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EXPLORER Cruise Ship/Floating University

Posted on Sunday, April 24, 2011 by


Cruise Ship/Floating University

By Shawn J. Dake

The m.s. EXPLORER at San Diego on May 14, 2007. Photo by Shawn J. Dake © 2007

The m.s. EXPLORER holds a unique place among passenger ships. On the one hand, it is among the best kept secrets in cruising, with voyages anyone can enjoy to unusual ports all over the globe. For much of the year it serves a dual role as a floating university for the Semester At Sea program giving students an educational opportunity they could not find elsewhere. The ship transports people, young, old and in between, to distant corners of our world, while transforming them into a distinctive shipboard community. Cruising is considered too frivolous a term for these trips. They are journeys, or as Semester At Sea calls them, “Enrichment Voyages.”

The ship itself plays an important role in creating a suitable environment for the success of these programs. Of the five ships that have been utilized since the establishment of the ISE, Institute For Shipboard Education, and its predecessors back in 1963, the EXPLORER is by far the most modern and up-to-date. It is also among the fastest ships in the world with an average cruising speed of 27 knots. Only the QUEEN MARY 2 and a sister ship, the GRAND VOYAGER can offer comparable speeds. In what many, including this writer, now consider a golden era in cruising, the most comfortable ships were between 25,000 and 30,000 gross tons with 600 to 900 passengers aboard. Very few new vessels of this size have been constructed in an era that favors the economics of mega-ships carrying multitudes in the thousands. The EXPLORER proves a happy exception to this rule, with a perfectly sized maximum capacity of 836 passengers on a ship of 24,318 gross tons. On the twice a year Enrichment Voyages during April and December, no more than 700 guests will be found aboard.

Photo by Shawn J. Dake © 2007.

The story of the EXPLORER begins when the ship first entered service under the name OLYMPIA EXPLORER the afternoon of April 25, 2002. The early history of this technologically advanced ship was not without its share of pain and disappointment. Going back a little farther, Royal Olympic Cruise Lines, ROC, was founded in 1995 by the merger of “The White Ships of Epirotiki” with “The Blue Ships of Sun Line.” All of their combined ships were second-hand tonnage, many dating back to the 1950’s and ‘60’s. Both companies specialized in cruises throughout the Greek Islands and Eastern Mediterranean. The founding families took the company public in 1998 raising $91 million while still retaining control of 51% of the shares. The same year it was announced that the first newly-built ships for the line would be ordered from the famous Blohm and Voss shipyard in Hamburg, Germany. The initial elation was severely tested in 1999 when Greek tourism virtually collapsed largely due to the war in Kosovo and problems in the Middle East. Stock prices of ROC sank to just $2.00 per share, endangering the company and making them ripe for a takeover. The winning suitor turned out to be Louis Cruise Lines of Cyprus which gained a 40% stake in Royal Olympic including all of the portion that had once been Sun Line. The infusion of cash allowed the company to continue operations and importantly the building of the new ships that were desperately needed if the line was going to remain competitive.

Cutaway showing the OLYMPIC VOYAGER from a Royal Olympic Cruises brochure. Collection of Shawn J. Dake.

The first ship, OLYMPIC VOYAGER, was delivered during June, 2000, in time for the busy summer season. The route would be the 7-Day, 3-Continent cruise, sailing from Piraeus, Greece to Egypt and Israel with Turkey and the Greek Islands included. The high speed allowed visits to a port, or even two, every day. Eight destinations in Europe, Africa and Asia in just a week. The plan was for the second ship to visit as many ports each week but concentrate on an itinerary called the Grand Aegean And Adriatic Cruise. That ship was to be named the OLYMPIC EXPLORER and the maiden voyage was set for May, 2001. The date came and went when Royal Olympic Cruises refused to accept delivery of the ship citing technical concerns over alleged severe vibration problems. There was much speculation that the refusal was based more on financial rather than technical reasons but in any event the ship remained at her builders. Meanwhile, with the upcoming 2004 summer Olympic Games being held in Athens, the International Olympic Committee demanded that the company stop using the trademarked word Olympic in their name and the names of the ships. The fleet was restyled as Royal Olympia Cruises and the OLYMPIC prefixes were changed to OLYMPIA. After nearly a year of acrimonious negotiations on April 11, 2002, the company agreed to accept their newest ship, now named OLYMPIA EXPLORER. Blohm & Voss yard number 962 was now a ship at sea.

