SS Norway - Rebirth

On July 15th 1979 Knut Kloster, the Chairman and owner of Norwegian Caribbean Lines shocked the shipping industry with his purchase of the idle super-liner France and subsequent announcement that the ship would return to service as a Caribbean cruise ship. 

Few could have anticipated such a move, especially when it was noted that less grandiose plans to use the ship as a floating hotel in Florida and as a casino at Montreal had failed to materialize. 

What prompted Kloster and his Norwegian firm to consider the worlds longest passenger liner? There were three considerations behind this decision in particular: space, time and prestige. 

Norwegian Caribbean Lines, like many of its Florida contemporaries, was operating at peak capacity with their four cruise ships: the Sunward II, (ex-Cunard Adventurer), Southward, Starward and Skyward. The Norwegian-based cruise line found that it was turning away almost as many passengers as they were booking due to lack of sufficient capacity. Although seemingly an enviable situation, to refuse bookings often impacts on a firm's image resulting in a negative feeling, not only among disappointed prospective passengers, but frustrated travel agents as well. Obviously additional berths were needed, but where should they come from? 

Norwegian Caribbean knew that to build a totally new ship would require a minimum of three years time: they didn't want to wait that long. They could also stretch one, or all of their existing ships to gain space quickly, however a study of this possibility showed that only 600 or so berths would be gained at a total cost of over $100 million. 

Norwegian Caribbean Lines also knew they could acquire and modernize an existing hull, provided a suitable vessel could be found. After studying the twenty or so liners available at the time, the France became the only logical choice as far as Kloster was concerned. By purchasing the ship he could gain a 70% capacity increase within a years time. Besides that, he said, "this vessel is the most fantastic ship ever built. It was a unique opportunity for us (Norwegian Caribbean Lines)". 

Following a feasibility study involving some sixty marine specialists, Kloster successfully bid $18 million for his prize. He acquired the ship from TAG Enterprises, a French based conglomerate owned by a Saudi Arabian financier, Akram Ojjeh. The ex-France would, Kloster announced, be placed in a 7-day itinerary from a Florida port (at the time, probably thought to be Port Everglades) in March 1980, following a conversion, which would transform the ship from "an enclosed transatlantic express liner to a wide-open, spacious Caribbean ship".  

To be renamed SS Norway, Norwegian Caribbean Lines’ purchase was the former flagship of French Line (Cie Generale Transatlantique). She was ordered from Chantiers de 'l' Atlantique, Penhoet Loire, back in July 1956, at a time when the transatlantic jet airliner was already making inroads against the regularly scheduled transatlantic liner. The $74.300.000 super liner’s keel was laid on October 5, 1957 with her launching occurring on May 11th 1960, at 4:15 PM Mme de Gaulle, wife of the French president christened the new pride of the French Merchant Marine. France entered service on February 3rd 1962 and was hailed as the last of the great transatlantic super liners (Queen Elizabeth 2 has been described by many as a multi-purpose vessel, as she was designed for dual service both as a transatlantic liner and a cruise ship).

Although France was a very popular vessel during her career, operating at between 90% and 95% of capacity on cruises and 70% capacity on the North Atlantic run, she proved to be an expensive piece of prestige for the French government. In March 1974, it became public knowledge that her particular kind of luxury was costing the French taxpayers in excess of $12 million per year with the tab expected to climb to $22 million by years end due to spiraling operating costs. Unwilling to continue its support of the ship, the French government withdrew its annual operating subsidy leaving French Line with no option but to lay her up at the end of her current season. Although scheduled to operate though late October of 1974, the France end came suddenly on September 12th when the crew seized the liner three miles off the coast of Le Havre with 1.264 passengers on board. Eventhough bookings had remained at 77% level during this final season, France had fallen victim to high operating coasts, especially due to a substantial increases in the price of bunker C oil: her fuel. 

How did Kloster and Norwegian Caribbean Lines hope to turn this French liability into a Scandinavian asset? 

The answer, in part, lay in the way the ship would be employed in the future. As France, she was required to offer an express North Atlantic service geared towards a two-class operation. To maintain the required service speed of 30,5 knots France burned a staggering 700 tons of expensive bunker C oil for each 24 hours spent at full speed. As a leisurely cruise ship, speed could be reduced to a maximum of 21 knots (16-18 knots during normal cruising). This reduction in speed would result in a 66% saving on oil costs, as she would now require only 228 tons of fuel every 24 hours. This reduction in speed and its related savings would be accomplished by taking forward engine room out of service and removing the two outer screws. The remaining aft engine room would be redesigned to drive the inner pair of propellers. The ships boiler and turbine installations would be fully automated with remote controls on the bridge. 

