Damage to Bahamas shipyard leaves cruise lines scrambling

The aft end of the Carnival Vista on the Boka Vanguard at the Grand Bahama Shipyard.
The aft end of the Carnival Vista on the Boka Vanguard at the Grand Bahama Shipyard.

Damage to a drydock facility at the Grand Bahama Shipyard in the Bahamas is proving inconvenient and expensive for the cruise industry, and it demonstrates how few drydock options exist on the U.S. East Coast.

The damaged drydock, the largest of three at Grand Bahama, was put out of commission on April 1 when a crane collapsed while raising the stern of the Oasis of the Seas to repair its propulsion pods.

The accident forced Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCCL) to take the Oasis to a yard in Europe to finish repairing it.

The repairs, plus the cost of three canceled Oasis cruises, will pare an estimated $52 million from RCCL’s 2019 earnings.

But Royal is not the only line affected by the loss of the Bahamas drydock.

In June, Carnival Cruise Line’s 4,000-passenger Carnival Vista also developed a problem with its Azipod motors that required immediate replacement of their bearings. Normally, the work would have been done in drydock at Grand Bahama, a facility jointly owned by RCCL and Carnival Corp.

But on June 20, Carnival Cruise Line disclosed to investors that because it was not possible to use Grand Bahama, the ship would go out of service for 17 days, and three July cruises from Galveston, Texas, would be canceled.

The cost was projected at between $50 million and $62 million, partly because it will take more time to complete than it would have if the ship had been drydocked in the Bahamas.

Carnival turned to what it said was a “first of its kind” solution, loading the entire ship onto a semi-submersible, heavy-lift transport vessel, the Boka Vanguard, built to haul offshore oil and gas drilling rigs.

The loading and lifting operation was scheduled for the weekend of July 12 to 14, after which the Vista was to head for the Grand Bahama yard for the repair work.

Both situations underscore how dependent cruise lines are on Grand Bahama Shipyard for drydock space that is within a quick sailing distance from their headquarters in Florida and from ports on the Eastern Seaboard.

Walter Nadolny, assistant professor of marine transportation, ship construction and stability at the State University of New York’s Maritime College, said there are several reasons for the infrastructure deficit.

One is that costs are low in the Bahamas.

“The United States is the most expensive place in the world to build and repair a ship,” Nadolny said. Most U.S. shipyards of the size needed to work on late-model cruise ships are accustomed to cost-plus contracts from the U.S. Navy and are too expensive, he said.

The Carnival Vista arrives at night in Grand Bahama after being picked up by the Boka Vanguard.

The Carnival Vista arrives at night in Grand Bahama after being picked up by the Boka Vanguard.

Second, the specialized gear and materials have been concentrated in Grand Bahamas and are not easily duplicated.

“If they brought [the Carnival Vista] into Jacksonville Yard, in Jacksonville, Fla., right now by bringing in all the stuff they need to do the repair, they’d be incurring duties,” Nadolny said. “The logistics they need are probably sitting in the Bahamas, which means we’ve got to bring people in, we’ve got to bring equipment in, [and] it could be stuck in customs.”

Cruise lines have grown to rely heavily on Grand Bahama because most of what they do there is routine refurbishments that are predictable and can be scheduled well in advance, he said.

But unforeseen situations are posing more of a challenge. “The intricacies of changing out Azipods make it a little more difficult,” Nadolny said.

Carnival had the option of sending the Vista to Europe, where cruise ship drydocks are more numerous, Nadolny said, but that would have meant extra transit time.

“Now, instead of a three-week downtime, it’s going to be a seven-week downtime or a 10-week downtime,” he said about the European alternative.

Before 2000, when the predecessor of Grand Bahama Shipyard was founded in Freeport, cruise lines were more dependent on U.S. yards. For example, when the Carnival Ecstasy caught fire leaving Miami in 1998, it was sent to the giant Newport News Shipbuilding yard in Hampton Roads, Va.

But ships have been growing in size.

“The reason why Grand Bahama came about is specifically that there were no large drydocks in the southeast part of the U.S. that could accommodate these mega-cruise ships,” said Lawrence Rapp, principal consultant at Seawise Consulting, which focuses on new building and refurbishment management.

After the previous operator of the Freeport yard went bankrupt, Carnival and Royal Caribbean invested in it.

“That’s worked reasonably well until this accident,” Rapp said. “The only real fallback that exists is Newport News, but they’re committed to Navy contracts. If the Navy ship isn’t finished, then you don’t get the dock, so it’s just not reliable enough for the cruise industry.”

At the start of the year, Grand Bahama had 25 projects scheduled for 2019. It is not known how the crane accident will impact that total or when the damages from the accident will be repaired. Grand Bahama Shipyard officials have said nothing about the cause or consequences of the accident.

Phone and email efforts to reach the yard for comment were unsuccessful.

Problems with podded propulsion systems continue to dog the industry, making the need for repair facilities acute. The sister ship of the Oasis of the Seas, the Allure of the Seas, is currently operating at less than full speed because of a technical problem with one of its pods.

In May, Royal Caribbean International sent a letter to passengers booked on the Allure saying that the ship would be leaving some ports early and substituting some ports for others through October because it could not sail at full speed.

Nadolny said the only cost-effective drydock alternative to Grand Bahama for ships needing work along the East Coast would be another Caribbean facility.