An early rendering with the intended name OLYMPIC EXPLORER and balconies instead of Bay windows on Deck 5 forward. Collection of Shawn J. Dake.

The company was justifiably proud of their new ship. One prominent industry publication called it “The most significant new built cruise vessel.” The ship measured 590 feet (180 meters) in length, breadth of 84 feet (25.5 meters) and a draft of 24 feet (7.3 meters). The OLYMPIA VOYAGER and OLYMPIA EXPLORER were virtually identical with one major difference distinguishing them. On Deck Five forward, the Deluxe Suites on the first ship had bay windows while on the latter, 12 of these were modified to include balconies, with an additional four becoming smaller Junior Suites. The hull design of both ships were based on the “SuperFast Ferries” that were becoming popular around that time. The slender underwater forward portion is a mono-hull which extends to a semi-tunneled aft body with two closely placed propellers near the center, creating less resistance and allowing an undisturbed flow of water to the props. The specially built propellers were designed by Kamewa. Four main 9L46C Wartsila NSD engines generate 9,450kW of power each with four additional 2,000kW auxiliary engines. With only two of the main engines running, the ship can attain a speed of 22 knots. At full power the top speed is estimated at 33 knots, or nearly 38 miles per hour. Even at the normal cruising speed of 27 knots, that equals an impressive 31 miles per hour.

Bow view. Built for speed with broad beam above and slender mono-hull construction below the waterline. Photo by Shawn J. Dake © 2007

Starboard side forward structure. Note: Retractable Bridge Wing and openings for balcony suites. Photo by Shawn J. Dake © 2003

At the end of the inaugural Mediterranean season, OLYMPIA EXPLORER made her first trans-Atlantic crossing, an 18-day voyage from Piraeus, Greece to Port Canaveral, Florida. This was followed by a series of three Caribbean cruises and a longer roundtrip through the Caribbean and up the Amazon River to Manaus, Brazil. Utilizing the ship’s high speed a trans-Canal cruise from Ft. Lauderdale to Los Angeles was made in just 12-days including stops at six ports. The vessel transited the Panama Canal for the first time on January 15, 2003 arriving in Los Angeles on the 24thof the month. A roundtrip cruise to Hawaii with the obligatory stop in Ensenada, Mexico to satisfy cabotage laws rounded out the first North American season. The longest voyage during this phase of her career was a 55-day circumnavigation of South America departing from Los Angeles, February 7th heading south along the West Coast, rounding Cape Horn on March 8thand terminating in Ft. Lauderdale April 3rd. The same day the ship departed for an eastbound trans-Atlantic crossing, resuming the previous Mediterranean itinerary on April 20th.

Maiden call of the OLYMPIA EXPLORER to the Port Of Los Angeles, January 24, 2003. Photo by Shawn J. Dake c. 2003.

In November 2003, the ship again crossed the Atlantic returning to North America for the winter season. The plan was to operate a longer season of roundtrip Hawaiian Islands cruises from Los Angeles and San Francisco followed by an even more extensive South America cruise in 2004. World events had not been helping the company improve their outlook since the new ships were added. The tragedy of September 11th was compounded by a lack of passengers traveling to the Mediterranean because of the war in Iraq. Royal Olympia did little to help themselves by choosing to position their ships primarily in the eastern Mediterranean while other lines departed for areas perceived as safer by the public. A nearly constant switching of ship deployments after the brochures were printed further confused passengers. As 2003 drew to a close it appeared likely the company would soon be heading for bankruptcy. Two of the ship holding companies within Royal Olympia filed Chapter 11, which idled the two newest vessels in the fleet.

