Powering up – A Look at Yesterday and Today

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Your cruise holiday is not enjoyable if the power fails onboard. See how these floating hotels are powered and what is done in the event of an emergency.


Seafaring vessels in the early years were only used for the transportation of cargo. The evolution of the industry changed their power sources.

The first shipping company to offer scheduled passenger transatlantic crossings from New York to Liverpool in 1817 was America’s Black Ball Line. Britain dominated the globe with their cargo shipping market, but it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th Century that ships began to carry passengers, even if the traveler experienced only a small degree of comfort.

The leading British line, Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O) saw positives by carrying passengers and commanded the marketplace with the Cunard Steamship Company, running a close second. Impressive improvements in the quality of the cruise holiday experience emerged.

Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company
Image courtesy of P&O Cruises

Over time, ships began to cater solely to passengers and resulted in such added luxuries as electric lighting, entertainment options, dining experiences and eventually to the modern ‘oohs and aahs’ found on today’s cruise ships..

Steam Engine

When the steam engine was unveiled in 1712, it created a stir and became a revolutionary way to harness power. This single development pushed the shipping industry to great heights. Sitmar’s FairSky was the last passenger ship built with a steam engine in 1984. Today, many of the existing older ships are still at sea.

They use reciprocating diesel engines to generate power for moving through the water, also known as propulsion engines. Transmission systems operate the actual propellers and manage the number of revolutions and thus the speed.

Diesel Electric or Gas Turbines

The more modern cruise ships use either gas turbine or diesel electric engines for propulsion. The mega-cruise ships use two or more systems for various needs throughout the ship.

Newer ships utilise diesel electric propulsion. Celebrity’s Solstice Class was one of the first to change over to this more efficient means of producing a ship’s energy.  Instead of being connected to the propeller shafts, the principal engines are directed to large generators to produce electricity.

This provides the ship with all of its electrical needs including turning the propellers for movement.

The first company to fit their cruise ships with gas turbines was Royal Caribbean International. The company determined this alternative to be more environmentally friendly and cost efficient than the other options. Ships can sail with fewer members of their maintenance crew as well as reducing the inventory of parts.

By driving its generators to provide power to the ship’s propeller motors, the gas turbine then accelerates its produced heat into the steam turbine. This in turn produces all electricity onboard the ship including the air conditioners and hot water for a bath or shower.

Cunard’s QM2 use azimuth thrusters. These housed propellers can rotate a full 360 degrees to allow maximum flexibility when manoeuvring the large ship in various ports and locations. These thrusters create better fuel efficiency when used in conjunction with the gas turbine or with diesel electric engines.

Cold Ironing

Another emerging trend regarding cruise ship power is the need for efficient power while in port and some ports are implementing shore-based power. This is also known as cold ironing and is an innovative and simple way to reduce CO2 emissions by allowing the ship to power down while in port and provide onboard guest services through shore-provided electricity.

Watch the Video: Port of San Diego Shore Power System

This option is clean and sufficient energy that keeps the lights on rather than remaining idle with engines running and burning fuel. More and more ships have decided to plug into these shore-power systems when available.

New Regulations and Improvements

In response to the recent mishaps passengers have experienced with the loss of electric power and drifting at sea, improvments are now being put into place. The Royal Princess and Norwegian Breakaway were the first and other ships are following suit and now being retrofitted.

It’s called ‘doubling up’ and everything pertaining to running a ship from cables to electrical systems and the engine room are doubled. If the unfortunate event of a fire occurs in the engine room, the second engine room can take over with ample power to remain operational.

Even essential services, including electricity will remain functional. A cruise ship can now navigate without the aid of tugboats, although at a much slower pace and no longer be stranded at sea. The ships are better equipped and safety measures are a priority.

Written by Veronica Shine