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Letter From ... Independence of the Seas at Aker Yards

Editor's note: This story is from the Cruise Critic Archives. Content was up to date at time of publication.

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.

Norm had Cheers. "Friends" had Central Perk. Everyone finds his or her own bar or meeting place, and mine is Boleros -- Royal Caribbean's Latin-themed lounge that I discovered aboard Empress of the Seas and became a regular at on Freedom of the Seas, dutifully sipping mojitos as the ship snaked through the Western Caribbean.

Today, September 14, 2007, I'm in "my" bar once again, on Independence of the Seas -- but even though it's a sister ship, this Boleros sure doesn't look familiar. A workbench stands in place of the glossy, clean bar and a rectangular lantern suspended precariously from a steel beam in the ceiling provides the only mood lighting in the joint. It's eight months before the ship's official launch, and I'm on a special hard-hat tour at Aker Yards in Turku, Finland.

A group of journalists and travel agents from all over the world -- North America, Latin America, Europe and beyond -- have assembled to visit Independence of the Seas, the third and final ship in Royal Caribbean's Freedom class, which has been under construction in a dry dock here since December 2006.

It's a massive project: 111,000 gallons of paint will give the ship its bright white glow and 2,200 miles of electric cables will power the coffee makers in Seattle's Best, ice cream freezers at Ben & Jerry's and the air hockey tables in the arcade -- right down to the flat-screen TV's in all 1,817 cabins. And the yard itself is Disneyland for techies and maritime geeks alike, with cranes that can lift 600 tons and scraps of metal that will actually become the foundation for Royal Caribbean's even larger Oasis-class ship dotting the landscape.

Independence of the Seas will be "floated out" this afternoon, which essentially means the exterior work is finished so the ship can take to the water for the first time, and interior construction on cabins, restaurants and public areas (like my beloved Boleros) can commence. It's an exciting milestone in the building process. But first, we get to tour inside and under the ship, and even play with a few high-tech toys in Aker Yards' workshop.

Safety First … And a Curious Welding Experiment

Before we're allowed anywhere near the dry dock, we're outfitted with gray hard hats emblazoned with the Aker Yards logo, clunky but seriously non-skid shoes, oh-so-fashionable safety goggles, and blue jackets just like the ones worn by shipyard employees. This is a working yard, and we need to follow the same safety guidelines as everyone who works here. For a minute, I wonder if we're actually going to be put to work.

Well ... in a way, I'm right. There are two surprise pit stops on the way to the gangway. The first is a high-ceilinged warehouse/workshop a short walk from where the ship is docked; here we'll have the opportunity to actually weld a piece of "artwork" that will eventually be displayed somewhere on the ship! (In my case, especially, the term is being used very loosely.) Once inside, a group of male and female welders point out palettes of leftover chunks, hunks and pieces: the Island of Misfit Toys a la Home Depot. There are screws, nuts, bolts and steel plates -- and pipe corners that look like jumbo elbow macaroni made of metal.

My first thought? Thank goodness we're doing this here on land and not on Independence of the Seas itself because I very well might set something on fire! This is my first time visiting a ship under construction, and I really don't think that would make the best impression. On a construction project like this, fire is the greatest threat -- and accidents have happened. In 2003, a fire at Fincantieri's Marghera (Venice) shipyard damaged Holland America's Westerdam while it was still under construction. For this reason, I'm not surprised to spot extinguishers at the ready throughout the site and ship.

Welding in particular is a major part of early exterior construction as this is how sections of the ship are pieced together, such as steel plates and pipes. We are told to each select two items from the Misfit pile, which we're to weld together to make one solid sculpture. I pick out a thin steel plate just larger than a postcard and a hexagonal nut, which I plan to weld in place in the top right corner of the plate to symbolize the sun.

As I watch my colleagues step up to the plate and send sparks flying down toward the ground, I'm especially worried about my pants....

Harri Kulovaara, Royal Caribbean's executive vice president in charge of new-builds, recognizes the fear on my face and is reassuring: "Can you hold a pen in your hand? If so, you can weld!" Somehow, I just don't believe him. And once the crewmembers weigh me down with a vest, gloves and even larger helmet with protective coating to shield my eyes from the bright light, it's a miracle I can find my way to the chair, never mind weld.

