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A band played “New York, New York” as I arrived at the New York
City passenger-ship terminal for the christening and inaugural
sailing of NCL America’s new Pride of America last month. As the
song’s memorable refrain set me to singing, “If I can make it
there, I’ll make it anywhere,” I certainly hoped those words would
prove prophetic for Pride of America.
New York gave the ship a rousing welcome, fireboats churned the
harbor and fireworks lit up the Statue of Liberty. The ship’s
arrival after a transatlantic crossing from the LLoyd Werft
shipyard in Bremerhaven, Germany, was worth celebrating. At 81,000
tons, Pride of America is the largest U.S.-flagged passenger ship
ever built, and the first to be built in nearly half a century.
She’s also unique. Her “best of America” theme highlights the
nation’s diversity, beauty and history. Wandering from a Napa
Valley wine bar to a Gold Rush-era saloon or a stately Capital
Atrium, I almost found myself wondering, “What time does this theme
Pride of America is an amusement park and life-size dollhouse
rolled into one. In fact, the ship has so much going on, that
Hawaii may just have to take a back seat. Hawaii, of course, is her
destination. She’s the second in NCL America’s U.S.-flagged and
U.S.-crewed ships offering year-round interisland cruises.
Pride of America and her predecessor, Pride of Aloha, launched in
July 2004, have created a unique way to see the islands. Not only
do the cruises provide 100 hours of port time, they offer
experiences that even many Hawaiian residents have never enjoyed a
scenic passage along the velvety green Na Pali coastline of Kauai,
for example. Another highlight is an evening cruise beside the Big
Island’s Kilauea volcano, giving passengers an unforgettable
experience. From the comfort of a deck chair or a balcony, they can
watch molten lava cascading down the slopes of the volcano, into
Though the mood in New York at Pride of America’s christening
ceremony was ebullient, not so long ago NCL America had more than
its share of bad press. Indeed, many wondered whether the Pride of
America would ever see this day. The ship, as anyone who follows
the cruise industry knows, has had more ups and downs than a yo-yo
in an elevator. To paraphrase Lemony Snicket: the Pride of America
and NCL by extension has endured “a series of unfortunate
events.”A Change of Plans
The ship now known as Pride of America began as a twinkle in the
eye of American Classic Voyages. Doing business as American Hawaii
Cruises, it used two small U.S.-flagged cruise ships to provide
interisland passenger service. In 2000, ACV announced plans to
build two ships at a shipyard in Mississippi. Dubbed “Project
America,” the ships would be the first large (72,000 ton) passenger
ships built in the U.S. in 50 years. But, that plan never came to
ACV filed for bankruptcy shortly after Sept. 11. That’s when NCL
saw an opportunity and seized it. With help from Hawaii’s senior
senator, Daniel Inouye, Congress passed a law that would enable NCL
to complete the unfinished Project America ships in a foreign
shipyard, and still operate them as U.S.-flagged vessels, so long
as they had a certain percentage of U.S. citizens working on their
As U.S.-flagged vessels, the ships would be exempt from maritime
laws that prevent foreign-flagged ships from calling on U.S. ports
without calling also at a foreign port. In Hawaii, the right to
sail interisland without making a three-day side trip to the
foreign port on remote Fanning Island (as NCL’s foreign-flagged
Norwegian Wind still does) is a major coup.
Had everything gone according to plan, the Pride of America would
have been the first of the ACV Project America ships to be
finished. It would have then begun interisland service in July
2004. But in January 2004, a violent storm sank the ship in its
berth in Bremerhaven. That forced NCL to quickly change course, and
inaugurate its interisland program with another ship, the Norwegian
Transformed into the Pride of Aloha, that was the ship that
launched NCL’s new U.S.-flagged operation, NCL America, in July
Learning the Hard Way
Despite the fanfare and splashy marketing touting the unique
“Island Hop” experience, service problems soon muted the accolades
that NCL America should have been receiving. The Pride of Aloha’s
U.S. crew members were, for the most part, young Americans with no
concept, much less experience, of what it takes to work on a ship.
Some of them had not yet mastered all their duties. Others suffered
from attitude problems and homesickness, so that initially, service
was sub-par in many respects.
Exacerbated by a higher than expected turnover rate, the service
problems on Pride of Aloha became grist for the Internet.
