Sea trials of new Silversea cruise ship include an unusual world first

Written by Nick Blenkey
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Silver Origin on sea trials [Image: De Hoop]

Royal Caribbean’s Silversea Cruises brand is preparing to take delivery of its new ship Silver Origin, following a remarkable display of resilience and ingenuity by its builder, the De Hoop shipyard in Lobith, Netherlands.

The ultra luxurious 100-passenger, all-suite ship, which will operate Galapagos itineraries, recently concluded sea trials that included a remarkable world first, the ship being operated remotely by an engineer in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Before the vessel could start sea trials, however, De Hoop had to overcome a series of challenges that began March 15 when the Netherlands implemented a national lockdown in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Relatively isolated in Lobith, a remote corner of the Netherlands, De Hoop shipyard offered its approximately 250 employees the option to cease working.

While many were forced to return to their families or to their country of origin before borders closed, approximately 200 employees—mainly skilled carpenters—opted to continue. Many employees were accommodated in an on-site floating facility, Barge Rossini, the capacity of which was cut from 200 to 100 for safety purposes.

In addition to following rigorous protocols imposed by the Dutch health authority, De Hoop’s employees were protected by sanitary procedures developed by the shipyard itself: they underwent daily temperature checks; enhanced cleaning procedures were established in the living quarters, the crew mess, and throughout Silver Origin; and strict social distancing measures were implemented, including a 1.5 meter (roughly 5 feet) separation rule and a one-way foot traffic system throughout the ship.

As a result, contact circles were reduced, meetings were canceled, and fewer people were allowed in each area of the ship. Video calls replaced face-to-face conversations, as flights were cancelled and contractors could no longer reach the yard.

Necessary supplies were cut off: Carpeting, loose furniture and the onboard art collection were delayed in arriving, while the closure of Italy disrupted the installation of the ship’s windows and galley. The stringent lockdown threatened the project’s progress.

WEATHER DELAYS

Still, the team persevered and De Hoop pushed on. None of its employees contracted the virus and the Silver Origin was set for float out, This, though, was delayed from November to December 30, 2019, by shallow waters on the Waal River. Then, in the new year, the months of January and February brought heavy rain to Western Europe, leading to unusually high water levels. This prevented Silver Origin and Barge Rossini from passing beneath the 12 bridges that separate De Hoop shipyard from the sea. Only on March 26 was a safe passage to Rotterdam accessible—more than a month later than originally planned. This left just four weeks between arrival in Rotterdam and the sea trials.

These were held from April 27–29.

NO ORDINARY TEST

“We were well prepared for the ship’s sea trial—to be held off the coast of Goeree-Overflakkee, close to Rotterdam Port—but circumstances were far from normal and this was to be no ordinary test,” says Fre Drenth, the Director of De Hoop Shipyard. “We came up against a potentially project-halting challenge: Navis, a St. Petersburg-based company who produced the computer software for Silver Origin’s propulsion and steering installation, could not reach the ship. Navis’ engineers were required for the commission and tuning of the software, which is a time consuming job and can take between 4 and 8 hours. Nevertheless, we managed to devise a solution, which, to my knowledge, had never been tested during a sea trial and would push the boundaries of engineering.”

It was decided that Navis would tune the ship’s dynamic positioning system remotely from the company’s office in St. Petersburg, Russia—over 1,800 kilometers away. A fast internet connection was estabished on the vessel and communications were tested before the sea trial and all went well. Using just a headset and a built-in camera, contact with the vessel was made.

The onboard team monitors progress as an engineer in St. Petersburg, Russia, takes control of the ship/De Hoop Shipyard

Silver Origin’s dynamic positioning system controls the ship’s bow thrusters and azimuth thrusters. As borders with Finland were closed and a required engineer couldn’t attend the sea trial, a stand-in engineer was appointed to commission the thrusters, working closely with the engineer in St. Petersburg,” says Fre Drenth. “After testing of the propulsion installation, we gave the vessel to the control of the engineer in St. Petersburg. This went very well, in part due to the fact that this engineer had a great deal of experience.

“The engineer successfully conducted all maneuvering tests, while the vessel’s captain acted as his lookout. When the current brought the vessel too far off position, the team in St. Petersburg sailed the vessel back to the starting point. It was a very strange sensation to feel the vessel respond to someone in a distant country.

“The tuning was successful and took no longer than normal. Our sea trial demonstrated, for the first time ever, that it is possible to tune dynamic positioning systems remotely. It could save companies time and money in the future.

“Thanks to good teamwork and strong expertise, we had the complete dynamic positioning system up and running within one day. The official trials took two days and, thanks to the cooperation of all involved, we entered Rotterdam late on a Wednesday night with all tests successfully completed. The feeling was euphoric.”

“We usually have a large team that participates in the sea trials, but this year was different because of the extraordinary situation,” says Vesa Uuttu, Director of Newbuilds & Site Office NL, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. “Hence, a limited team participated—enough to comply with regulations. It was a proud moment to see the ship perform as it did—for all involved, especially the team at De Hoop who have worked tirelessly to complete the project in these tough circumstances.”

FINISHING TOUCHES

The finishing touches are now being applied to Silver Origin, which is currently docked in Pernis in the Netherlands, with 45 members of De Hoop’s workforce remaining on Barge Rossini.

“We are so grateful to the professionals at the De Hoop shipyard,” says Roberto Martinoli, Silversea’s President and CEO. “In the face of such adversity, their efforts were extraordinary and represent the resilience of European industry. Silver Origin looks magnificent. Our pioneering new ship represents the dawning of a new age of travel in the Galapagos Islands and we look forward to welcoming guests aboard when the time is right.”

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