by Kevin Griffin
American Cruise Lines last week announced that over the next few years it would build five newly designed 200-berth US-flag riverboats for cruising American waters. At the same time, Cunard Line announced its first ever dedicated cruising season from Australia. Meanwhile, Hainan Strait Shipping sent its 499-berth Chang Le Princess on her first cruise to the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.
THIS WEEK’S STORY
Five US-Flag River Ships For American
Connecticut-based American Cruise Lines announced last week that over the next few years it would build five modern 200-berth US-flag riverboats for service in US waters. The first ship is scheduled to be delivered in 2018.
These new vesels “will be the first to combine the modern styling of a European riverboat with the premium comfort for which American Cruise Lines is known,” said the company, in a statement.
“For over a decade, we have led the way with ship innovation in the United States and we continue to raise the bar with this new class of modern riverboats” said Timothy Beebe, Vice President of American.
Beebe added that “American Cruise Lines has consistently pursued its new build program, as it considers refurbished boats unable to meet the modern expectations of today’s river cruise passengers.”
All three of its rival American Queen Steamboat Company’s ships, the 436-berth American Queen, 223-berth American Empress and 166-berth American Duchess, to be introduced in June, are second-hand acquisitions, as is French America Line’s 150-berth Louisiane, whereas all but one of the American fleet are newbuildings.
Of the eight ships that now make up the American Cruise Lines fleet (four riverboats and four coastal ships), only the 120-berth Queen of the West on the Columbia River has previously operated for other owners. American Cruise Lines affiliate Pearl Seas Cruises also operates a new build, the 210-berth coastal ship Pearl Mist, on the East Coast and in the Great Lakes.
The line has its own affiliated shipyard at Chesapeake Shipbuilding in Salisbury, Maryland. In addition to the new riverboats, American Cruise Line is building two coastal ships. The 170-berth American Constellation is due to enter service in May, while a sister ship is planned for 2018.
The waterways that ACL is eyeing for development with its new vessels includes the Sacramento River, San Joaquin River, Missouri River, Des Moines River, Wabash River, Illinois River, Apalachicola River, Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, Mid-Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, Erie Canal, Hudson River, Oswego Canal, Potomac River and Alaska’s Inside Passage.
OTHER CRUISE NEWS
Cunard Cruises Down Under
Last week, Cunard Line unveiled plans to base the 2,068-berth 90,901-ton Queen Elizabeth in Australia for two months in 2019, which will mark the longest deployment in Australian waters for any vessel of the line.
The 2010-built Queen Elizabeth will sail from Sydney and Melbourne on seven cruises to New Zealand, South Australia and Tasmania. These will include two round trip New Zealand voyages, one each from Sydney and Melbourne, and three round trip voyages to include Tasmania, two from Melbourne and one from Sydney.
The ship will then continue on her world cruise, departing Melbourne on a 20-night segment to Yokohama. The itinerary also includes visits to Sydney and Brisbane.
This will be the first time that Cunard has featured so many voyages to and from Melbourne, and together with Sydney, it will give Australians more options to experience Cunard than ever before.
The move reflects growing demand Down Under for the Cunard cruises. Australia is Cunard’s number three source market after the UK and US, and the 2019 deployment is expected to see the number of Australians and New Zealanders travelling with the line double.
One of the great stories of World War 2 involved Cunard’s original 83,673-ton Queen Elizabeth and her 81,237-ton running mate Queen Mary. Queen Elizabeth, the first of the name, was launched by HM The Queen in September 1938 at Clydebank, Scotland, and in normal circumstances would have joined the Queen Mary on the North Atlantic service in July 1940.
On February 26, 1940, the newly-completed Queen Elizabeth left her fitting-out basin and proceeded down the Clyde. Three days later, after completing basic sea trials, the crew were informed of the ship’s destination. Soon after, the brand-new ship sailed for New York, arriving on March 7, to berth alongside running mate Queen Mary.
For nearly a fortnight the two ships lay immobile. On March 20, Queen Mary slipped out of New York and arrived at Sydney on April 17 and was prepared for service as a fast troopship. This job was completed in fourteen days, and after embarking 5,000 Australian military personnel, she departed for the UK. While she was at sea, France fell and the British Empire stood alone.
Meanwhile Cunard had been advised that Queen Elizabeth was also required for war service, and at the beginning of November she sailed from New York to Singapore to be fitted out in readiness to join the Queen Mary and other transports in carrying Australian and New Zealand troops to Egypt.
Both vessels left Sydney at the beginning of April, sailing together in convoy. The Queen Mary was making her sixth voyage as a transport while the Queen Elizabeth was making her first.
