S.S. Norway: Time is Up

October 18, 2007

After months of political wrangling that culminated in a ruling from India's Supreme Court, workers at the infamous ship breaking yards in Alang, India have begun scrapping the Blue Lady, formerly NCL's Norway and originally built in 1962 as French Line's France.

The dismantling of the ship had been long delayed due to the strong outcry from environmentalists; various groups declared that the vessel contained 900 tons of asbestos-like toxic waste that would pose serious health risks to workers in Alang. Now, the Times of India reports that workers have begun to remove furniture and fittings from the ship. Once the vessel has been stripped of anything of value, its steel hull will be broken into chunks for scrap metal.

The sad, slow death of what was once the world's longest and largest passenger ship began on May 25, 2003 when a boiler exploded in the Norway's engine room in Miami, killing seven crew. After over a month in Miami -- the ship's homeport for over 20 years -- Norway was towed to Bremerhaven, Germany. NCL originally intended to replace the boiler and return the ship to service, but after determining that there would be no way to tell whether the ship's three remaining boilers were safe, the line decided that a total replacement of the onboard machinery would be the only possible way Norway could return to service. This was deemed uneconomical, and as a result NCL announced in March 2004 that the Norway would not return to its fleet. Instead, NCL attempted to find a buyer.

After nearly two years in Germany, the ship was towed to Port Klang, Malaysia, home base of Star Cruises, NCL's then parent company. (Star continues to own half of NCL; private equity firm Apollo Management recently bought the other half.) There Star continued to try to sell the vessel (then renamed Blue Lady); but when it became obvious that it would be impossible to find a buyer for anything other than scrap, the ship was finally sold in 2006 to Indian scrap merchants. In May 2006, three years after the tragic accident in Miami, the ship began another long tow from Malaysia to Alang, India, the world's largest ship breaking site.

Then, More Problems

The Indian Government, however, had other ideas. Environmental groups declared the ship unsafe for scrapping, citing the potential dangers of workers exposed to large amounts of toxic waste. The case was brought to court. After an initial ban on the Blue Lady entering Indian waters, it was allowed to anchor near Alang while the government decided its fate. The Indian Supreme Court finally allowed the ship to be beached in August 2006, but work was not allowed to begin. It languished on the beach until India's Supreme Court ruled last month that the ship could finally be scrapped -- so long as safety guidelines were followed to ensure worker's health. Now it appears that work has begun, and the end is near for this storied ship.

A Mostly Glorious Past

The ship that is now ending its life as rusting hulk on a polluted Indian beach could not have been born in more different circumstances. After World War II, just two pre-war ships, the Ile de France and Liberte, carried the French flag across the North Atlantic, the legendary flagship Normandie having been lost during the war. Faced with the advancing age of its two largest, fastest ships, the French Line -- with the personal encouragement of French President Charles de Gaulle -- planned a new flagship that would avenge the loss of the legendary Normandie. A keel was laid in 1958, and in 1960, the ship was launched and named France by Yvonne de Gaulle, the nation's First Lady.

In early 1962, the France was completed, and began crossing the North Atlantic on its route from Le Havre, France to Southampton, England and New York. It was the longest passenger vessel in the world, and the third largest after Cunard's original Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth (one-time competitors of the Normandie that survived the war). The S.S. France plied the waters of the Atlantic, acquiring an estimable reputation as one of the finest ships in the world (its first-class dining room was proclaimed the world’s best French restaurant by then-New York Times restaurant critic Craig Claiborne). But though she often sailed full, the vessel never made money. And when the French government withdrew subsidies in 1974, the ship was laid up in Le Havre.

At that point, the France was the largest passenger ship in the world, the Queen Mary having become a hotel in Long Beach, California and the Queen Elizabeth having burned and sank in Hong Kong while being converted to a floating university. Only the Queen Elizabeth 2 -- a ship that, unlike the France, was built both for crossing and cruising -- even came close in size or prestige. At only 12 years old, the France represented the pinnacle of a passing era. Many thought it would never sail again.

Salvation, however, came in the form of the Norwegian shipping magnate Knut Kloster, Sr., owner of what was then known as the Norwegian Caribbean Line. Together with Ted Arison (who went on to found Carnival), Kloster revolutionized the cruise industry in the late 1960's and 1970's with ships a quarter the size of the France. Now he would convert the world's largest ocean liner into the world's largest cruise ship, one that would dwarf all its Caribbean competitors. In 1980, renamed Norway and refitted to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, the vessel was born again as the prototype for all the mega-ships that would follow in the next three decades. NCL advertised Norway's cruises as "The Biggest Week in the World." The public bought it, and the cruise industry was never the same again.

Norway, The Cruise Ship

For most of the next two decades, the Norway enjoyed a leisurely and prosperous life, leaving Miami every weekend for the sunny Caribbean. It was finally surpassed in size in 1988 by Royal Caribbean’s Sovereign of the Seas, but a 1990 refit that added two new decks again made the Norway the world’s biggest cruise ship, and it stayed as such until Princess’ Sun Princess beat it by a hair in 1995. No passenger ship would be longer until Queen Mary 2 launched in 2003.

But while no longer the biggest or most prestigious ship in the Caribbean, the Norway soldiered on as the grande dame of the Miami-based cruise ships, its sleek profile and dark blue hull standing in stark contrast to the latest mega-ships from Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and NCL itself. Until that fateful day in 2003, when the boiler exploded killing seven, its future seemed assured; NCL said the ship might sail to its 50th birthday in 2012 and beyond. But instead, the death of a ship that was the pride of two countries and the envy of the world, began just over 41 years after its maiden voyage.

Now, as we approach the 50th anniversary of the day its keel was laid in that French shipyard, the final death throes have at last begun. Soon it will be nothing more than a collection of artifacts and a pile of scrap metal, but the France/Norway/Blue Lady will always live on in the hearts and minds of the millions who knew it.

--by Doug Newman, Cruise Critic contributor