INTRODUCING PROJECT UNLIMITED: Charting a Course For the Future of Expedition Cruising
In anticipation of this situation, the founders of SunStone have already begun to implement a solution – PROJECT UNLIMITED. This exciting new building project features the development of a new luxury expedition cruise fleet capable of carrying up to 240 guests. At the same time, PROJECT UNLIMITED seeks to set a new standard in expedition vessels with all outside balcony suites, an ice class of 1A, compliance with all new SOLAS and Polar Code Requirements, Safe Return to Port and the ability to operate in both polar and warm-weather climates. Plans have been finalized for a series of these vessels, and the first two vessels are expected to be delivered in 2016.
“The whole idea for PROJECT UNLIMITED started back in 2007,” explains Niels-Erik Lund, President & CEO. “At that time, we were working with vessels that had been built around 1990 – which despite being 20 or more years was still considered ‘new’ compared to the rest of the worldwide expedition fleet. It was our opinion that there would be a major problem finding suitable ships in the future, as cruise industry and passenger demand for these types of voyages was continuing to grow.”
A quick analysis showed that converting older vessels would be ineffective as the available fleet was already at a lower standard than expected by passengers. Many of the converted older vessels did not have proper public areas; cabins were small and simple with no balconies, no tender boats, etc.
The preferred solution was to lead the effort to build a series of small cruise vessels for the expedition market. Such an undertaking had not been taken on since the late 1980s, and the need for new vessels was expected to quickly outpace existing inventory.
New basic layouts, general arrangements, and a short list of specifications were drafted to test the feasibility of this ambitious plan.
The initial proposal went out in 2008. Approximately twenty-eight shipyards submitted requests, estimates, and ideas, etc. for bidding on these vessels. From these shipyards the decision was made to select seven to nine that were believed to be able to build these vessels. The prerequisite was that shipyards must have prior knowledge and experience in building passenger vessels; an understanding for the quality required; the financial strength to conceivably remain in business for a long series of vessel builds; and the ability to arrange 80% financing/guarantees. Several shipyards in Europe and the Far East reviewed the proposal but, at the time, all yards were full of orders building new, larger-class ships. During these meetings, however, it was determined that the new vessels must be built at a cost of no more than US$100 million.
“We arrived at the $100 million build budget after extensive calculations involving the market, what charterers could pay, what passengers would be willing to pay, and what would yield a positive business proposition going forward to owners and investors,” says Niels-Erik Lund. “There were many, many meetings with shipyards and design professionals to investigate the project in more detail and come up with cost-saving ideas.” However, due to the boom in the commercial shipping market, all shipyards had full orderbooks, and the price levels quoted were at a $140-150 million level, which resulted in the project being postponed.
By end 2010, shipyards that had been full of orders just a few years earlier were either delivering or cancelling projects – and were looking for new work. A renewed interest in PROJECT UNLIMITED came about, and during the SeaTrade Conference in March 2011, there were further meetings with brokers and shipyards to finalize the design and the specifications. In order to get a more accurate estimate for such a vessel a complete bid specification, with drawings, technical specifications, etc. was prepared so that yards could give firm quotes instead of only rough estimates. An agreement was finalized with Delta Marine in Finland, one of the largest Naval Architecture companies with extensive knowledge of building cruise ships as well as ferries and cargo ships. Together with Delta Marine, a general arrangement was worked out that would cover requirements in regards to the vessel size, capacity, suitability for various markets, compliance with the latest rules and regulation, and a minimum of 75% of the cabins having balconies and/or larger interior space. Tillberg Design in Fort Lauderdale was also brought in to work out the interior specification and ensure that shipyards had enough information to be able to properly quote on these ships.
Today, the project is continuing to evolve, based on information received from SunStone charterers, Classification Societies, Flagstates, and the like – all ensuring an end-product that complies with all regulatory requirements. Meetings with suppliers regarding propellers, shafts, engines, electronics, lifesaving equipment, and more are progressing.
“We’re looking forward to this ‘new horizon’ for the industry,” says Niels-Erik Lund. “It has been a long time in the planning, but the future is almost here.”