Nothing could hit the cruise market harder than restrictions on travel and limits on social interaction. Both strike at the heart of the industry; yet, despite the challenges brought by Covid-19, it has pushed ahead with the construction of new vessels and operators remain confident that the market will rebound.

With ongoing construction projects and, as the tide turns against coronavirus, a trickle of new orders, shipyards have been under pressure to deliver new vessels despite the heavy burden of health and safety restrictions necessitated by the pandemic. 2020 was a stern test of how to adapt to new ways of working without compromising on safety, quality or deadlines.

“The pandemic directly influenced our work practices,” says Lars Lühr Olsen, managing director at Norway’s Ulstein Verft. “Firstly, we spent time and resources to avoid Covid-19 entering our premises. We had to change work schedules, spread out lunch and dinner breaks, improve hygiene measures, avoid the sharing of equipment and much more.”

At the start of the pandemic, demand from the cruise industry for new vessels stopped abruptly, though yards were already busy with ongoing construction projects. For Ulstein, this meant continuing work on two vessels for Lindblad Expeditions. The National Geographic Endurance was successfully completed in 2020, while its sister vessel, the National Geographic Resolution, will be delivered in 2021.

Other shipyards also completed orders under Covid-19 restrictions. For instance, the Chantiers de l’Atlantique shipyard in Saint-Nazaire, France, delivered the 331m-long MSC Virtuosa, the second vessel in the Meraviglia Plus class. Since then, MSC Cruises has signed a deal with Chantiers to build the third and fourth LNG-powered MSC World Class ships. In early 2021, the Costa Toscana was floated out to the outfitting pier at Meyer Turku shipyard in Finland. Every step towards the completion of these vessels is a testament to the efforts of shipyards having to adapt quickly to an unprecedented situation.

“Handling Covid-19 is and has been costly,” Olsen says. “It demands many resources and a focus on all levels in the organisation, but our efforts have given results. To date, we have managed to keep Covid-19 away from our premises and that has been the main goal from day one.”

Planning and perseverance

At every shipyard, it has been vital to implement major changes to working practices as quickly as possible, but equally important has been close collaboration with partners throughout the supply chain.

“In the early days, the pandemic had reached other countries before it reached Norway, and several equipment factories in other countries closed down,” Olsen explains. “Thus, the pandemic had a negative impact on our projects already from an early stage. On a daily basis, we needed to handle the uncertainty of logistics, particularly related to the delivery of equipment.”

A project such as the Resolution, a state-ofthe- art polar expedition cruise ship, depends on equipment with customised specifications, as well as high-quality workmanship, so any disruption to the supply chain could have catastrophically disrupted the shipyard’s progress.

The 126-guest Polar Class 5 Category A vessel features innovative design features, not least the Ulstein X-BOW, a distinctive bow that not only improves fuel efficiency, but also increases guest comfort when the vessel is navigating rough seas. Furthermore, the ship’s expanded fuel and water tanks provide for extended operations in remote areas, and its zero-speed stabilisers provide greater stability.

“In the last part of 2020, the pandemic situation was exacerbated in Europe and several countries closed their borders,” Olsen says. “This created a very difficult situation as a large number of our workers live outside Norway. However, in close cooperation with our subcontractors and in agreement with the personnel already present at Ulstein’s site, we managed to reduce the negative impact by extending the relevant workers’ stay. Instead of having a new shift arriving, the existing shift stayed on for a longer period, which was a great relief to us.”

For those workers, health monitoring was essential to keep work progressing uninterrupted.“We followed up on the national requirements for testing and quarantine restrictions and established a dedicated team for close follow-up and control,” Olsen adds. “Through a combination of thorough planning management, an experienced project team and close cooperation with the shipowner’s site team, we handled 2020 with no other major changes to our working practices.”

Equally important was the yard’s collaboration with cruise line operators to keep them informed of progress and to ensure full transparency. “We cooperate very closely with our customers,” Olsen emphasises. “They have their site team at Ulstein Verft, so we meet them on a daily basis. We delivered the first vessel in March 2020, only days after Norway closed down due to the pandemic. Covid-19 has undoubtedly had a negative impact on our ongoing projects. However, through several mitigation measures, we have managed to substantially reduce that negative impact, though the pandemic still creates uncertainties going forward.”

