Silversea Elevates Expedition Cruising; Behind the Scenes with Silver Wind and Silver Cloud
Not long ago, the luxury of expedition cruising was defined solely by what transpired off the ship. Onboard, accommodations featured twin beds bolted to the floor or pushed against a cabin wall, small porthole windows, a dearth of closets, and bathrooms too tight for a shower door or curtains.
The luxury this style of exploration delivered came with the destination, and my — what sights one could see. From the icy spectacle of the poles to the rich, endemic wildlife of the Galapagos Islands, expedition cruisers brought home memories to last a lifetime. But while eye-filling spectacle was all but guaranteed, creature comforts were not.
Conrad Combrink, Silversea’s Senior Vice President for Expeditions, Destination and Itinerary Management, remembers those days. But he doesn’t long to recreate them, for Combrink knows that today’s travelers can be as comfortable on an expedition ship as they would be at home, all the while voyaging to the epic scenery and wildlife these far-flung destinations still promise.
“For too long the expedition cruise industry has gotten away with offering products that mean giving up luxury in order to see remote destinations,” says Combrink. “But expedition trips have always been expensive, they’ve always attracted the higher-end traveler. So if we are targeting a higher-end traveler that is used to flying business class, that is used to staying in five-star hotels, why would we not give them the same luxury experience on our ships?”
How Silversea Expeditions Began
Silversea first entered the expedition cruise industry in 2007 with the acquisition of the 144-passenger World Discoverer. The line hired Expedition Guide Combrink with a mandate to create a luxury product, something that until then had not existed.
“Before 2007, there was no luxury expedition product,” he tells us. “To see remote places you had to endure bunk beds and bad food. Many of the bathrooms were shared. Expedition cruising was almost like a rite of passage. So Silversea came in, and we said there’s no need for people to sacrifice on luxury.”
When Silversea announced the acquisition and plans for World Discoverer, which was renamed (and still is) Silver Explorer, Combrink jokes that there was derision among the established players at the time. “There were a lot of companies out there that said, ‘What are they doing? Luxury has got no place in expedition.’”
“But the traveler wants that experience,” Combrink adds.
The ship was renovated to bring it up to Silversea standards and eventually Silver Explorer made journeys to Antarctica, the Svalbard Archipelago, Africa, Australia’s Kimberly region, and beyond. In time, Silversea proved that prosecco and penguins can mingle quite nicely, thank you very much.
If most of the industry mis-read the market in 2007, these days Silversea’s competition, perhaps tipped off by its success, is upping its game, spending to upgrade existing fleets, while new players are coming into the market with flashy ships.
Silversea hasn’t stopped innovating. The introduction of the brand-new Silver Origin in 2021, designed around its Galapagos home base, brought a fresh new elegance to the beauty of cruising around Charles Darwin’s storied islands. The arrival of Silver Endeavour in 2022, which Silversea acquired this summer, redefines the level of style and amenities that an expedition cruise ship can deliver. And Silversea has now taken its two original vessels, Silver Cloud and Silver Wind, and provided them with a new mission, to serve as ultra-luxury expedition ships.
Why Silver Cloud and Silver Wind?
These much beloved ships were just the right size for conversion. Silver Cloud and Silver Wind each carried just under 300 passengers. By reducing the capacity somewhat aboard, each ship would emerge with a higher space to guest ratio — a requisite for today’s Silversea guest. It would also create space for an expedition team, the additional crew needed for handling Zodiac landings and kayak and hiking trips, along with interpreting the scientific and historical backdrop for guests.
While these two ships have long journeyed to remote corners of the planet, such as the Amazon Basin and unusual Indian Ocean ports, the conversion would allow them to go even deeper into places like Antarctica and the Northwest Passage. The project would involve more than a remodel. It would involve upgrading and equipping these ships with the tools to further enrich the experience for guests.