In addition to the less demanding schedule, the ship would be aimed at a different type of market. Kloster explained, "we market our cruises to middle America. I'm sure you can still make money selling luxury, but I have a personal 'but' about that. As a businessman, I feel more comfortable catering to the middle class. In our world, it really makes more sense". 

As a result of this change in strategy, plus the automation, crew requirements could be changed. The new ship would carry a reduced crew of 785 (initial estimations) instead of France's 1300, resulting in additional economical benefits. 

Norway's refit, which originally was expected to cost some $42 million, was to be carried out at the computerized shipyard of Hapag Lloyd Werft G.m.b.h. in Brenerhaven, West Germany. Major structural work to be undertaken included lengthening the Sun Deck, boat deck and verandah deck, and the addition of 120 new cabins. Many of the existing public rooms were to be either refurbished or totally reconstructed for her new role. Thankfully, the ship's distinctive twin trapezoidal funnels with their horizontal ailerons were spared, even though at one point in the design stage a single flat topped funnel aft had been seriously considered. 

Moving Norway from her lay up in France to the ship builders yard should have been a routine task, however, the opposition to the shift by the Communist-led French labor union General Labor Confederation had not been anticipated. The initial attempt to tow the vessel out of Le Havre was foiled by some 150.000 French workers who parked their cars on the locks leading from the port, thus shutting down the harbor. The workers felt conversion work should have been undertaken in a French shipyard, eventhough their own government candidly admitted that the bids made by the French unionists were "way out of line". If carried out in France, the refit would have cost roughly 20% more and would have required 3,5 months more time to complete. Finally, on August 18th, amidst many French tears, ex-France left her lay-up berth in tow of the French tug “Abeille Provence” and a couple of Dutch tugs, arriving at Hapag Lloyd on August 22nd. Super cruise ship Norway was about to be born, her gestation was planned to take a mere 32 weeks. 

Transforming a super-liner into a cruise ship obviously presented problems. Naval architect and designer Tage Wandborg of the Danish firm of Knut E Hansen was given the task of solving each problem as they arose. Wandborg was no stranger to cruise ships, having experience since 1967 working on the designs of some 30 of Norway's contemporaries. Assisting Wandborg would be New York interior designer Anjelo Donghia. Donghia's job would be to assist in redesigning the public rooms and redecorating the 945 passenger cabins. 

Quote from an October 1979 article in People magazine: 

An even greater challenge for Donghia and his staff of 80 is redoing 50 suites and all the public rooms of the S.S. France, which, rechristened the S.S. Norway, will soon sail as a Caribbean cruise ship. After spending a week in Le Havre photographing and measuring the 66,000-ton liner, Donghia says, "The whole ship will be opened up to sun and air. I want to give the impression of being totally entertained—to re-create the feel of the old J.P. Morgan yacht." His innovations will include a disco with a glass-wall view of the swimming pool and staterooms done in natural fabrics, plump furniture and shuttered portholes. He sums up airily, "They wanted, you know, my look."

One of the immediate problems facing Wandborg was that of maneuverability. The 1.035 feet long liner would be required to maneuver in confined harbor areas where it would be impossible for the ship to maintain headway. To solve this problem, Norway was fitted with bow thrusters and special transversal propellers: three forward and two aft. Following these installations Norway now had a maneuverability she had never experienced before as she could also be turned without the assistance of tugs. 

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A Norwegian Caribbean Lines publicity image of noted architect Tage Wandborg at work describing his work on the conversion of the SS Norway. The drawing of the SS Norway which can be seen in the background of this image, is now in my private collection. 

Yet another problem was a result of the ships 34 foot draft coupled with the shallow harbors she would serve. As Norway would not be able to dock directly pier side, some system had to be devised for getting the ship's estimated 1.900 passengers (+) ashore in a hurry. Little Norway 1 and Little Norway 2 became the answer. The pair 400-passenger tenders (capacity later increased to 450), referred to by NCL officials as "shore launches". The launches were carried forward on the Norway and featured a fold down ramp forward, which were akin to the ramps of WW2 landing crafts.  Passengers were able to land directly on the beach without getting their feet wet. The Little Norways were able to off load the Norway in less than an hour, saving some 25 minutes over the conventional tender service at Saint Thomas. 

