enhancements in 2016

QM2 is sailing full speed ahead for some substantial enhancements in 2016

WHAT DISTINGUISHES CUNARD FROM OTHER BRITISH CRUISE LINES?

On the face of it, the very question might seem risible to some. Many savvy, well informed and even better travelled people peruse this blog. You know who you are, and you know your stuff.

But what if you’re a neophyte, dipping your toe into the cruising arena for the first time, and not really cognisant with the nuts and bolts of maritime history? A premise which, if we’re honest, covers by far the greater number of people in the cruising stream these days. That’s not meant as a snide dig- it’s just a fact.

How would you explain the concept- and the reality- of Cunard as it is, to them? How would you rank the line to other UK operators, such as P&O cruises, Fred. Olsen, and Cruise and Maritime Voyages?

For what it’s worth, here’s my take;

The main difference comes in the form of cabin accommodation, graded to different dining areas. The Grills- Queens’ and Princess Grills- create a separate enclave within each of the three Cunard ships- Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria and Queen Mary 2, tied to the most exclusive (and expensive) accommodation on board each ship.

Many people do not like either the theory or the actuality of this, as it creates what they perceive to be a ‘class conscious’ ship, harking back to the old, three class North Atlantic heyday. But, in fact, it’s a scenario also beginning to resurface even on supposedly more egalitarian lines, such as MSC and Norwegian- the ‘ship within a ship’ where those who can afford to pay for more privacy, space and exclusivity, complete with more polished, personalised service, are happy to do so.

On Cunard, the Grills are open seating, whereas the main dining rooms operate on a two sitting basis for dinner.

If your tastes and bank balance stretch to the Grills, then you will enjoy fine dining. gracious service, and a very elegant, elevated overall voyage experience. And, if you are spending all that money, you are frankly entitled to nothing less. But still, the entire notion creates resentment in some quarters. If that’s the case, you need to look at a different product. There are plenty of options out there.

The dress codes on Cunard are unquestionably more formal than on any of the other British lines, and especially so on the Atlantic crossings of the Queen Mary 2. But stripping Cunard completely of its formality and elegance would be like gutting the Ritz, and turning it into a fast food outlet.

The whole notion of timeless elegance at sea is endemic to the experience of Cunard; without it, the voyage would, indeed, be a much poorer experience. An anaemic aberration that would dilute everyone’s sense of pleasure and anticipation.

Truth be told, there has been a slight unbuttoning of the dress codes in the last few years, though it is still probably too formal for the ‘sun and fun’ brigade. And, if you really don’t want to dress up for dinner after a hard day’s carousing in the Caribbean- and I fully get that- then there are other, more causal lines out there.

But, my word, the sheer fun of getting done up in your evening glad rags for a night of Cunard- style dining and dancing is a fabulous, giddy fairground ride in it’s own right. And nobody- and I do mean nobody- does formal events, such as the Captain’s Cocktail Party, better than Cunard.

More than anything, however, Cunard’s 175 year history and priceless heritage renders it as a thing apart to the rivals (honourable exception: P&O, which is even older at a sprightly 178). As much as anything, Cunard has always been an idea in the public eye; an ocean liner sailing under a sky full of glittering stars, where millionaires and movie stars in full evening dress dance on deck to the music of a big band.

For some, the idea of being part of that storied history is compelling, and reason enough alone to book. But, of course, you need to be aware of that history to really ‘get’ it in the first place.

That’s where the ‘heritage trails’ laid out through all three ships of the current Cunard fleet form such a fascinating backdrop; evocative and informative by turn, they wind through each ship like some kind of timeline; a line of seamless, golden thread that really links the past to the present. A kind of easy to absorb maritime primer, if you will, the somehow seamlessly absorbs itself into your psyche over the course of a voyage.

There is nothing else quite like this at sea on any other fleet; for the very simple reason that no other company has a history like that of Cunard. And, more than anything, that is the real deal about sailing on this most illustrious and storied of British lines.

Whether that makes Cunard the best choice for your own personal tastes is, of course, for you to decide. But, as an experience overall, the Cunard brand- even today- continues to put clear, blue water between itself and its competitors.

And there are many people out there still more than happy to pay for distinctiveness, whatever from that may take.

QM2's ballroom; the very essence of formal flair and finery afloat.

QM2’s ballroom; the very essence of formal flair and finery afloat.

SOME CRUISE NEWS AND VIEWS FROM THE WEEK

One way and another, it has been quite an eventful few days in the cruise industry. And at least two of the biggest stories originate, or at least impact, on the potentially burgeoning cruise trade in and around Cuba,

Yesterday, MSC Cruises announced that they would homeport the soon to be massively refurbished MSC Opera in Havana from December 22nd, for a series of sixteen, seven night Caribbean cruises that will feature a two night stay in Havana itself as a centre point.

The arrival of MSC Opera marks the first, serious deployment of a very large cruise ship on the Cuban market. Though initially not for sale in America, the cruises go on sale to Europeans as of July 9th. For French and German passengers, these can be complete fly cruise packages. For the UK passengers, they are sold on a cruise only basis.

In related news, the Celestyal Crystal requires repairs after colliding with a tanker while on one of her scheduled, seven day summer cruises from Greece. Mercifully, there were no fatalities or injuries to the people on either ship, but the 24,000 ton Crystal will require complete repairs before putting to sea again.

Whether this will impact the ship’s upcoming, third winter charter to Canada based operator, Cuba Cruise, is too early to say. But, potentially, Celestyal could substitute the similar sized Celestyal Odyssey for the damaged ship if need be.

And on a much happier, note, today the Cunard flagship, Queen Mary 2, embarks passengers in Liverpool for the official celebration of the company’s 175th anniversary. The great liner wills ail westbound for Halifax, Boston, and New York on what is sure to be a remarkable and evocative odyssey.

It was in July 840 that the Halifax born businessman, Samuel Cunard, inaugurated the first reliable, year round transatlantic steamship service, when the diminutive paddle steamer, Britannia, set sail from Liverpool for the port of Boston. In subsequent years, the service centered mainly on New York, but the Boston connection was never completely severed.

The Cunard Line became the first of the great transatlantic steamship companies and today, 175 years later, it remains the last. In that time, it has survived two global conflicts, several world wide recessions, and a near deadly duel with jet airliners for the transatlantic trade. And, though the storied line today concentrates mainly on cruising, the splendid Queen Mary 2 maintains the timeless transatlantic crossing in a style that those first, furtive passengers aboard Britannia could only have dreamed of.

I wish the ship, and those fortunate enough to be sailing aboard her today, a very heartfelt ‘bon voyage’….

QM2 is westbound for Canada and America today on the company's historic 175th anniversary crossing

QM2 is westbound for Canada and America today on the company’s historic 175th anniversary crossing

MY TRAVEL BUCKET LIST; PROBLEMS AND PANACEAS

I think most people consider the idea of a ‘bucket list’ of things they would like to do, experiences that they would like to try or, most often, places they would like to see as part of some kind of ‘greatest hits’ highlights of their lives. Once achieved and ‘ticked off’, these things mark our progress through life like so many emotional lightning rods. They connect us to those moments when we raised our game, rose above the everyday, and went for the things that really mattered on some deep, undeniable level to ourselves, rather than just being blindly channelled and herded in some direction by the people and events swirling around us.

Trust me, travel writers are no different. The more I see of the world, the more I realise how little that I have actually seen. It’s like peeling an onion; once you begin, you suddenly realise that you’ve embarked on a mission that’s going to take forever. And, in terms of travel, that’s a shockingly good analogy- though not one I can take credit for.

The one thing I have come to realise about my ‘bucket list’ is that I am going to need a bigger bucket. I had naively assumed that, by this phase of my life, I would have ticked all my main boxes, lived my dreams, done my share of smiling in the sunshine. And, up to a point, I have.

But by it’s very nature, travel is not about standing or sitting still, is it?

