By Paul Motter
There are several indications that Norwegian Cruise Lines will not let Norwegian Epic be the last word in NCL ships for long. Several sources have hinted of plans by NCL to order at least two new-design ships with an option for a third. The Seatrade organization is reporting that the ships will be "post-Panamax" (too big for the current Panama Canal) but smaller than Norwegian Epic.
The first real hint that NCL is ready to build new ships came during last July's media cruise on Norwegian Epic in New York where CEO Kevin Sheehan said that "[economic] conditions are right" for a new ship order by NCL, including that the news would "supply the sizzle" for an NCL stock market initial public offering.
The concept of new ships was also confirmed to me personally in an email last July from former Executive Vice President Roberto Martinoli who said he was leaving his full-time position with NCL but remaining "On a permanent basis to oversee the newbuilding for NCL." Roberto's specialty is building new ships and the fact that he is still in the NCL loop indicates NCL is serious about going forward.
While Norwegian Epic, the newest NCL ship, is currently sailing out of Miami, there are plans to move the ship to Barcelona for the summer of 2011. Now, that date is too soon for a new ship to be built and take its place, but it does portend that NCL is eager to test the Epic design in Europe and possibly move it there on a permanent basis some day.
The rumors further say the ships will be built in the Meyer Werft shipyards in Germany instead of the STX shipyards in France where Epic was built. While the German Meyer Werft built seven of the ships currently in the NCL fleet, there was a serious falling out with that French shipyard during the building of Norwegian Epic, which for many years was known solely as the "F3 Project."
The F3 project was originally announced as far back as 2006 when the line was negotiating with STX Finland who declined because the 2007 deadline was too close. The original order finally placed with STX in France in 2007 was for two ships, the first to be delivered in May, 2010, with an option for a third F3 ship.
In fact, a cruise line rarely builds a "one of a kind" ship as Norwegian Epic is slated to become. But the Apollo Management investment group bought a 50% interest in NCL from Star Cruises of Malaysia later in 2007 and took control of the board of directors. The board first cancelled the option for the third ship in September, 2008. Then a rumor circulated to NCL insiders that the entire F3 Project was canceled, which turned out not to be true, but certainly put some fear into the shipyard.
In October, 2008, without any previous public comments concerning the project, the STX shipyard announced that they were halting construction on both F3 ships and looking for a new buyer for the partially completed first ship. Reportedly both Royal Caribbean and MSC took a look, but the design was too far-fetched for other cruise lines. When no buyers came forth the ship yard was apparently forced to re-negotiate with NCL.
In December, 2008, NCL officially limited the F3 project to just the one ship already under construction. Yet another rumor said NCL paid a $133 million dollar "kill fee" for cancelling the second ship (100-million Euros), but Roberto Martinoli, whose specialty is relations between shipyards and cruise lines, told me last July that the "kill fee" was not that much.
In any case, while there are reasons Norwegian Epic will not have any sister ships, that isn't a reason to dislike the ship. It is certainly well worth a cruise as long as you understand that you should make show reservations before you sail and that the staterooms have certain design anomalies. Norwegian Epic is still a ground-breaking ship in a number of areas, especially for single cruisers and in the entertainment realm. When the ship has aged a few years and the fares drop it will possibly become a popular ship with a certain set of cruisers - much like the old Norway.
In the end, NCL is basically a good company that most people just believe "can't seem to catch a break." Let's hope the future NCL ships return to what has made the rest of the fleet more popular in recent years. There are "indications" that they will.
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