“In the Arctic and Antarctica, you need certain characteristics that a normal passenger vessel doesn’t have,” explains Roberto Bruzzone, Silversea’s senior vice president of Marine Operations. “The ships didn’t have polar class ratings before, so to convert them from the classic fleet to expedition ships we needed to create other specific features. These included, for example, an ice belt and strengthened hull to allow them to operate in polar waters, to be able to deploy in areas where we could not go with a classic vessel. In order to convert Silver Cloud and Silver Wind into polar expedition vessels, we worked with Classification Society and other relevant authorities to ensure that they were certified for polar water navigation.”
Malta’s Palumbo Shipyards was selected for the first conversion, for Silver Cloud, which took place in 2017. The $40 million project required two months in dry dock for technical enhancements that including replacing the bulbous bow with a reinforced ice-class bulb designed for polar waters, installing new sonars for underwater detection, and fitting new windows that are resistant to polar temperatures. The team also reinforced the ship’s steel structures to improve its strength, stability and maneuverability. Interventions were also performed to bring Silver Cloud up to today’s environmental standards, which are much stricter than when the ship was built in 1994.
In addition to updating the ship’s technical capabilities, other adaptations were done that better suited a guest’s expedition experience: a mud room was added for changing into gear for travel off (and back onboard) the ship; a photo studio was created; and the passenger capacity was reduced by 42 guests while accommodations for a staff of expedition guides were incorporated.
“These ships were built with an incredible guest to space ratio,” adds Combrink. “In reducing the capacity of the ships we have increased that ratio even further, and we’ve increased the staff to run about one expedition staff member to nine guests. That is unprecedented in the industry. Normally, the average is about one staff member to every 15 guests, so the opportunity for our guests to interact with the expedition staff, the people that really bring a destination to life, is far superior.” It also means that multiple activities can be conducted at the same time, the variety of activities is diversified, and, with the additional staff, guests can arrange for privatized Zodiac tours to explore independently.
Silver Wind and Silver Cloud: Separated at Birth?
Interestingly, while Silver Cloud and Silver Wind had begun their lives as sister ships, over two-and-a-half decades various refurbishments allowed them to evolve in slightly different ways, as twins usually do, well before the conversions. So when the timing for Silver Wind’s conversion was set, Bruzzone’s team went back to the drawing board to adapt the plans.
“The two vessels are basically used to serve the same purpose, as expedition ships with ice-class hulls, but they’re not identical because of different interventions being carried out in the life of each vessel,” says Bruzzone. For instance, prior to the expedition conversions, when a fitness room was added to Cloud it was on Deck 6, the spa was incorporated on Deck 7. But on Wind the fitness room and spa were added to Deck 9, behind the Observation Lounge. So while the ships offered the same functionality for guests, the layouts differed, which meant modifying plans for Wind’s conversion. “For this reason, the implementation of Silver Wind has been done in a slightly different way, partly because of lessons we learned from Silver Cloud.
The first part of Silver Wind’s renovation was an update to most of the ship’s public spaces, which was completed in December 2018. But the major work commenced during the pandemic when Wind entered the Remontowa drydock in Gdańsk, Poland, in September 2021.
“Remontowa is very specialized in offshore vessels and we were the first ultra-luxury cruise vessel to entertain a major conversion there,” says Bruzzone. “They are extremely good in steel work activities and they allowed us to work with our subcontractors in public areas and accommodations. In light of the above and, considering that this conversion needed substantial steel work activities, we decided to give priority to the capabilities of the shipyard. We spent two months in dry dock performing the conversion of the hull and doing all the activities that would be underwater while at the same time working in public spaces, accommodations and technical areas.”
In addition to the ice-strengthened hull and technology upgrades, Silver Wind received environmental improvements such as new reverse osmosis system for producing potable water, an advanced wastewater treatment plant, new food waste treatment technology, and fuel-saving boilers. Once the dry dock work was completed, the suites were refurbished, including new walk-in showers, and public spaces were refreshed. As on Silver Cloud, the casino was converted into a dedicated photo studio, and while guest capacity was again reduced (from 298 to 274 on Wind), cabins were built for the expedition staff joining these itineraries.
