Mermaid in Distress

Among the issues raised by Royal Caribbean Cruises’ (RCC) $300 million lawsuit against the manufacturers of the Mermaid podded drive: Will the Celebrity Cruises fleet continue to break down? Will other operators using Mermaid pods be affected? And will the system’s manufacturers be able to market the Mermaid to new customers, given negative publicity from the lawsuit?

If the defendants (Rolls Royce, Alstom, et. al.) “either do not know how to fix the Mermaids, or they do not want to spend the money” – RCC appears to be asserting that the podded system on the Millennium, Infinity, Summit, and Constellation will continue to fail. The cruise operator itself stated: “It is now crystal clear that the Mermaids simply do not function as they should, and that they are susceptible to multiple failures.” 

According to RCC, the only solution is for the Mermaids to be removed and “replaced with properly functioning pods.” The cost of doing so is being sought in addition to the $300 million to cover damages to date, confirmed RCC lead attorney George Fowler.

A spokesperson for Alstom called RCC’s claims “without basis or substance.” Said Rolls Royce: ”Mermaid pods have experienced a number of entry­ into-service problems. When those have occurred, Rolls Royce AB has worked to return the affected ships back into service as quickly as possible. Rolls Royce AB is currently monitoring the performance of some of the pods in service, and will continue this monitoring work as long as Celebrity requires that support.”

Industry Exposure

The ship with perhaps the most riding on Mermaid’s future performance is Cunard Lines’s Queen Mary 2, which has already experienced problems with the system prior to delivery. Further, the QM2 will be unusually vulnerable to pod-related business interruptions; on the American side of the Atlantic, Carnival Corporation confirmed that only the drydock of Newport News is able to handle the ship – and that dock is not always available.

According to a statement by Carnival, “We do expect to benefit from Celebrity’s unfortunate experience, as they were the first cruise line to utilize what was at the time a prototype product. Currently we are enjoying an excellent working relationship with Rolls Royce and the shipyard and are working cooperatively with them to provide the best expert verification that the steps taken to remedy the technical issues that gave rise to Celebrity’s problems have been fully rectified in the pods supplied for QM2.”

Not coincidentally, all cruise operators building podded-drive ships at Chantiers De L’Atlantique installed the Mermaid system, not competitor ABB Azipod. According to the RCC filing, “Alstom discouraged Royal Caribbean from selecting the Azipod for use aboard the Millennium class, citing costs and logistical advantage to using French products when building a cruise ship in a French yard.”

Theodore Kontes, vice chairman, technical operations and newbuildings for Festival Cruises, concurred. “We were more or less forced to use the Mermaid by the yard,” he said, citing added costs that would have been charged for going with the Azipod.

Asked about the system’s performance aboard the European Vision and European Stars, Kontes said, “It seems to be going okay since the last drydocks.”

He explained that the pods on both ships had major overhauls on their last scheduled drydocks, and that one of the ships, the European Vision, did suffer a brief business interruption as a result of a pod-related electrical failure. “It appears that the higher the power of the ship, the larger the problem,” said Kontes. “Vessels like Celebrity’s Millennium class have higher power than us, so we have less problems.”

A spokesperson for Crystal Cruises confirmed that problems with the Crystal Serenity’s pods (leaking seals) prior to the ship’s delivery interfered with the construction schedule, but that since then, the system had functioned properly.

Antonio de Rosa, vice president of marketing/sales/operations at Mediterranean Shipping Cruises, said his company has not experienced problems with the Mermaid pods on the MSC Lirica.

Problems Revealed

The RCC filing represents the first time that detailed information on each and every Mermaid failure aboard Celebrity has been fully revealed. Since its delivery in May 2000, according to the filing, the Millennium has had four unscheduled service interruptions due to pods; the Infinity three; the Summit two; while the Constellation’s delivery was delayed.

Among the technical problems, according to RCC:

• Deficient speed – which the defendant solved by raising the excitation of the pod motors from 19.5 MW to 20.3 MW, without redesigning the systems to compensate for the change;

• Excessive water ingress due to improper alignment of the pod end covers in one case, faulty shaft seals in another;

• Tearing and cracking of upper pole connections;

• Unequal excitation between port and starboard motors – solved by the defendant through a modification that also requires captains to maintain certain speed and turning restrictions;

• Excessive bearing wear due to defectively manufactured bearing components, particle contamination in the oil, and high water content in the oil;

• Lube oil filters clogged with metal particles, which the defendant claimed was due to contamination from an outside source;

• Finally, a system was advertised that would allow the Mermaid pod to be repaired underwater, thus diminishing the need for emergency drydocks. But according to RCC (and Kontes at Festival), such a system has never been made available.

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