Kids, don't try this at home -- but the welding "pen" is, as Harri promised, easy to use. With the thin tip about an inch from my art project, a professional's helping hand guides my own to weld my pre-selected pieces together as I hold down the trigger that releases the metal-melting arc. After I take off my plastic headpiece, the real welder looks at my masterpiece -- still glowing orange -- and grins. "Now that's welding!"

My inch or so of welding, affixing one nut to a small steel sheet, is just a small contribution to a project that when completed will comprise 3,700,000 square ft. of steel plate and 1,013 miles (yes, miles!) of weld seams. Best of all, my pants are still intact.

Surprise Number 2

The next unexpected part of our day is a walk on the floor of the dry dock -- a narrow basin that can be filled with or emptied of water during construction -- underneath the ship! Beneath the blue-and-white hull that you'll see bobbing above the waves once the ship begins its first series of cruises from Southampton are the propeller pods. The two on the port and starboard sides turn for maneuverability. The one in the middle is fixed and provides extra power. All three look like mini spaceships that somehow got beamed up to a mother ship.

Wonder why the pods and ship bottom are painted a different color (here, red) than the rest of the hull? It's actually a special marine paint called antifouling, which repels marine life but does not harm the environment. And the small metallic rectangles you see in the photograph are called zinc anodes; they protect the pods from corrosion.

Looking up at the enormity of the pods' blades, I more fully understand that the danger of falling overboard goes beyond tiring of swimming in ice-cold water. The propellers on these pods are huge and sharp, and being pulled underneath the whirling and chopping ... well, let's just say it wouldn't be a happy ending. Maybe if more cruisers were privy to the underbelly of the ships they sail on, they'd think twice before teetering on railings.

These pods are made in Finland, as are many of the products onboard -- including the engines and passenger cabins. The Finns have a long history of shipbuilding, and Royal Caribbean's ships in particular have strong ties to the country. In many ways, Silja Line ferries that operate between Finland, Sweden and Estonia are Voyager- and Freedom-class ships' ancestors. Think the Promenade concept was born on Voyager of the Seas? Think again -- the ferries had 'em first. Kulovaara, who once worked for Silja line, brought the popular concept to Royal Caribbean. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Now and Later

Next, in small groups with a senior yard employee as our guide, we walk the gangway onto Deck 1 of Independence of the Seas, forward port side (imagine looking beneath the gangway and seeing not water but concrete supporting the ship ... it's a trip). As we ascend uncarpeted stairs with thin metal railings to Deck 5, the ship is dark and cold, with big gaping holes where sliding glass doors will eventually lead to outdoor deck space, complete with shuffleboard and reading chairs rather than dust and tools.

Having been onboard Freedom of the Seas, walking through Independence -- especially Deck 5, which will house the aforementioned Royal Promenade -- is a bit like seeing Freedom without its clothes on. Because I know where we're going for the most part (forward staircase, purser's desk area), it feels like I'm seeing a cruise ship that's been stripped down, rather than a steel frame with miles of exposed wire and pipe being fashioned into a brand-new member of the fleet.

It's hard to believe that all of the ships I have sailed on -- with their warm well-lit spaces crowded with passengers in cocktail dresses and heels -- once looked something like this: dark caves cluttered with machinery and ladders, identified by paper signs as a pub or a pizzeria. In one of the shops, where in eight months you might find a table of sale-priced fashion jewelry, there's now a table saw. In the middle of the casino, there are no slot machines -- though you might hear the "ding" of the microwave where the workers heat up their lunches (traditional Finnish meat pies are a staple). In the three-deck restaurant, crates of huge metal pipes sit where dressed tables will eventually welcome diners for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Still, there's a lot that's recognizable. The elevator shafts are ready to receive actual elevator cars. In the area that will become the photo gallery, wood-effect paneling is being installed. And from the dock, you can crane your head toward the sky and see that cabins have been slotted into place. We are unable to tour them today because they are not yet secured, and many are visibly without windows and balconies; remember, cabins are made at a factory nearby and pieced into the ship like super-sized Lego blocks.

In fact, many interior spaces are not yet far enough along for visitors, such as the upper decks where the Windjammer, pools, Johnny Rockets, spa and Adventure Ocean will be. The pool deck is currently covered by a large tarp-like material in case it starts snowing early (this area of Finland has seen flakes as early as October). Deck 5, Promenade, is as high as we could go.

