Industry newcomer Northern Xplorer (NX) is investing in ships that it believes will support a new style of cruising that offers immersive, enriching experiences for discerning guests who are committed to travelling responsibly and leaving a minimal environmental footprint. The NX slogan ‘Destination Discovery’ has been coined to express the type of exploration cruise that enables guests to interact with local communities, cultures and landscapes, rather than simply watching them slide by.
“As well as delivering a great passenger experience, we want to make a positive contribution to the local communities we visit,” says Rolf André Sandvik, CEO of Northern Xplorer.
One key to achieving this goal has been to invest in “sensibly sized” ships that can travel into fjords and rivers, and reach destinations that are not visited by traditional river cruise or oceangoing vessels. “We respect there will always be a market for big vessels, but for those people who want something new, more up close and personal, and that they can feel good about – that’s what we are offering,” says Sandvik.
NX’s ultimate objective is to build and operate a series of 14 identical sister ships that can each accommodate between 250 and 300 passengers in 125 to 150 cabins served by up to 100 crew members. The first is planned to be operational from 2024-2025. The 130-metre-long, 22-metre-beam design has been developed by Norwegian firm Multi Maritime, which is an expert at designing ships for the harsh Nordic environment. The hull has been carefully calibrated for optimal stability and performance.
New regulations introduced in 2018 by the Norwegian government stipulating emission-free maritime traffic in Norway’s world-heritage fjords from 2026 provided the kickstart for NX, says Sandvik. “It opened a market opportunity not covered by the major cruise lines, and we are filling it.”
Starting with a clean slate is advantageous for any owner, but the NX leadership team also brings considerable experience to the table. Sandvik, for example, has previously worked for both Norwegian Cruise Line and Crystal Cruises, and in 2014, he founded The Fjords in Flåm in western Norway. As CEO of The Fjords, he ushered in a new era of environmentally friendly sightseeing, commissioning a series of ground-breaking hybrid-electric vessels.
NX represents the next step of a personal journey to green the waterborne tourist industry, says Sandvik. “Scaling up what we seeded at The Fjords to sustainable cruising on new vessels compliant with the strictest global regulations is the best way to show environmentally conscious visitors the amazing nature and culture of the Nordic countries,“ he explains.
The new ships will be powered by a combination of type-approved hydrogen fuel cells and batteries charged with clean shore power when in port.
“ABB, with whom we are cooperating, is already well advanced in the collaborative development of fuel cell systems, and has wide experience in integrating energy storage,” says Sandvik. “Operational efficiency and safety have been our top priorities, with full redundancy built in. This combination, together with Azipod propulsion units, ensures excellent energy efficiency while substantially cutting noise and vibration, improving passenger comfort and minimising disturbance to the marine environment.”
The only by-product of burning hydrogen is water, which can in turn be reused onboard. The NX ships will not be spending long periods at sea, reducing the space required for hydrogen storage.
One key challenge for NX is that maritime regulations addressing hydrogen-based propulsion systems are not yet in place. “Using the International Maritime Organization’s alternative design procedure we can absolutely solve this challenge with the support of forward-leaning class associations and the Norwegian Maritime Authority, which is very results-oriented,” says Sandvik.
Signficant steps are being taken in the formation of a hydrogen supply chain ecosystem in Norway. “The build-up of both hydrogen and marine battery production is robustly backed by the goodwill of the Norwegian authorities,“ says Sandvik. “Shore charging infrastructure and technology is also already well developed for battery-powered ferries, where Norway leads the world in innovation.”
NX has already signed letters of intent with companies offering green hydrogen to the marine market, and intends to use green hydrogen from the first day of operation. Its itineraries will be built around those destinations that already have quayside recharging infrastructure, or are planning to.
“Onshore power, certainly in Norway, comes largely from renewable hydropower, which reduces our carbon footprint further,” says Sandvik.
The plan is to pilot supplementary wind and solar power on later ships in the series. “Each consecutive vessel will adopt new and better technology, which gives us flexibility to always opt for the best solutions as they become available.”
The ships will also be performance-optimised for maximum energy efficiency, including advanced electronics for optimal power management. It will also have a heating, ventilation and air conditioning system that will minimise the risk of viruses spreading, a solution for recovering waste heat to conserve energy and a sustainable system for effective waste management.
The first ship will start service in Norway, sailing the fjords in summer and to the northern lights in winter, but there are plans for future expansion to other Nordic destinations and beyond.
“Our natural growth trajectory is Europe, for example Croatia, Monaco, the French Riviera and other points in the Mediterranean where green energy becomes available or stricter emissions regulations are introduced,” says Sandvik. “We undertake not to hook up to stations using electricity from coal or oil-fired power plants. Charging batteries from non-green sources we see as meaningless.”
NX will also work towards greater sustainability throughout the vacation experience, in order to “walk the talk on zero-emission travel”, adds Sandvik. “We will scrutinise airlines for which has the youngest and most fuel-efficient aircraft, as well as carbon offset programmes, and recommend these operators to our guests. We also plan to implement a ‘Train-Sea’ programme between turnaround ports, as well as electric buses between certain destinations.”
Where shipboard technology is concerned, Sandvik is a return customer for ABB, which also supplied the hybrid package for The Fjords‘ vessel, Vision of the Fjords.
“ABB is committed to supporting the shipping industry’s low-carbon future,“ says Dick Björkqvist, global segment manager for cruise at ABB Marine & Ports. “Whichever decarbonisation strategy shipowners opt for, we have the technologies to support more sustainable operations.”
Sandvik adds: “I’m very happy cooperating with ABB again to enable sustainable cruise operations. It is a heavyweight technology innovator with deep domain knowledge and experience.”