The cruise season that never was. The final brochure for the Royal Olympia Cruises sisters. Collection of Shawn J. Dake.

The OLYMPIA VOYAGER was detained at St. Thomas, canceling the voyage of December 18th, and OLYMPIA EXPLORER cancelled her December 22nd Christmas and New Year Hawaii cruise at the Port of Los Angeles. The bankruptcy came as a direct result of the company being unable to restructure $250 million in loans that were used to finance acquisition of the two ships. By March, 2004, an additional six ships had been seized and the entire company had gone under. The OLYMPIA EXPLORER was moved to the adjacent Long Beach Harbor and remained anchored from January until May about a half mile off the stern of the QUEEN MARY, with just a skeleton crew aboard. Strangely, many evenings the rigging lights of the ship were brightly illuminated giving the false impression of a beautiful cruise ship about to set sail.

OLYMPIA EXPLORER laid up at anchorage off Long Beach, California, May 8, 2004. Photo by Shawn J. Dake © 2004.

On March 24, 2004, the OLYMPIA EXPLORER was auctioned off, with the buyer being the KfW German mortgage holding bank. Having only sailed for 20 months the ship was virtually new. The purchase price was US$82.7 million. The bank kept the ship laid up at anchor while they sought a buyer or charter arrangement.


At the same time the Institute For Shipboard Education, on behalf of their Semester At Sea program, was searching for a replacement for the sturdy but aging UNIVERSE EXPLORER. That ship had been built in 1958 as the American liner BRASIL for Moore-McCormack Lines service to South America. The BRASIL later served as a great cruise ship for a number of different lines including Holland America Line as the VOLENDAM, MONARCH SUN, then again VOLENDAM, with subsequent renaming to ISLAND SUN, LIBERTE, CANADA STAR, QUEEN OF BERMUDA, and ENCHANTED SEAS before becoming the Semester at Sea vessel UNIVERSE EXPLORER. It was a long and brilliant career that finally ended on the beaches of Alang, India in 2004 when the ship was scrapped. By a happy coincidence, the much newer ship available for charter to Semester At Sea, bore at least in part the EXPLORER name of the previous ship. The OLYMPIA portion was simply dropped. For a brief time the two ships were together in Portland, Oregon while materials were transferred from the old to the new including 152 boxes of library books and other school supplies. As the UNIVERSE EXPLORER sailed off to meet her fate the two ships exchanged poignant whistle salutes. This changeover also marked the end of the long relationship between ISE and the Seawise Foundation founded by the late C.Y. Tung.

Royal Olympia Cruises funnel colors combined the logos of Sun Line and Epirotiki Cruises. Photo by Shawn J. Dake © 2003.

The EXPLORER proudly wears the Semester At Sea logo. Photo by Shawn J. Dake © 2007.

The EXPLORER found a comfortable niche with Semester At Sea. They took over operation of the ship in 2004 by securing a 15-year lease from the German banks that had seized the ship when Royal Olympia Cruises declared bankruptcy. Eventually, a loan of $83.5 million was secured, the terms of which made the loan payments actually lower than the previous lease payments and the ship was purchased outright in December, 2007. The market value of the ship was assessed at $115 million at the time. Semester At Sea now regularly embarks students on voyages lasting up to 100 to 110 days, frequently traveling Around the World in the Spring and Fall. Summer semesters are typically 65 to 70 days duration. Between semesters there are Short Term and Enrichment Voyages of between 20 and 30 days. One such voyage, the 21-day Central America and Panama Canal journey of April 27th to May 18, 2011 will be reported on these pages in more depth, coming soon.

The atrium lobby. Photo by Shawn J. Dake c. 2007.

The former casino has been transformed into one of the world's largest floating libraries. Photo by Shawn J. Dake © 2003.

In addition to students the ship carries a number of regular passengers known as “Lifelong Learners” along with faculty and distinguished lecturers. Topics can address any number of issues including history, culture, literature, geology, biology and things related to the regions in which the ship travels. In the area where a casino once took passengers money, a 9,000 volume library and computer lab with free internet access now gives back to them in the form of educational opportunities. Instead of shore excursions, tours ashore are called Field Programs allowing for new discoveries in each port. For those that view cruising as more than an opportunity to get drunk and sunburned, the EXPLORER provides an opportunity to enjoy time at sea while learning more about the world around us.

