By paul motter
Celebrity Mercury suffered an outbreak of norovirus last week that was notable for its rarity. The CDC recorded just 13 norovirus-related events on cruise ships operating out of U.S. ports in 2009, down from 15 in 2008, 21 in 2007 and 34 in 2006; a 60% reduction in just three years.
Will we ever see norovirus completely eliminated from cruise ships? No, norovirus is everywhere. But only cruise ships - those unregulated bastions of lawlessness hiding under foreign flags (tongue firmly in cheek) are so closely scrutinized for outbreaks of norovirus by our National Center for Disease Control (CDC).
So, in the absence of perfection I will celebrate this significant improvement. The concentrated effort to eliminate norovirus exposure has led to innovative design concepts for newer ships beyond the health benefits. I was extremely impressed with Ruby Princess and Holland America Eurodam, for example - two ships introduced in 2008. The restroom doors open automatically upon approach on the new Princess ships. The faucets, flush mechanisms and towel dispensers are also touch-free. It is ideas like these that led to a reduction in norovirus on cruise ships.
So, in this case I can't help wondering if there is a partial relationship between the style of ships built in the era of Mercury (built in 1997) and the frequency of norovirus outbreaks several years ago. Celebrity Mercury has had renovations over the years with a complete overhaul of the décor but it still has the old fashioned heavy steel doors on the restrooms with elongated handles that require a Herculean grip to wrench open.
For this and other reasons, I am a fan of newer cruise ships. Bottom line, their design innovations not only make them safer and healthier, they also present a more palatable environment. Newer ships tend to have more reliable plumbing; quieter toilets, better water temperature controls in the showers and more efficient air conditioning in the staterooms.
Newer ships tend to be bigger as well; the new Celebrity Solstice class (128,000-tons and introduced in 2007) is 40% larger than Celebrity Mercury (77,000-tons). This means more space per passenger for a much more elegant experience. It also means there is more room for onboard amenities, attractions and diversions.
In this example gross tonnage alone does not tell the whole story. If you compare the propulsion mechanism for the two ships you will see that Solstice has reliable, rudderless pods with the propellers attached to completely self-contained units outside the hull of the ship. Using pods means there is more livable space available within the hull.
These pods are capable of rotating 360 degrees to steer the ship. Mercury has engines inside the hull connected to long shafts called screws to spin the propellers. These propellers are in a fixed direction but followed by rudders to steer the ship (technically, they are variable pitch propellers). The early Celebrity ships like Galaxy were famous for the vibration that came from these screw systems, especially in the dining rooms which were always placed in the stern directly over the propellers. The sound of crystal wine glasses pinging in unison was a part of the Celebrity dining experience for many years.
Not anymore. Pods are the first major innovation in ship propulsion since the propeller took over from the paddle wheel 150 years ago. They were first introduced in the late 1990s and admittedly some of the earliest versions had mechanical problems. But the newer ones have performed admirably. The amount of developmental design that went in the hull and pod configuration for Cunard's Queen Mary 2, making it the fastest passenger ship in world today, is a fascinating story for people who are interested.
So, these newer and bigger ships are healthier, more stable and roomier, but there is even more to the story. New ships always have the latest and best in everything, especially technology, an area of interest to nerds like me.
Newer ships have faster and more thorough wireless Internet access. Newer ships tend to have bigger televisions - such as the beautiful 36-inch flat panel displays on the Celebrity Solstice class. Not only do these televisions make for much better viewing - they also take up less space than the 17-inch CRTs you used to see on so many cruise ships - an important attribute in a cruise ship stateroom. You can do more on your television - make reservations, check your expenses, etc.
In a way, cruise ships are similar to computer technology. They were both born to the same generation and they are constantly pushing the envelope for "state of the art." They also get criticized and commoditized, but isn't taking the ingenious for granted typical for today's way of thinking?