On the outside the two ships look almost identical, but two improvements distinguish them. On Silver Cloud, the fleet of 24 Zodiacs is stored on decks 9 and 10, fore and aft, whereas on Silver Wind decks 5 and 6 were extended behind the theater to create a new Zodiac platform on the stern to accommodate 20 Zodiacs (four more are stored behind the funnel). Three cranes were added to Wind to haul the Zodiacs into and out of the water. Combrink notes that the altered layout means there are some operational differences between Cloud and Wind for the staff, but both ships deliver the guest experiences equally.
“Also, we added quite a big ducktail on the back of Silver Wind to improve the performance and stability of the vessel,” says Bruzzone, who calls Cloud and Wind fascinating ships.
“They are older vessels, but they were very well-designed originally. Of course, the expedition part is the core of the operation, so you will have a completely different experience to what you have on Silver Spirit or Silver Moon, for instance.”
Why Mud Rooms Matter
Let’s start with the mud room, which we can think of as a down-and-dirty term for changing room.
“We and all operators in Antarctica or the Arctic are very aware that there is a real risk of invasive species coming into this fragile and pristine environment,” explains Combrink. “There’s also a real risk, when you have a disease in a colony of penguins, if you go from that colony to the next, that inadvertently you could spread the disease. So it is incredibly important for us to make sure that our guests are decontaminated.”
All guests need waterproof boots for going ashore in Antarctica, but nobody wants to store bulky boots in their pristine suites. So, when coming back aboard, the mud room has a boot wash station to rid the surfaces of all residual mud or stones that comes aboard from the landing. After they are cleaned, the housekeeping staff sprays the boots with Virkon, a non-harmful disinfectant to kill any bacteria potentially remaining on the boots.
Combrink continues: “The other process we use at the three major Antarctic regions — between the Falklands and South Georgia, between South Georgia and Antarctica, or on the trips from Chile down to Antarctica — is that every time that we leave a region, we do a decontamination of guests’ gear, especially the guests who are active hikers. In the mud room we make sure that outer gear such as backpacks is inspected for any kind of seeds they might have brought onboard the ship. Seeds can easily get stuck in zippers or Velcro, and it’s actually quite amazing how much we remove on every single voyage. That’s all part of the process that we go through when we go to these regions.”
In place of a casino, both ships now have a dedicated photo studio, to ensure guests disembark with images worth framing when returning home. “We’ve got a photo studio manager who trains guests,” says Combrink. “They’re a specialist in digital photography and editing, and this was added to further enhance the guest experience.”
Silversea Continues Path to Expedition Innovation
With the new and upgraded players coming into luxury expedition cruising, a sector Silversea all but owned a few years ago, what is Silversea doing today that distinguishes the company from its competition?
“It is our approach to destinations,” suggests Combrink. “We take it extremely seriously, and I find it hard to believe that there is any other company out there that invests so much, in terms of manpower, time and finances, in developing, scouting, and researching new destinations. Our mission is to deliver ultra-luxury experiences in an authentic way around the world — going deeper, exploring deeper really is our goal.”
Combrink notes that Silversea was the first company to offer expedition voyages along West Africa (Capetown to Dakar) and the first to call on Bangladesh. In 2023, Silversea will offer an expedition grand cruise, traveling an “uncharted route” from pole to pole. The 131-day itinerary aboard Silver Cloud, departing February 25, 2023, will start in Puerto Williams, Chile and first sail to Antarctica, then on to South Africa via rarely visited South Atlantic islands, continuing on through the Indian Ocean, Middle East, Mediterranean, British Isles, and on to Iceland and Greenland.
“It’s incredible to work for a company that allows me to create such compelling voyages,” Combrink says. “Every day we come to work, I encourage my team to remember that it is our duty to turn our guests’ dreams into memories. I know it sounds corny. I always tell my team, imagine you’re going on holiday, imagine when you travel you want the very, very best experience.”
“Creating memories is, in the end, what sets Silversea apart.”