The Queen Elizabeth embarked 5,600 Australian troops and the Queen Mary 6,000. Before departure they were joined by Cunard’s 35,655-ton Mauretania with 4,400 troops from New Zealand. Together these three great liners headed out into the Indian ocean, with troops destined for Suez and the desert war.
Throughout the summer of 1941 both Queens carried on trooping without interruption. After Japan entered the war Queen Elizabeth sailed to Esquimalt BC to drydock and embark troops for Sydney. By the end of 1941 the Queens had carried over 80,000 troops, the majority reinforcements for the Allied armies in the Middle East.
With the entry of the US into the war, the two Queens began their long service as troop transports for American troops. Three days after the fall of Singapore, the Queen Mary left Boston for Sydney with 8,200 US troops. Three weeks later, carrying 8,000 American soldiers, the Queen Elizabeth left San Francisco for Sydney.
After disembarking her US troops at Sydney on April 6, 1942, the Queen Elizabeth sailed for Fremantle on April 19. From there she sailed to Cape Town, where German prisoners of war were taken on board for New York, headed for internment in the US.
When the two Queens arrived in New York they began their famous GI Shuttle, transporting American forces to the UK.
The Queen Elizabeth will undergo a refit ahead of her Australia deployment, which will operate from February to April 2019 and further details will be announced next week.
Hainan’s South China Sea Cruises
Following on last week’s China cruise update, came news on Friday from Sanya, Hainan, that a new 426-foot cruise ship had begun its maiden voyage to the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.
Hainan Strait Shipping’s Chang Le Gong Zhu, or Chang Le Princess, sailed from Sanya on Thursday with 308 passengers on board. Ownership of the Paracel Islands is disputed by Vietnam, who claim the Chinese took them over by force in January 1974, after the Americans had left Vietnam.
Recently, China has built artificial islands on many nearby reefs and declared Sansha on Woody Island (population 1,445) as the regional seat of government for the Paracel and nearby Spratly Islands to the south. Three of the islands have been equipped with runways and others have received military installations.
The Chang Le Princess has berths for 499 people. It has eighty-two staterooms and offers dining, entertainment, shopping, medical treatment and postal services, as well as being equipped with a bow door, unusual for a cruise ship. It is of course baffling to know how the owners of this ship can describe her as a cruise ship when her accommodation calls for an average of six passengers per cabin.
The first voyage lasted four days and three nights, arriving in the South China Sea’s Paracel Islands on Friday morning. The Hainan Strait Shipping Co Ltd began its first cruises to the Paracels in 2013 and a typical 4-night package reportedly takes tourists to the beaches on Yinyu, Quanfu and Yagong islands, and on activities such as diving, fishing, and photography.
Hainan Strait Shipping introduced its first cruises to the Paracels in 2013. The 200-berth Coconut Princess has now completed 121 voyages, carrying a total of 23,000 tourists, an average of 190 per voyage.
Another company, Nanhai Cruises, says it will start operating a second cruise ship, the 550-foot Nanhai Zhi Meng, which can carry up to 893 passengers, later this month.
All three ships will sail the same route. COSCO Shipping Corp has also made announcements in the past year or so of its intention to begin operating cruise ships in the South China Sea.
Hainan Strait Shipping was founded in 2002. Today it owns sixteen ro-ro passenger ships and one cruise ship, and operated three ro-ro passenger services from Haikou to Haian, the most direct island connection (1.5 hours), Haikou to Guangzhou (19 hours) and Haikou to Beihai (12 hours).
It is the leading contender in the South China Sea ro-ro passenger shipping market and form part of the Hainan Harbour & Shipping Holding Co Ltd, which is also involved in container terminals, industrial development and other regional actitivies.
Whether these are really cruises in the full meaning of that word, is open to debate.
For one thing, only citizens of the People’s Republic of China are allowed on board and among the requirements for being a passenger are “15 to 65 years of age, in good health, with full capacity for civil conduct, cheerful, with patriotism, collective spirit, the spirit of mutual help, can obey the leader of the unified arrangement.”
More likely, especially as these cruise operations were subsidised to start with, is that the real objective of these cruises is to reassert China’s claim on the Paracel islands and the nearby Spratly Islands and indeed over the whole South China Sea, which is believed to contain immeasurable quantities of oil and gas.
Meanwhile, in the interest of protecting international waterways for freedom of navigation and overflight, the US Navy continues to patrol the South China Sea. The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and other warships are in the area now on routine operations.
(Kevin Griffin is managing director of specialist cruise agency The Cruise People Ltd in London, England. For further information concerning cruises mentioned in this article readers can visit his blog)