As media and VIP guests eagerly peered out from atop the aft 14th deck, the massive, 122,000-ton Celebrity Equinox gently floated away from its dock at Meyer Werft in Papenburg, Germany late Friday night. What transpired over the next few hours was an eye-opening and historical maritime experience called “The Conveyance.”
Since 1795, Meyer Werft has been building ships at Papenburg, which is not on the sea. So when modern cruise ships are close-to-completion operationally, they’re conveyed (floated essentially) 26 miles down the narrow River Ems to Emden in The Netherlands, the entry point to the North Sea.
From there, sea trials to test the vessel’s operational handling are conducted and interior outfitting is completed.
As we boarded the 2,850-passenger Celebrity Equinox on Friday night, it was clear the ship was ready for the next step in its passage to launch. That’s about six weeks away. The ship will begin sailing on July 31 from Southampton.
The Conveyance Begins
Last year I’d missed the Celebrity Solstice conveyance because the weather conditions were unfavorable when we visited the ship. A conveyance time schedule has an air of mystery about it. It’s never guaranteed. Mother Nature plays the determining role in whether the event goes off on time or not.
Would this planned conveyance be a "go" or "no go?" This time we were fortunate.
As the sunset faded from the northern European sky near 11 p.m. Friday, two tugboats approached the ship. Lines were lashed to Celebrity Equinox to aid the tugs in maneuvering the ship backward down the river through several locks, narrow passages and one tight turn.
It’s tricky business. Tides, wind and water depth must be perfect to assure a successful river transit. At times the ship’s keel only clears the river bottom by a few inches, according to shipyard officials.
Thus, it took nearly an hour for the tug pilots to carefully position the ship to enter the first lock adjacent to the shipyard. One tug slowly pulled the stern ever so carefully toward the lock. It was a ballet of sorts with pulling, pushing and positioning – all with incredibly small and precise movements.
From my personal perspective, however, it was a bit akin to watching a sloth lumber to the next point in the road. "Are we there yet?" I thought to myself, the jet lag clearly setting in.
But excitement loomed. After all, the Celebrity Equinox is massive, with a 121-foot beam and a draught of 27 feet when fully loaded.
"They're going to put this ship through that tiny space," I wondered to myself. While I knew it was possible, given that Celebrity Solstice journeyed last year through the same lock and down the river, it still appeared to be a tight squeeze.
Hundreds of recreational vehicles lined the banks of the water basin hugging the shipyard. Shipyard officials report that when a conveyance is conducted in daylight, thousands upon thousands of guests descend to these banks to watch the festivities.
The conveyance event was impressive from my vantage point atop the ship. I can only imagine how unusual the scene looked to those people on the ground gazing up at a huge ship towering above them and passing through a tiny lock.
Even at almost midnight, visitors walked to the banks along the first lock. They were searching for the best spot to watch the ship. Buoyed by their heartiness for the late hour and the chilly weather, I was determined to tough it out atop the ship.
Interestingly, Celebrity Equinox was conveyed backwards, as it floated out of the shipyard building that way. It doesn’t convey using engine power; the high-horsepower tugs do the grunt work in making the transit happen. But bow thrusters are used to help the tugs maneuver the ship.
Meyer Werft says the pods on the ship’s stern – similar to the front drive of a car – also serve to shovel water under the hull, making the river conveyance easier.
Dan Hanrahan, president and CEO, Azamara Cruises and Celebrity Cruises, joked to reporters that he wasn’t worried about the conveyance process as Celebrity doesn’t pay for the ship until it’s delivered. "We aren’t paying for it until we get it out there," he said with a wry smile, but acknowledging: "I’m still fascinated by the entire experience."
Meyer Werft handles the conveyance process and the shipyard and the pilots are responsible for the ship’s safety during that operation. Not surprisingly, Bernard Meyer, the managing partner of Meyer Werft (a sixth-generation family shipbuilding business), was closely at the center of the action. I spotted him out on deck much of the time.
In preparation for the float, the ship’s weight is carefully controlled and calculated. Many interior appointments including much furniture, food stores and supplies await installation after the ship reaches Emden.
After a ship tour earlier in the day, I was curious as to why such heavy equipment as exercise machines and slot machines were already installed. Meyer told me that while they certainly calculate and track overall weight, the features I mentioned are simply more easily installed at the shipyard with its series of cranes, rather than later in the process. So they accommodate those items and don’t load other things pre-conveyance.
As the carefully orchestrated conveyance began and our ship finally approached the lock, the people lining the riverbanks waved. Dogs frolicked and barked. Journalists – usually antsy in waiting five minutes for anything -- managed to stay glued to the action for at least two hours.
Perfectly orchestrated, the first successful lock transit was celebrated with music blaring from the ship’s PA system. The crowd along the banks clapped.
After that first lock clearance, which seemed an eternity in happening, I headed to my cabin around 2 a.m. At about 3 a.m., the ship apparently passed yet another milestone – a drawbridge lifted for the ship to pass.
My fellow compatriots on the trip say they were both startled and awakened by the operatic strains of Andrea Bocelli blaring over the PA system to celebrate the milestone. Alas, I was comfortably cocooned in my bed in Cabin 1182 and slept through Andrea’s melodic tones.
I awakened at several other times during the night, though, and stepped to the sliding glass doors to see what was happening. I spotted the German countryside amazingly close to the vessel.
In early morning, I awakened to a pleasant, sunny day along the River Ems with bucolic scenes of windmills, farmhouses, green fields, sheep and cows. Horses in a field ran along friskily, perhaps a bit spooked by the sight of a massive ship in the tiny river. It wouldn’t be surprising as the waterway seemed more a venue for a river vessel than a massive cruise ship.
Around noon Saturday, the ship transited what’s called the River Ems Barrier, another lock along its journey. About 1 p.m., it was safely alongside the dock at Emden and we disembarked the ship.
As I left the gangway, I looked up to admire the incredible size and expanse of the Celebrity Equinox. It’s a stunning ship inside and out.
Earlier that morning, Harahan met with Travel Agent magazine and reporters from other media in a briefing. “Solstice surprised us,” he said. “We were convinced we had a good idea, but we didn’t really fully comprehend [the popularity of the product]…It worked better than we thought it would.
While in a different context, that’s precisely how I felt about the Celebrity Equinox conveyance. The transit went better than I thought it would. Sure, from a purely rationale viewpoint, I knew the ship could and would fit through the locks and navigate the river.
But staring down at that first tiny lock at 11 p.m. the previous night, I did wonder. Would it? Really? I’m happy to say it did and I felt privileged to be a part of this 14-hour historic event.
Stay tuned for my impressions later today about interior spaces on Celebrity Equinox and what’s different for this second Solstice-class ship.