Arrival of world’s biggest cruise ship required careful preparation

The 1,187-foot Oasis of the Seas approaching Port Everglades, Fla., in November following its first crossing of the Atlantic. Built in Finland for Royal Caribbean International, the ship is propelled by three 26,800-hp azipods and has four 7,380-hp thrusters. (Suki Finnerty/YachtingToday.TV)

Florida’s Port Everglades has welcomed the world’s largest cruise ship to its new home terminal. The voyage plan for the much anticipated arrival of Oasis of the Seas was far from routine.

About 18 months ago, the Port Everglades Pilots’ Association began preparations for bringing the 1,187-foot-long behemoth in and out of the harbor. The pilots undertook the unusual step of initiating a feasibility study to ensure that the new Royal Caribbean International vessel could dock and undock safely. The evaluation included intensive rehearsals on maritime simulators.

Even the unofficial maiden voyage from the shipyard in Finland provided valuable information for the Oasis of the Seas operators, as they observed their 225,282-gross-ton ship handle near-hurricane-force winds in the North Atlantic Ocean. With much fanfare, Oasis arrived in the Fort Lauderdale area Nov. 13, 2009.

Port Everglades pilot Capt. Thomas Hackett boarded Oasis of the Seas four miles east of the sea buoy using a pilot ladder and side port entrance door. He was at the conn as the ship proceeded toward the terminal at 7 to 8 knots. The bridge team encountered 2-knot currents with a southerly set. A breeze of 7 to 10 knots blew from the west-northwest.

“The ship came in relatively routinely,†said Capt. Andrew Edelstein, the association’s co-managing pilot, who rode along.

“For us, the biggest thing is transiting the outer channel and getting through the Gulf Stream currents that cross our channel at varying angles,†Edelstein said. “When there is a cross-set, you basically have to use the crab angle. One thing you can do is keep the speed up. The second thing you can do is use the bow thrusters to create a pivot point that you can work around.â€

Before the arrival at the new Cruise Terminal 18, Oasis of the Seas master Capt. William Wright observed Mother Nature stiffly test his new ship and crew. Shortly after exiting the English Channel, a storm greeted the vessel with winds of almost 70 mph and 40-foot seas. Oasis hove to and slowed to 6 knots from its normal 22 knots. Still, 300 construction contractors were able to continue their work installing furniture, decorations, moldings and signs.

“The ship is just amazing,†said Wright, who is Royal Caribbean’s senior vice president for marine operations. “All of us on the bridge are talking about how remarkable she is in terms of handling and taking these very heavy, extreme conditions.â€

Capt. Ulf Svensson, part of a group of retired Royal Caribbean captains who sailed on that voyage, complimented the ship’s stability.

“I’m really impressed with how well she behaves,†Svensson said. “You can expect her to be very steady.â€

The Florida pilots had wondered how Oasis would handle rough weather, and that question became an integral part of the experimentation on simulators at the STAR Center in nearby Dania Beach, Fla. The pilots’ feasibility study included initial simulation sessions involving four or five pilots.

“We thought we’d interject ourselves to make sure that somebody didn’t make a major mistake,†Edelstein said. “We wanted to make sure that the ship would exhibit handling characteristics that would allow us to bring it in and out of that port on a regular basis.â€

At first, they practiced transiting the ship with winds at 25 mph. Encountering minimal problems, they tried 45-knot winds with maximum currents.

“We got into serious simulation in August,†Edelstein said. “Every pilot ran through at least eight hours of simulation with Oasis. At that point, we really cranked up the conditions because we knew at one point we would need to tell the ship ‘no.’â€

Eventually the vessel’s own bridge team joined in the exercises at STAR Center. It was obvious that the $1.4 billion Oasis is a propulsion monster, with a total of 130,110 hp. Three Wärtsilä 16-cylinder common rail diesel engines contribute 24,780 hp apiece, while three additional 12-cylinder engines chip in at 18,590 hp apiece.

Three ABB azipods weigh in at 26,800 hp each. Docking is assisted by four 7,380-hp bow thrusters.

“We found that the ship could handle quite well on the simulator,†Edelstein said. “Undocking the ship and sailing it posed a greater shiphandling problem than we expected. She is affected by the wind to a great extent. We needed to use the pods to maintain the angle.â€

The ship’s height above the waterline is 236 feet. It draws 31 feet.

Oasis didn’t need tugboat assist upon its real-life arrival at Port Everglades. The largest local tug is Seabulk Towing Inc.’s 5,100-hp Broward, which alone would represent only 17 percent additional horsepower to the bow thrusters.

“We use assist tugs when the weather is extreme, so we probably would use assist tugs on this ship at some point,†Edelstein said. “But we’d probably need every assist tug in the port.â€

The ship was constructed at STX Europe in Turku, Finland. Aside from the sheer size and scope of the vessel and its amenities for 6,296 guests, the ship was equipped with some unique features. Its safety command center — crewed by licensed deck officers monitoring closed-circuit video — is adjacent to the bridge yet separated from the navigation team.

The bridge team also needs video in the docking process. “Because of the overhang with the lifeboats, you can’t see the hull of the ship coming into contact with the fenders,†Edelstein said.

Edelstein said the bridge systems were working to near-perfection on the newbuild when it arrived in Florida. Technicians were still solving minor glitches with the thrusters and Miami-based Royal Caribbean still hadn’t formally accepted delivery of the installed closed-circuit system, but neither presented the bridge team with major problems.

“It turned out that it was another routine passage for us, so we were glad to be a part of it,†Edelstein said.

Before Oasis of the Seas, the largest cruise ships were Royal Caribbean’s Freedom-class vessels.

The official maiden voyage with passengers on Oasis of the Seas was in December.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff