Why American Cruise Lines is building a fleet in its own backyard

Charles B. Robertson explains the advantages of building and operating ships under one roof

Why American Cruise Lines is building a fleet in its own backyard
American Serenade will begin sailing cruises on the Mississippi river in April 2023

By Susan Parker |

This year marks the arrival of the first two of 12 ships in American Cruise Lines’ ‘Project Blue’ series of 100-passenger Coastal Cat vessels, American Eagle and American Glory.  

“The blueprint started during the pandemic when we were hunkered down – looking for a reason to be optimistic, we put pencil to paper,” says Charles B. Robertson, the brand’s president and CEO. 

Although the ships are small, the project has had quite a short lead time which Robertson puts down to the fact that American and Chesapeake Shipbuilding have common ownership. “That relationship is the only reason why it is possible to roll out three ships [the third being riverboat American Serenade] in one year, even though two belong to an entirely new class of vessels. We have our own staff, naval architects and marine engineers who design everything that we build. There is a collaboration and understanding that rarely exists between the operators and shipbuilders.” 

This collaboration resulted in the ships’ unique hull which begins as a catamaran at the bow and transitions into a monohull at the stern. Explaining the reason behind the design Robertson says: “We wanted the ships to have stability for the coast and a shallow draught for rivers and inter-coastal waterways. We presented that as a challenge to the naval architects and they came up with the concept. 

“Most of the catamarans that have been built worldwide are now focused on high speed, for example ferries and offshore supply-type boats. We are really focused on low speed, so speed was not an essential design parameter. Instead, we’re using the catamaran bow more for stability and fuel efficiency.”  

For the interiors, American chose to work primarily with Miami-based firm Studio DADO. “The company is at the very cutting edge in the large ship interior market globally, so it is very interesting to bring the team’s perspective into a ship that is small and a market which has a more mature demographic,” says Robertson. “To have the team challenge us a little bit and bring elements from its work around the world into our design is really valuable.” 

In order to ensure its loyal customers were going to be happy with the results, American’s Eagle Society loyalty group were asked to provide feedback on the initial artist renderings. “We made some modifications until they were comfortable with it,” says Robertson.  

The first ship to showcase what was to become the company’s new look was riverboat American Melody in 2021. “The maiden voyage was for Eagle Society members only and they were blown away by it,” says Robertson. “And that is when we became extremely confident in the new design.” 

Returning to the technical attributes of Project Blue, Robertson highlights that American is is committed to burning only ultra-low-sulphur diesel. “On this series, all the generators and main engines are at least Tier III Environmental Protection Agency emissions compliant,” he says. “That will be the first time that any ship of this size is actually Tier III compliant in the USA.” 

Using shore power supply is high on the company’s agenda but there are currently very few ports ready. However, Robertson is optimistic. “This is a major infrastructure priority for the federal government here. There is a lot of discussion about shore power for ports, so we believe it is coming.”  

American’s advantage in this respect is that the electrical requirements of its ships are more akin to those of a boutique hotel, which would have far less impact on the local grid than large ships, as they are more like adding an extra town. 

“Our requirements are smaller so the infrastructure burden on the community is substantially less, and the investment required is not hugely impactful,” explains Robertson, adding that in this respect, the company is looking at co-investing with a few of its ports. 

Looking ahead to 2023, Robertson is happy with bookings to date but says: “I think the challenge that faces us this year is a broader economic one, the prospect of recession and the ambiguity of the political football right now. This is a challenge all the tourism industry face, but I do think the pandemic is in the rearview mirror. I’ve said that before and been wrong but I’m optimistic and will say it again!” 

Meanwhile, American plans to keep exploring and will shortly unveil a package of longer cruises lasting between 30 and 60 days which will link several of its ships and regions together. “Once people get out, they want to stay out longer, particularly now post pandemic,” says Robertson.  

The company has also witnessed a change in guest perception. “A sense of security is very valuable for our guests,” says Robertson. “The idea of only checking in once and getting to see a lot of different places has always had a convenience message, but now it has a safety message also.”  

For this reason, American is now offering airfare to its packages which is “enormously popular as our guests feel that we are with them every step of the way,” concludes Robertson.

This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. Subscribe to Cruise & Ferry Review for FREE here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox or your door.

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