The considerable and luxurious bulk of the world's largest cruise ship is today bearing down on an unsuspecting Isle of Wight.
The newly completed Oasis of the Seas – five times the size of the Titanic, three times that of the QE2, and 40 per cent larger than any other cruise ship afloat – is preparing to bring itself to a brief halt in the Solent tomorrow. It will drop off 300 shipyard workers not needed on the rest of the voyage, before the 20-storey, 1,180ft-long leviathan leaves en route to Florida.
The Royal Caribbean line's flagship is less a ship than a motorised, buoyant seaside resort. When it goes into service next month, it will have on board, besides its 6,300 passengers and 2,100 crew, a 750-seat outdoor aquatic amphitheatre, an ice rink, golf course, indoor theatre seating 1,300 people, volleyball and basketball courts, assorted swimming pools and seven themed "neighbourhoods". Its Finnish makers also claim it will be the "most environmentally friendly cruise ship to date", discharging no sewage into the sea, reusing its waste water and consuming 25 per cent less power than similar, but smaller, cruise liners.
Late last night, as Oasis steamed from the yard where it was built to its future home port in Florida, this gigantic fun palace encountered one of the few structures on earth bigger than itself: the Great Belt Bridge in Denmark. At midnight local time, Oasis gingerly approached the bridge, lowered its telescopic funnels, and aimed for the centre arch. In order to avoid an extremely expensive collision, the ship opted to negotiate the manoeuvre at the lowest of tides, and at an accelerated speed so that the hull bit into the waters, and minimised the ship's very considerable height.
To the relief of its owners (and insurers), the ship sneaked under the bridge with less than two feet to spare. Had it not, what's left of its 225,282 tons would have set a further record by heading back to Finland (where it was built) for the world's swiftest, most costly, and embarrassing, refit.
But, assuming the ship safely completes the voyage to Florida, it may face further, if less visible, obstacles: a sagging US economy, questions about consumer appetite for luxury cruises, and criticism that such sailing behemoths diminish the experience of travelling. The owners reject these charges, and are readying themselves for the festivities that will shortly ensue. At the beginning of December, the ship will be officially named and launched in Fort Lauderdale, and then start its maiden voyage in the Caribbean. May God bless her, and all 8,400 who will simultaneously sail in her.