The First Fifty Years – Part One

The 18,416grt Song of Norway in 1976 before lengthening. She was built in 1970 by Wartsila at Helsinki. She joined Airtours as Sundream in 1997 and later sailed as Dream Princess (2004), Dream (2006), Clipper Pearl (2007), Festival (2009), Ocean Pearl (2009) and Formosa Queen (2012) before being broken up at by Yinhu Ship Breaking at Jiangmen where she arrived on 26th October 2013 (Photo Don Smith/phototransport.com)

On 7th November 1970 the brand new Song of Norway, the first Royal Caribbean Cruise Line vessel, departed Miami on its maiden cruise. Fifty years later the company is one of the world’s top two cruise conglomerates, with 77,000 employees and six different brands operating 63 ships.

It can be said that Royal Caribbean rose from the ashes of tragedy. On the afternoon of 12th November 1965, the Yarmouth Castle, dating from 1927, departed Miami with 371 passengers on board for a short cruise to the Bahamas. Shortly after midnight, Yarmouth Castle caught fire about sixty miles from Nassau, sinking a few hours later with the loss of eighty-nine lives. However, their deaths were not in vain, as this disaster resulted in legislation being passed by the United States Government and an international agreement being reached that would make cruise ships of the future safer.

Although being operated on charter to Caribbean Cruise Line at the time, Yarmouth Castle along with its sister ship, Yarmouth, was owned by Yarmouth Steamship Line, whose general manager was Edwin Stephan, a very unlikely person to become involved in the cruise industry. Born in 1931 in Madison, Wisconsin, and growing up there, far from the sea, he attended the University of Wisconsin before serving in the Korean War as an Army lieutenant, receiving two Bronze Stars during his service. He didn’t particularly like to travel and was prone to seasickness, but a holiday trip to Miami prompted him to move there.

Stephan started working as a bell captain at the Casablanca Hotel, and then managed the Biscayne Terrace Hotel in downtown Miami. In 1962, Stephan joined the Yarmouth Steamship Company as general manager, and the months following the sinking of Yarmouth Castle were particularly difficult for him. In April 1966 the company went bankrupt, and this could have been the end of Edwin Stephan in the cruise industry.

Instead, believing cruising had a bright future, Stephan joined Commodore Cruise Line as its President. Founded in 1966 by Sanford Chobol, a Florida hotel owner. Commodore arranged to charter a vessel then under construction in Finland, which had been ordered by a Swedish ferry company, to carry about 1,400 passengers and 300 cars, but was bought while under construction by a German company, Wallenius Lines, by whom it was chartered to Commodore, and became the first cruise ship built in Finland. The vessel, which was named Boheme, departed Miami on its first cruise on 7th December 1968, and Commodore became the first company to operate week-long cruises out of Florida all year, to Freeport in the Bahamas, St. Thomas, San Juan and Cap Haitien. Boheme had small cabins for 460 passengers, and a large vehicle deck that remained unused, but became quite popular for sporting activities.

In later life the Song of Norway became the Sundream of Airtours. She is seen here in Southampton Water on 5th June 2004 (Photo NIgel Lawrence)

Shipwrecked Mariners Xmas

Boheme was not the first car ferry to be used as a cruise ship from Miami, as Ted Arison had been operating the chartered ferry Nili on short cruises to the Bahamas. This operation had been successful, but came to a sudden conclusion when the ship was arrested for unpaid debts not associated with Arison in November 1966. Desperate to keep his cruise operation going, Arison was able to obtain a new car ferry, Sunward, built for the Klosters organisation, which began cruising out of Miami on 19th December 1966. This proved so successful that a new cruise ferry was built, which entered service in December 1968. The operating company was named Norwegian Caribbean Line before a third vessel was added in December 1970 as Skyward, which did not have a car deck.

Norwegian Caribbean Line provided major competition for Commodore Cruise Line, and although the Commodore operation was enjoying some success, Edwin Stephan believed there was a large community of extremely wealthy Americans in Florida who would be prepared to pay top dollar for a short, relaxing luxury cruise to the Caribbean. However, to attract them the cruise market needed something better than an ex-car ferry.

Edwin Stephan began canvassing for investors to enable him to establish a new company that would operate a fleet of purpose-built luxury cruise liners from Miami. His plan was to have three ships, one making 7 day cruises and two offering 14 day cruises, which would result in two ships departing Miami every Saturday.

Stephan went to Norway in 1968 to meet with local ship owners, managed to secure financial backing for his plan from Anders Wilhelmsen and Sigurd Skaugen, and orders were placed with the Wartsila shipyard in Helsinki for two ships of a modern design unlike anything then in service. After cutting his ties with Commodore on 31st January 1969, Royal Caribbean Line was formed in Miami, with Edwin Stephan as President. “We believe Miami has a destiny as the cruise capital of the world”, Stephan said in a 1969 interview with the Miami Herald. A third Norwegian shipowner, Gotaas Larsen, also invested in the new company and in August 1969 an order for a third ship was placed with the Wartsila shipyard.

The first ship was launched on 12th December 1969 and named Song of Norway. Costing US$14.3 million, the 18,416 gross ton liner was fitted with luxurious staterooms for 724 passengers, and the major public rooms were named after musicals, including the ‘My Fair Lady’ lounge, 448 seat ‘The King and I’ dining room, and the 262 seat ‘South Pacific’ which doubled as a saloon and theatre. The highlight was the ‘Viking Crown’ bar-lounge located on the aft side of the funnel to provide spectacular views, and would become a Royal Caribbean trademark.

The second ship in the fleet was the Nordic Prince seen her in 1980 just after her lengthening. She was built in 1971 by Wartsila at Helsinki. She later sailed as Carousel (1995), Aquamarine (2005), Arielle (2006), Aquamarine (2008), Ocean Star Pacific (2010) and Pacific (201) before being broken up by NBM Iron & Steel Trading at Alang where she arrived on 19th February 2015. (Don Smith/phototransport.com)

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