"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 (Independence work 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.
The spitting rain and chilly September temperature did not prevent the traditional Finnish pomp and circumstance that characterizes this critical event. A band of musicians played "Beyond the Sea" and an actual canon was fired -- away from the ship, of course -- just before cruise line and shipyard executives turned the wheel that opened the valve to fill the dry dock with water.
Royal Caribbean Executive Vice President Harri Kulovaara, who is supervising the new-build, was joined by Lisa Bauer, Royal Caribbean's senior vice president of sales; Independence of the Seas' captain-to-be Hernan Zini; Juha Heikinheimo, the president of Aker Yards; and Jykri Heinamaa, the director of Aker's Turku yard.
Beyond that, Kulovaara and his colleagues at Aker led Cruise Critic and other international media and travel professionals on a tour of the ship and shipyard. (Stay tuned next week for our full first-hand report!) All guests in attendance also got to take a turn at turning the valve wheel, still donning a hard hat and a pair of Aker-issue white gloves; there's no automatic steering here, you have to give it some muscle.
At this point, mums the word on any new areas or amenities being planned for Independence of the Seas, the third and last in the Freedom class of ships -- currently the largest in the world. Kulovaara does tell us, however, that at this point the ship is about two-thirds finished, and will be ready in April 2008 for its May debut.
After the overnight fill-up, Independence of the Seas sailed to a designated wet dock a few meters away. But once drained, the dry dock won't be empty for long -- the first piles of steel that will become Royal Caribbean's even more gargantuan Genesis-class ship are already waiting in the wings.
Independence of the Seas will sail its maiden season from London's port of Southampton; it's the largest ever to homeport in Europe, which continues to be a booming market for cruise travelers.
--by Melissa Baldwin, Managing Editor