Oceans: Cruising On High-Tech Megaships

By Don Walsh

Few places in the world ocean do not have cruises going to them. Capitalizing on growing interest in "ecotourism" some of the most luxurious ships are now found 1,500 miles up the Amazon, rounding Cape Hom, and visiting remote islands where passengers and crew can outnumber the locals.

A small, but growing fleet of specially designed "expedition ships" caters to the more adventuresome tourist. Carrying 50-150 passengers, they can access remote areas using inflatable boats to put passengers ashore. Many of these ships are ice-strengthened, permitting trips into the Arctic and Antarctic. A trained staff of naturalist lecturers act as guides ashore and teachers on board.

The world fleet of 230 ships now operates at about 90% carrying capacity. As a result, a massive shipbuilding program is under way to meet future demand. At present, 44 ships are either under construction or on the drawing boards. Total investment is about $14 billion, with the largest vessels costing nearly a half billion dollars each. Most are being built in Italy, France, Germany, and Finland. However, in November 1998, Ingalls Shipbuilding got a letter of intent for two 80,000-gross ton cruise ships. Carrying 2,000 passengers each, they will operate in Hawaiian waters. The last U.S.-built large passenger ships were constructed in 1950.

Growth in ship size is awesome. Six years ago, the largest cruise ships were about 70,000 tons; today, the largest ship is the Princess Cruise Lines' Grand Princess at 109,000 tons. Carnival Cruise Lines comes in second with its 101,350-ton Carnival Destiny . Princess has two more similar ships on order, while Carnival has contracts for five more. By the end of 1999 the tonnage record will move to Royal Caribbean International when the 142,000-ton Voyager of the Seas enters service; she will be followed by two sister ships in 2000 and 2001. Despite obvious economies of scale in these "megaships," careful interior design has resulted in a feeling of spaciousness even though these ships will carry more than 3,000 passengers each.

These newest ships are floating leisure resorts with every imaginable amenity. For example, a single ship can contain choices of several theme restaurants, shopping malls, an indoor ice skating rink, a miniature golf course, a rock-climbing wall, and even a wedding chapel. Someday, going to ports of call will not be necessary!

These ships are fast—the speed queen today is Holland America's Rotterdam VI (64,000 tons), cruising at 25 knots. Royal Olympic Lines has two vessels under construction that will cruise at 27 knots. These higher speeds permit passengers to enjoy more ports for a given cruise length.

Most propulsion systems today are variations on the classic diesel-electric design. A new concept is a power station, where several engines supply electricity to a distribution grid much like a power plant on land does. As shipboard power demands change for propulsion and hotel loads, the number of operating engines is adjusted so that each runs at its most efficient speed.

Delivering power to the propellers is changing. Several new vessels are being equipped with external azimuthal propulsion pods. Here the electric propulsion motors hang beneath the stern of the ship in trainable pods (through 3600). This eliminates the need for propeller shafts, rudders, and stern thrusters. Propulsion efficiency and hull shape aft are greatly improved while weight and space needed for machinery are significantly reduced.

The latest development is marine gas turbines generating electrical power for propulsion, and using their waste heat to power steam turbines producing electrical power for the hotel. The first ships with this system (six 85,000-ton vessels) can add 50 revenue-producing cabins because of the reduced hull volume needed for machinery.

High tech, fast growing, and good value for the money, the world cruise ship industry is making it easy and fun to run away to sea.


Dr. Walsh is neither marine archaeologist nor treasure hunter. He has spent the past four decades involved with design, manufacture, and operation of submersible systems. A retired naval officer (submarines) he was designated U.S. Navy deep submersible pilot #1 in the early 1970s. During 2001, in addition to Atlantic Sands, hehas participated in diving operations at the battleship Bismarck (16,000 feet) and RMS Titanic (12,500 feet). On 20 July 2001, he had lunch on board the Titanic, when the Mir 2 landed on the bridge so the sub crew could eat.

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