How to build a cruise ship

I’ve always had a personal fascination in seeing how things work and how they’re built. No more is this the case than with ships and cruise ships in particular. I work in a planning and engineering field so it really intrigues me how it’s all done.

These giants are modern miracles of technology and most people don’t appreciate the sheer ingenuity and creativity that goes into them. Follow me as we go through the process of building a ship.

Shipbuilding has changed hugely over the past century, particularly in developing some of the big cruise ships you see today. Despite this, it is all rooted in tradition and history, with communities growing up around ship yards and ports with specific skills that are used to this day in creating some of the most luxurious areas found in the world. Let’s take a look at how a ship is built.

Steps to building a cruise ship

Ship design really is a futuristic endeavour. You wouldn’t be surprised to hear that some of the latest ships are now being designed entirely by computer, where 3D models are created to enable engineers and architects to design all details. Taking this further, Royal Caribbean have a virtual reality suite to experience its ships before the first piece of steel is cut. Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Edge is the first ship to be entirely developed through this technique. Of course the design of a cruise ship is highly complex and specialised, and this article only starts to touch upon the process.

The design process culminates when the first piece of steel is cut. This is the first key ceremony in the life of a cruise ship and when it starts to become a physical construct. Here large pieces of steel are cut into the correct shapes and sizes.

This steel is then welded into a series of large, and when I mean large, I mean huge blocks. Picture the build as the most complex lego puzzle, where blocks are physically brought together to create the ship. It is during this time that larger items and other key physical parts are attached and incorporated into the blocks, such as the engines that power the ship.

The next key milestone is the coin ceremony. A seafaring tradition, this is where the keel (or bottom) of the ship starts to come together early on in its construction. Two newly minted commemorative coins are placed under a keel block, or in the mast. The coins are then welded to the keel or mast and become part of the cruise ship and act as a symbol of good luck.

Once all the blocks are in place and the superstructure of the ship has been largely completed internal fitting-out starts. This is where all the wiring and plumbing will be installed and various venues and components will start to come to life. A key part to this is of course the cabins. These are manufactured off-site in their own self-contained modules and slid into place as the ship is fitted out

Over the course of roughly 18 months (though this can be a lot quicker), the ship comes together. Of course none of this is useful if the ship doesn’t float, so perhaps the most important part of its construction is the first time it touches water and floats-out of the dry-dock.

At a key point in construction the ship’s main systems will be tested for the first time. These are the all-important sea trials, where the ship and its systems are tested to their limits to ensure that it safely operates. During this period the ships staff will start to come on board for training and preparation for service.

The final part to this story is the formal christening and handover of the ship to a cruise line. This doesn’t always happen at the same time, though historically this has been the case. Here a ship’s chosen Godmother (or father, or family, or CG character in some cases!) will break a bottle of champagne or other beverage (for instance Viking ships are christened with Aquavit, a Scandinavian spirit) over the bow of the ship for good luck and safe travels. It is then handed over to the line and ready for formal service.

Where do you build a cruise ship?

Europe is the current centre for excellence in designing and building cruise ships across the world. This is done through three main companies, spread across Finland, France, Germany and Italy (though other, smaller yards exist and specialise in areas such as expedition ships). Whole communities with specialist skills have grown up around and support these yards, with some of them still being family owned.

Meyer Werft and Meyer Turku
Based out of Papenberg in Germany, Meyerwerft is a rather unique ship yard in that each vessel that’s constructed is built inland and has to sail up the River Ems from the shipyard before it can undertake sea trials and be handed over. Vessels are also constructed indoors, within one of the largest buildings on the planet. Over the years it has delivered a number of pioneering ships including the Celebrity Cruises’ Solstice Class.

Meyer Turku is another ship yard in Turku, Finland which has produced some of the biggest cruise ships in the world. It designed and built the Oasis Class back in 2009, of which the class still holds the title of world’s largest cruise ships.

Current and future ships include: Aida Cruises’ AidaNova, Royal Caribbean International’s Spectrum of the Seas, P&O Cruises’ Iona, Tui Cruises’ Mein Schiff 2, Costa Cruises’ Costa Smeralda and Royal Caribbean International’s Icon of the Seas.

Fincantieri, Italy
Spread across a number of yards, Fincantieri is one of the largest ship producers in the world. Primarily based in Italy (though this is growing and changing), it produced the first cruise ship over 100,000 tonnes in 1996 (Carnival Sunshine, ex Destiny), as well as several innovative designs over the years.

Current and future ships include: Virgin Voyages’ first Lady Ship, a number of Viking Cruises ships, Princess Cruises’ Sea Princess, Carnival Cruise Lines’ Carnival Panorama, Norwegian Cruise Lines’ Project Leonardo and the next generation Cunard cruise ship.

Chantiers de l’Atlantique
The yard started by building ships for the French transatlantic line Compagnie Générale Transatlantique. In 1961, it built the trans-Atlantic superliner SS France, then the world’s longest passenger vessel. Since then it has continued to build some of the biggest ships in the world (in fact it built the biggest ship every constructed, the Seawise Giant). It also designed and built the Queen Mary 2. In 2017, Fincantieri entered into an agreement with the French Government for 50% ownership of the yard.

Current and future ships include: Celebrity Cruises Celebrity Edge, MSC Cruises MSC Bellisima and MSC Grandiosa, and MSC Cruises World Class.

The world is changing and cruise lines and ship yards are both investing in partnerships with other ship yards in Asia to create further areas of excellence and opportunity. This is partly fuelled through the popularity of cruising in Asia, requiring additional resource for purpose-built ships.

Many more ship yards excel in refitting and ‘dry-docking’ ships (that is to raise the ship out of the water to undertake maintenance and repair). One of the most famous is Blohm+Voss located on the River Elbe withinin Hamburg. With its large dry docks, this is a perfect location to refit cruise ships, or perform technical maintenance prior to handover (particularly for yards such as Meryer Werft).

A three ship opportunity
In June 2018, follow me on my first visit to a ship yard to see up close how ships are built. I will be travelling with MSC Cruises to Chantiers de l’Atlantique to see not one, but three of the key milestones mentioned above. Firstly, we will see the steel cutting for its next Meraviglia Plus class ship; then the coin ceremony for MSC Grandiosa; and finally the float-out of their next big ship, MSC Bellissima. This is an awesome opportunity so make sure you follow my adventure on both Twitter and Instagram.

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