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Update: here’s a link to a YouTube video of Oriana’s arrival into what looks like a grey and windy Southampton this morning.

It’s time to take note of Oriana’s forthcoming departure from P&O. She’s currently on her last day at sea as a P&O ship – she’s due to dock in Southampton tomorrow morning (9 August) and disembark the passengers from her final cruise with P&O, after which she will be transferred to her new owners and will sail to China. I know that she’s a much-loved ship, and I’m sure that there will be a lot of emotion tomorrow. I’m pleased that her last cruise has been trouble-free (as far as I know) and has been a typical Oriana cruise –  a lengthy voyage into northern waters as far as Iceland, the far north of Norway, and the Lofoten islands.

It’s difficult to remember today just how exciting her arrival was in 1995. By that time P&O had owned Princess Cruises for several years, had taken over Sitmar Cruises in 1988, and had inherited several newly-built and on-order ships from them, but all of these had been passed to Princess. Even an earlier newbuild, Royal Princess (1984), had been passed to Princess Cruises (although she later came to P&O as the much-loved Artemis). Oriana was therefore the first new build for P&O cruises. Indeed, she really was the first newly-built ship for P&O as a cruise line – all previous ships had originally been built as liners and had been converted to cruising as the ocean line market vanished. So ships such as the original Arcadia from 1954, the original Oriana from 1960 and of course Canberra from 1961 sailed for a few years at least as cruise ships. By the early 90s only Canberra was left, and although much-loved, she was showing her age. Oriana was therefore designed and ordered to be almost a modern Canberra. Much attention was taken of what worked well on Canberra that could be transferred to the new ship. We hadn’t started cruising at that time, but I remember a lot of press coverage of her at the time – she was definitely presented as the pride of the British merchant fleet (along with some regret that she couldn’t have been built in a British yard).

In one interesting respect Oriana was actually a small step backwards, in technical terms. Canberra had possessed the then revolutionary electric propulsion system – that is, her engines (steam turbines) were coupled direct to generators which produced electricity, and the actual propulsion motors were electrically driven – there was no mechanical connection between the engines and propellers. In the case of Oriana, however, this was changed, and she possessed four large diesel engines which were mechanically coupled to her propulsion equipment. Other ships built in the same yard (Meyer Werft, Papenburg) at around the same time – e.g. the Celebrity Cruises ‘Century’ class – possessed the same configuration, and all these ships ended up suffering from vibration in the aft section of the ship when they were moving quickly. This was especially so at the back of the aft main dining room. Oriana was famous for this problem. I never experienced it on her, but I do remember a shaky evening on Galaxy, one of the Century class, when we were hustling across the eastern Mediterranean in order to bag a berth at Mykonos the following day.

At the time Oriana, with a tonnage of just under 70,000, was regarded as a large ship. She was in fact just about the same tonnage as the QE2, and was regarded by some as having surpassed the Cunard ship. Later, of course, when both Cunard and P&O were both under the Carnival umbrella, any such competition was dialled-back. In any case, within a few years there were many other ships that were bigger, including a number owned by P&O – the Sun Princess class of the mid-90s (of which Oceana is one) had a tonnage of around 77,000, and the first ships of the slightly later Grand Princess class breached both the 100,000 tonnage barrier, and the panamax beam dimension. P&O invested in larger ships as appropriate, including ships from both those classes, but retained Oriana. Over time she came to be grand lady of the fleet, representing P&O’s tradition, and her passengers responded. Policies such as dress codes were the same on all ships, but they seem to be better observed on Oriana (and on Aurora, to be fair). Originally designed as a family ship and therefore possessing children’s facilities, she was remodelled during a refit in 2011 and returned to the fleet as an ‘Adults only’ ship. (At the time the term used was the slight-blunter ‘child free’!) Over time other changes have been made – additional, speciality restaurants have made their appearance, for example. One favourite feature was never changed, and that was her forward-facing Crow’s Nest, and neither did her wide, wrap-around promenade.

We don’t know for certain why P&O have decided to get rid of her, but I can make guesses. I would assume that, even with refits, she’s not as economical to run as other ships. For one thing she’s a bit small for true economies of scale to apply, and for another, that mechanical configuration can’t be as efficient as the more typical electrical transmission and propulsion. For another, in recent years she has suffered from various mechanical breakdowns, and I would assume that these must have been ever more expensive to repair, given that the equipment was so unusual. Finally, there was the unavoidable fact that she had very few balcony cabins – just one deck thereof, in fact, and that deck was home to the higher-priced cabins such as suites and mini-suites. The designers of the slightly-later Aurora and the Sun Princess class, at about the same size as Oriana, found a way of providing three decks of balcony cabins by extending the superstructure outwards by about 5 feet above a certain level on the hull, and this space was used to provide balcony space. Oriana never had this feature, and I suppose it was too expensive to consider retro-fitting it. My assumption is that this began to adversely affect her popularity.

We cruised on Oriana twice. Both were just short cruises, three or four nights as I recall. One was in 2012, and was one of the Grand Event cruises – indeed, it was the shortest and therefore cheapest cruise departing that day. We certainly enjoyed both of these cruises, but I also remember thinking that our cabin (a standard Outside cabin) was not very big and that there was not a lot of storage space. I’m not sure I would have wanted to cruise on her for much longer than the time we actually did. Here are the links to my summary pages for the posts I did from them: the earlier cruise here, and the Grand Event cruise here.

Tomorrow sees her last activity as a P&O ship, after which she will sail to China and a new career as a casino ship.

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