He said a yard could be built in another offshore location; Haiti, for example. But it would require that country to say “We want to do this” and then devoting the necessary resources.

Rapp said that keeping a drydock operation in the black can be tricky.

“There are a lot of risk factors,” he said. “It’s hugely capital intensive. There are all sorts of labor issues. It’s not something that’s easy to make money with. You look at a drydock bill for a big cruise ship and you think ‘Look at all that money.’ Most of it is going to subcontractors for interior refurbishments and so on.”

He added: “The amounts going to the shipyard are substantial, but they’re not constant, and they’re not reliable.”

U.S. senator calls for probe of storm damage to Anthem of the Seas

MIAMI (AP) — Federal transportation officials might soon be looking into a Royal Caribbean cruise ship that ran into high winds and rough seas in the Atlantic Ocean over the weekend.

Sen. Bill Nelson has called for the National Transportation Safety Board to investigate the voyage that forced frightened passengers into their cabins overnight Sunday as their belongings flew about, waves rose as high as 30 feet, and winds howled outside.

“The thing about this storm was that it was forecast for days. So why in the world would a cruise ship with thousands of passengers go sailing right into it?” Nelson said Monday on the Senate floor, according to a news release from his office.

The National Weather Service’s Ocean Prediction Center had issued an alert for a strong storm four days in advance, Susan Buchanan with the weather service said. The first warning was issued Saturday for possible hurricane-force winds in the area the ship was scheduled to sail through.

Royal Caribbean announced Monday that the ship was turning around and sailing back to its home port in New Jersey. No injuries were reported, and the ship suffered only minor damage.

“I was shaking all over,” passenger Shara Strand of New York City wrote to The Associated Press via Facebook on Monday. “Panic attack, things like that. … I’ve been on over 20 cruises, I’ve been through a hurricane, it was never like this. Never.”

Sixteen-year-old Gabriella Lairson says she and her father, Sam, could feel the ship, Anthem of the Seas, begin to sway by 2:30 p.m. Sunday. The captain directed passengers to their cabins. There, the Lairsons heard glasses shatter in the bathroom, and they put their belongings in drawers and closets to prevent them from flying across the room. They ventured to the balcony, where Sam Lairson shot video of wave after wave rising below.

“The winds were so strong that I thought the phone would blow from my hands,” Sam Lairson, of Ocean City, New Jersey, said in an email. “After that we had to keep the doors to the balconies sealed.”

The ship — with more than 4,500 guests and 1,600 crew members — sailed Saturday from Cape Liberty, New Jersey. It was scheduled to arrive for a stop at Port Canaveral, Florida, at noon Monday, then move on to other stops in the Caribbean. But Royal Caribbean said on its corporate Twitter account that the ship would turn around and sail back to Cape Liberty.

“This decision was made for guests’ comfort due to weather forecasts” that would continue to affect the ship’s itinerary,” Royal Caribbean tweeted.

Guests will get a full refund and a certificate toward a future cruise. Passengers onboard buzzed happily about that news, Strand said.

Gabriella Lairson said that by early Monday morning, people were out and about on the ship, checking out the minor damage in some public areas.

Lairson praised the crew and captain. “They did everything they could to make us feel comfortable,” she wrote to the AP on Facebook. She said she and her father were a little disappointed the ship was turning around, but she called it “the best thing for the safety of everyone.”

Fellow passenger Jacob Ibrag agreed. “I can’t wait to get home and kiss the ground,” said Ibrag, who saw water flowing down stairs and helped some people who were stuck in an elevator Sunday as he made his way to his cabin per the captain’s orders. The 25-year-old from Queens, New York, then stayed in his cabin until noon Monday, at one point filling his backpack with essentials in case of an evacuation.

Robert Huschka, the executive editor of the Detroit Free Press, was onboard and started tweeting when the inclement weather hit. He told USA Today that the ordeal was “truly terrifying.” He described the cruise director nervously giving updates, and he later posted photos of shattered glass panels on a pool deck.

But Huschka was among passengers who found a silver lining in the storm. On Monday, he posted: “The good news? They never lost the Super Bowl signal. Perfect TV picture throughout storm!”

Royal Caribbean gave guests free Internet access and a complimentary cocktail hour, spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez said in an email. “Feeling better after the happy hour they just put on for the guests,” Sam Lairson joked.

And despite her own worries, Strand said her daughter, 8-month-old Alexa, slept through the entire episode.

Explorer of the Seas damage does not affect safety

Explorer of the Seas damage does not affect safety

The Explorer of the Seas has sustained a bit of damage during a storm, although the Royal Caribbean has said it does not affect the safety of the cruise ship. A large wave smashed into Explorer of the Seas and hit its lifeboats, where one sustained some damage, but seeing as though new cruise ships have more than enough lifeboats, there is still enough for all passengers and crew.

According to Royal Caribbean Blog a huge wave that measured around 40 feet hit the lifeboats on deck four, which you can see an image of above. We would imagine that these passengers were scared when sailing through those rough waters, although it is to be expected at this time of year in certain regions.

We do love a good cruise, but there are areas where we tend to stay away from, choosing to go places where the waters are calmer.

Doors are closed so that water cannot enter the ship during bad weather, but some water managed to get through a sliding door on deck four, which in turn flooded the aft of the deck. Water then came into the Aquarium bar, dining room lobby and flooding down the stairs

There are no reports of injuries and the ship has continued on its normal course.