10 things you didn't know about building cruise ships

Gary Buchanan
·6-min read
Creating a cruise ship is a complex procedure that brings together a wide range of cutting-edge technologies in a finite space - GETTY
Creating a cruise ship is a complex procedure that brings together a wide range of cutting-edge technologies in a finite space - GETTY

A ship is the largest human construction capable of moving across the globe. Not surprising then that putting a cruise ship together is a tour de force of structural engineering.

There are only four shipyards with the capability to build the world’s biggest cruise ships: Germany’s Meyer Werft; STX Europe, with locations in Finland and France; Fincantieri in Italy; and Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Depending on the size of the ship and the requirements of the cruise line, the timescale from keel-laying to the final delivery is about 12 to 18 months, but the design process can take up to a year before work commences.

The size of ships is determined by their relative gross tonnage, which has nothing whatsoever to do with weight. It is simply a measure of the interior capacity of the hull and its superstructure. Each ‘tonne’ equals 100 cubic feet; saying a ship “weighs 150,000 tonnes” is fatuous. 

Creating a cruise ship is a complex procedure that brings together a wide range of cutting-edge technologies in a finite space. To throw some light on the process, Telegraph Travel spoke to a man who knows a thing or two about designing ships. Per Lindqvist is the US business director for Tillberg Design of Sweden Inc, a renowned company who has created the design concepts for illustrious ships, including Regent Seven Seas Splendor, Crystal Endeavor and Norwegian Encore.

Here are 10 things you probably never knew about the construction of a ship.

Coronavirus has delayed the launch of many ships this year, such as Celebrity Apex - GETTY
Coronavirus has delayed the launch of many ships this year, such as Celebrity Apex - GETTY

1. Designers create flow

Since a cruise ship is as large as a small town, there are the same infrastructural challenges at sea as on land. All designers involved in a project are focused on making the flow of traffic seamless and fluent for everyone on board, not only inside each space but also between onboard areas. Therefore an impressive collaboration is needed to make sure areas are up to ship-owner’s requirements, shipyard’s capability, and ensuring all regulations for safety and security are followed and maintained.

2. From the bottom up

Assembling a cruise ship takes place in a dry-dock.  The watertight hull is the most structurally strong and heaviest portion so it is built first. This is where power-plants, fuel tanks, water tanks, and ballast are located. The complex superstructure is added incrementally, deck by deck, as the vessel nears completion.

3. A jigsaw with huge Lego pieces

Modern shipbuilding uses modular construction processes. Akin to a blueprint in 3D, engineers devise computer programmes to break the ship down into individual engineering blocks. One by one, these modules – up to 80 per ship – are integrated into the frame of the vessel as the construction process proceeds. 

The keel for Celebrity Cruises' new ship, Celebrity Beyond, was laid this week
The keel for Celebrity Cruises' new ship, Celebrity Beyond, was laid this week

4. Assembly line production

For the vast majority of cruise ships, many modules include the staterooms which are built separately from the rest of the vessel. Every aspect of the cabin is added at this assembly stage, including the lighting, plumbing and fitted furniture. These are then transported to the shipyard, where they are slotted into the vessel. This method allows different groups of specialists to work simultaneously, thereby drastically reducing the construction time.

5. The material things

As with any complex construction, the creation of a cruise ship must comply with exhaustive regulations and restrictions. Nowhere is this more all-encompassing than when it applies to materials used in the ship’s fabric. The exterior of a ship and its components are mostly steel or aluminium alloys. The higher up the ship, the lighter the materials need to be to keep the centre of gravity as low as possible. Materials like carbon fibre help offset the weight of steel. Nothing that is combustible can be used, so wood is prohibited. Each ship is divided into transverse watertight bulkheads as well as different fire zones along the length of the vessel.

It can take between a year and 18 months to build a new cruise ship - GETTY
It can take between a year and 18 months to build a new cruise ship - GETTY

6. Design savvy

Famed designers are often appointed to design elements of whip-smart ships. These include Kelly Hoppen, who employed her signature neutral colour palettes and earthy materials in the design of the staterooms and suites aboard Celebrity Edge and Celebrity Apex. Tom Wright, designer of the iconic Burj Al Arab Hotel in Dubai, also created many of the exterior areas of these two design-savvy ships. Tom Dixon, who redesigned the Sea Containers House in London, has brought retro-futurism to the seas with his rock-and-roll-inspired suite designs for Virgin Voyages' first cruise ship, Scarlet Lady. Adam D Tihany, who created the interiors for the revamped Beverly Hills Hotel in California and the Cipriani Hotel in Venice, will be the visionary designer behind the next Cunard ship, due to launch in 2022.    

7. Mind the gap

It’s not uncommon for cruise ships to be ‘stretched’. From a financial aspect, lengthening an existing ship can cost almost as much as a new vessel but it gives the ship-owner additional capacity much quicker than starting from scratch. To accomplish this feat, the ship is moved into a dry-dock and lowered onto massive blocks. The superstructure is then cut in two and the blocks are rolled apart. The new prefabricated section, complete with plumbing and electrics, is manoeuvred into place with great precision. The sections are welded together, the utility systems connected up, and the hull repainted. 

8. Powering ahead

Cutting-edge cruise ships, such as Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas, are fitted with azimuth thrusters. These are massive pods at the stern of the ship housing propellers that can rotate 360 degrees and provide optimum manoeuvrability. The propeller at the front of the pod effectively pulls the ship through the water rather than pushing it as with traditional propeller and shaft systems. These thrusters replace rudders and have the benefits of decreased stopping distance, the ability to move the ship sideways, as well as greater fuel efficiency.  

Akin to a blueprint in 3D, engineers devise computer programmes to break the ship down into individual engineering blocks - GETTY
Akin to a blueprint in 3D, engineers devise computer programmes to break the ship down into individual engineering blocks - GETTY

9. A tight squeeze

Inaugurated in 1914, the multi-lock, 51 mile-long Panama Canal consigned long, arduous voyages around Cape Horn to history. The designation for the size of cruise ships passing through the canal is known as ‘Panamax’. The original double sets of locks are 33.53m (110ft) wide and 320m (1,050ft) long.  These measurements are paramount for designers of cruise ships that navigate this feat of engineering. The capacity of the canal doubled in 2016 when a new, third set of locks was inaugurated. Known as ‘Neopanamax’, larger ships can now pass through these locks which are 49 metres (161 feet) wide and 366 metres (1,201 feet) long.

10. Eco-friendly credentials

Expedition ships are now being designed to minimize their carbon footprint and reduce pollution. This means incorporating several technological innovations, including large battery banks and diesel-electric hybrid propulsion mechanism. Selective catalytic reduction systems also vastly reduce any harmful nitrogen oxide emissions. The next generation of mega-ships are boasting dual-fuel capability and will primarily be powered by liquefied natural gas, the world's cleanest burning fossil fuel.