Still another difficulty facing Wandborg was the problem of orienting passengers and crew alike once they were aboard the mammoth floating resort. With the ship as the featured attraction, NCL officials wanted passengers to become familiar with their ship almost immediately upon boarding.  George Taylor, a graphic designer and partner with Taylor, Graboski Associates in Miami, created a system which matched color design with easily recognizable pictures of deck symbols, thus allowing passengers to know at a glance where they were aboard the Norway. In addition, general directional signs were erected, printed in English, Spanish and German for the benefit of passengers. The ships system of color-coding was believed to be unique and was carried throughout the vessel. 

The major problem facing Norwegian Caribbean and the designers, however, was the task of transforming a transatlantic liner with an emphasis on indoor activities, two classes and ocean crossing speed into a cruise ship of the 1980's. A decision had to be made on a theme for the ship, which facilities had to be either rebuilt or added. The end product would be a twelve deck cruise ship named Norway capable of carrying a maximum of 2.400 passengers (1.900 in regular cruise service). 

A tour of the Norway revealed the various decisions made regarding her best use. Overall she was given two themes, one reflecting the spirit of the ship's native land, Norway, and the other being designed to have a Caribbean feel. Twenty-six different original carpet patterns were designed and milled to help create the desired effects. All were tied in with the ship's unique system of color-coding. 

All existing cabins aboard the Norway were redecorated. Some $800.000 worth of art was hung on board the ship including 100 paintings, 50 tapestries, 1400 graphic prints and 200 posters. In addition, 120 new cabins, 24 luxury cabins and eight penthouse suites were installed on the Fjord deck and Pool Decks. All cabins, as would be expected, included full air conditioning, private facilities and closed circuit television. 

Norway's uppermost passenger deck has become the Sun Deck. Located here was the intimate Sun Spot Bar and one of the ship's two outdoor swimming pools. A nude sunbathing area, the Silt, was found aft on this deck in a secluded area. 

The Verandah deck, which formerly housed most of the major first class public rooms, was converted into the ship's promenade or "main streets" and was thereafter known as the International Deck. The main streets were divided into the Champs Elysees on starboard side and Fifth Avenue on port side. The shipboard shopping promenade contained "It's a small world" (a children's boutique), The Scandinavium (a Norwegian shop), The Straw Market (a West Indian Workshop complete with a native craftsman), A Touch of Gold (a high quality jewelry shop), East of Eden (a Chinese boutique), a cruise wear boutique, a flower shop, and a gift shop. The Club Internationale was fond aft of the shops in what was once the First Class Smoking Room. Its original decor was retained to show what a public room on a classic transatlantic liner once was like. Mid-ships on the site of the former Grand Salon was the Checkers Cabaret. This room was decorated in a red and black onyx checkerboard pattern. Checkers Cabaret was a 400-seat nightclub, which could be entered, in the evening hours from Fifth Avenue. During the day, passengers wishing to wine or dine on this deck had their choice of the West Indies Bar, Ice Cream Parlor, The Great Outdoor Restaurant (located all the way aft), Windjammer Bar and the Cafe de Paris. The latter was a recreation of a French outdoor cafe complete with sidewalk umbrellas. The deck also contained a 36-seat chapel, the Ibsen Library (also left with it's original decor) and the Shore Excursions Office. 

The Pool deck, directly below and formerly known as the Promenade Deck, had also been altered for the ship's new role. Adding 34 new outside suites featuring two lower beds each, had eliminated the promenade itself. The bulk of the 669-seat full stage Saga Theater was located mid-ships with a balcony opening on the International Deck above. Described as the largest theater afloat, the facility featured top-name entertainment, Vegas style revues, and musical comedy routines. 

Norway regularly carried 23 entertainers and 35 musicians. The theater offered a complete outside lobby or foyer, plus the Saga Bar. The Monte Carlo Casino room aft of this replaced the former Tourist Class Smoking Room. Although the original walls and ceilings were retained, a new floor, new furniture, sculpure, and fixtures were installed. This gaming room featured bingo, sixty slot machines and electronic black jack. Kloster himself vetoed live gambling on board Norway. Further aft on this deck is the North Cape Lounge which occupied the former Tourist Class Grand Salon. This lounge backed on the Lido Bar, which opened onto the ship's second outdoor pool area.

Located below, on the Viking Deck, was a "A Club Called Dazzles" which replaced the ship's former topside pool and gymnasium. This discothèque incorporated neon and strobe lightening into its ceiling and a 3,3 ton glass floor. One wall looked directly into the lighted outdoor pool above and the room featured an indented railing designed to hold passengers drinks while they were watching the dance floor. 

