Far from the glitz of oceangoing cruise ships with their casinos, hot tubs, climbing walls and throngs of passengers spilling into overcrowded ports is a quieter world of small-ship cruising, with short hops from one coastal town to the next, breakfast on the verandah and cocktails with the captain with the entire passenger list present.

Independence (Eric Stocklin photos)

That’s American Cruise Lines’ market and that’s what it’s aiming at with Independence, a new 223-foot U.S.-flag cruise ship with an overnight passenger capacity of just 104.

“People like the intimacy,” said Charles A. Robertson, president of American Cruise Lines and chairman of Chesapeake Shipbuilding, the yard that built the vessel. “Most of our passengers would not go on a large cruise ship — or if they’ve been on one, they won’t go again.”

Chesapeake Shipbuilding, based in Salisbury, Md., has been building for American Cruise Lines for 30 years. Its latest vessel, built to its own design, reflects improvements based on that experience.

Independence in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor before taking on its first passengers (this photograph was taken from the top of the World Trade Center).

Some go to vessel operations. Independence now has a 250-hp stern thruster as well as a larger 350-hp bow thruster, and machinery spaces that had been scattered on earlier ships have been concentrated in a forward machinery room with ample space for storage, maintenance and spare parts.

Other refinements affect passenger comfort. A set of Rolls-Royce Aquarius 50 active wing stabilizers make offshore hauls less subject to swells in areas such as the Gulf of Maine or Long Island Sound. And the verandahs have been widened to accommodate more furniture.

“All the staterooms on the second deck have private verandahs, which makes the vessel look better, too, in my opinion,” said Robertson, who captained the vessel for the first couple of weeks.

Above, a six-hole putting green on the sun deck gives new meaning to the phrase “water hazard.”

At 50 feet, the vessel’s beam is slightly larger than on previous vessels. And the main deck has a slight hip just above the waterline to bring the boat in better against floating docks.

Independence is powered by twin Caterpillar C-32 diesels rated at 1,421 hp each driving five-blade NiBrAl propellers. There are three Caterpillar 250-kW gensets. A Cummins Onan 100-kW emergency generator on the top deck meets the requirement for a final source of power.

With the addition of the stern thruster and the increase to the size of the bow thruster, Independence now has a paralleling switchboard.

Pilothouse controls are by Caterpillar Electronics, with two wing stations. The electronics suite, which was installed by L&L Electronics of Branford, Conn., was designed for near-shore cruising and includes two Simrad NSE12 GPS chartplotters. All 60 alarms on the boat are led to a single panel on the bridge.

Dennis Murphy (right) of Multimarine discusses a detail of the chiller system at Chesapeake Shipbuilding in Salisbury, Md. The Baltimore company has a long association with the yard.

For American Cruise Lines, which is based in Guilford, Conn., speed is not important. A typical cruise on the Hudson, down the Chesapeake or along the New England coast involves very short runs; vessels often arrive in port about lunchtime. So while Independence‘s maximum speed is 14 knots, its typical cruising speed is 11 knots.

On a visit to the shipyard the week before the boat left for Baltimore for its first, unofficial cruise in June, the vessel’s appeal to passengers was apparent.

All of the cruise line’s boats have the dining room aft (“You know they’re all in the same family,” said Tony Severn, Chesapeake Shipbuilding’s long-time president); on Independence, the dining room occupies the entire after portion of the main deck, with no table far from the huge picture windows.

Beyond the dining room, at the transom, is a boarding platform that can serve as a comfortable point for passengers to embark and disembark. The cruise ship carries a 37-foot tender, also designed by the yard, that can take passengers up to the beach on barrier islands or over to the docks in small harbors such as Castine, Maine.

A large passenger lounge with sofas occupies most of the forward space on the lounge deck. There are two smaller lounges, including a library on the Carolina deck, and a passenger elevator links all four decks.

Inside the pilothouse. Maneuverability has been increased over past American Cruise Lines vessels; as well as a larger bow thruster, Independence also has a stern thruster. Caterpillar Electronics supplied the pilothouse controls.

Chesapeake Shipbuilding prides itself on building a quiet boat, and Independence has several features to control vibration. They include two inches of concrete under the dining room floor and suspending the exhaust system on springs.

Almost all staterooms are double, although American Cruise Lines did add a few more single cabins than on previous boats. They have a hotel-like feel, with key-card access, a sofa and workspace. And the company knows what’s important to its audience, which includes older passengers: “We build and tile the bathrooms so you don’t step up into them,” said Robertson.

American Cruise Lines and Chesapeake Shipbuilding have some common ownership but are separate companies. Although the shipyard has built other cruise ships for its sister company and does some maintenance and repair work on them — American Eagle, for example, was in the yard before the season started this year — its business is diversified, thanks in part to a six-vessel contract for tugboats for Vane Brothers of Baltimore. The yard has also built small ferries and other vessels.

In many ways, Salisbury is an unusual place for what is now Maryland’s only new-ship yard. A city of just 23,000, it lies east of the Chesapeake Bay, far from the state’s industrial areas. The city’s access to the bay is the narrow, winding Wicomico River, which makes delivering boats an adventure.

Engine room detail.

In an uncertain economy, the yard has been a boon to the local area. In midsummer, employment was about 80, with 25 to 30 subcontractors on any given day. The shipyard has put up three new buildings in the last three years, and this year it won a $519,098 award under the Maritime Administration’s Small Shipyards Grant Program to install air and gas distribution systems, heaters and large doors on its two new fabrication shops, which it intends to do before winter (last year’s winter was unusually brutal for Maryland). The buildings can handle complete tugboats or hull sections of cruise ships (another cruise ship, a stern paddlewheeler, is currently under construction).

Last year Chesapeake Shipbuilding bought three acres of adjacent property and it is seeking bulkheading permits for another outfitting basin. It currently has two. The yard has no travelift or synchrolift, but it is exploring adding a 600-ton lift for repair work.

American Cruise Lines is expanding too. The company bought the 230-foot Queen of the West when Majestic America Line went out of business last year, increased the size of some of the staterooms and started runs as a 120-passenger cruise ship on the Western rivers in August.

“We’d planned to go to the West Coast anyway; this just advances it by a year,” said Robertson.

American Cruise Lines is one of a tiny number of companies that specialize in small-ship cruising under the U.S. flag, and Majestic America is not the only rival to have a bumpy ride: Seattle-based Cruise West ceased operations in September.

On the East Coast and inland waterways, American Cruise Lines shares some of its destinations with Blount Small Ships Adventures; it’s an indication of how small this market segment is that Robertson once worked briefly for Luther Blount, who founded Blount Boats, of Warren, R.I.

“I think small-ship cruising is the way cruising is going,” said Nancy Blount, that company’s president, reflecting on the appeal of small ships.

“People are interested in getting to places that nobody else can get to.”

By Professional Mariner Staff