Cruise Industry

The key milestones during a new cruise ship’s construction

From steel cutting and coin ceremonies to float outs and deliveries, what are the key stages involved in a new cruise ship’s construction?

MSC Seashore under construction for MSC Cruises

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There are currently more cruise ships on order than at any other time in the cruise industry’s history, with more than 20 being delivered every year from 2020 onwards, but what are the key milestones and stages to a cruise ship’s build process?

First – Initial Order

Cruise lines place an order for a cruise ship, or more usually a series of new cruise ships in a new class, with one of the world’s primary cruise ship-building shipyards. The Finnish-French STX Europe, Germany’s Meyer Werft and the Italian shipyard Fincantieri are the global leaders in cruise ship construction.

Because of the limited number of specialist cruise shipyards, and the huge number of cruise ships being built, these shipyards have vessels in varying stages of construction at any one time. Some are in the steel cutting phase, others are about to be floated out, while others are undergoing final fit out and finish.

When cruise line’s place their order, there will be a confirmed order for a set number, usually one or two, and an ‘option’ for several more, which can be exercised or cancelled at the cruise line’s discretion, depending on market conditions and the success of the initial model.

No name or details are given about the ship at this stage, just the gross tonnage, possible class of ship (for example a sister ship or a brand new design) and usually the passenger capacity. Delivery is usually scheduled for three to four years.

Second – Steel-Cutting

At or just before the steel cutting ceremony the name of the ship will usually be revealed. Modern cruise ships are built in sections, each of which are made up of thousands of individually-cut pieces of steel forming the hull, bulkheads and decks.

Seabourn and shipyard executives initiate steel cutting for Seabourn Venture

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The first of these pieces of steel are cut in front of senior management from the cruise line and the shipyard, as well as members of the press and local dignitaries, such as the mayor or local member of parliament.

An executive from the shipyard and the cruise line will sometimes push a button together to start up the steel cutting machine.

The process of steel cutting then continues for several months in order to produce the many thousands of individual pieces of steel required for the ship, which are then welded together to form the individual sections or blocks.

Third – Laying the Keel

The first of these blocks will form the ship’s keel, or part of it. Ships back in the day were traditionally built from the keel up, it was riveted together along the length of the construction dry dock, and then the hull support structured were added to it like ribs. The steel plates of the hull would then be riveted to the keel.

Nowadays, however, there is no real keel, so the keel laying ceremony is more of a first block laying ceremony. This first block is lowered by crane into the construction dry dock with exact precision, usually using GPS coordinates and lasers to provide pin-point accuracy.

Wonder of the Seas’ keel is laid in France

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This is the beginning of an ongoing process whereby sections of the ship will be built in other parts of the shipyard, or indeed the world, and then transported to the construction dry dock where they are dropped into place and welded together.

These huge blocks weigh upwards of 150 tons, sometimes double that for a large 100,000-plus gross ton ship and although they contain all of the wiring and plumbing required for the ship, they’re usually just bare steel on the inside, because interior fit out happens later.

As the ship progresses toward the float out stage, the azipods will be fitted (all the engineering required is already pre-built into the engine room blocks) and she will be made fully waterproof.

Rotterdam’s godmother with the coins welded to the ship’s hull

The Coin Ceremony

Although not a specific stage in the cruise ship’s construction, the coin ceremony is usually held at or soon after the keel laying.

Specially commissioned gold coins are laid in the keel block to symbolise good luck – they can be welded in place or just placed in the block and then retrieved later on to be welded into the base of the navigation mast in a ‘mast stepping ceremony’.

For the coin ceremony there will a separate Godmother (Madrina), who is a different person to the official Godmother that will name the ship.

Fourth –  Float Out

The float out is the first of the really big milestones (followed by the delivery and christening). By this point in the build, the ship’s exterior is all but finished and work is in high gear to complete the interior, with the public rooms being built and the prefabricated cabins being installed. They’re installed in a turn-key state, with just the piping and wires needing to be connected, and the soft furnishings added.