Disappointed passengers vented in Internet chat rooms and on cruise
reviewers’ Web sites. The trade press picked up on some of these
rants, and then the mainstream press published stories under a
somewhat distorted lens.
“The newspapers and television stations in Honolulu tended to
interview the same complainers, and that may have exaggerated the
problem,” said Danny Ching, president of Non-Stop Travel in
Honolulu. “But, still, there’s no getting around the fact that the
upkeep on the ship was not what a normal cruise ship should
A year after its launch, NCL feels the Pride of Aloha’s service
problems are behind her.
“We’ve learned from our mistakes,” said NCL’s president and CEO,
The line is clearly not taking any chances, however. They have
instituted a one-of-its kind “crew preparation program” at the Paul
Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education in Piney Point, Md.
The three-week program provides an intensive course in onboard
life. Students sleep in dorms (so they can get used to cramped
quarters), and train with actual replicas of the ship’s staterooms.
They receive behavioral training learning how to recognize their
own personality type and improve their interpersonal skills.
Students also learn key safety preparedness, such as how to handle
fire extinguishers and lifeboats.
Michael Laundry, Pride of America’s assistant hotel director, says
his fellow crew members realize how much is at stake.
“They’ve made it very clear that failure is not an option,” Laundry
Veitch insists that service problems on the Pride of Aloha have
been solved. In fact, he says passengers are now giving the ship
favorable ratings of 90 to 92 percent. The line has nonetheless
suspended the mandatory service charge on Pride of Aloha until
further notice.Big and Still Growing
As the two ships prepare to leapfrog each other around the islands,
NCL America is anticipating yet another addition to its fleet. The
third NCL America ship, Pride of Hawaii, is under construction at
the Meyer Werft shipyard in Papenburg, Germany. When she enters
service in 2006, NCL will be serving upward of 500,000 passengers
per year in Hawaii (including the 10- and 11-day Norwegian Wind
cruises). That’s a lot of Aloha spirit for a Norwegian line.
Though three ships in three years might seem a bit ambitious,
Veitch says that he has no doubts about the strength of the
“People asked us how we could grow that fast, and I point to two
things. First, Hawaii is the second most popular resort destination
in America. And, second, there are 10 million people taking
cruises,” Veitch said.
Those two factors, he added, make for an “enormous latent pool” of
passengers for a cruise product that’s never been available.
There’s more to Veitch’s Hawaii vision than adding new ships. He
points to the Alaska cruisetour model, so profitably operated by
lines such as Holland America and Princess.
“Our ambition with Hawaii was to develop it not just as an
island-hopping experience, but a complete immersive experience,” he
said. “Clearly, we can take it further. But, first we have to make
sure we have control of some critical assets on land.”
To that end, the line purchased Polynesian Adventure Tours, a local
tour bus company licensed to operate both large and small buses in
Can we expect to see an “NCL America Adventure Lodge” somewhere on
the islands anytime soon?
“Why, are you selling one cheap?” Veitch responded, with a
NCL’s parent corporation, Star Cruises, Ltd., seems to be firmly
behind Veitch’s vision. At the New York christening ceremonies,
Star Cruises’ chairman, Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay, noted that his
company had invested $1.2 billion in the three NCL America
“We’re in it for the long haul,” Tan Sri said.
Though it has already been a long haul, Veitch clearly thinks the
rewards have been worth the risk. Dignitaries at the Pride of
America christening lauded NCL for reviving the U.S.-flagged cruise
ship industry. Senator Inouye’s remarks, which Veitch read to the
audience, noted that by the time Pride of Hawaii debuts, NCL will
be the largest single employer of U.S. seamen.
To Veitch’s credit, he’s not only secured a place in history for
his company, he’s effectively precluded competitors from crowding
in on NCL America’s turf in Hawaii. As a business move, NCL’s
U.S.-flagged venture was bold arguably brilliant.
“We launched NCL America for pragmatic, commercial reasons that had
to do mainly with increasing our market share in a very competitive
industry,” Veitch said. “We needed to do something different. It
wasn’t for any great patriotic reason.
“Initially, we thought of calling the ships, Spirit of Aloha,
Spirit of America and so forth, but for trademark reasons, we
didn’t do that,” he said. “I’m glad we named them Pride of Aloha,
Pride of America and Pride of Hawaii. This is all about pride.
We’re not just pleased about the success of the business. We’re
proud of what we’ve done. And how many businesses can say