The inaugural sailing of Saga Cruises' newest ship has ended in farce after engine trouble forced the early abandonment of the voyage.
It was the latest in a series of mishaps involving Saga Sapphire, the fourth vessel to join the company's fleet.
Problems began in March when strike action at the Fincantieri shipyard in Italy, where the ship (previously named MS Bleu de France) was undergoing a multi-million-pound refit, delayed its arrival in Southampton for the start of its maiden voyage around the Mediterranean.
Departure, which was originally scheduled for March 26, was set back by a week, and a new, shorter itinerary arranged – but this, too, was disrupted when the ship was held for an extra night in Southampton for final tests to be carried out.
And while staff were taking part in practice drills in Southampton, two crew members fell overboard – both were wearing life jackets and were unharmed.
Finally, the cruise had to be curtailed unexpectedly at Valencia last weekend, when a fault developed in the cooling system of one of Sapphire's engines. Passengers who were expecting to sail back into Southampton last Wednesday were brought home by air, coach and ferry. The latest setback has also delayed the departure of the ship's second cruise, around the Iberian Peninsula.
“We were naturally very disappointed when we heard the announcement that we would not be going to Rome,” said one passenger, who preferred not to be named. “It was even more of a blow when the cruise had to be curtailed. But the majority of those on board made the best of it and there was a real esprit de corps. We were impressed by the way the staff dealt with the problems. They tried to make it up to us in every way they could.”
Reparation has included a full cash refund and a credit against a future Saga cruise.
Paul Green, head of communications for Saga, said: “The issue with the engine is one that could not have been detected or foreseen. The ship will be repaired in Valencia and the subsequent Wonders of Iberia cruise, which was due to have departed from Southampton on April 18, will now start in Marseille on April 25. Customers who continue with the cruise will receive a 50 per cent refund, and will be transferred to Marseille by air or coach.”
Saga Sapphire, originally built in 1981 as the MS Europa for Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, has had several previous owners, and been variously called MS SuperStar Europe, MS SuperStar Aries, MS Holiday Dream and MS Bleu de France.
The refurbishment of older ships is not unusual practice in the cruise industry, according to Jane Archer, Telegraph Travel's cruise correspondent. “Although it cost Saga several millions to overhaul and improve Saga Sapphire, it would have cost many millions more to build a new ship,” she said. “Lines such as Saga and Fred Olsen tend to buy older ships and refurbish them, partly because their clientele like the smaller, traditional-style ships with character.
“It may well be just bad luck that the fault in the cooling system developed now,” she added.
“As ships get older, so do their engines. But the system was meant to have been overhauled as part of the refurbishment, so questions will be asked.
“Work on the ship started just as there was a change of government in Italy and new austerity measures were introduced, leading to strike action at the shipyard.”
- The Telegraph, London