From steel-cutting to maiden voyage – the ten stages of building a cruise ship (and what all those maritime terms and traditions really mean)


Making a start: Steel-cutting for Spectrum of the Seas (Picture: Royal Caribbean)

Most passengers only see cruise ships when they’re finished and gleaming, with experienced crew and everything working smoothly.

But there are many stages from shipyard to sea – some keeping up centuries-old maritime traditions and others much more concerned with modern-day publicity.

Here are the ten key stages in building a cruise ship…

1) Steel cutting

The start of the process is cutting the very first piece of steel – the beginning of, maybe, 350,000 parts. Often, this is now done as a ceremony in front of guests and the media – and the finished item isn’t a boring square bit of hull but a miniature outline of the ship itself, as happened with MSC Grandiosa in Saint-Nazaire, France.

First cut: The shape cut at the ceremony for MSC Grandiosa (Pictures: Dave Monk)

2) Keel laying

The next major public step is laying down the keel – now not a single beam but the main basis of the hull. This is often linked to a coin ceremony for good fortune. Coins used to be laid underneath the keel but are now more likely to be welded in, or even placed in a position to be displayed when the ship is completed, as was the case with MSC Bellissima in Saint-Nazaire, France.

Good luck: The keel of MSC Bellissima and one of the coins (Pictures: Dave Monk)

3) Shipyard visit

When the ship is almost ready to leave dock, cruise company executives and the media will often visit the yard for a hard-hat tour of what is, essentially, still a building site with trailing wires, bare floors and scaffolding everywhere. But there is enough of the ship finished to give valuable publicity – even if visitors have to be given virtual reality headsets to see what the completed product will look like, such as happened on Harmony of the Seas.

Unfinished: Work on Harmony of the Seas at the shipyard (Pictures: Dave Monk)

4) Float out

When the hull and most of the superstructure – the public quarters – are finished, the ship is floated out of dry dock, again involving a ceremony that might include a ‘madrina’, a kind of surrogate godmother to the ship, who will turn on the pumps to let water into the dock or even smash a champagne bottle on the bow. The ship still isn’t finished – a lot of work will still be done on the cabins and public areas once it’s afloat – but it means the dock is free for the next building project.


Touching the water: Viking Sky is floated out (Picture: Viking Cruises)

5) Sea trials

Once afloat, the ship has to be put through its paces, to check the engines, navigation and other systems are working properly. The captain will take it to maximum speed, turn the ship at its tightest angle and check how quickly it stops in a form of ‘test drive’. Representatives of the shipyard will be on board too to anxiously await his or her feedback.


Testing time: Carnival Horizon on sea trials (Picture: Carnival Cruise Line)

6) Handover

When the captain is happy with the ship, it will be officially handed over from the builders to the owners, again involving another ceremony attended by the media.


From us to you: Majestic Princess is handed over at a shipyard in Italy

7) Shakedown voyage

The crew and entertainers will normally be experienced staff who have served on other ships in the fleet but they still have to learn their way around the newcomer. This can be put to the test during a shakedown voyage carrying only company executives, media and trade partners, such as travel agents. Last-minute finishing touches might still have to be done on the ship.


Shake it all over: Entertainment on Europa 2’s shakedown voyage (Picture: Dave Monk)

8) Inaugural voyage

Sometimes combined with the shakedown voyage, or even the maiden voyage, this is the first chance for paying passengers to see the ship. It will probably take place somewhere between the shipyard and the ship’s final destination. In Britain, we are lucky that Southampton lies between European yards and US homeports, so inaugural voyages are sometimes conducted here.


Cool reception: The ice bar on the inaugural voyage of Norwegian Getaway (Picture: Dave Monk)

9) Christening

The big event. A ‘godmother’ – often a public figure and traditionally a woman – will name the ship in a ceremony attended by cruise line executives, media, trade partners and maybe some lucky passengers. The christening will normally take place in the ship’s final homeport, maybe weeks or sometimes months, after it has been ‘launched’ and will normally involve smashing a bottle of champagne (or English sparkling wine, in the case of P&O Cruises ship Britannia). More recently, ‘godmothers’ have also been men or groups of people, such as the crew of The Love Boat when Regal Princess was christened in Fort Lauderdale.


‘I name this ship…’: The Queen christens P&O Cruises ship Britannia (Picture: Dave Monk)

10) Maiden voyage

This can happen before or after the christening, though traditionally it is the first one after the ship is named. As well as shakedown and inaugural voyages, it may be preceded by ‘pre-inaugural’ or ‘pre-maiden’ trips as well, especially if the ship is delivered ahead of schedule, so the event is not as exclusive as it may first appear, though the cruise line will pull out all the stops for its maiden passengers.

Independence of the Seas arrives Southampton.

In service: Independence of the Seas on its maiden voyage (Picture: Royal Caribbean)

Now the ship is properly on its way. In a few years it will go into dry dock again for refits and refurbishments – and another round of publicity.

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