Goodbye Fred Olsen’s ‘Black Prince’

Not surprisingly, the retirement of the most famous Ocean Liner in the world  (the QE2) at the time overshadowed the announcement that the Fred. Olsen Cruise Line was retiring one of its much loved vessels, ‘Black Prince’ in October 2009. Now the only things in common between these two ships are that they are both old and both are favourites with the British cruising public.

BP Tilbury

Although owned by the Norwegian Olsen family, Fred Olsen Cruise Lines offer a very traditional British experience.

It can be quite difficult to pinpoint the secret of Olsen’s success. Olsen does not operate big/modern state-of-the-art ships; in fact the fleet is comprised of four small and aging ships. Their on board facilities may seem a little limited when compared to new ships, the food and entertainment can be good, but not always outstanding, and the fares are not particularly low.

The secret is that Olsen is a family owned business. Their  fleet of ships are very intimate and are renowned for their friendliness. They particularly appeal to the more mature Brit. The food and entertainment is aimed firmly at the conservative British pallet. The ships are easy to get around if you have limited mobility and are not overwhelming like most new ships. In fact many of the Black Prince’s loyal following would regard a ship of 30,000 gross tons as being too big.

The Black Prince is arguably the most unique ship of the current fleet. Black Prince was built by Flender Werft, Lubeck, Germany in 1966 (three years older than the QE2) and entered service for Fred. Olsen Ltd on 19th October of the same year. She had the role of a joint passenger/freight ferry operating between the UK and the Canary islands in the winter, and the UK and Norway in the summer. The ship was converted to a full-time cruise ship in February 1987.

After modifications in 1987, the ‘Black Prince’ was 11,209 gross tonnes and carried around 472 passengers.

Part of the ship’s cargo hold was transformed into an indoor fitness centre with a heated pool, a large area for table tennis, badminton court and a children’s room. In addition a ‘marina’ is stored in the cargo hold which can be deployed via her stern doors and floated on the sea to be used as a ‘jetty’ for water sports. Aesthetically the Black Prince is not a very attractive ship. In fact some may say she’s ugly. However clever photography in the Fred Olsen brochures, such as overhead images makes her look acceptable.

At 11, 209 gross tons and carrying just 441 passengers, the Black Prince was 8-10 times smaller in volume than many other ships at the time and carried a fraction of the passengers. There are no climbing walls, ice rinks, water parks, big casino’s, surf simulators, tiered theater, lawns, parks or vast atriums. You don’t even get a wrap around promenade deck. What the Black Prince does have is three intimate dining rooms and three intimate lounges, a shop, card room and small Library.

I recall Olsen’s marketing director at the time, Nigel Lingard, saying that having such a small ship in the fleet allowed them to pioneer new itineraries without the risk of having to sell a thousand cabins.

The Black Price experience created a very divided public opinions: “Black Prince is a tired rusty old vessel that should have gone to the scrap yard long ago” and “My favourite very friendly no glitz – a proper ship”. Although many commentators have described the Black Prince’s public rooms as comfortable, many have also described her cabins as ‘outdated’.

The Black Prince did  not benefited from multiple refits, costing multiple-millions of pounds that the QE2 did over her life. Many of her cabins were very small with drab 1970’s teak veneer décor. The outside cabins tended to be smaller than the inside ones and many had bunk beds. However her loyal followers have obviously been prepared to tolerate these shortcomings in order to cruise on a friendly intimate ship.

A spokeswoman for Fred Olsen said that the introduction of new Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) regulations which come into effect in 2010 was largely behind the decision, but indicated that the economic downturn and increased fuel costs were also factors. She added that the number of modifications necessary to bring Black Prince in line with the new standards were economically unviable, particularly for such as small ship. The removal of wooden paneling throughout Black Prince’s interior – considered a fire hazard under the new regulations – was one of the changes required.

Black Prince’s Farewell Season began 9th September 2009 with a ten night Around the UK cruise from Liverpool, then a three night mini cruise from Liverpool to Southampton. The season continued with a 10 night Historic Home Ports cruise from Southampton back to Southampton; followed by her final cruise of 14 nights to the Canary Islands. The ship returned to Southampton for the last time on Friday 16th October, 2009.

Update:  The Black Prince was been retired from the Fred. Olsen fleet on 16 October 2009. Although her withdrawal is reportedly due to the new SOLAS 2010 regulations, she has been sold to SAVECA for further cruise service in Venezuelan waters. SAVECA planned to use the ship for cruises between islands within Venezuelan waters then as a floating hotel there. Her last stop was in port of Santo Domingo. There was a rumor that a company was going to restore her so it could come back to service; nevertheless, she was scrapped in November 2011. (Wikipedia)

Malcolm Oliver

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