“A” Deck, the home of the ship's two dining rooms, became the Atlantic Deck. The former Tourist Class dining room aft was renamed the Leeward Dining Room whereas the First Class Dining Room was renamed Windward Dining Room. The latter seated 500 passengers and featured an original domed ceiling. The aft dining room, which seated 760 had a two-tier design with spiral staircase linking the two levels. Major meals were served using two sittings per meal. The midnight buffet was split between one of the dining rooms and the outdoor restaurant on the International Deck. 

Finally, on Dolphin Deck, the lowermost passenger deck, the spa was located. It included a new indoor pool, a health club and a gymnasium. 

Norway now offered 65.000 square feet of open deck space. Additional areas were acquired by extending decks both fore and aft and out over the ships sides. Norway, with her aircraft carrier or cantilevered design aft, featured more open deck space than any other ship currently in service at the same time. 

The ship was in fact the featured attraction as far as Norwegian Caribbean Lines was concerned, thus a 7-day itinerary featured only two ports of call initially. 

The ship would sail from Miami on Sundays at 6 PM (with first inaugural sailing on Sunday, June 1st 1980 as planned). Miami, by the way, succeeded in wresting the big ship from its rival, Port Everglades, by spending $1.2 million to both deepen and straighten its main ship channel. A turn in the channel previously made it impossible for large ships like the Norway to dock directly in the Dade County Seaport. Once a cruise was underway, Norway headed directly for Little San Salvador, a resort island purchased by Norwegian Caribbean for $3.5 million. Passengers spent approximately 7 hours on what NCL billed as their "own uninhabited tropical Out Island, never visited by a cruise ship before". Little San Salvador readily served as the setting for an NCL cruise innovation, the beach party. Norway next sailed to Saint Thomas where she spent the entire day allowing her passengers to do duty free shopping ashore. Out of her seven days, however, some five were spent cruising at sea, emphasizing the fact that Norway was indeed the destination in herself, not the ports of call. They merely served as diversions to the some 85 shipboard activities featured daily. 

Norwegian Caribbean Lines original intent was to sail Norway empty from Germany to Florida. It was subsequently decided to offer a pre-innagural transatlantic crossing for a limited number of passengers sailing from Oslo on May 5th and Southampton on May 7th, with a gala New York arrival on May 16th. The firm also elected to offer a 6-day round trip cruise to Bermuda leaving New York on May 18th. Word that former France was making a once in a lifetime nostalgia trip across the Atlantic swept the travel industry by storm, and within two weeks all 1.000 berths had been sold out with a long waiting list. 

Not everything went as planned however. The work aboard could not be completed in time for the transatlantic crossing and it was decided to send 500 shipyard employees over on the positioning voyage in order to carry out the remaining work. In addition, while steaming toward her first destination, it was learned that her plumbing had become fouled with sand from the shallow harbor floor at Bremerhaven. Following delays at Oslo, where 870 passengers boarded, a decision was made to bump another 124 passengers expecting to embark at Southampton to make room for 100 additional plumbers. 

Finally, a decision was made to scrub the New York to Bermuda cruise in order to allow for more time to correct the plumbing problems and complete the remaining outfitting tasks. 

SS Norway’s maiden arrival at New York (a Francis J. Duffy photograph)

Nothing, including Norway's teething problems could detract from her welcome at Oslo. As the ship proceeded around the Norwegian coast on her scheduled voyage home, a flotilla of over a thousand crafts which included motorboats, sailboats and even canoes, joined her. Once she entered Oslo, thousands of Norwegians crowded the docks cheering her arrival and hoping to get on board for a look around. 45.000 visitors toured the ship during the next 36 hours. Norway's only Yellow New York Cab was hoisted aboard and driven up and down the Champs Elysees as a publicity stunt. His Royal Highness, King Olav V joined actors Rock Hudson, Burl Ives, Tony Randall and Liv Ullmann, plus 500 other prominent guests, for a special United Nations roast reindeer benefit dinner. Actor Tony Randall spoke warmly of the Norway "The boat is so big - so enormous - you really think it’s the biggest thing you have ever seen in your life".

While on the subject of the United Nations, Norway flew the United Nations flag in defense to the 25 nationalities represented in her crew, eventhough she was actually registered in Norway. She was the first passenger ship - and throughout her career, the only cruise ship, to be accorded this honorable privilege. 

Captain Torbjørn Hauge, a 44-year old Norwegian was at Norway's helm. His seagoing career spanned nearly 30 years, having begun at the age of 15 when he worked as a deckhand. Like many others, Captain Hauge worked his way up through the ranks becoming an officer in the late 1950's and taking command of his first passenger ship, the Bergensfjord (ex-Degrasse, ex-Rasa Sayang, ex-Golden Moon) in 1970. He distinguished himself during the sea transfer of passengers from QE2 to his own ship, the Sea Venture (ex-Pacific Princess) in 1974. Captain Hauge supervised Norway's refit at Bremerhaven, where he was in charge of a skeleton crew including French advisors. 

