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  • JOSHUA Schwartz

Exploration Ships: How Tomas Tillberg Design is breaking new frontiers

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Tomas Tillberg and Nedgé Louis-Jacques tell Rebecca Gibson about Tomas Tillberg Design’s first projects in China and why they predict fair weather ahead for the nation’s cruise ship building industry

Greg Mortimer broke new frontiers when she debuted as part of the Aurora Expeditions fleet in November 2019. Not only was she the first of seven new Infinity-class, purpose-built expedition cruise vessels for SunStone Ships, but she was also the first-ever cruise ship to be built in China.

Despite breaking shipbuilding tradition by choosing a Chinese yard, SunStone Ships wanted to ensure that its vessels would offer the same high quality as those delivered by European shipyards. To ensure this, it enlisted the help of veteran cruise ship design firm Tomas Tillberg Design, which has more than 50 years of experience in the business.

“China Merchants Industry Holdings (CMIH) has around 7,000 employees, huge dry docks and the capacity to handle about 5,000 tons of steel per day,” says Tomas Tillberg, managing partner of Tomas Tillberg Design. “It’s much bigger than any of the European shipyards that regularly build cruise ships, so SunStone Ships knew it could easily handle the technical and steel requirements of a cruise ship project. However, it had never built a cruise ship before, so it didn’t have any experience of delivering the hotel side.

“Our team has designed interiors for some of the world’s biggest cruise brands and we’ve been refurbishing SunStone Ships’ vessels for a long time, so we had the skills and experience for this project. However, we’d never worked with a Chinese yard or designed the interiors of an expedition cruise vessel that was being purpose-built for the polar regions, so it was a new challenge for us too.”

Carlos Reyes, one of Tomas Tillberg Design’s managing partners, was instrumental in helping SunStone Ships to identify which Chinese shipyard would be best suited to carry out the project. He also played an important role in bringing together the other parties involved in the project. Once all the main partners were secured for the project, Tomas Tillberg Design’s team began by developing general arrangement (GA) plans for the interiors of the guest accommodation areas and public spaces.

“Expedition cruise guests aren’t looking for a huge ship with aqua parks and glamourous entertainment options; they want a ship that sails smoothly and has warm and comfortable lounges, dining venues and cabins to relax in after a long day of outdoor adventures,” says Nedgé Louis-Jacques, partner and vice president of design at Tomas Tillberg Design. “We put a lot of effort into choosing the furniture, furnishings and the interior layouts to create a cosy and calming atmosphere onboard each vessel.”

Explaining that most guests prioritise the destination when choosing an expedition cruise, Louis-Jacques says her team wanted nature to take centre stage onboard the ships too. “The vessels will be sailing through some of the most beautiful landscapes, so we wanted to give guests every opportunity to immerse themselves in their surroundings and spot unique wildlife from the comfort of the ship. All the vessels have cabins with ocean views, public spaces with expansive windows, and dedicated outdoor observations decks or viewing platforms.”

The 104-metre-long vessels will have capacity for between 130 and 200 passengers and have been designed to the same technical specifications by Norway-based firm Ulstein Design & Solutions. This means every ship will comply with Polar Code 6/Ice Class 1A and Safe Return to Port standards and will feature balcony cabins, zero-speed stabilisers, five Zodiac loading ports and systems for dynamic positioning. They will also have Ulstein’s innovative X-Bow hull to improve handling in rough seas and lower fuel consumption.

SunStone Ships is leasing the vessels on long-term charters to Albatros Expeditions, Aurora Expeditions, Vantage Travel and Victory Cruise Lines. Each charterer has been allowed to largely control the aesthetic appearance of their ships.

“The charterers are based in different countries and they each have their own target market, so they all wanted to modify the designs to create the types of interiors that would resonate best with their guest demographic,” says Tillberg. “Consequently, there are variations in the numbers of cabins and suites, the layout of public areas, the types of restaurants and lounges, and the finer design details such as colour palettes and furnishings.

“Greg Mortimer, for example, has a helipad rather than a pool on the top deck to enable Aurora Expeditions to offer helicopter excursions. Meanwhile, Ocean Victory has an extra bow observation deck, a heated infinity pool, and a top-deck restaurant that can be transformed into an al fresco dining venue.”

Finnish company Mäkinen was appointed as the interior contractor for all public spaces, guest and crew cabins.

