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Freedom of the Seas
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Editor's Note: Aker Yard changed its name to STX Europe, effective November 3, 2008. The move reflects the fact that South Korea-based STX Business Group has become principal shareholder.

On April 7, 2006, when this photo was snapped, Freedom of the Seas was indeed just six days from its departure from Aker Finnyards in snowy Turku, Finland. Royal Caribbean has been creating buzz from the moment it announced its plan to launch the world's largest ship -- and details have been long awaited. On our mid-August visit to Aker Finnyards to witness a milestone moment -- Freedom's move from its dry dock to its wet dock just a few hundred meters away and it's final construction "home" -- it was clear that the ship was about 60 percent complete.

Today, little work still needs to be done; check out our recent news report for details.

Just a bit of background: The 154,407-ton Freedom of the Seas will sail its first "official" cruise on June 4; the ship will operate year-round seven-night Western Caribbean itineraries from its Miami homeport. We usually list passenger capacities, in tandem with tonnage, as double occupancy. In this case we're going to single out its total occupancy, a whopping 4,375! That's because, more than ever before in the industry, Royal Caribbean is designing and also marketing this ship to appeal specifically to families (and many cabins will accommodate more than double occupancy).

This ship, and another duo of relatively identical siblings to be launched in 2007 and 2008, is an extension of the cruise line's existing Voyager class of vessels (such as Voyager of the Seas, Explorer of the Seas, Adventure of the Seas, Navigator of the Seas and Mariner of the Seas).

Pictured right is Freedom's interior, taking shape as of April 7. In the meantime, take a peek at the below photos of Freedom's progress at the shipyard, taken last August (2005).

Above images appear courtesy of Christer Gorschelnik.

The reason that Freedom of the Seas' move from dry dock to wet dock is such a milestone is that, until a ship floats, it's not significantly different from any land construction project. Today, though, when tons of water are gradually released into the dry dock (think of it as a process that's a bit like that of traversing locks in a canal), and the vessel floats, well, only then does it really become a ship!
We couldn't resist giving you another perspective -- 16 hours later, this entire area was completely flooded. The period in between calls for an "overnight" for steely eyed construction executives who need to check and double check that all of Freedom of the Seas' seams are tightly closed!
One particularly intriguing question: While in dry dock, what holds up this massive vessel? Placed ever so carefully underneath of the keel -- otherwise known as the blocks of steel that shape the ship's hull -- is a series of concrete blocks (you have to look closely ... they rest between the cement bottom of the dock and the bottom of the hull). Freedom's project manager told us that about 200 to 300 of these keel blocks were spaced a few meters apart. Each of these six-ft.-high blocks weighs about 1 ton and can support 100 tons of ship.
Here's a good look at Freedom of the Seas about 60 percent complete; shipbuilders, wearing the yellow hard hats, are admiring the filling of the dock. Can you see the protruding oval "thing" way up on a top deck? That's one of Freedom's completely unique features -- a cantilevered whirlpool that juts out some 12 ft. from the super structure of the ship.
We couldn't resist a more artistic photo of the cantilevered whirlpool ... looks mystical, eh?
If you've ever visited the Royal Promenade on a Voyager-class ship, you undoubtedly remember lots of verve and energy, colorful storefronts and sidewalk cafes, and homey lights highlighting the cabins whose windows overlook the indoor mall. Believe it or not, this is that place! Right now, all you can see are empty spaces (some have ID posters, helping shipyard workers to know where the Coffee Bar & Book Nook or the new Ben & Jerry's ice cream parlor are located). No worries -- by the time the interior outfitting experts are allowed to move in (soon), they'll transform the place.
Note the foil-like covering on the windows of cabins that look out onto the Royal Promenade; this is a fire prevention technique (and, indeed, the glass hasn't even been installed yet). Fire is one of the most devastating possibilities when a ship is being built; while Voyager of the Seas was under construction, a blaze (resulting from welding sparks) ripped through the aft part of the ship near storage rooms.
These identifying posters tell us that, on the Royal Promenade, bars and eateries include the Bull & Bear pub, the Coffee Bar & Book Nook, Vintages, Champagne Bar, and the brand-new Sorrento's pizzeria (a no-extra-fee restaurant featuring all manner of Italian fare). This Royal Promenade, the longest in Royal Caribbean history, stretches further than 1.5 football fields.
Beyond the Royal Promenade? Another feature new to Royal Caribbean is the On Air Club. Located adjacent to Studio B, the ship's television studio, this will feature a karaoke bar, along with personal karaoke booths (complete with soundproofing). Other functions that will be centered here include Improv Comedy classes and an Adventure Theater component to the line's Adventure Ocean youth program.
One of the first things we spotted in every public space we entered was a station outfitted with quite detailed blueprints to guide workers as they develop that particular space.
Here, in the ship's fabulous new H20 Zone waterpark (aimed at families), you can see the concrete ring around the circular current pool (other features include water jets, spray cannons and ground gushers). Above, you can see the signature Viking Crown Lounge, where windows are installed in about half the frames (if you look really closely you can see which are which).
At this point, the main pool area looks a little bit more like a construction site's dumping area than a cruise ship's sundeck but the rendering -- and the description of its various features -- provides a more appealing glimpse of the space in "after" mode
Workers filled one of the ship's fantastic cantilevered whirlpools, located in the adults-only solarium, just for us. Alas, none of us were equipped with bathing suits and, in fact, much dust had already coagulated inside, but it was neat to see it in action. Sixteen people can fit in at any given time -- and Royal Caribbean chairman Richard Fain can already claim to be the first! Curious about what the views were like from inside the whirlpools, on a visit in July he was actually rigged up with safety harnesses so he could sit inside (the whirlpool was dry).
All cabins -- save for the most elaborate suites -- are actually prefabricated, built at a cabin factory in Finland then trucked west to Turku. In this case, we got a look at a category C stateroom that was relatively far along. You can see the pre-built stuff such as the cabinetry is in place...
...as is the bed frame and built-in lighting units!
The bathrooms we saw were amazingly intact and also part of the prefab process -- this one, in an A category suite, features a whirlpool tub and marble sink (along with separate shower, bidet and toilet, which are off camera).
We were pretty impressed with the depth of some of the balconies that were already in place; this one was accompanied by an A category suite, one of the pricier accommodations onboard. Balconies across the ship are now deeper -- by some seven ft. -- than on the existing ships.
The ship's inaugural master -- Captain Bill Wright -- stands proudly in front of the hull. Wright formerly helmed ships such as Radiance of the Seas and Grandeur of the Seas.
And finally, two full days after the valves first turned to float Freedom of the Seas, the ship rests comfortably at home in its new wet dock (having eventually being nudged from the dry dock by five tugboats). But the dry-dock facility won't stay empty for long. Once drained of the water that was added, it will be prepared -- fairly quickly -- for the second (and as yet unnamed) Freedom-class vessel. The concrete keel blocks will be laid, some 3.6 million square ft. of steel plate (some of which we could see, lying around at the shipyard, just waiting) will be joined, and the process will begin anew.
--By Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor, and Teijo Niemela, a frequent Cruise Critic contributor who is also publisher of industry business magazine "Cruise Business Review."


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