Classic cruise ships sail into retirement
Queen Elizabeth 2 and Delta Queen are among classic ships that won't sail any more as tougher safety standards come into effect and cruise market changes
The Orange County Register
The Queen Elizabeth 2 cruise ship is on its final voyage across the Atlantic.
On the Mississippi, the paddle-wheeler Delta Queen is churning up the "Big Muddy" for the last time and is heading into retirement.
Already, the windjammers Mandalay, Polynesia and Yankee Clipper sit in Caribbean ports, seized as collateral from a bankrupt cruise line, and new safety rules make it unlikely they will ever unfurl their sails again.
A sour economy and tough safety laws are rapidly bringing more than two dozen storied ships to their final chapter.
While the cruise industry likes to focus on the dozens of big, bright cruise ships that have rolled off the assembly lines around the world, there is melancholy — and outright dismay — at the loss of famous liners. Veteran voyagers say many of the new ships look like floating apartment buildings tipped on their sides. The older ships that look like, well, ships are becoming scarce for the seagoing aficionado.
"The boat itself is the experience," said Franz Neumeier, who has organized a Save the Delta Queen group. "It's an experience of history; it feels so familiar, so like home. The smell of the old furniture, the little shortcomings of an old boat that give her character. On a modern cruise ship, well, I take a cruise because it's a comfortable, modern hotel that takes me from Miami to the Bahamas to do some sightseeing and shopping. I really don't care too much about the ship itself. This is the big difference — the big cruise ships are somewhat generic."
For seagoing ships, the looming deadline is the Safety of Life at Sea standards, which will go into effect Oct. 1, 2010. The main requirement that will be difficult to meet is that nearly all materials be fireproof. Sprinkler and evacuation system standards require expensive retrofitting.
During the recent economic boom, many cruise lines talked of spending the money to upgrade ships to meet the new standards. But with the sudden downdraft of investment and credit, the ships' futures range from odd to doomed.
The SS United States appeared on the verge of a storybook return to the seas. Built in 1952, she set trans-Atlantic speed records before retiring in 1969. Norwegian Cruise Lines stunned the cruise world by unveiling a plan in 2006 to bring the liner back to service. The idea stalled and now the onetime pride of the American maritime fleet seems consigned to rust at a nearly abandoned anchorage in Philadelphia.
It would be a better fate than that of the SS Norway, which began life in 1961 as the SS France. One of the last great steamships, she suffered a major engine room accident in 2003. Norwegian spoke of repairing the damage, but in the end sold the ship to a small cruise line in Asia, which then sent it to be broken up for salvage in India.
Sure to garner media attention will be the fate of Quail Cruises' liner Pacific, which sails on budget voyages in the Mediterranean out of Valencia, Spain. Why would anyone care about an old ship based in Europe? Because the Pacific is the former Pacific Princess, best known for its starring role as "The Love Boat" in the old TV series.
Also uncertain is the fate of the Regal Empress — at 55, the oldest major ship still operating. It is running two-night trips between Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Nassau, Bahamas, for Imperial Majesty Cruise Line. With its stepped-up wedding-cake decks and small rear pool, it has the look of a post-World War II liner.
Scull listed several other ships unlikely to survive the double whammy of expensive upgrades during a downturn in business: Ausonia, Dalmacjia, Grand Victoria (formerly World Renaissance), Kristina Regina (Bore), Le Diamant (Song of Flower), Oceanic II (Kungsholm), Royal Star (San Giorgio), Serenade (Jean Mermoz), The Emerald (Santa Rosa), The Topaz (Empress of Britain), Nordstjernen, Lofoten and Black Prince.
The grandest exit will be for QE2, which left New York for the last time last week, bound for Southampton, Britain. From there, it will head to Dubai. It will become a permanently moored hotel in that Middle East fantasyland that already has the world's most expensive hotel and is soon to have the world's tallest building. QE2 already had ceded its role as the primary Cunard ship plying the Atlantic to the larger, more cruise-ship-like Queen Mary 2. The hotel route is also still a possibility for the SS Rotterdam, the popular Holland America ship that was sold, then retired during the economic downturn of the late 1990s.
QE2 hopefully will do better as a hotel than its ancestor, the original Queen Mary, which has struggled financially as a hotel in Long Beach, Calif. But it will likely do better than its immediate predecessor, the original Queen Elizabeth, launched in 1938 and sold in 1968, only to catch fire and be scrapped in Hong Kong.
For many seagoing vacationers, the saddest departures are the classic millionaires' yachts that had been converted to small sailing ships. Sea Cloud, built in 1931 by E.F. Hutton for his wife, Marjorie Meriwether Post, will retire from Sea Cloud Cruises. Already gone are the yachts of Windjammer Barefoot Cruises, the Miami-based company that went bankrupt this year. Its fleet includes the Mandalay and Polynesia.
"One clear impact of SOLAS is to dampen any enthusiasm for buying Windjammer Barefoot's ships, as none of their ships are up to standard, and it would be very expensive to bring them up to standard," said Dexter Donham, owner of Sailing Ship Adventures, which charters windjammer yachts — exempt from the cruise line laws — along the Maine coast.
A similar but separate fate awaits the Delta Queen, the 1926 paddle-wheeler sailing under Majestic America Lines. The ship has needed regular waivers of Coast Guard safety standards. Congress has said the exemptions will end this year.
Neumeier and other "Save the Delta Queen" supporters have argued that the ship is an American classic that has operated safely for decades and never wanders far from shore, making an emergency manageable. But the campaign is unlikely to succeed. The final voyage is slated for late this month. Sister ship American Queen will continue to ply the Mississippi.
"The American Queen is not really a paddle-wheeler," Neumeier said, noting that the big wheel is mostly for show and the huge vessel operates with two pod-like, Z-drive propellers below the water line.
But even faux nostalgia might be out of the question. The ultimate fate of the entire paddle-wheeler fleet is unsettled, as the fleet is up for sale. With all the safety laws and the economic laws at work, a quick sale may be sunk.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.
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