Norwegian Epic Floats Out in France

July 10, 2009

Norwegian Epic at Shipyard
(4 p.m. EDT) -- Norwegian Cruise Line's 153,000-ton, 4,200-passenger Norwegian Epic -- almost as notable for what's not onboard as for what is (there's no "main" anything, but lots of individual restaurants and entertainment venues) -- is one step closer to launch. Today, on the Atlantic coast of France at STX Europe's shipyard in Saint-Nazaire, the cruise line floated out the much-anticipated new-build -- and Cruise Critic was there.

"Float out" is the maritime term for the process by which a dry dock, where workers have completed the exterior build of a ship, is slowly filled with water. Once the ship is floating, it is moved to a wet dock, where interior work commences. It's a big project -- you need absolutely perfect conditions (low wind, between tides) to move the ship. It's also a major milestone because it's generally the first time a vessel floats.

Not so fast, though! We learned today that this is actually not the first time Norwegian Epic has taken to the water -- it first floated back in February.

Here's why: The way this particular dry dock works is unique. The dry dock actually encompasses two docks -- one right behind the other -- along a 900-meter-long strip, making it the longest dry dock in the world. The keel is laid in the first space and exterior work begins. Once the vessel is seaworthy, the docks are flooded so it can move into the next space, leaving its old home empty for a new keel to be laid (in this case, a military vessel). The dock is then drained for the remainder of exterior work. It's more of an assembly line process compared to the side-by-side dock setup elsewhere, including STX's yard in Turku, Finland, where Oasis of the Seas is being built.

Technicalities aside, today is still a high point in the building process for Norwegian Epic. Tomorrow, after the dock has filled with the 96,000 gallons of water that will trickle in overnight, the ship will sail about an hour and a half to the wet dock and enter the final stages of construction leading up to its summer 2010 launch. Sea trials are expected to take place in January 2010, with delivery sometime in May followed by a series of preview cruises and a transatlantic voyage. The first cruise out of Miami will set sail on July 17 -- just over a year from now.

The celebration of this milestone was rather understated for Norwegian Cruise Line, which has hosted splashier events of late to promote the upcoming vessel, including an afternoon with the Blue Man Group in New York City, during which new onboard entertainment offerings were announced.

Today, there was no brass band, no pomp and circumstance. The valves were opened with just a handful of press from the U.S. and Europe present on a small viewing deck, alongside shipyard workers, cruise line executives and VIP's. On hand were recently appointed CEO of NCL, Kevin Sheehan; head of global sales and passenger services for NCL, Andy Stuart; CEO of Star Cruises (part owner of NCL), Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay; and STX Shipyard President and CEO Sang-Ho Shin.

However, Sheehan did take the opportunity to speak a bit about the future of the cruise line, which you may remember hit significant snags with this project in particular (after a dispute with the shipyard, NCL decided to build just one F3-class ship, not two).

"Assuming we can come to the right terms at the right time, we are in the business to grow the brand," Sheehan said. He indicated that a new ship order is possible -- but not until a few years from now. No specifics were given, such as whether the line would reorder a second F3-class vessel or go with a whole new design. Things are likewise up in the air for STX. Ahead of Epic in the wet dock is MSC Magnifica. Beyond that, the dock is, well, dry; there are no other cruise ships on the order books.

One of the major highlights of the day was a chance to tour Norwegian Epic inside and out. It's the biggest cruise ship ever built at this yard and the biggest for the line -- and where this bigness is felt is actually in width rather than length. It's some 30 percent wider than the line's next biggest Jewel-class vessels.

The interior is still very much a construction site (we toured Decks 5, 6 and 7), with wires and tools in spaces where there will eventually be hopping nightlife and the line's signature bright furniture. The restaurants and bars don't look like much of anything just yet, but the biggest impression we've gotten already is one of open space. On Deck 5, for example, a lot of the ceilings in these public areas are open to Deck 6 or Decks 6 and 7; in this way, the illusion of space is created by having mini atriums of two or three decks high throughout the length of the ship.

Meanwhile, up on the pool deck, you can make out the shape of the massive movie screen surrounded by amphitheatre seating, and the casings where the hot tub will be fitted. Smokestacks are accounted for, but the waterslides won't be installed until sometime next year. And, yes, the ship does look top heavy, which was a common criticism voiced after the first artist renderings of the livery were released -- but the trade-off on the unusual design is, of course, more space for more features (in this case, additional Courtyard Villas).

Stay tuned to Cruise Critic -- on Monday, we'll be publishing a slideshow with snapshots taken today during our tour!

--by Dan Askin, Associate Editor