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The End of the Steamship Era?

As 2008 draws to a close it is worth remarking on the end of an era that started two hundred years ago - that of the steamship!
Think of famous ships, the Great Britain, Great Eastern, Oceanic, Rex, Normandie, Queen Mary and even the United States and the great lines like Cunard, White Star, French Line, Holland America, Italia, P&O and so on, and they all relied on steamships just as airlines today do on jet propulsion.

But in the past year, as first the oil spike, then the credit crisis and then the economic downturn have swept across us, the era of the steamship is drawing very near to its end. Even the QE2, built as a steamship, was retired last month and now rests in Dubai awaiting conversion to an ultra-luxury hotel, while the last of the American river steamboats lie in lay up in some Mississippi backwater.

I Saw Three Ships

As the old Christmas carol goes:

"I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day;
I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day in the morning."

And as a contributor to one Internet board said this week, he saw three ships laid up in Perama Bay, near Piraeus, a traditional lay-up spot for dying ships, and all of them were steamships.

As the slump has come upon us and the new owners of Orient Lines decided to delay their start up with the Marco Polo II, formerly Maxim Gorkiy, she has become the latest of the three steamships laid up in Perama Bay. The second is the Sky Wonder, better known to most as the Fairsky, then Sky Princess, is the last cruise ship to be built with steam propulsion, in 1984. Also hit by the slump, she was originally intended to be introducing Mexican Riviera cruises for Pullmantur. The third is the Ivory, better known to most as the Ausonia, a name she kept for 49 years after she was delivered in 1957. Renamed Ivory in 2006, she has latterly been used on short cruises from Limassol.

Pullmantur Cruises

Pullmantur Cruises' most successful early ship and a pioneer of year-round cruising from New York, was the very popular Oceanic. Built for the Home Lines and originally intended for the Europe/Montreal route, she was completed as a full time cruise ship and became a legend on her weekly cruises from New York to Bermuda and Nassau.
Still cruising from Barcelona on 2-, 5- and 7-night cruises, her days are numbered as more ships arrive in the Med from the fleet of parent company Royal Caribbean Cruises, including next year the Sovereign, once the largest newly-built cruise ship in the world.

The Spanish line's second steamship, the Sky Wonder, was built for Sitmar Cruises two decades after the Oceanic and was the last cruise ship to use steam turbines for propulsion. Still a relatively young ship, nevertheless, her engines consume a lot of fuel compared to today's very economical diesels. Now laid up, Sky Wonder's future seems uncertain as newer motorships like the Zenith and the Empress arrive from the parent company.
She is scheduled for a series of summer cruises from Lisbon between April and November 2009 but whether these will go ahead is now unknown.

The Sky Wonder meets the new Safety of Life at Seas (SOLAS) regulations and could still be re-engined if her hull and structure are thought to be up to another twenty years service, but putting this into question are the structural failures that were discovered while she worked for P&O Cruises Australia as the Pacific Sky. Still, markets turn and she is not the first modern cruise ship to have seen lay up. And the price of fuel has plummeted again. These two ships are the last steamships remaining in the Royal Caribbean group.

Louis Cruises

Louis Cruises have also been operating two steamships in recent years, with the now laid up Ivory, cruising first from Piraeus and then from Limassol, and The Emerald, having recently ended her charter to Thomson Cruises of the UK. However, as with other operators, Louis have also recently been acquiring newer and larger ships and older ones have been going for scrap, so the future of their remaining steamships is also up for discussion.

The Emerald was built as Grace Line's Santa Rosa, one of a graceful pair of passenger and cargo ships that were built to run a subsidized service from New York to the Caribbean and South America, she actually ended up in twenty years lay up after her subsidy expired. Heavily rebuilt by Regent Cruises in 1991, her decks were extended and her accommodation vastly restructured, but she was still powered by her original steam turbines.
Chartered by Thomson from 1996, her charter expired in April and her future uncertain as application of the new SOLAS rules approaches on July 1, 2010.

Delta Queen Steamboat Company

Everything has gone wrong here. The 1927-built Delta Queen has finished with engines and the last two steamships built in modern times, the Mississippi Queen of 1976 and the American Queen of 1995 are in danger and are up for sale. All are powered by steam reciprocating engines that were so popular before Charles Parson's famous Turbinia ran past the Spithead Naval Review in 1897 at 34 knots.

When Majestic America Line failed to find a buyer for the company it put all the ships up for sale individually. No doubt when better times come, one or both of these steamers will be placed back into service but now, for the first time, no steamboat voyages are planned for the Mississippi in 2009.

Even as late as last week a group called Save the Delta Queen pleaded for President Bush to make an executive order allowing the 81-year-old Delta Queen to continue operating under an exemption from federal fire and safety rules passed in 1966. While she left service in late October, nine exemptions have been granted in the past by the House of Representatives, who this time have failed to vote for one again.

QE2 in Dubai

The Queen Elizabeth 2, as she was formally named by Queen Elizabeth II on September 20, 1967, was indeed launched with steam turbine propulsion, but converted to diesel-electric in a major mid-life refit at Bremerhaven in 1987 that saw her career stretch out to cover four decades.

To open in 2010, QE2 will now become a floating hotel in Dubai. A new pier will built for her at Palm Jumeirah, where she will be the centre piece of a luxurious new marina complex, including restaurants, private homes, other hotels and a Broadway-style theatre. In one of the more controversial announcements, QE2 Enterprises at Nakheel Hotels, her new owners, said they would be removing her funnel (which will be placed ashore as an entrance) and replacing it with a four-story smoked glass replica that will actually be a penthouse with swimming pool, and the largest penthouse in Dubai. Her interiors will be gutted and she will be fitted with 200 modern hotel rooms and 130 apartments.
A new entertainment venue will be installed in her engine spaces, and it is rumoured that her diesel engines will be sold for further use at pumping stations on an oil pipeline project!

Last week, Carnival Corp & PLC announced that its profit on the $100 million sale of QE2 had been $31 million. Meanwhile, Manfred Ursprunger, former Senior Vice President of Hotel Operations at NCL, has been appointed chief executive of QE2 Enterprises at Nakheel Hotels, part of Dubai World.

But is it really all over?

Ah, I hear you say, but ships powered by gas turbines are really steamships. This could be argued for say Celebrity's Millennium class, which use COGAS (Combined Gas and Steam Turbines) whereas a ship like the Queen Mary 2 is powered by CODAG (Combined Diesel and Gas Turbines). The trick with COGAS is that excess heat from the gas turbine exhausts is used to drive steam turbines, so partly the answer is yes.

But at the moment there seems to be only a single pure steamship in cruise operation, as the Oceanic is off from Barcelona on a New Year's Cruise on December 29, a week from today, for Villefranche, Livorno, Civitavecchia, Naples and Tunis.
Apparently 2009 will be her last season though. Readers are of course welcome to point out any remaining cruise ships that are still powered by steam! Meanwhile, the Best of the Season to all who read The Cruise Examiner.

(Source: By Mark Tré - Cybercruises.com)

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