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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Shawn J. Dake, freelance travel writer and regular contributor to MaritimeMatters, worked in tourism and cruise industry for over 35 years. A native of Southern California, his first job was as a tour guide aboard the Queen Mary. A frequent lecturer on ship-related topics he has appeared on TV programs. Owner of Oceans Away Cruises & Travel agency, he served as President of the local Chapter of Steamship Historical Society of America. With a love of the sea, he is a veteran of 115 cruises.