So, I got to considering the things that I would still like to do and, purely in a spirit of fantastical conjecture, here are a couple of things that I’m flinging without either fear, shame, or the vaguest concept of when- or even if they might ever happen- into my bucket. Here we go….

SAILING DOWN TO RIO

Rio. Just say it. It rolls off your tongue like a Salsa parade, and tastes as damned fine as the most potent caipirinha. Sultry, alluring, sun kissed and stunning, Rio is one of the great, must see destinations of the world.

But flying there? Nah. Not for moi….

Such an epic destination should be the climax of an epic odyssey. And, of all the cities on the planet, the great sea-city that is Rio De Janeiro deserves to be approached in the most dramatic and apt way possible. From the sea….

Consider even the idea of sailing from Italy in late October, just as Europe begins to sag into yet another cold, melancholy, pre winter gloom. Take some big, spectacular Italian cruise ship and set out through the Mediterranean. Swing out west, through the Pillars of Hercules, and set course for the Canary Islands, the open Atlantic and, at the end of all that, landfall in South America.

Imagine the days getting longer, warmer and more welcoming as you unwind on board, surging south west over the Equator. And, at journey’s end, there is the hallowed, matchless approach to the great city itself. In, past the looming bulk of Corcovado, past Sugar Loaf Mountain, and into that stunning bay. An epic journey that cries out to be achieved in epic style. And, let’s face it- you can’t scrimp on something as sassy, sultry and downright dramatic as that.

ACROSS AMERICA BY RAIL

Now this one is arguably the daddy of them all…

I’d fly straight to Los Angeles, stay for a couple of nights on the venerable old Queen Mary, and take in a few days of the fresh, vital sunshine on Manhattan Beach, before boarding one of those fantastic, implausible, double decker Amtrak trains for the ultimate voyage; coast to coast, with a series of spectacular city stays en route.

Over a couple of weeks, I’d watch the vast, natural smorgasbord of North America unfold from my seat like a succession of spectacular drum rolls. Mountain ranges and rolling prairies, great gushing rivers and tracts of bone dry desert. Great, concrete forests of glass and steel…

We’ll roll across mighty bridges and into flaring purple and yellow sunsets. And, like fantastic exclamation marks, I’d take a couple of nights in, say, sultry, sassy New Orleans and cool, classy Chicago. Anyone detecting a bit of a jazzy vibe here?

There would be time in beautiful, patrician Philadelphia before the final arrival in the greatest city in the world- New York. And, as the train shuddered to a halt at Penn Station, there would surely be the feeling of having completed an epic adventure.

But that is not the end of it. Oh, no. My sense of wanderlust is a bit gilt edged these days. And, in one final flourish, I would take the Queen Mary 2 back to Southampton.

Think about that; seven lazy, languid, highly styled days on the last great Atlantic liner, making the most timeless and peerless of all voyages. Unburdened with ports of call or any other diversion, I would have seven full days to absorb the full, magnificent scale of the entire trip.

In the words of the great Al Green; simply beautiful.

So; what floats your boat, then?

QM2. Because second best is sometimes just not good enough.

QM2. Because second best is sometimes just not good enough.

SPOILT FOR CHOICE; UK MINI CRUISES IN 2015

Live it up for the weekend on the glamorous Queen Mary 2

Live it up for the weekend on the glamorous Queen Mary 2

For those looking to dip a first time toe into cruising’s alluring world, one of the best and most economical options is the mini cruise. With options ranging from between two to five days, these are a good deal both in terms of time and cash outlay. You can break the assumed preconceptions without breaking the bank.

And, no matter what type of ship and short break you might be into, 2015 serves up more options and styles of seagoing fun and fascination than ever before. From the seriously intimate to the stunningly spectacular, there’s a seagoing smorgasbord on offer in 2015 that has never been equalled before.

First up, Royal Caribbean International has the spectacular, ground breaking new Anthem Of The Seas doing some short, three night summer cruises to ports such as Le Havre and Zeebrugge. if you’re into technologically advanced ships laden with a wealth of fascinating gimmicks, this ship is an excellent, if rather expensive option.

