Twenty-eight days is all they have. At Grand Bahama Shipyard in Freeport, nearly 1,000 contractors and 947 crewmembers (the actual ones who'll be serving passengers on the ship when it resumes service) will gut a vast vessel the length of three football fields, 106 ft. across at its widest and spanning 14 decks in height. The contractors are in charge of the technical stuff -- the wiring, tiling, welding, windows. The ship crew serve as construction cleanup helpers in addition to providing their typical onboard service duties (dining, laundry, bartending). All reside on the ship, now a construction zone, as they complete the refurbishment.
From top to bottom, Majesty of the Seas is becoming the beneficiary of all new paneling, updated lighting, stainless steel trim, carpeting throughout, new glasswork, furniture, casino gaming equipment, galleys, etc. In short, the aim is to make this a new ship.
The difference, of course, between this and a new-build is that this entire transformation -- with the help of some 2,000 workers -- will start and finish within a month (a typical ship can take up to two years to build). The schedule is tight, and penalties for missing the deadline are severe: For the 73,941-ton, 2,744-passenger Majesty of the Seas' $36-million refurbishment, each day over schedule can result in almost a million dollars in additional expenses.
Launched in 1992 as part of the then state-of-the-art Sovereign-class of vessels, some of the first mega-ships in the industry, Majesty of the Seas is now the fourth oldest ship in the RCI fleet. And it shows -- this ship is one that doesn't have many of the now-popular fleet features, like Bolero's Latin lounge with its signature mojitos, Sorrento's all-night pizzeria, Johnny Rockets or upgraded bedding in the cabins. At least until recently.
The middle-aged Majesty of the Seas is the fifth "mature" Royal Caribbean vessel to get a major refurbishment, following in the footsteps of Empress of the Seas, Enchantment of the Seas, Monarch of the Seas and Sovereign of the Seas.
What's it like to watch a 15-year-old ship become transformed into something more contemporary? Cruise Critic's Dan Askin traveled to Freeport -- a place well known for its rapid overhauls of ships -- in late January to report on the process.
It's the evening of Wednesday, January 24 and as we board Majesty, it becomes quite clear that we've stepped into a massive construction project. The refurbishment schedule has reached the midway point: Exposed wires dangle from the open ceiling; carpets have been peeled back revealing spotted, sticky flooring; and stacked rows of PVC piping lay strewn about idly. Everything is covered with a layer of itchy, gray dust. Numerous pungent odors, each with its own unique chemical personality -- wood shavings soaked in paint thinner, the faintly sweet stench of burning metal -- greet you as you enter each new space. It's hard to believe that in just 14 days, the ship will be sailing out of Miami.
The dimly lit scene is a bit like an unsettling dream: there's the obstacle courses of trip wires, refuse, supplies and crew darting about; the showers of sparks that fly as craftsmen shape chunks of metal; and the dusky light that renders the worker's greasy, glowing faces vaguely psychotic. It's easy to become completely lost in the process, and I stare unselfconsciously at the laborers until they finally return my gaze and break the spell. And for the international group of contractors brought here who stare back -- Poles, Estonians, Norwegians, Brits, Finns -- the daily 12- to 15-hour shifts are clearly exhausting. Royal Caribbean's Kevin Douglas, director of new-buildings and fleet design, describes the complexity of the project as a beast. They have an immense task before them, but despite the appearance of total chaos, they're still right on schedule.
The phrase that Douglas uses to embody the overall project is "complication." Royal Caribbean chose the Grand Bahamas Shipyard for its proximity to Miami (about 52 miles) -- but with the choice of convenient location came compromises. In Europe, with its proliferation of shipyards -- and industrialized centers that support ship building clustered nearby -- a refurbishment is not such a logistical issue. Here, it is.
Royal Caribbean has hired large, mostly Europe-based, contracting firms to deal with specific zones of the ship. One might be in charge of the dining room, another the casino. Then it's up to the contractors to subcontract the work they've been assigned (or keep it in house if they have the manpower). This might mean hiring a smaller company to tackle the duct work in the dining room, another to install carpeting and so on. For a project of this size, delegation is essential. Each man (and a few women) has a simple task that's his or her sole responsibility. Everyone must know his place if the process is to go smoothly.
Suppliers, which range from the Finland-based Merima, hired to tile and grout the saunas to the Danish team installing the Centrum shops, have had to bring their factories with them. Everything that each work group could possibly need, from belt sanders to welding masks, has had to be brought from home. Kevin initially told the contractors, "If you think you'll need one, bring six. You'll need at least two, and then other crews will need to borrow the rest."
