Thirty years ago today, a ship unlike any other was preparing to leave the Penhoet shipyard at St. Nazaire, France. She was nothing less than the world’s first purpose built mega cruise ship, Royal Caribbean’s awe inspiring Sovereign of the Seas.
Having successfully completed a series of strenuous sea trials, the 74,000 ton ship was making ready to leave Saint Nazaire on a direct crossing to her new home port of Miami. Under the command of Captain Tor Stangeland, the huge, still not quite complete ship would carry a small complement of passengers, and a full roster of skilled tradesmen who would be working flat out to complete the ship before her scheduled Caribbean debut in January of 1988.
Of course, the famed French shipyard had form when it came to building classic, almost heartbreaking beauties; Ile De France, Normandie and, of course, the Norway ex-France had all emerged from this hallowed cradle of fabulous maritime creations. Long before her proud, graceful prow ever cut salt water at all, Sovereign of the Seas could claim a rightful place in one of the most illustrious seagoing lineages of all time.
That heritage showed, too; the stern was a curved, knuckled masterpiece that perfectly echoed the magnificent Normandie of 1935. The bow, though sharper, had the same stance and vast, soaring flanks of her soon to be great rival, the SS. Norway. Indeed, those same two ships would soon be engaged in a game of maritime bragging rights on a scale unseen since the Normandie and Queen Mary in the 1930’s.
But while Norway was classic sixties luxe re-imagined in shimmering Art Deco, the Sovereign was almost relentlessly modern; a twenty five year leap forward in thinking and tastes. Unlike her adored rival, she was a ship created from scratch, tailor made to suit and, indeed, anticipate the tastes of a new age. Everything about her stressed a confident, dominant intent.
Externally, Sovereign of the Seas was a super sized version of the 1982, Wartsila built Song of America. Both ships had the same graceful, dramatic poise and stance. And, like the earlier ship, Sovereign continued the idea of having all the passenger cabins in the forward part of the ship, while the public rooms were piled up aft like a layered cake.
Again, there was the vast, open pool deck set in a sun bowl, with two pools and a pair of bars. Above it all, the imperious Viking Crown lounge sat, high and proud, wrapped around the single funnel. The similarities between the two ships were immediately obvious; they still are to this day.
But, while the earlier ship had no single outstanding internal focal point, Sovereign of the Seas flaunted a spectacular, five storey high atrium lobby that separated the cabins from the public areas. Writ large in brass, steel, marble and vast, sweeping staircases, it featured the first pair of panoramic lifts ever put into a ship. This swaggering, still impressive piece of architecture was such a stunning success that it became the benchmark for nearly all new cruise ships to this day.
The cabins were another matter; small, modular and functional, there was little real difference in size between inside and outside rooms. In those days, Royal Caribbean’s motto was ‘Get Out There’; by which they meant, into the bars, lounges, shops and casino, rather than crouching in your cabin.
Later- and in another ironic echo of the SS Norway– a string of balcony cabins would be added along the ship’s upper decks, although there was no massive structural alteration. Indeed, the ship’s proud, impressive silhouette remains almost exactly the same today as it was when new; a tribute to a truly well thought out and executed design concept.
This vast, vivacious ship was so stunningly successful that she was followed by a pair of near identical sister ships from the same French yard; the 1991 built Monarch of the Seas, and 1992’s Majesty of the Seas. All three are still sailing to this day.
Sovereign of the Seas sailed the prestige, seven night Eastern and Western Caribbean cruise itineraries out of Miami for many years, but as newer ships came on line in the mid 1990’s the great ship was relegated to the three and four night Bahamas cruise runs, mainly from Port Canaveral.
She was periodically updated and always well maintained; like her sisters, she had a rock climbing wall grafted onto the rear of the funnel. Royal Caribbean also added a branch of Johnny Rockets, the popular retro Fifties style diner. And, of course, the new balcony cabins gave her some very profitable real estate to offer prospective passengers.
Still, it was not enough. The tsunami of new buildings that her success had triggered, ultimately threatened to swamp her. Again, like the Norway before her, the Sovereign found herself unable to compete with all the bells and whistles that a whole new generation of ships were flaunting. Only so much could be shoehorned into a hull whose parameters had been decided back in 1985.
Renamed Sovereign, the still magnificent ship was transferred to Pullmantur, the Spanish satellite of Royal Caribbean, and sent to a new home in Europe. The Spanish operator offered mass market cruises to a mainly Spanish clientele, and still does to this day.
Now sporting a beautiful, dark blue hull (yet another apt Norway echo), the Sovereign sails on seven night Western Mediterranean cruises for most of the year, and allows passengers to embark in either Barcelona, or at Rome’s port of Civitavecchia. Each autumn, she crosses the Atlantic to South America to operate a series of dazzling, three and four night party cruises from Santos to Rio De Janeiro. In spring, she re- crosses the Atlantic to Barcelona, to resume her Mediterranean season.
Just prior to her current anniversary, the Sovereign received an extensive dry docking that refreshed many of her public areas, as well as performing both essential and routine maintenance. Thus re-powdered, the proud old dame crossed the Atlantic, en route to South America.
I sailed on her back in March for a long weekend, and simply fell head over heels back in love with her. With her all inclusive prices and great range of children’s facilities, the ship is a big hit with her predominantly Spanish passengers. And, while the names of the public rooms have been changed, Royal Caribbean sentimentalists will find much on board that is instantly familiar.
The former Schooner Bar is almost completely as it was, ditto the Viking Crown lounge. The atrium seems frozen in a time warp, too, and is all the more appealing for it. The long, outdoor promenade decks, still lined with their original, plastic slatted, sit up and beg chairs, are the best kept secrets on the ship.
Thirty years on, it is nothing short of magical to see this gracious, still graceful ship sailing calmly on her way. Even after all these years, the Sovereign is still quietly doing what she was always built to do; providing thrilling, exhilarating seaborne travel to a whole new generation of fans.
I for one, hope that she sails on forever.