Want smaller, more intimate ships that can access the spots that the big ships find difficult to access? Consider Cruise and Maritime, which is offering a series of two to five night options on the veteran Marco Polo, a classically styled, adults only ocean liner. Built in 1965, this unique ship- very much a one off- is celebrating her fiftieth anniversary this year.

Larger and more contemporary, but still human in scale, the line has a new flagship in the shape of the Magellan. The 46,052 ton ship also offers a series of short cruises and, with her large number of single cabins, she is an excellent buy for the solo traveller.

In similar vein, the highly styled quartet of ships belonging to Fred. Olsen Cruise Line remain perennially popular favourites on the short break market. With excellent food and service, plus some enticing overnight stays, these lovely ships have a style and atmosphere that is truly all their own.

Go bigger? No worries. P&O Cruises has long been one of the most established names in the cruising firmament. This year, the new Britannia– the largest ship ever built solely for the UK cruise market- joins her recently restyled fleet mates to offer a string of exhilarating short jaunts out of Southampton, varying in length from two to five days, throughout most of the year. Some of the pre Christmas sailings in particular make for fantastic shopping opportunities on the continent.

Of course, Cunard remains the very epitome of the great ocean going experience. The line celebrates an unparalleled 175 years of success this year, and you can be part of it on a mini cruise of between two and five nights on any one of their trio of opulent, expansive vessels.

And, if you are not too worried about flying one way, the magnificent Queen Mary 2 offers several opportunities throughout the year to sail between Southampton and Hamburg, or reverse, on a two night voyage that allows you to get an incisive little glimpse into this most storied of ocean liner experiences.

All of these voyages are short on time, but they do provide an experience somewhat akin to a film trailer for a major feature. And, because all of these lines want you to see them at their best, they will often push the boat out-pun wholly intentional- to offer up the best in food, service and, of course, entertainment. All are crucially aware that today’s two night neophyte passenger is next year’s potential two week voyager.

So-different stokes for different folks. And you can always tailor your break to suit your moods. I know many people who simply never leave the ships at all, staying on board to soak up all the luxury on board for the duration. Others treat them as extended, exotic spa breaks and spend the weekend in a bathrobe. Others consider sleep as an optional extra, and simply want to party from A to Z. And, of course, still others use them as an excuse for an indulgent shopping and sightseeing break.

Whatever your pleasure, there is more than enough on the menu on one of these enticing, exhilarating little breaks to leave you wanting more. Have fun,

QUEEN ELIZABETH TO GET SINGLE CABINS IN REFIT (Updated)

CNV00198Currently undergoing her first major overhaul in Hamburg since her delivery back in 2010, Cunard cruise ship, Queen Elizabeth, is being fitted with nine new, single cabins.

Though the dimensions and prices for these have not yet been put in the public arena, this represents a very welcome move by the company. While the veteran Queen Elizabeth 2 had a fair number of single cabins, none of her three successors- Queen Mary 2, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth- originally featured any at all.

Needless to say, many people- including yours truly- will hope that both of the other, above mentioned ships will also be retrofitted with some single cabins. Though nothing has been said on the subject, it does seem likely.

In doing this, Cunard is following the example set by sister company P & O Cruises, which incorporated a small number of single cabins into the then new Azura, and then retrofitted a number into both her sister ship, Ventura, and the adults only Oriana.

As well as the single cabins, Queen Elizabeth will also benefit from the installation of 32 inch flat screen televisions in all cabins, the addition of two new, luxury shops, and enhancements to the passenger flow in the self service part of the Lido Restaurant.

The single cabins bandwagon is slowly gathering speed across the mega ship market. Even Royal Caribbean International has been busy retro fitting some of its ships with them. But the slow surge in single cabins can actually be traced back to 2010, and the debut of the Norwegian Epic.

