Fincantieri’s chief designer for cruise ships, Maurizio Cergol, is famously resourceful when manipulating available hull space to accommodate the dazzling interiors and public areas that have become essential in modern vessels. But even he was challenged by the requirements of Carnival-owned Costa Cruise’s latest ship, the Costa Luminosa. “To put huge things in a small box is quite an exercise,” he says.

Among the innovative features of the Luminosa, delivered in April 2008, is an atrium towering nine decks high, crowned with a skylight, a large lobby, a giant bar, a sliding roof, and an imposing entrance to the main dining area that required the galley to be dropped a whole floor. And of course there are the usual amusements such as pools, gyms, running and rollerblading tracks and a three-level theatre seating over 800.

Cergol is the man behind the Vista class that has proved to be such a versatile platform. Originally created for Holland America to Panamax guidelines, it was highly modified for Cunard’s Queen Victoria in 2004, with an extended hull and an extra deck, redesigned cabin layouts, and reconfigured public spaces. Cunard was so taken with the redesign that it ordered a repeat performance for the Queen Elizabeth, due to enter service early next year.

“Cergol is the man behind the Vista class that has proved to be such a versatile platform.”

The next Vista iteration was Holland America’s Signature class, with more redesigns, especially on the uppermost decks. The first Signature vessel to launch was the Eurodam, soon to be joined by the Nieuw Amsterdam.

And now we have yet another version for Costa Cruises, a hybrid that supposedly combines the best elements of earlier designs. Hitting the water at a rate of nearly two ships a year, the so-called ‘Costa version’ of the Vista is setting new standards in features and design.

Currently cruising the Mediterranean is the Costa Pacifica and 92,700t Costa Luminosa, while the Costa Deliziosa, a sister ship of the Luminosa, will be delivered in January 2010. And there are still more to come: two sister ships of the Pacifica are due for delivery in 2010 and 2012.

Needless to say, this is a serious investment by Costa. According to Costa chairman and CEO Pier Luigi Foschi, the bill for the five cruisers will leave little change out of €2.4bn. As a subsidiary of Carnival, the company is well resourced but it is doing well on its own account. According to Italian investment bank Mediobanca’s 2008 survey of the biggest Italian enterprises, Costa ranks 72nd in terms of sales and 12th in profitability. And to keep up the pace, Fincantieri has invested heavily in technology and manpower to meet production deadlines. Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.

Practical solutions

Although accustomed to pushing and prodding the original platform to achieve different configurations for different owners, even Cergol was challenged by the requirements for the Luminosa. “It involved a lot of different studies and discussions with the owner to provide what was wanted. Compromises were inevitable, but in the end I think he got 99% of what he wanted,” Cergol says.

“It’s really a matter of geometry,” he adds. ‘We had to reconfigure the distribution of all the public places compared with Vista designs. It was quite an exercise to redo the infrastructure such as ducting, escape areas and so on.” And sometimes things just could not be made to fit; to get a bigger opening around the atrium, the only option was to widen the ship.

The rate of construction of the Costa-class vessels has made the industry sit up. Although the Costa class is similar to Fincantieri’s earlier designs with a familiar platform, propulsion systems and other heavyweight infrastructure, the yard had to invest heavily to meet such a demanding timetable, mainly in manpower, software and heavy equipment, including two wheel-mounted cranes, costing a combined €15m.

Because they could move in all directions, unlike rail cranes, they gave the yard more flexibility. Also, for greater economies of scale, ease of delivery and ability to meet arduous timetables, all of the steel used on the ships is now produced in Fincantieri’s Ancona yard.

“The rate of construction of the Costa-class vessels has made the industry sit up.”

According to Cergol, these extra investments mean the Luminosa and its sister ships are being turned out at least a month faster than comparable vessels of two or three years ago.

As well as wowing passengers, the Luminosa and its sister ships are winning over environmentalists. The cruise line has worked hard for its Italian Shipping Registercertified BEST4, the coveted Green Star designating the vessels as complying with the highest standards of social accountability in terms of environment and safety.

According to Costa Cruises, the Luminosa is the first Italian-built ship to be equipped for cold ironing – the capacity for a berthed ship to hook into shore-side electrical power while its main engines are turned off. Although this facility takes the environmental practices of cruise ships in the right direction, Cergol points out that some of the shore-side infrastructure is not up to the task. “Cold ironing puts stress on shorebased networks and it only makes sense if the shore-based facilities have clean energy. If its coal or some other heavy fuel, it just means the carbon is transferred from the shore to the ship,” he says.

The Luminosa is a high-end vessel with 1,130 cabins, including 772 veranda cabins, or nearly 70% of the total, the highest percentage in the fleet and a clue to where the market is heading.

Meantime, Costa Cruises’ construction programme amounts to a highly visible vote of confidence in an industry that has been hurt by the economic downturn.