On the eve of the delivery of SunStone Ships’ latest vessels, its chief executive Niels-Erik Lund discusses the impact of Covid-19, the deployment of new technology and the benefits of building in China
Despite the impact of Covid-19 on the cruise ship industry, SunStone Ships’ construction of its Infinity-class cruise ships has continued smoothly. In January, the sea trials of the third and fourth of the Infinity series, Ocean Victory and Ocean Explorer were successfully completed, and the ships are due to be delivered from China Merchants Heavy Industry on 15 April and 30 April, respectively.
Mr Lund explains that while technically the two ships are no different from the first Infinity-class vessel Greg Mortimer, there are several differences “above the waterline”.
He expands, “Whatever is under water is the same on all ships. Above the waterline, they are different. Ocean Explorer has less passengers and cabins and therefore bigger cabins. It also features a two-level bow lounge with windows on both levels allowing passengers to see the waves and the ice hitting the ship. The vessel also features a mid-ship atrium”.
While Greg Mortimer has a heli-pad on the top deck, Ocean Victory and Ocean Explorer have a swimming pool, two jacuzzies and a restaurant on the top deck. The restaurant has large glass windows that can be lowered or shut and full air conditioning and heating, depending on weather conditions.
The variations in interior features and design are defined by the operators chartering the different ships. Mr Lund comments, “It is not challenging to make customised changes as dimensions are not being altered. Firewalls are the same on all the ships and any modifications are made either within a fire zone or on the outside decks.”
Despite the impact of Covid-19, SunStone Ships is progressing smoothly and as planned at a very satisfactory speed, safety, and quality level with the building of its Infinity-class vessels.
However, the closure of Canada’s waters due to the global pandemic is problematic as Ocean Victory is chartered for operation in Canada-Alaska. One of the companies’ other vessels, Ocean Endeavour, also sails Canadian waters and therefore both vessels will have to go into lay-up for the 2021 summer season.
Mr Lund is hopeful cruises will resume in October and November and he unveils plans put in place to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. “We have made the collective decision with our charterers that all passengers and crew must be vaccinated prior to any cruise operation. As expedition cruise operators, some of the sailing areas can be very remote, for example Arctic Canada, with no hospitals or ready access to helicopters, so in the event of an outbreak, what would we do?”
He adds, “Some people will not want to be vaccinated; however, I think more people will actually go on these cruises as everyone has been vaccinated – so it is more positive than negative.”
Mr Lund says that while there will be procedural changes due to Covid-19, such as eliminating boarding cards, technical changes will not be necessary as SunStone’s vessels already have ventilation advantages. The ventilation and heating system do not recirculate air throughout the vessel as in larger ships.
Building in China
SunStone Ships’ Infinity-class vessels stand out as the first cruise ships to be built in China. Mr Lund says the company has been “happy with the quality of the construction from the beginning of the project”, and notes “as the building of the class of vessels has progressed, China Merchants have become more efficient. The yard has reduced man hours substantially, and for each ship they get better and better, learning as the building progresses and procedures are developed.”
As an example, for Greg Mortimer, all the blocks came out of the building hall one deck at a time. However, since then the blocks come out with two decks, allowing for faster and more efficient building.
A very important part of SunStone’s strategy of building in China is the partnership with European design and manufacturing companies. The ship is European-designed, European-managed, and uses European equipment. Ulstein directs the technical aspects, Makinen handles the outfitting of the interior spaces, and US-headquartered Tomas Tillberg is responsible for the interior designs of the vessels. These groups work in collaboration with Sunstone’s own team of 30 people at the shipyard.
Despite the growing expertise of the Chinese shipyard, Mr Lund says, “China is still learning and will not be at the level of large European shipyards building cruise ships for several years”.
Asked whether he thought Chinese construction would be a good option for other expedition cruise ship operators, he comments “Yes, they could do it, but they need to have good commercial representation for negotiations and from a practical point of view, need to have a sizeable team based at the shipyard, which would eliminate some of the smaller expedition operators from doing so. If a company is not experienced in shipbuilding, they should not build in China.”
SunStone Ships’ Infinity-class vessels are technically very advanced with Ulstein’s patented X-bow technology used in the design.
Mr Lund previously told PST that “in bad weather the ship has a lot less pitching, less slamming, less noise, is more fuel efficient and gives a much more comfortable ride, which is important in expedition cruise operation. The X-bow allows the vessel to go much faster in bad weather, compared to a normal bow. A normal bow is very narrow in the waterline and has almost no air in the hull, causing the ship to dive down and pitch until the bow hits the waves, resulting in slamming and thousands of tonnes of water constantly being thrown up in the air which is less energy efficient”.
He says that from a consumption and green point of view, the Infinity-class vessels have up to 70-80% lower fuel consumption and pollution per person compared to SunStone’s older ships, due to a combination of using Tier 3 engines, Ulstein’s X-bow and the fact the vessels only operate on marine gas oil.
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