Then, the brand new ‘studio concept’ was introduced, with a block of 128 small, clubby interior cabins done up with funky lighting, as well as a communal bar and lounge. This was so successful that it has now been rolled out on both the new Norwegian new builds that followed, and will also feature on the next two ships, Norwegian Escape and Norwegian Bliss. 

None the less, it is hugely gratifying to see Cunard at last tipping it’s head in the direction of the single traveller who, in the past, was put off by the 175 per cent surcharge levied by the line on most of its sailings. It does provide another option for travellers seeking a somewhat more formal ocean going experience than that offered by the opposition.

That said, the dimensions, locations and status of these cabins- are they insides, outsides or both?- plus the per diem rates- remain to be seen. But at least it can be said that Cunard is listening, learning, and adapting to demand, and that is always to be applauded.

As ever, stay tuned.

Update: it seems that eight of the new cabins will be outside with an ocean view, and the ninth will be a standard inside.

CRUISE SHIPS TO SOCHI WINTER OLYMPICS 2014

Silver Whisper was used to host Vladimir Putin at the 2003 300th anniversary celebrations in St. Petersburg

Silver Whisper was used to host Vladimir Putin at the 2003 300th anniversary celebrations in St. Petersburg

One of the last publicised aspects regarding the hugely controversial 22nd Winter Olympics, due to be held in and around the Black Sea  city of Sochi between 7th and 23rd of February next year, is the surprising number of cruise ships and ferries that have been chartered for use as static hotel accommodation.

Of course, there is nothing new in the use of chartered cruise ships as temporary static accommodation. Events such as the Olympic Games of 1992 and 2004 saw the use as accommodation ships of some of the most illustrious names in the cruising firmament- including the then brand new Queen Mary 2. Similarly, the Barcelona Expo ’98 had no less than six cruise ships, including the then world’s longest liner, the SS. Norway, offering accommodation.

Last year’s London 2012 Olympics saw the use of Fred. Olsen’s Braemar and her original sister ship, the now laid up Gemini, as fully functioning, static hotels docked on the River Thames at Tilbury.

What is, of course, different about Sochi 2014 is the hugely controversial nature of these games, with widespread calls for a boycott over Russian president Vladimir Putin’s excessive, increasingly repressive crackdown on gay rights in Russia as a whole.

So, who is going to be there for the duration? Five cruise and ferry operators have thus far confirmed their operation of chartered tonnage.

First off, Russian owned St. Peter Line is sending both of it’s large cruise ferries- Princess Anastasia and Princess Maria- from their regular, year round overnight runs from Tallinn and Stockholm to St. Petersburg. The Princess Anastasia was once well known in the UK as the popular Pride Of Bilbao, a stalwart of the Northern Spain run for many years. Rooms on these two ships are advertised from 63 euros upwards per night.

There is also another ferry, the Italian SNAV Toscana, a 30,000 ton vessel usually operated on overnight runs between Civitavecchia and Palermo, Originally built as the Wasa Star back in 1981, she has accommodation for around 2200 people in normal service.

Seasonal Greek islands operator, Louis Cruises, is sending two ships, the aptly named 38, 000 ton Louis Olympia and the 33,000 ton Thomson Spirit; sensible and gainful employment for two ships that would have otherwise remained laid up in Piraeus until March. Unlike the two ferries mentioned above, these two vessels are full service cruise ships. Rooms priced from 168 euros per night.

Spanish operator, Iberocruises is sending the 46,000 ton Grand Holiday, which originally started life in 1985 as a Carnival ship. Rooms on board this ship start from 158 euros.

Largest of all, Norwegian Cruise Line is sending the 92,000 ton Norwegian Jade, with rooms on board starting at the highest rate of all, at at 208 euros per night. Unlike most of the others, the Norwegian Jade offers the added plus of a large number of balcony cabins.

Between them, these six very different ships can offer in excess of some twelve thousand berths. While the cruise ships of Louis, Norwegian and Iberocruises are usually in the Mediterranean for the spring season anyway, the long voyage to and from the Baltic by the two Russian ferries represents a significant redeployment on the part of their owners, albeit an obviously lucrative one.