Once the largest cruise ship in the world, Royal Caribbean’s first megaship, Sovereign of the Seas, sailed into the dockyards of Aliaga Bay, Turkey earlier last month to be broken down and scrapped without so much as a befitting goodbye or even a celebration for its 32 years in service. Sailing under Pullmantur Cruises, a lesser known cruise line based in Spain, Sovereign and her sister ship, Monarch of the Seas, were both transferred from Royal Caribbean in 2008 and 2013 respectively. Just weeks after it announced its insolvency in late June 2020, Pullmantur reported that both vessels will no longer be in service due in large by the current global pandemic.
With a volume of 74,000 gross register tons, the 2,282 passenger Sovereign of the Seas went into service on January 16, 1988, just one day after the ceremonial ship launching in Miami, where she was christened by former First Lady Rosalyn Carter. Sovereign was revolutionary back then with its multi-story atrium, glass enclosed elevators, sweeping staircases with fountains below, a theater with over a thousand seats, 2 large dining rooms, multiple lounges and bars, a casino with 171 slot machines, black jack and poker tables, central pool deck with 2 large pools, which was unheard of at the time. It even incorporated the 360 degree Viking Crown lounge around its funnel, a notable hallmark on every Royal Caribbean ship. Sovereign was also the first ship that gave way to how all the other Royal Caribbean ships are named with the suffix “of the Seas“.
I grew up fascinated with cruise ships, somewhat in part by watching The Love Boat back in the 80s. I remember first hearing about Sovereign of the Seas when I came across a cruise ship magazine, which featured not only every cruise ship in service but those from the past, on the horizon and even fantasy ships of the future. I contacted my local travel agent to see if I can get the latest Royal Caribbean cruise brochures, showing all the beautiful ports-of-call in the Caribbean and Bermuda, and I would then pore over pages and pages of colorful deck plans for each ship. This was before we had the internet and I can recall owning several brochures from other cruise lines including Carnival, Norwegian, Princess, and American Hawaii Cruises. I also remember owning a copy of the inaugural video of the Sovereign of the Seas.
My family and I went on our first cruise onboard Premier Cruise Lines Royale during our winter break in December 1987, just a few weeks before Sovereign set sail on her maiden voyage. I didn’t find out about Sovereign until a year later, and that’s when I became fascinated with the idea of cruise ship design. I sketched a few ideas on what it would be like to extend Sovereign’s 5-story atrium all the way up to the pool deck with an enclosed skylight and multiple expanses of glazing on each side of the ship, which would provide an abundance of natural light into the main space below. Lo and behold, this atrium extension was already conceived during the design development of Royal Caribbean’s Nordic Empress, which launched into service in August 1989. Her name was later changed to Empress of the Seas in 2004.
We finally set sailed on the Sovereign of the Seas after my high school graduation in 1992. I was excited to show my family around the ship, as if I had gone on it before. One of the things I remember on that trip was when the captain announced that we would skip our port-of-call in Labadee, on the north coast of Haiti and instead steer off course to the Bahamas in the wake of Hurricane Andrew’s destruction. Sadly, we saw the destruction Andrew had brought upon Miami when we arrived safely in port.
No longer one of the largest ships at sea, Sovereign of the Seas ushered in a new era of more kitschy, less elegant mega cruise ships resembling floating hotels. She was a precursor to all that has come since but not without its environmental problems in over consumption, waste management, carbon emissions and energy efficiency. Royal Caribbean and other cruise lines have been addressing these issues by improving the hull designs, using energy-efficient engines to reduce drag and fuel consumption, solar panels, energy efficient glass, and desalination systems, which convert salt water into purified, drinkable water.
Aside from utilizing alternative energy sources, one other possibility could be to simply downsize future cruise ships to help reduce emissions of green house gases. From an economic standpoint, smaller cruise ships can be accommodated at many exotic ports of call, thus allowing them to dock right at the port and providing passengers within walking distance to unexpected sightings. This also benefits local tourism and a more authentic, travel experience, which travelers on large cruise ships lack.
There’s no doubt that these mega cruise ships offer plenty of entertainment (multitudes of pools and water slides, mini-golf, basket ball courts, rock climbing walls, zip-lines, ice skating rink, outdoor amphitheather to name a few) and dining options onboard, but I think that this is taking away from the art of cruising we once knew. With so many restaurants (sushi restaurants, 50s-style burger joints, steak houses, fine Italian dining, etc.) and cafes to choose from, eating a meal onboard the ship’s main dining room has nearly become a thing of the past. You could skip all the itineraries and still not have enough time to do every single thing on the ship. It is literally a floating resort. Who knows what the future may hold for the cruise industry after the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps, this is an end of an era in cruise travel where bigger is not always better in favor of something smaller and more intimate.