“Our meticulous follow-up has made us able to keep shipbuilding going. We have now two trained Covid-19 teams, which in the future can be assembled again to handle similar situations.”

Lars Lühr Olsen, Ulstein Verft

Planning ahead, Olsen recognises that many of the changes that have been made to accommodate Covid restrictions will stay in place, even beyond the pandemic. The lessons learnt in 2020 will inform how the yard ensures its readiness for similar unpredictable circumstances in the future.

“We have kept very strict quarantine restrictions and secured sufficient quarantine facilities to keep many workers in isolation if they have positive Covid-19 results,” Olsen explains. “Our meticulous follow-up has made us able to keep shipbuilding going. We have now two trained Covid-19 teams, which in the future can be assembled again to handle similar situations. Ordering a new vessel takes time, it is not done in days. However, we are already seeing the effect of vaccination programmes, as positivity in the industry has returned and expedition cruise itineraries for the winter season are currently getting fully booked.”

Change in design

If a sudden recalibration of working practices was crisis management, one long-term effect of the pandemic will be rethinking how cruise vessels are designed. Alongside the need for more efficiency and enhanced sustainability, vessel designers will no doubt be thinking more about passenger and crew safety.

“Changes will definitely come in the design parameters after Covid-19, and we have already seen that new class notations and certificates are about to be introduced,” says Olsen. “This will include solutions for a safer on-board environment when it comes to HVAC – ventilation and filters – and also new hospital solutions.”

As the cruise industry slowly comes to life once more and orders for new vessels increase, design parameters will have many of the same priorities as before the pandemic, but health and safety have jumped to the top of the agenda for the moment.

“We constantly work to implement new environmental standards and safety regulations in new vessels to reduce the overall impact.”

Terje Våge, Ulstein Design & Solutions

“When the cruise industry now opens up again, we assume it will start with an increased interest in smaller expeditions vessels compared with the larger cruise vessels, because there are fewer people on board and each person has more space. It will be easier to keep distance,” Olsen believes.

“Though it is not directly related to Covid-19, another issue that has arisen in the past year is an exploding interest in green energy. People want green solutions for a sustainable future,” he adds

Then there’s the ecological aspect of vessel design. While sustainability was a driving force in this area long before Covid, it has perhaps become even more important during the spread of the virus. One of the few silver linings from lockdown has been a reduction in global carbon emissions, which has focused the minds of many people on the burden that travel and commerce place on the environment.

Cruise ship design has already started to adapt to demands for cleaner and more efficient fuels. For example, MSC’s next three World Class ships, which will be delivered in 2022, 2025 and 2027, are powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG). Compared with standard marine fuel, LNG will help the ships reduce sulphur emissions and particulate matter by 99%, NOx emissions by 85%, and CO2 emissions by 25%.

For Ulstein, the X-BOW design featured on the Resolution – and on several cruise ship designs under construction for SunStone Ships in China – is a novel feature for the cruise industry. In head seas, the design helps to absorb impact, leading to fewer vibrations and less sea spray, enabling the vessel to maintain higher speed with reduced friction and, as a result, reduced fuel consumption and lower emissions.

“When designing a ship or developing a product, we keep in mind its lifecycle environmental impact,” says principal engineer and lead naval architect at Ulstein Design & Solutions, Terje Våge. “Any product will have an impact when being produced, when being in use, and when taken out of use. We take on the responsibility to deliver long-lasting ships that are more energy-efficient and that can be powered by renewable energy sources or by low-carbon solutions. We constantly work to implement new environmental standards and safety regulations in new vessels to reduce the overall impact.”

When the pandemic finally passes, shipyards and cruise operators will have forged closer ties than ever, thanks to their efforts to overcome disruption and adversity. Though it was a painful year for everyone, the lessons of 2020 will likely enable the industry to come back stronger.