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Editor's Note: Aker Yard has changed its name to STX Europe, effective November 3. The move reflects the fact that South Korea-based STX Business Group has become principal shareholder.
Cruise Critic Editor in Chief Carolyn Spencer Brown was on hand in September at St. Nazaire's Aker Yards France with MSC Cruises to celebrate a day of major milestones -- including MSC Fantasia's steel cutting -- that will reverberate for the line for years to come.
In a narrow and dingy warehouse, two train stations long and illuminated mainly by a tepid, milky light straining through dusty windows, a handful of people have assembled to watch a machine cut a piece of steel. This one piece of steel -- measuring 16 meters (53 feet) in length and a mere 15 millimeters (6/10 of an inch!) thick -- will, at the push of a button, be dunked into an oily bed of water. There it will be finely sliced by a flame like laser into pieces that will serve as the foundation for the 133,500-ton, 3,900-passenger MSC Fantasia.
The steps it takes to transform a cruise ship from the proverbial single plate of steel to the finished product is an intriguing journey for ship builders and cruise fans alike. Even if you're like me -- not terribly technically oriented -- there's a magic to it. It's hard to imagine in this greasy, run down place, filled with low slung piles of steel plates, that someday all of this will be part of MSC Fantasia. Being part of something like this already earns the ship a special place in my heart. But Fantasia will also represent an innovative new ship for the fleet.
The vessel will have 17 decks (the equivalent of 23 floors in a land-locked building). Eighty percent of its cabins will be outsides -- an extremely high ratio -- and, get this: 95 percent of those will have balconies. It will have the fleet's first ever pool-with-sliding roof and will feature a brand new concept, the "MSC Yacht Club." A boutique ship within a big ship, the Yacht Club will be centered around 65 suites and will feature upscale amenities, such as a dedicated concierge, a private pool, elevator, lounge, and its very own galley.
With an 8.5 meter (27.8 ft.) draught (depth below water's surface of the lowest part of the vessel, usually the keel), the ship's size is no liability -- it can be maneuvered into relatively shallow waters (for comparison's sake, an ocean liner like Queen Mary 2 has the deepest draught at 32.6 ft. while a more traditional cruise ship like Carnival Liberty features a 28 ft. draught).
Standing here, it's hard to conceive that in 24 months, give or take a few, MSC Fantasia will set sail on its inaugural voyage.
The excitement felt here today at Aker Yards France, the storied shipyard whose contemporary creations range from Queen Mary 2 to Crystal Serenity, quickly moves beyond the fledgling Fantasia. This is a triple-hitter of a day for MSC because, not only did it lay the first slice of steel for its newest ship, but also placed the first panel in MSC Poesia (admittedly a more minor milestone), as well as capping off the afternoon with the day's splashiest event: the floating out of MSC Orchestra.
The "floating out" is one of the biggest, most moving and most visual of steps in the building process. It's the time when a ship is transformed from what's essentially a land construction project to an actual cruise ship. After all, how real is a ship that doesn't float?
Founded in 1995, the Naples, Italy-based MSC is one of cruising's newer lines. A subsidiary of the prodigious Mediterranean Shipping Company, an operator of cargo ships, this line, like many others in Europe and in North America, began by buying and operating older ships. And like others, including Carnival, Princess and Royal Caribbean, as it grew it began to create and design its own vessels. Those vessels were constructed with the goal of reflecting both MSC's unique vibe -- in this case its Italian identity -- and also incorporating amenities that today are must-haves, such as private balconies, alternative restaurants and glorious spas.
A line better known in Europe -- particularly in Spain as well as in its native Italy -- MSC's effort to woo North Americans is of a more recent vintage. But like close rival Costa Cruises (which is now owned by the American Carnival Corp.), MSC is investing heavily in amassing one of the industry's most contemporary fleets through the addition of increasingly larger and more sophisticated vessels. In this era of rapid globalization, with North American lines courting passengers from Australia to Spain, the European lines are returning the serve, aiming for an equally lucrative slice of pie.
Neither lines like Carnival or Royal Caribbean -- or MSC or Costa -- have yet significantly and consistently created a worldly mix of passengers onboard. But the time is coming, and MSC intends to play a prominent role when it does.