By the time Norway's refit had been completed, the cost of her transformation had risen from the original estimate of $40 million to some $65 million. With bookings for her first month of operation already at 90-95% of capacity, however, Norwegian Caribbean Lines was confident that not only would the vessel add up to 60.000 cruise passengers a year to their annual carryings, but that she would be profitable. The shipping line predicted that with a load factor of 80% the company would be able to make back its $100 million investment within seven to eight years. As they believed Norway's economic life to be at least 20 years, the ship should prove to be an attractive addition to the NCL fleet. Norwegian Caribbean Lines was so confident of Norway's success, in fact, that they had set a new ship project in motion. They had solicited "proposal bids" from several shipyards for a 30.000-grt passenger liner with a capacity of 1.000 passengers as early as 1982. 

Ex super-liner France, once something of a floating dinosaur, seemed to have spawned success for Norwegian Caribbean Lines in her new guise as the super cruise ship Norway. 

*** In closing: 

By the very fact that the Norway was the largest cruise ship afloat and the first of its kind, a great deal of skeptical speculations and careful monitoring was done by the press in her first years of operation. We must note that few ships enter service without any kind of teething problems. Because of her size and importance to the travel industry, her every problem was reported widely. Remembering her story is not to be critical of her success, but rather to detail the historical facts surrounding her life. 

During her trials, Norway astounded her designers by achieving a maximum speed of 25 knots. It had originally been calculated that the removal of one set of engines would limit her maximum speed to some 21 knots.  Norway further impressed technicians by turning in her own length in seven minutes without assistance of tugs. She would be called upon to repeat this defeat many times during her long career. 

Her transatlantic positioning voyage was not without problems, as was recorded by many medias. The causes of her much discussed plumbing problems were two-fold: first the very thrusters that gave her much maneuverability, churned up so much sand and sludge which was sucked up in to the sanitary water intake, resulting in blockages causing cabins on two of the accommodation decks to be flooded. Additional plumbing woes resulted from indiscriminate use of the ship's lavatories during the dry-docking. Unfortunately these facilities had not been checked out before the Norway left for her homeland. 

In order to placate passengers aboard at the time of her transatlantic crossing, owner Knut Kloster ordered the ship's bars opened for free drinks throughout the crossing. In addition, all passengers were given a 20% discount on the original fare paid. The soaring cost of this positioning voyage was reported to reach some $1.5 million in losses. 

Although Norway entered service on June 1st as scheduled, she was not totally ready for her inaugural cruise. Because she was not up to NCL's high standard, all passengers received a 50% of cruise fare paid credit towards any future NCL cruise. This made the maiden cruise a real travel bargain in addition to the cruising opportunity of a lifetime. 

NCL quickly learned that her itinerary had to be reversed. Although the idea of visiting the island of Little San Salvador first seemed good, officials of the firm did not count on passengers, unaccustomed to the tropical sun and therefore getting severe sunburns during the beach party due to overexposure. As a result, Little San Salvador was instead visited on Fridays, with the ship heading directly from Miami to Saint Thomas for a Wednesday port call. 

Additionally, NCL learned along with other cruise firms of the time, that it was desirable to offer as many ports as possible. As a result, plans were underway to include a call at San Juan as soon as they had deepened the approach ship channel for the ship.  The calls were planned to start in July, the month after she had started sailing. That would give the ship a 3-port itinerary. 

Finally, the ship's desalination plant developed a leak during Norway's fourth cruise. Water supplies to the cabins had to be curtailed until the ship could sail into Freeport instead of calling at Little San Salvador, as she needed to take on fresh water for consumption. 

In spite of it all, Norway was doing very well. She achieved an overall 81% occupancy rate for the first 6 months of her anticipated operation. That figure was very important, for it assured that the Norway exceed her operation margins of profit. 

Rewritten by Jan-Olav Storli, and based on information in a story originally written by Peter T. Eisele.

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A huge step forward in time, in 1990 the ship was considerably rebuilt by adding two new decks, thus most likely extending her life expectancy. The rebirth of the new mega liner was complete: a conversion which was already planned right after when the ship was bought from the French. Now, with the 1990 conversion, once again, she became the largest cruise ship in the world.
(Photo of SS Norway in Bremerhaven, autumn 1990, private collection).

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