The Piano Lounge and Bar. Photo by Shawn J. Dake © 2007.

There is entertainment onboard and the ship has a piano bar and several lovely lounges. But instead of Broadway productions with showgirls, evenings might be spent attending a lecture or film presentation. In some ways, it represents a return to a simpler, quieter time at sea when cruisers made their own entertainment and were better able to socialize with fellow passengers without all the distractions that have encroached into the world of modern cruising. If reading a good book on deck, under the stars on a tropical night appeals to you, the EXPLORER might be something worth looking into. If being on a comfortably sized ship with a few hundred, rather than a few thousand other passengers sounds good, this is definitely the right type ship for you. A wealth of additional information can be found at http://www.semesteratsea.org/. The University Of Virginia is the academic sponsor of Semester At Sea. The program is administered by the Institute For Shipboard Education (ISE), a non-profit, 501c3 organization.

Midnight finds the EXPLORER at rest in San Diego. Photo by Shawn J. Dake © 2007.

Watch for Shawn’s full report on his upcoming Enrichment Voyage and an illustrated ship tour of the m.s. EXPLORER following completion of the spring voyage.

Thanks to Steven Abbott, Julian Carta, Martin Cox, Gloria Dake, Peter Knego and Lucille Renwick.

EXPLORER Enrichment Voyage To Central America And The Panama Canal – Part One

EXPLORER Enrichment Voyage To Central America And The Panama Canal – Part Two

EXPLORER Enrichment Voyage To Central America And The Panama Canal – Part Three


21 Responses to EXPLORER Cruise Ship/Floating University

  1. Kenneth Eden

    April 25, 2011 at 5:41 am

    Oh Shawn, thank you for the above, as always, right on the mark, and the lessons, no pun intended, do indeed enlighten us as to what happened and eventually befell R O.C.

    I looked forward to cruising on these ships, and then – poof, not only were they gone, so was what had once been Epirotiki and Sun Line. Pity, I loved both lines, as well as the long gone, I still remember, Greek Line. There was always a very special feel to a Greek ship, and the most attentive crew..not to mention the food.

    I am looking forward to your next venture from your spring enrichment voyage.

  2. Kalle Id

    April 25, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    A very interesting article on a ship I have always found fascinating, especially due to the fact she now sails as an educational cruise ship. I too am looking forward to reading your report from the educational voyage.

    The retractable bridge wing is a fascinating concept. I wonder if it offers notable aerodynamic advances not having fixed bridge wings, as the EXPLORER’s sister was built with traditional bridge wings?

    Then to the nitpicking part: While the EXPLORER, her sister GRAND VOYAGER and the QM2 are the three fastest cruise ships out there, there are quite a few passenger ships capable of similar service speeds, such as the SUPERFAST ships you mentioned in the article, the MOBY WONDER class and Color Line’s two SUPERSPEEDs. Not to mention smaller fast ships like fact monohulls and catamarans, the fastest of which have 50 knot service speeds.

  3. Dave Lee

    April 26, 2011 at 8:52 am

    I took photos of Explorer on her maiden arrival in Seattle, as well as the last visit to Seattle of SS Universe Explorer. Also are photos of SSUE in Portland, and SSUE in Seattle in 1999.

  4. Stefan Kozlowski

    April 27, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    I love the sleek (exterior & especially interior) design and overall concept of this two sisters. A state-of-the-art ship of this size is today found mostly in very expensive price areas. I didn’t have the chance to sail at the ROC times, but I did not know that Explorer is somehow open for public booking through the ‘enrichment voyages’. Thank you for this article.

  5. Lynne Morgan

    April 27, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    I was on the Spring 1996 voyage and I had never seen photos of the ship prior to being rehabbed for the University of Pittsburgh.

