The Meyer-Werft shipyard at Papenburg in Lower Saxony, north Germany, is surrounded by flat, green fields. Apart from the giant construction sheds – the largest covered dry-docks in the world – the nearest building of any size is a greenhouse as big as a football pitch.
It’s 26 miles from the open sea, and possibly the last place in the world you would expect to see a giant 122,000-ton cruise ship gleaming white and bright in the weak June sun.
Those 26 miles present a huge logistical problem for the shipbuilders and for Celebrity Equinox. How do you get a ship that size – more than 1,000 ft long and 120 ft wide – down the meandering River Ems to the North Sea.
On Friday night I found out how it was squeezed through lock gates with only feet to spare either side, past a bridge that had to be demolished to make way for it, and OVER a motorway (above).
I was on board for the conveyance, as it is called. First surprise; there are hundreds of camper vans in the car park by the shipyard, full of enthusiasts from all over Germany and Holland who have come here to watch events. Second surprise; we’re making the journey backwards. And third surprise; just to make it more difficult, we’re doing the journey at night.
Actually, the reason it’s happening in darkness is not to prevent anyone seeing any untoward bumps and scrapes, it’s because we have to wait for the optimum tide and wind conditions.
So after a dinner in the ship’s Ocean View buffet restaurant for the assembled VIPs, European and US media, and selected travel agents, the lines were cast loose at 10.30 and with a tug at either end, the Equinox left the quayside and manoeuvred into position in line with the lock gates.
It looked an impossibly narrow gap, but the ship’s master, Captain Apostolos Bouzakis, assured me there was a good 10 feet to spare either side. Not that he had to worry; he wasn’t driving, as the ship was under the control of the builders’ own master and a team of river pilots.
For the next two hours, as the crowd stood in hushed silence on the bank, we waited. And waited. The night grew darker and the air grew cooler. And we waited, motionless.
Celebrity CEO Dan Hanrahan explained the reason for the delay. When the lock gates were opened, a wave of water left the basin and surged downriver. Not until it reached the next lock, and then bounced back upstream again, would there be sufficient depth for us to leave.
Then, shortly after 12.30, the ship’s whistle blew and we started inching forward (or was it backwards?). It took half an hour to clear the lock, and I’m sorry Captain, but from where I was standing at the stern rail on Deck 14, the gap looked a lot less than 10 feet.
Cameras flashed from the shore, but the crowd remained almost mute, seemingly stunned into silence by the spectacle. I’d expected at least a rousing cheer, but there was nothing. Perhaps it’s a German thing.
At least the strains of Andre Bocelli singing “Time To Say Goodbye” drifted across the water, and after a long day, I decided it was time for me to say goodnight.
There might have been thousands more spectators flocking to the river banks to see our journey, but I wasn’t going to be able to see much in the dark.
Thanks to YouTube, I could catch up later with a spectacular moment, passing a raised bridge at dawn. The most surreal event came when the ship sailed over a German autobahn which crosses the river in a tunnel.
By morning, we were well on our way, having spent the night creeping along at little more than 3 knots. And soon we reached the Dolphins barrier, where even more crowds had assembled.
Once through another narrow gap, the Equinox was in a wider stretch of the estuary, and we turned round to point the bow to the sea for the first time before tying up alongside at Emden, close to a vast VW factory.
Suddenly it was all over, and we were ushered ashore for the journey home. Bernard Meyer, owner of the shipyard which one of his ancestors had founded in 1795, and which even in these straitened economic times has a full order book with more cruise ships for Celebrity and Disney Cruises, got on the bus with his workers for the journey back to Papenburg.
Within hours, Equinox set sail again for its first sea trials in the North Sea. Next month the ship will be in Southampton for 10 days of inaugural celebrations. A sister ship, the Celebrity Eclipse, will enter service next year, and will be sailing regularly from the UK.
I shall post some pictures from the conveyance soon, and I’ll be reporting from the naming ceremony at the end of July.