Rolf Sandvik is going big. From the award winning Vision of the Fjords he now wants to take zero-emission cruising across Norway and Europe
It has taken three secretive years of planning, but last month Rolf Sandvik revealed his plans for a new kind of cruise ship experience. He plans to build not only the first hydrogen fuelled luxury vessels for Norway, but to rapidly expand to 14 ships around Europe with a completely new style of cruising.
He is confident he can do it, and perhaps justifiably so, given he was the man that developed the first emission free passenger vessel in his native country’s heritage fjords. The Vision of the Fjords a hybrid powered vessel built in 2016 showed Norway and perhaps even the world that there is a place for batteries on ships, and then the Future of the Fjords in 2018 proving beyond doubt when it was built to be 100% electric due to the rapid advances in battery technology over the intervening period.
When he started the idea of building Vision of the Fjords no one believed it was possible he said when starting to talk about his journey to where he is today. No one had been able to put energy storage batteries into a ship so it could go significant distances with so many passengers. He placed the order with a yard in Norway and then went out to get the technology.
Sandvik, a former cruise ship master quietly started the Northern Xplorer project working in a single room office on the ground floor of the Norwegian Shipowners Association building in the heart of Oslo. One of the first companies he called as he launched his idea was the technology company ABB who he worked closely with to bring the Vision of the Fjords to reality.
Now he says he will be the first to show that there is a market for a 300 guest, 100 crew, cruise vessel that will have the cleanest footprint in its league. Hydrogen, fuel-cells and batteries. Three little words (don’t be pedantic) that are becoming common amongst Norway’s coastline maritime communities as the country shapes its industries away from the oil and gas.
But whatever the latest technologies are chosen to go in the first vessel for Northern Xplorer, may not be what goes into its second and certainly the 14th,says Sandvik. He is scouting around for yards in Europe at the moment and says an order will be placed soon. He has the financing and there’s state support being sought as well. But he says contracts for the fuel systems, fuel cells and energy storage will be the last to be signed, that way he knows the vessels will get the latest and best technologies his money can buy.
It is not just the ships and their technologies that Northern Xplorer will have a more sustainable eye on. The vessels are luxury in design, not the sprawling 5,000 guest hotel cities one finds with the major cruise lines (People coming on board are called guests in the cruise industry as they are more than passengers on a ferry).
The company is already building up an itinerary for its first vessel and choosing the Norwegian ports and attractions carefully. Unsurprisingly the ports the vessel or vessels will call at will need to be able to supply shore side electricity to recharge batteries and hydrogen too for the fuel cells. Larger cruise ships may have a longer range and not need to go into a port, but cannot visit from the distance leaving guests to be shuttled ashore for an few hours before having to be herded back.
Northern Xplorer’s vessels will need to refuel more frequently but will also be able to visit more destinations as they are smaller.
But the overall sustainability picture will be crucial says Sandvik. The ports which will be the turnaround ports for Northern Xplorer (where cruise guests can join and leave the vessel) will be ones connected to railways not airports, as the company drives a more positive message about sustainable tourism. When guests who are further overseas book their trips, they will do so with agents that will encourage them to use airlines with offsets and sustainability goals that are in line with Northern Xplorer’s.
Also, Sandvik adds that the itineraries will not be about giving guests quick visits to tourist hot spots (he was highly critical of what goes in in Venice for example), but being more engaged with local communities so there is more to offer, especially when it comes to local cuisine and experiences (and also encouraging visitors to spend money at the destinations to help with local economies.
New Way, Norway
It is doubtful that Sandvik would have been able to even get this far with his dream had he started in Miami, the Mediterranean area or in Asia. It was the government’s rule making on cleaning up the air in the country’s fjords. Some of the fjords, such as the popular Geirangerfjord are on UNESCO world heritage list. Very soon there will be a complete ban on any vessels coming into these fjords if they use fuels that pollute. It will only be vessels like the Vision of the Fjords and some others being built that can do this.
Norway has long had a drive to clean up its economy and become the role model for clean maritime industry. Long gone are its days of just selling its oil and gas to the world and pocketing the profit into some of the wealthiest sovereign funds. Today it has organisations like Enova and Norwegian Innovation that push for cleaner industries with project funding. There are a growing number of projects in Norway that are pushing the boundaries of decarbonisation. Green electricity producers see the benefit of producing green hydrogen for industry and transport, offshore companies that once focused on the oil and gas sector are building up competence in offshore wind and other ocean energy production sectors (wave and tide).
There is also a unique set of maritime and ocean industry clusters where technology, research and end users have built the trust and confidence to work collaboratively on project. And despite Norway not being a member of the European Union it probably takes part in more (Horizon) research projects than many of the full member of the union.
Sandvik is in the right place if his dream is to come to its first step in fruition, but he believes the business and cultural environment in Norway will soon be seen in other regions, notably in Europe, and hence why he believes there is scope for his business to go up to 14 vessels quickly. But he also thinks there will be others that will follow his lead, the more established cruise operators will see the potential and build up their new fleets with the clean-tech and fuel opportunities he will successfully demonstrate.