  6. Ralph Tribbey

    April 28, 2011 at 9:54 am


    Outstanding write-up. It explains how the Explorer ended up in California … much confusion over it (The Explorer) being arrested in the Virgin Islands on its way to the Amazon … it was actually her twin that was operating out of Florida at time. Again, excellent coverage. You have to look closely to tell them apart (the Weather Channel story substitutes the Voyager for the Explorer during certain sequences). Easy to tell them apart now, the Voyager is painted all white.

  7. Manon Kaplan

    April 28, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    I love the MV Explorer. I’ve been on it for 2 voyages already and plan to go on more. I always preferred small ships and I don’t miss the big ships casinos with their smoked-filled room or even their Broadway shows, which for me are pretty much the same except the costumes and music. I love to learn when I travel and that is what this ship is all about. The passengers are so friendly that you feel part of a family including the personnel. The service is great, the ship is super clean, the food is excellent. The fact that we can keep in touch with friends/family free on computers is a great plus too. I could go on and on about this ship and its people so I’ll stop here. Just try it and you will love it.

  8. Alexandros Papayannis

    May 2, 2011 at 6:24 am

    Another difference between the sisters Olympia Voyager and Olympia Explorer apart from the cabin balconies, is that the Explorer has a narrower bridge with the extendable wings allowing it to cross the Panama canal locks (because of the low position of the bridge), while the Voyager was not built with the Panama transit in mind, and had a wider bridge.

  9. Brian

    May 4, 2011 at 10:46 pm

    I’ve read that these beautiful sisters are not comfortable in anything but the fairest seas, due to their innovative hulls.
    True ?

  10. Ralph Teutsch

    May 5, 2011 at 11:54 am

    The amusing thing is that the Voyager will be transferred to Costa from Iberocruceros-with the extra speed they will be able to to offer cruises
    in the Red Sea without fear of pirates

  11. Shawn Dake

    May 7, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    I am currently sitting in the computer lab aboard the EXPLORER posting this comment from off the coast of Panama. Everything that Manon Kaplan said above, I echo. The smaller size of the ship is wonderful and the passengers are friendlier than can be found on almost any other ship. The lecturers are top notch and there is good evening entertainment in addition to the educational opportunities. Food and service are very good too. The ship rides very smoothly at speed. Today was a long slow roll in a slight swell which was quite pleasant actually. Two days ago Captain Jeremy Kingston took the ship up to 27.5 knots to reach Puntarenas, Costa Rica on the high tide. The ship produces an incredible, churning wake at that speed. On May 8th we will be transiting the Panama Canal. Halfway through the spring Enrichment Voyage, and I look forward to writing more about it following the conclusion of the trip. A singularly unique experience.

  12. Kenneth Eden

    May 8, 2011 at 5:15 am

    Shawn Drake

    Shawn, something has been gnawing at me for some time, and it hit me with the above complete article. C Y Tung.

    C Y Tung, under his toutilage, the QUEEN ELIZABETH burned and sank in Hong Kong Harbor, left and abandoned, with no salvaging efforts made, at least none I had ever heard of.

    I thought C Y Tung had left the “educational” business at sea. The QUEEN ELIZABETH had been refered to as “C.Y.’S UNIVERSITY”, (a play on Sea Wise) – and was readying for rennovations for floating university use – rennos to be done in HK.

    I was sailing the QE2 when the QUEEN ELIZABETH burned. There were many rumors, factual, maybe not, about the fire, going around during my sailing.

    To add salt to the insult, an assault on a queen, there were crew members that had sailed for years in the QUEEN ELIZABETH. Short of a wake for the dead, the morale during that QE2 sailing was, in short, sad.

  13. Linda Krogh

    June 28, 2011 at 10:47 am

    Thank you for your article. Very interesting. I’m looking forward to the next Enrichment trip on Dec 22.