“We didn’t know if any China-based manufacturers would be able to provide us with high-quality soft furnishings, furniture, lighting and other decorative elements that would be equivalent to those you’d typically find on Europe-built cruise ships,” says Louis-Jacques. “Mäkinen has been in the cruise ship industry for many years and has partnerships with multiple Europe-based suppliers and equipment providers, so we knew we’d be able to meet SunStone Ships’ expectations with its help.

“After lots of research, we were surprised that many of these partners were already manufacturing some of their products in China. Now we’ve built up an extensive database of China-based manufacturers that we know can provide us with excellent products for the remaining ships.”

Completing an interior design project on the first China-built cruise ship has been challenging, according to Tillberg. “When we were working on the first ship, there was a lot of back and forth between our team and the shipyard before everything was finalised,” he says. “CMIH would send us a GA and we’d design interior spaces according to those specifications, and then we’d receive a new GA the following week with different measurements or information. We became an unofficial quality controller for the shipyard, ensuring that all processes were followed correctly and that we stayed on schedule. It didn’t take long for CMIH to familiarise itself with the processes and the first ship was delivered around three weeks ahead of schedule.”

The project has continued to progress largely on schedule, even during the Covid-19 pandemic. To date, only the delivery of the second ship, Ocean Victory, has been delayed. The vessel, which will sail for Albatros Expeditions in winter and Victory Cruise Lines in summer, was originally meant to debut in September 2020 but all parties agreed to postpone by a few months due to the shutdown of the global cruise industry. Instead, Ocean Victory was delivered alongside Vantage Travel’s Ocean Explorer in April 2021 and is expected to enter service later this year. Aurora Expeditions’ Sylvia Earle is also on track to begin operating in late 2021. These vessels will be followed by Vantage Travel’s Ocean Odyssey and Albatros Expeditions’ Ocean Albatros in 2022 and Ocean Discoverer (on charter to both Aurora Expeditions and Victory Cruise Lines) in 2023.

“Covid-19 started in China, so everything shut down for around two months and we had no contact at all with the shipyard, but we were able to continue working on the drawings and design side of things in partnership with Mäkinen,” says Louis-Jacques. “By the time the pandemic fully hit Europe and the USA, businesses in China had already reopened and the shipyard was keen to keep to our original schedule where possible, so both our team and Mäkinen’s employees have continued working remotely.”

Twice a week, Tomas Tillberg Design’s team hosts virtual meetings with the shipyard, Mäkinen and other contractors to enable all parties to share progress reports and updates. “It’s a great way to keep everyone connected in real time, even if we can’t be in the same physical location at the moment,” says Louis-Jacques. “People can highlight any issues and we can work collaboratively to find the perfect solutions to ensure that we produce high-quality vessels on time and within budget.”

For many organisations, the rapid transition to a full-time remote working model during the pandemic has been challenging. But for Tomas Tillberg Design, it has been a natural and successful evolution.

“When we first launched the company, we had a team of around 30-35 people working in our office in Fort Lauderdale, Florida,” says Tillberg. “However, our managing partner Carlos Reyes introduced a new way of working and we now have a core team managing everything and creating designs in Fort Lauderdale while all the production is done by our team of certified architects in Bogota, Columbia.

“We’ve been operating like this for several years and our employees were already equipped with all the tools they need to communicate and collaborate effectively. Consequently, the pandemic didn’t impact our productivity on the Infinity-class ships at all. We’re very grateful and thankful to be working on these projects because they’ve sustained us throughout the pandemic, and we know that others in our business have not been so fortunate.”

Louis-Jacques is confident that the Infinity-class ships will be well-received by guests as soon as they are in service. “We were lucky enough to be able to test out Greg Mortimer for ourselves during her inaugural cruise to Antarctica and we’re very proud of what we’ve created,” she says. “The interiors were warm and inviting, the panoramic views were amazing, and the X-Bow hull helped to keep the ship stable, even in the rough and stormy Drake Passage. We’re excited for guests to try out the rest of the ships too.”

Tillberg believes that the rapid pace and success of the Infinity-class project indicates that China has a prosperous future as a cruise ship building nation.

“The Infinity-class series of ships has shown the power of combining decades of European cruising expertise with China’s modern, fast and efficient production methods,” he explains. “China is very intent on becoming a leader in cruise ship building and it’s already building the necessary infrastructure to make this goal a long-term reality. In addition to the Infinity-class ships, we’re also working with Xiamen Shipyard on Viking Line’s new passenger ferry, which has enabled us to strengthen our relationships with suppliers and made us a valuable asset to any other operators wanting to build cruise ships or passenger ferries in China.”

This article was first published in the 2021 issue of Cruise & Ferry Interiors. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

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