The Trials and Tribulations of Norwegian Epic and Other New-Builds

June 22, 2010

(5:30 p.m. EDT) -- Building a new cruise ship is incredibly hard work -- and no one understands the struggle quite like Norwegian Cruise Line. In its quest to launch the 153,000-ton, 4,100-passenger Norwegian Epic, NCL has endured a series of setbacks -- from suspicious shipyard fires to unflattering jokes about Epic's appearance.

The latest trial involved a malfunctioning propeller shaft, which limited Epic's top speed and delayed its arrival on Tuesday in Southampton, where it embarked 2,500 media and travel professionals for a one-night showcase sailing. A spokesperson from the line says that the issue has been resolved and that the ship is still on schedule for its June 24 inaugural, a seven-night night transatlantic cruise from Southampton to New York, and its July 2 christening. Two days later, Epic will serve as host venue for Macy's annual Fourth of July Fireworks spectacular.

There are also other, smaller kinks to work out. Carolyn Spencer Brown, Cruise Critic's editor in chief, reported that the "Epic Plunge," a bowl waterslide where passengers in inner tubes rely on centrifugal forces to fling them around and then down, has been far from plunge-worthy. Apparently, sliders aren't generating enough speed and have had to paddle their way out of the bowl. In the 17-degree Ice Bar, the machine that makes the frozen goblets is on the fritz. Should be fixed soon, but for now, plastic cups will have to do. The ship's controversial New Wave cabins have separate closets for the toilet and shower, and a sink that's actually in the cabin. Initial response has been mixed, with many passengers complaining about sink drippings ending up on the cabin floor.

Looking further back, NCL's original concept for an innovative new ship design was introduced in 2006, and the order -- for two ships with an option for a third -- was placed that fall. The idea was bold. NCL would build vessels that were an incredible 60 percent larger than anything in the fleet so that its "freestyle" concept -- opting for a variety of smaller, themed venues in lieu of a main dining room, theater or buffet -- could be more fully realized.

But the project quickly hit snags. For those not following the nearly four-year saga, here's a quick recap of the most memorable events:

Contractual disputes between the line and the shipyard resulted in the cancellation of the second Epic-class new-build, as well as some heavy fines for NCL to pay (€100 million for the cancellation; €55 million for design changes).

The first artist's renderings, released in early 2009, were met with ruthless mockery aimed at the ship's boxy design, and Cruise Critic readers compared the top-heavy Epic to a hat, poodle, Donald Trump's hair and an angry old man with bushy eyebrows.

A trio of suspicious fires broke out on the under-construction ship in May and June, and the yard, STX Europe in St. Nazaire, France, suspected arson.

The Epic saga has surely tested the line's will, but now, almost four years on, the finish line is in sight. And while building mega-ships typically goes much more smoothly, NCL can take comfort in the fact that other lines have faced similarly uphill battles in attempting to launch new ships, or have suffered snafus soon after. The common theme here is that all ships listed below battled through the rough seas to reach at least somewhat smoother waters.

River line Uniworld actually had to pull its Egypt-based River Tosca out of service less than two months into its 2009 maiden season, following a chorus of complaints about the apparently brand-new ship's condition. In early 2010, the ship went back into dry dock for almost two months to take care of a multitude of unacceptable problems, including scratched floors, stained tubs and loose tiles.

During the December 2007 christening of Cunard's Queen Victoria, initial attempts at the customary Champagne smash fizzled as the bottle failed to shatter against the hull. (The Duchess of Cornwall, the ship's godmother, merely pressed a button to set the act in motion, so she can't be blamed.) Maritime superstition has it that failure to smash may mean future difficulties at sea. True to form, the ship suffered an early bout with Norovirus, then made a noisy first impression in Malta by smashing into a quay.

The launch of Azamara Club Cruises' (then Azamara Cruises) first ship, Azmara Journey, was nothing short of a debacle. In essence, the line launched the ship before it was ready for prime time, irking many passengers who ended up cruising alongside a brigade of on-duty construction workers. "While standing on one of the decks, I just barely missed being hit by a large bag of trash that was hurled down from the deck above where work was being done," wrote reader Joanne Jones. Another reader added, "The pool area only became available to us on Saturday morning as we were disembarking. Workers stripping the deck floor, sanding, and painting made it totally impossible to have any kind of access."

At Carnival Legend's christening ceremony in 2002, it took godmother Dame Judi Dench three attempts to smash a bottle of Champagne against the hull. On her feeble first try, the bottle bounced harmlessly off the hull and into the water, and a second attempt was equally unsuccessful. Given a hand by the ship's captain, Dench was able to fulfill her duty on the third swing, but bottle basically exploded during the act, leaving the dignified Oscar winner covered in liquid and what looked like sea spume.

Disney Magic, the first cruise ship ever built by Disney, was originally set to launch in January 1998. After numerous lengthy delays, which many said came as a result of the brand's overbearing perfectionism, the ship ultimately launched on July 30. Thousands and thousands of cruisers who were booked on the originally scheduled sailings were impacted by the delays.

In 1991, the debut of Royal Caribbean's Monarch of the Seas was delayed by some six months after a shipyard fire damaged cabins on several decks, as well as the bridge and part of the ship's hull. As with the Disney delay, thousands of already-booked passengers were affected. The industry landscape was very different at the time, and according to a New York Times report, the delay meant that the line had to "cancel its 1991 European cruise program to maintain its presence in the Caribbean and to Alaska and Mexico."

For more from Norwegian Epic, check out Cruise Critic's latest coverage, which includes a brand-new U.K. blog.

--by Dan Askin, Associate Editor

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