Most of the elements, from the slot machines to the dining room furniture are pre-made elsewhere in the world and brought to the construction site via cargo vessel (and the MSC cargo ship that brought all the supplies from Europe to the Bahamas sits nearby). The great majority of the items can be carried aboard the ship by the crew. Two of the larger items, however, Sorrento's 1.5-ton pizza oven and Johnny Rockets' 4.5-ton galley, had to be prefabricated in France, shipped to the yard via cargo vessel, then craned in to their final resting places.
The only task that required onsite building rather than relying on prefab pieces was the tiling. As each tile -- that means bathrooms in cabins, saunas in the fitness center and all tile work in the Centrum -- has to be laid one at a time, it's just about the most time consuming aspect of the entire project.
Further obstructions hinder the process. As the interior is gutted, mounds of highly flammable refuse begin to form. And to limit the threat of fire, containers are continuously being packed with garbage. Each day, between 20 and 30 "cans" are filled, lifted off the ship and taken by truck to a land fill. The tentative estimate is that 367 containers will be needed for the entire project. Kevin notes dryly that from a logistical standpoint, all this loading off and on is somewhat of a nightmare.
Barring disaster, everything will work out as planned, and the ship will return to service in early February. The ship is slated to make its "comeback" on February 12, sailing three- and four-night itineraries to the Bahamas from Miami.
Why all the effort to transform a middle-aged ship? While one major reason is that Royal Caribbean wants to offer consistent onboard experiences (with, say, brand names like Bolero's and Johnny Rockets) another reason is this: They're looking for new ways to entice you to part with your cash.
Historically, "ship revitalization" has been a success for Royal Caribbean: According to Lisa Bauer, senior vice president North American sales, the company has seen double-digit percentage rises in per diem onboard spending for vessels that have received decent facelifts. Much of the increased spending has to do with more cruisers shelling out money for burgers, shakes, and jive tunes at Johnny Rockets -- and ice cream confections in "Freeze," which will be Majesty's new ice cream joint (no Ben & Jerry's).
Curious about the process in the shipyard? Read on.
Even with a ship less than half the size of Freedom of the Seas, Majesty is still an enormous vessel. With the three workers in the foreground, you really get a sense of the scale of the project. And in a remarkable feat of engineering, noice that the vessel is balancing on 6.5-ft. wood blocks that extend along its entire length. The dock may be dry in the photo, but in order to move the ship, either to another boat slip or for its return sailing to Miami, the basin will be slowly filled with water.
MSC (the same company responsible for the Italian cruise ships) is also the shipping giant that does big global business with container transport. This is the one of the cargo ships that sailed from Europe, loaded with everything from bar stools to the updated RCI bedding sets.
The uniformed staffers are part of Majesty's regular workforce, and in typical fashion, the purser's desk is busy helping passengers: this time members of the international crew. Perhaps they're complaining about room service (yuk, yuk, yuk).
A worker shapes a ceiling bracket as sparks fly. Fire is the single largest threat to a construction project like this one, and as you can see, the area is clear of any potentially flammable garbage (with the exception of the gent on the ladder's camo pants).
Not sure what this is? Although it doesn't look like much, it's actually Johnny Rockets (Deck 12, aft). The 3.5-ton galley, as well as the jukeboxes on the other side, were prefabricated in France, shipped in a container across the Atlantic and lifted up onto the then uncovered section of the ship by crane. Windows (visible in the back of the picture) were added later.
Out on the sun deck, one of Majesty's two pools awaits completion. On the left you can see two containers that house all the supplies needed to overhaul the area. Parts for the job arrive in the containers; they're used to complete the task, and then the construction garbage that results goes back off the ship.
The industrial skyscape is dotted with the Grand Bahama Shipyard's cranes. Beyond the threat of fire, the second biggest concern is crane malfunction. It's shocking how quickly waste builds up, and you need to get the detritus off the ship as soon as possible so you can have room to get the next load of supplies on.
On this project, the Viking Crown Lounge (and not the bridge) serves as the control room, where logistics experts oversee everything -- containers coming on and off, crew manifests, technical mishaps -- that happens. There's little time to sleep as the whole project is up and running 24 hours a day, but they do manage to get in five or six hours a night (at least at the beginning).
A glimpse into one of the 733 oceanview cabins. All cabins are being outfitted with Royal Caribbean's updated bedding and redone bathrooms, as well as interactive flat-screen televisions.
Another view of Deck 12's pool area and sun deck.
--by Dan Askin, Assistant Editor
Top right photo appears courtesy of Royal Caribbean. All other images appear courtesy of Dan Askin.