Enabling quality expeditions with SunStone Ships

CEO Niels-Erik Lund shares the future plans the largest tonnage provider to the expedition market

Enabling quality expeditions with SunStone Ships
Infinity-class vessel Greg Mortimer will be on a long-term charter to Australia’s Aurora Cruises as of September 2019

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2018 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

For more than a decade, SunStone Ships (formerly International Shipping Partners) has been the largest tonnage provider to the expedition market. From the acquisition of the first two vessels in 2004, the fleet has grown to 10 smaller expedition or up-scale cruise vessels, typically with capacity between 100-200 passengers. 

All vessels are chartered out to existing cruise and travel companies such as Quark Expeditions, Silversea Expeditions, Poseidon Expeditions, Iceland Pro Cruises and Adventure Canada. They operate worldwide both in cold waters in Arctic and Antarctica, as well as in warmer waters such as the South Pacific, Australia, the Great Lakes and the Caribbean. 

“We will stick to the strategy of being solely a tonnage provider of passenger ships,” explains Niels-Erik Lund, CEO of SunStone Ships. “We are not a cruise line; we do not sell tickets and we service the cruise industry and travel companies with tonnage. Since 2004 we have been looking at all second-hand vessels that become available in the market that are SOLAS-approved, fully ocean-going and with a capacity of 100-200 passengers, and we have bought whatever we could find that lived up to our quality requirements.”

Based on this, SunStone now has the commercial management of a fleet of 10 small ships such as Silver Discoverer, Ocean Diamond, Ocean Endeavour, Ocean Atlantic and Victory I and II. A complete list of the fleet can be seen on SunStone’s website.

“We do not believe any more second-hand vessels will become available in the market at the quality we want and at a reasonable price,” says Lund. “The expedition cruise market is very strong and there is a lack of tonnage. Due to this, SunStone made the decision not to acquire additional second-hand vessels, but instead to start a newbuilding programme for the Infinity-class ships.”

SunStone has signed a framework agreement with China Merchants Industry Holdings for an order of four expedition ships with an option for an additional six vessels. These ships are 104.4 metres long and 18.4 metres wide, with a draft of 5.1 metres and speed of 15.5 knots. Each ship has capacity for 120-200 passengers. In addition, the ships are all Polar Class 6/Ice Class 1A, meet Safe Return to Port (SRtP) requirements and feature zero speed stabilisers, dynamic positioning and X-Bow hulls.

The vessels have been ordered from the Chinese shipyard and will be constructed in close cooperation with Norwegian firm Ulstein Design and Solutions. Ulstein is responsible for the technical design of the ships, as well as for providing the entire equipment package, which will comprise equipment from well-known European manufacturers that have been in the cruise industry for more than 15 years.

Tomas Tillberg Design International has created the interior design of the vessels and each ship will be somewhat different depending on the charterer. Mäkinen from Finland is the interior contractor responsible for all public spaces, passenger and crew cabins.

“Based on the close cooperation between the shipyard, SunStone, Ulstein Design, Tillberg Design and Mäkinen, we are convinced that we are getting a cruise vessel of European standard, with European equipment, assembled in China,” says Lund.

The detailed technical specifications for the first three Infinity-class vessels have been finalised and signed with the shipyard. In March 2018, the steel was cut for the first vessel, Greg Mortimer, which will be on a long-term charter to Australia’s Aurora Cruises. Greg Mortimer’s keel was laid in June 2018 and the vessel will be floated out of dry dock in March ahead of her delivery in September 2019.

“In our opinion these vessels have the right size, capacity and efficiency for real expedition cruises and we expect to build the 10 vessels in accordance with the framework agreement,” says Lund. “At this time there are more than 25 expedition vessels on order for delivery between 2018 and 2023. This is the largest order book of expedition vessels ever, and it appears to be growing every month.”

Regarding the question of over-capacity in this market segment, Lund is confident that demand will match supply in the long term. “We are fully aware that in 2019 and 2020 there will be quite a number of new vessels entering the expedition cruise market,” he says. “We also assume that during this time there might be pressure on pricing; however, we believe that this will be for only a short period of time. The demand in this marketplace has been heavily increasing over the past few years and we expect that trend to continue. In addition, the existing expedition fleet has an average age of approximately 28 years and the cruise vessels being scrapped are an average of 40 years old. We believe that many ships will be taken out of the marketplace within the next five to 10 years, so we expect that demand and supply will even out after 2020 and the Infinity-class vessels will be perfectly positioned in this market.”

Lund says the Infinity-class vessels have much to differentiate them from other ships in the expedition market. “If you look at the order book of more than 25 vessels, you will see that they are very different,” says Lund. “Many of the vessels are very high-class, very large vessels with a length in excess of 180 metres and cabin sizes of 40 square metres and up. It is very likely that these vessels will be highly successful and will expand the market for expedition cruises; however, we do not see these vessels being in direct competition with the Infinity-class ships. On the other hand, there are some newbuilds with capacity for more than 500 passengers and we don’t understand how they can provide a satisfactory expedition product; therefore they are not in direct competition with the Infinity-class ships. We feel that the Infinity-class ships are the right size and have the right number of passengers to provide a real expedition product. With the X-Bow, SRtP, Polar Class 6, dynamic positioning and zero speed stabilisers, the vessels will be some of the safest, most comfortable and efficient ships in the expedition segment.”

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Jacqui Griffiths
By Jacqui Griffiths
Friday, January 18, 2019