SOLAS Safety Rules: Will Old Ships Die?

June 2, 2009
Black Prince

For fans of classic cruise vessels, nothing quite gets the pulse racing like Queen Elizabeth 2. As the world's most famous ocean liner, cruising's grande dame was admired for her sleek silhouette, her powerful grace -- even through the choppiest of Atlantic waters -- and her war-time contributions.

But, with stringent new International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) guidelines taking effect on October 1, 2010 -- the crux being much stricter fire safety requirements -- Cunard was forced to retire the liner in November 2008. Now in Dubai, she'll be sliced, diced and gutted before reopening as a luxury floating hotel, docked on the tree-shaped Palm Jumeirah island.

QE2's second chance scenario is uncommon -- and owners of ships built before 1980, when different safety rules applied, have some tough choices looming. Replacing all the combustible materials is often prohibitively expensive, as classic ships are loaded with fine woods, making the scrap yard the favored option.

So, what other ships are on SOLAS' chopping block -- and what's going to happen to them?

Regal Empress, an ocean liner of polished wood and burnished brass that enjoyed some 50 years in the business, retired in March 2009. For Regal, there was no buyer or benefactor, no second stint as floating museum or monument. The ship was quietly sold for scrap, and made its funerary journey to the notorious breaking beaches of Alang, India. Likewise for the venerable Maxim Gorkiy, built in 1973. The ship was sold to Orient Lines and was scheduled to launch as Marco Polo II in spring 2009. It was not to be: Orient Lines shuttered before the first cruise, and the ship was sold for scrap.

Meanwhile, like QE2, it appears as if Fred. Olsen's Black Prince will be spared. While the line has chosen to retire the vessel later this year, rather than spend the money to make the ship SOLAS compliant, the line has found a buyer: Servicios Acuaticos de Venezuela CA (SAVECA). As we reported previously, the vessel will be used as a cruise ship in Venezuelan waters.

Saga Holidays' Saga Rose is set to retire in December 2009. Built as Norwegian America Line's Sagafjord in 1965, this classic ocean liner currently has no buyer -- though there has been some speculation regarding transforming the ship into a floating hotel at ExCel Conference Centre in London. We were not able to confirm the rumors.

The fate of the sailing yacht Sea Cloud, built in 1931 for cereal heiress Marjorie Meriweather Post and rebuilt to operate cruises in 1979, is also in question. A spokesman for Sea Cloud Cruises said the line is optimistic that the ship will continue to sail beyond October 1, 2010. With the help of regulators, Sea Cloud Cruises is currently looking into what needs to be done to make the ship compliant. In a show of confidence, the line's Web site is still selling cruises on Sea Cloud beyond October 1, 2010.

For more hardcore maritime aficionados, there are also countless lesser-known ships -- particularly in European markets -- that may no longer be seaworthy come October 1, 2010. Examples (with original names in parentheses) include Ausonia, Dalmacjia, Grand Victoria (World Renaissance), Kristina Regina (Bore), Le Diamant (Song of Flower), Oceanic II (Kungsholm), Royal Star (San Giorgio), Serenade (Jean Mermoz), The Emerald (Santa Rosa) and The Topaz (Empress of Britain).

Interestingly, Robin Farley -- an analyst for global financial services firm UBS who specializes in the cruise industry -- contends that new the new SOLAS requirements will take a considerable bite out of 2010's European cruise ship berths. While huge new-builds -- from MSC, Celebrity, Costa, P&O and German line AIDA -- are set to debut in Europe in 2010, the UBS reports that "based on our analysis, we believe there are at least 14 ships, or 5,600 berths, that are likely to be removed from the total 148,300-berth European market during 2010, reducing the market growth rate by roughly [4 percentage points]."

Read more about the impact upcoming SOLAS requirements will have on cruise ships.

--by Dan Askin, Associate Editor