In some spots, pieces of wall are simply missing -- offering a glimpse even further behind the scenes at the internal organs that make a ship "go." One rectangular opening allows direct sight of an exposed engine casing and a huge exhaust pipe about the diameter of an industrial garbage can (it makes the tail pipe that peeks out from beneath even a humongous gas-guzzling Hummer seem meek).

As we walk along the unfinished floor of the Royal Promenade, which stretches longer than a football field, I can feel the grit crunching beneath my thick rubber soles -- and as I stare up at the foil covering that protects the promenade-view cabin windows, clearly not watching where I'm going, I nearly trip over a long, thin rod of metal that noisily rolls away in the opposite direction.

Float Up, Out and Away

Today, however, there's little going on in this workshop -- and aside from our guided tour, the ship is eerily quiet. Most Aker employees are instead lining up outside on the dock, arms folded in front of them to block the wind, as the time nears for the float out. Even they can't stop staring at the ship: the cantilevered whirlpools, the bow thrusters, the neatly painted moniker: Independence of the Seas.

"Float out" is the maritime term for an important milestone in the construction of a cruise ship, or any vessel for that matter. The outside or hull of a ship is constructed in a dry dock (work here got underway in December of 2006); once it's ready, the dry dock is slowly filled with water -- 87 million gallons in this case -- which allows the structure to take to the water for the first time and truly become a ship. Once afloat, the final leg of work (mostly interior) can begin.

Further forward on the dock, on a small platform that juts out toward the sea (to the left is water, to the right, Independence of the Seas resting beneath water level for its last few hours in dry dock), we huddle in the spitting rain and chill of September. A band plays "Beyond the Sea" to get everybody in the mood for the ship's first foray beyond the dry dock. We're told to prepare for a ceremonious cannon blast, additional pomp and circumstance to mark the milestone. Once the smoke clears, Kulovaara is joined by Lisa Bauer, Royal Caribbean's senior vice president of sales; Independence of the Seas' captain-to-be Hernan Zini, who brought out Liberty of the Seas; Juha Heikinheimo, the president of Aker Yards; and Jykri Heinamaa, the director of Aker's Turku yard, to open the valve and release water into the dry dock.

Just one small green wheel does this major job, and once the executives take their turn and their photo op, we're each given a pair of white gloves -- to keep (I hear they double well as gardening mitts) -- and our own chance to turn the wheel. It's not as easy as it sounds! If you've ever rode in an amusement park tea cup by yourself and tried to rotate the center wheel with just your own strength, that will give you a pretty good idea what the resistance is like here. I wrap my fingers around the hard metal disk and manage to move it a few centimeters; listening to the roar of the water pouring into the dry dock behind me, it really sinks in that I'm a part of this ship's history, even if more in spirit than pure muscle.

As I wait impatiently for the ship to get wet and start bobbing away, I am sad to learn -- though it makes sense now that I've actually seen the process -- that it'll actually take several hours for the dry dock to completely fill (they can't let the water just swoosh in all at once, otherwise the ship could shift, hit something and become damaged). Some shipyard employees will actually stay on the clock all night, monitoring wind speed on their PDA's and keeping an eye on the fill-up to make sure everything goes as planned. Tomorrow, once afloat, Independence will sail for the first time a few meters away to a designated wet dock where interior work will commence.

This will also make room in the dry dock for the next "big" thing: Oasis. That new prototype from Royal Caribbean is the next contender for the title of world's largest cruise ship.

Looking Ahead

When looking at a new-build of this magnitude, it's natural to ask: "What's next?" Obviously, the Oasis class will surpass Independence and its sisters as the largest ever, measuring 222,000 tons and carrying 5,400 passengers. After that, only time will tell. Kulovaara, when asked, smiles and leaks little info -- but does remind us that some of the largest container ships are around Oasis' size, so growth is ongoing and parallel.

Whether it's ships so large you can see them from outer space -- or ships that actually go into outer space -- I want to be there just like I was today. And I know I'll return to "my" bar again soon … can't wait to see what Boleros looks like next May.

--by Melissa Baldwin, Managing Editor

Exterior photo and image of Promenade under construction appear courtesy of Royal Caribbean; all other photos appear courtesy of Melissa Baldwin.

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