(8:39 a.m. EST) -- In what is one of the largest U.S. passenger shipbuilding orders in recent history, Connecticut-based American Cruise Lines announced Tuesday it will introduce up to 12 new catamaran-style coastal cruise ships beginning in 2023.
The new vessels -- dubbed Project Blue -- are designed to be "go-anywhere" vessels capable of sailing coastal and inland waterways of the United States, expanding American Cruise Line's itinerary options and available ports of call.
Under construction at Chesapeake Shipyard, the Project Blue ships will carry 109 passengers in 56 staterooms, nearly all of which will offer private balconies. At 241 feet in length, the Project Blue vessels will be able to enter narrow waterways and sheltered harbors and are planned to debut on the East Coast of the United States next year.
The first two Project Blue vessels are under construction and are set to be named in honor of the company's first two cruise ships, American Eagle and American Glory.
"It's really our biggest news possibly ever," Charles B. Robertson, president and CEO of American Cruise Lines, told Cruise Critic in an interview. "Project Blue is re-shifting our focus a little bit back to the coast and doubling down on our commitment to small."
Aside from being the largest order of non-ferry, U.S.-built and flagged passenger vessels in decades, Project Blue also represents a major investment for American Cruise Lines in terms of comfort, décor and amenities and could very well do for ACL what the Longship riverboats did for Viking in Europe when they first debuted in 2012.
"This was our secret engineering project through the pandemic and our light at the end of the tunnel," Robertson told Cruise Critic. "We had the engineers at the shipyard working on this for months.
"The problem for them to solve was: how do you make it small enough for the New England ports? How do you make it shallow enough for the intracoastal waterway in the Southeast? And how do you make it stable enough to run coastal routes in the Pacific Northwest? Between small, shallow, and stable, the catamaran was the way to answer all that."
The ship's catamaran design presents some unique opportunities for a vessel of this size.
A swim platform will offer passengers the chance to participate in water activities right from the ship, while an onboard tender will allow guests the chance to go ashore in remote locales.
For scenic cruising, a forward-facing outdoor terrace will sit in front of the Main Lounge on Deck 2, straddling the two sections of the ship's hull and providing unparalleled views.
The views inside these Project Blue ships aren't half-bad, either. Bright, broad windows will grace each of the vessel's public room, including the Lounge, main Restaurant, and the aft-facing sky lounge on Deck 3.
"We're continuing our tradition of having the largest in class staterooms despite it being a small ship, overall," Robertson said of Project Blue. "That creates a very low-density environment for guests. For instance, we always build our dining rooms so that all guests can sit down together, and the forward lounges are designed so that all guests can be in there together for their entertainment and cocktail parties and so forth."
Public rooms are much more lavishly appointed on Project Blue than past vessels, something Robertson says was a conscious decision for the company.
"The genesis for the interior design was with American Melody, which we launched this year," Robertson said. "We just knocked it out of the park. That was a home run with our guests. They absolutely love it. Re-booking rates are extraordinary on American Melody. And the guests who are our long-time Eagle Society loyalty program members also really appreciate that we evolved with the times a little bit and offered this more sophisticated, cosmetic interior look and feel."
Next year will see American Eagle and American Glory debut on the East Coast, with one vessel entering service in summer 2023 and another in the fall. But rather than replacing older vessels in the fleet, Robertson sees these Project Blue ships as complimenting American Cruise Line's existing fleet and allowing the company to position some of its older ships to more price-conscious consumers.
"What I hope we can accomplish is that we can use the older ships to create more price variation and appeal to a broader market," Robertson said. " By building the new high-end product, we can actually maybe lower the prices on the older vessels and make it more accessible for more people."
These new Project Blue vessels will also make it possible for American Cruise Lines to dramatically expand its itinerary offerings, though the line for now is quiet about what might be in the works.
Robertson did, however, offer Cruise Critic a tantalizing glimpse of what could be forthcoming once the first Project Blue ship hits the water next year.
"Right now, we visit 100 ports" of call, Robertson said. " We think there's about 500 ports that we can go to in the country with these new boats."
"We're having a lot of fun planning those routes right now."