New Ships! Big Ships! Splashy Ships!
"We are putting our foot on the accelerator," commented Pierfrancesco Vago, the cruise line's CEO, at a press conference at the shipyard, and he's really just stating the obvious. Since the debut of MSC with its old tubs MSC Monterey and MSC Rhapsody (the line describes these 36,500-ton, 1,076-passenger vessels, launched in 1982, as "unique in class and style, able to offer guests the comforts and intimate atmosphere found on exclusive yachts,") but let's call a spade what most contemporary cruise travelers would call, well, a spade.
MSC Lirica, a 59,058-ton, 1,445-passenger vessel, was the first to emerge in April 2003; MSC Opera, just slightly larger and carrying 1,756 passengers, debuted in June 2004. Interestingly, though other -- and bigger -- new-builds have followed (most notably the line's 90,000-ton, 2,550-passenger MSC Musica), it is these two ships, which spend winters in the Caribbean, that are most heavily marketed to North Americans.
No question, the Musica-class of ships -- which will include the aforementioned Orchestra and Poesia -- is even more of a turning point for MSC, marking an era of growth (they're about 50 percent larger than Lirica and Opera) and featuring even more of the now-required amenities such as private balconies and alternate dining venues. The debut of MSC's first post-Panamax Fantasia series, so dubbed because the ship, along with sister Splendida, will be too wide to pass through the Panama Canal, marks an even larger evolutionary accomplishment.
What's next? A ship that vies for biggest-ever? Nah, Vago said. "We don't want the record. We want ships that can actually visit ports."
A Ship's Transformation
Just yesterday, MSC Orchestra, about half built, rested in its dry dock on a series of concrete blocks. It's been there since its keel -- the steel plates all welded together -- was laid in. The blocks that support ships like Orchestra fascinate me -- they look, when you stand on a platform peering down, too small to bear the impression of this 2,550-passenger ship. They're more powerful than they appear, however; each of the 200 - 300 concrete blocks that hold up most pre-floating new-builds run about six-feet high, and weigh one ton apiece. They're spaced every few meters or so.
We don't see that today. The actual process of floating out, in which the deep, dry cavern in which Orchestra sits is flooded with water from the Loire River until the ship supports itself on the surface, typically takes some 16 hours, and had already begun. What we get to see is the ship's movement out of the dock, led by tugs that pull Orchestra from every which way -- forward and aft, port and starboard -- into the Loire. Watching from an excursion boat some 300 feet away, it's certainly pleasing (and one would imagine quite reassuring to company executives onboard with us) to see Orchestra not only float but cruise -- albeit not under her own power. As such we are witnessing a transformation in which the ship becomes a "she" in cruise lingo rather than an "it." Even though Orchestra is still unfinished, the vessel has gone from mere construction project to a cruise ship.
Most visible are small details -- we can see the empty spot where tenders will one day hang. The machinery that clasps them to the vessel is in place as well. On accommodation decks, plastic covers window areas of those staterooms whose insides have already been slotted into place. The prefabricated cabins, like just about all in any new-build in any cruise shipyard in the world, are built offsite and trucked to the ship; in this case 90 percent of them are pre-made.
Plastic also protects at least some window spaces (glass is not yet installed) in public rooms. Indeed, the entire forward part of the ship is open to the elements; the only sign of life within being the workman's lights hanging from beams illuminating the ship's wide-open insides. The interior walls that divide a restaurant from a bar from a boutique, save for those serving as foundation pieces, aren't yet in place.
Windows are in place in the bridge (though we're assured that the multi-million dollar equipment used to navigate a modern cruise vessel has not yet been installed). And on one of the uppermost decks, through what ultimately will be floor to ceiling glass walls, we can see a big pool, not yet installed, lying on its side.
This is the state of a ship that's very much on track for its scheduled April 2007 launch seven months from now.
Ultimately, the tugs pull MSC Orchestra to its new home -- a real dock just on the other side of its dry dock. The ship won't be out there alone for long; the process of course continues with Poesia, which is just about ready for its keel laying. It'll occupy the dry dock next. And after that, Fantasia and after that Splendida and after that ... the process goes on and on.