  14. Jim Brunton

    November 28, 2011 at 9:17 am

    Quite taken with artickes on ‘Explorer’A lovely ship.Can you send me a brochure please re your future cruises, togethr with Tarriff of Charges.Thank you.No mate what cruises offred.My wife and I will consider all.Our addess; Jim and Olga Brunton,41 Oakdene Gr Sth,
    Altona Meadows,Vic 3028,Astralia[Its a suburb of Melbourne[.Tks Jim

  15. TomC

    December 26, 2011 at 9:39 am

    No mention was made of the near capsizing that has gone viral on Youtube. A rouge wave came over the too low bow and took out the bridge electronics and knocked out engine control. As seen on the video, the Explorer came very close to capsizing many times in rough seas. If you’ll notice the original drawings had a swoop up on bow making the bow higher-which may have eliminated the rouge wave’s destructive force. My opinion-the bow is too low for world wide travel and the previous comment that the Explorer is a fair weather cruise boat is accurate.
    I cruised for 2 weeks in Alaska in the 90’s on the Universe Explorer. The new Explorer is definitely an improvement though. Good Luck, TomC

  16. Shawn Dake

    December 27, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    The topic of the video has come up many times before on these pages and other sites. In nearly every case the video being referrenced is of the EXPLORER’s sistership, which at the time was the GRAND VOYAGER, now COSTA VOYAGER. Needless to say, the two ships look very much alike, but frequently the videos are titled with the wrong name of the ship. As for it being a rogue wave, it was not. The GRAND VOYAGER as seen on the Youtube videos was caught in a severe storm in the Mediterranean. The same year, the EXPLORER did sustain damage in a Pacific storm, but to the best of my knowledge there is no exterior footage showing that ship in that storm.

  17. Dorothy Calkins

    February 25, 2012 at 3:49 am

    Do you have cruises in December from Nassau to San Diego?

  18. Jeremy Kingston

    August 25, 2012 at 6:34 am

    As mentioned above, the external film of the ship in a storm was the “Voyager” and not the “Explorer”. I took command of both ships immediately after their “wave incidents”, and am still in command of “Explorer”.

    As far as “almost capsizing”, even though they rolled to 45 degrees, they were well short of the “point of no return”. It speaks volumes about the ships that they did survive in those conditions. The ships have a very fine hull form, and as a result do roll more easily, but they have tremendous residual stability.

    As far as speed goes, I have had “Grand Voyager” at 29 knots in the Mediterranean. In 2007 Explorer steamed at over 30 knots, with 85% load on 4 engines with ideal sea conditions and trim while transiting the Gulf of Aden.

  19. Shawn Dake

    October 19, 2013 at 9:05 am

    It is worth noting that the Semester At Sea program, and those that came before it as World Camput Afloat and University Of The Seven Seas will be celebrating their 50th anniversary on October 22, 2013. I am putting together a story of the five ships that have sailed on educational voyages and the sixth and most famous, that was destroyed before it had the chance to take part in educational history at sea. Also, belated thanks to Captain Jeremy Kingston for his insightful comment above.

  20. Jo Greer

    November 24, 2013 at 7:33 am

    How wonderful to discover that these cruises are happening again. In 1996 I had a wonderful cruise to Alaska and in 2002 the excellent central America and Panama cruise. I was so sad that these public cruises ended. By chance I found this site and am thrilled that the possibilities are again available. Hopefully I can join you again soon. The lectures were inspiring and my ability to manipulate photographs is thanks to the 15 hours tuition I was able to experience learning Photoshop Elements.

    I cannot imagine the attraction of joining several thousand passengers in one ship – that is like the whole of my village (in the UK)! Ugh!!!!

  21. Mark cox

    March 23, 2014 at 9:24 pm

    I took the 21 day holiday trip 2010-11, this vibration problem is no joke! Leaving Guadtemala that thing shook like hell for 15 minutes! I was on the sun deck and stood there in horror! I asked the bus boy and he said it happens sometime! I thought we had broken a prop, or had a broken shaft, then all the sudden it stopped! Happened again in panama. Of all the cruises I’ve been on this has never happened. Cool ship with a free Internet cafe, food very bland… But I’m told when school is in session it becomes a flooting knocking shoppe!

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