Valiant Lady of Virgin Voyages following her float out at Fincantieri

Cruise line and shipyard executives, members of the press and local dignitaries once more gather and the ship’s construction dry dock is filled with water. The godmother from the coin ceremony might smash a bottle of water against the bow and then the ship is towed by tugboats to the fitting out pier. The first bit of water to touch the ship’s keel might also be collected and presented to the captain of the vessel.

The final fit out and finish takes month and it’s during this process as well that her engines will be brought online for the first time and tested ahead of the departure of the ship on her sea trials.

Fifth – Sea Trials

Once all of the ship’s engineering systems and thousands of items of equipment have been brought online, she will be ready to undertake sea trials, during which all of these many systems will be tested in real world conditions for the first time.

The ship isn’t complete yet, various sections of her exterior might still be under construction, but all the engineering is ready. The trials could last several days and may be undertaken in several stages if it is a completely new class of ship, built to an entirely new design.

Carnival Cruise Line’s new ship Mardi Gras departs on her sea trials from Meyer Werft

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Crew, shipyard workers, contractors, insurance representatives and officials from the ship’s flag state and classification society will all be onboard for these sea trials to certify that she is ready to be delivered. Tests such as crash stops, high speed turns, and other maneuvers are performed to make sure everything works as intended.

If no major problems are found, she will return to the fitting out pier and work will continue on the interior and superstructure. Sometimes ships will go back into dry dock if engineering issues are discovered that require her to be removed from the water.

Sixth – Delivery

A few weeks or months later the ship is officially delivered to the cruise line in a hand over ceremony that marks the transfer of ownership. Executives from the shipyard and cruise lines, along with the press and local officials assemble and the shipyard’s flag is lowered, to be replaced by the cruise line’s colours.

At this point, the ship is all but complete, but still requires her full crew complement and all the stores and supplies required for operation. These will usually be taken onboard at the first homeport from which the ship will sail its inaugural cruise season, or at the port where the christening or naming ceremony takes place.

Seventh – Shakedown Voyage

The shakedown voyage is like a second set of sea trials, except with a full crew complement and usually a few pretend passengers made up of cruise line staff, media and contractors to test the ability of the ship to operate as a cruise ship.

It lasts a week or so and will also see the finishing touches to the ship being made by shipyard staff and external contractors. All the crew will also be trained in how to work aboard the new ship, going over cruise line protocols and emergency training.

Marketing staff will also be onboard to take pictures and videos of the ship while everything is brand new and free of passengers.

Eighth –  Inaugural Voyage

Not all cruise lines sail an inaugural voyage as the shakedown cruise is sometimes combined with the inaugural voyage, which usually involved the cruise ship sailing from the nearest port to the shipyard to the port at which she will be christened and depart on her first revenue-generating cruise.

This gives the cruise line another chance to test the crew’s readiness to serve a full complement of guests, and passengers are usually drawn from the cruise line’s shoreside staff, travel agents and media.

Ninth –  Christening

This is the final big milestone in the ship’s construction. At her first homeport, or the port from which she will depart on her first revenue-generating voyage (the maiden voyage), a party is held with representatives from the cruise line, shipyard, cruise industry and the media all in attendance.

Fireworks mark the christening of MSC Seaview

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During this ceremony the ship’s official Godmother, usually royalty, a celebrity or someone celebrated for their contribution to the community, will name the ship, bless her and smash a bottle of champagne across the bow. By tradition, the champagne would be swung against the hull from a rope, but its considered bad luck if the bottle doesn’t break so nowadays cruise line’s use a hydraulic arm to ensure that it does.

Tenth – Maiden Voyage

After the christening, the ship departs for the first time with paying passengers. For a cruise ship built in Europe, but destined to serve the North American market, this is usually a trans-Atlantic repositioning cruise, or a grand voyage to Asia via the Middle East and Dubai, such as was the case with Quantum of the Seas and Spectrum of the Seas.

From this point on the ship will be in cruise operation as much as is possible for the next five years, until she goes into dry dock for her first full hull inspection. During this dry dock period the carpets and bedding might be replaced, or some public rooms, such as bars and restaurants might be reconfigured based on passenger feedback.

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