An Engineers Story

Taken from SeaFare, a quarterly Canadian newsletter on Sea Travel

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If you looked at Kjell Norvik’s business card, it would read Senior Vice President of Technical Operations for Premier Cruises. If you asked him to describe his job in a single word, he would say, "Engineer".

Premier’s policy is to buy older, medium-sized ships, then bring their passenger amenities up to date without sacrificing too much of their character. The fleet’s six vintage vessels are all propelled by steam turbines, and all six date from the 1950s and 1960s. During those decades, turbines reigned almost unchallenged as the standard means of powering passenger vessels. Newer cruise ships, though, nearly all have diesel installations, one exceptio~ being "Sky Princess", which entered service as "Fairsky" in 1984 equipped with steam turbines. Few engineers or owners were dissatisfied with steam turbines; they knew their virtues, not the least of which was reliability. However, as technology advanced, the pounding throb that typified earlier diesels yielded to quieter and smoother running models; each new generation of diesels operated more economically and efficiently than the one before.

The remaining steam-turbined cruise ships seemed to have a limited future, particularly because of their high fuel consumption. These ships, however, were built to last. Premier Cruises has acquired half a dozen in the last few years, giving the company a prominent position in the niche market of classic cruise ships. However, as Mr. Norvik points out, age notwithstanding, the ships are well maintained; they either meet or surpass the latest Safety of Life at Sea regulations.

As a child, Kjell Norvik lived near Bodo, a small Norwegian city north of the Arctic Circle. Although he had relatives who were seafarers, most males in the family were house builders or carpenters. Kjell, though, felt the call of the sea; in 1954 he began his working life as an engine boy in the tanker "Hoegh Arrow", owned by the Oslo-based Leif Hoegh & Co. Before long he was promoted to motorman. After service in the Royal Norwegian Navy, where he spent 16 months aboard a steam-turbine destroyer, be resumed his career with Leif Hoegh. To round out his technical education, he attended maritime academies and also worked at the factory of Sulzer, the well-known Swiss engine maker.

Rising rapidly within the Hoegh organization, in 1970 he was appointed Chief Engineer of "Hoegh Rider", 93,000-ton ore/bulk/oil carrier. After serving as Chief Engineer in other ships, he was promoted to Marine Superintendent, and in this capacity he supervised the construction of five ships in Japan between 1976 and 1979. Hoegh also had a financial interest in Norwegian America Line’s passenger ships "Sagafjord" and "Vistafjord", and when "Sagafjord" underwent a major refit in 1980, Kjell Norvik headed the technical supervision team. In 1983, Cunard Line bought both ships, and Kjell joined Cunard as Vice President of Technical Operations. One of his biggest challenges came when he was appointed project manager for "Queen Elizabeth 2"’s 1986-87 conversion from steam to diesel-electric propulsion at Lloyd Werft, Bremerhaven. He remained with Cunard until he assumed his present position with Premier in January 1998.

His job takes him away periodically from his desk in Miami. "I visit our ships in port:’ he said, "but I get a far better idea of how the engines are performing by being in the ships when they are under way. A day or two at sea is all I need. Unlike passengers, I don’t stay aboard for the entire cruise." Mr. Norvik acts as liaison between management and shipboard personnel. He talks to Premier’s engineering officers and engine-room crews. And, of course, he talks with the Chief Engineer. A good chief always has one ear cocked towards the engine itself. If it is whimpering - or even whispering - for attention, he will hear its plea. Often he can correct the matter on the spot. But not always. Sometimes the remedy will cost a great deal of money; sometimes that fractured part cannot be repaired in the engine room or replaced from stock. That’s the time when Kjell Norvik discusses problems, recommends solutions, approves spending, and locates obsolete parts.

Asked about finding licensed engineers who have experience with steam turbines, Mr. Norvik said that many of Premier’s engineering officers are at the peak of their careers and have vast experience in handling their installations. As for the recruitment of younger engineers, most have diesel-engine training. However, they can be taught the principles and learn the practices of operating steam turbines.

Premier’s ships - "OceanBreeze", "SeaBreeze", "IslandBreeze", "Seawind Crown", "Rembrandt" (formerly Rotterdam) and "Oceanic" - are still powered by their original steam turbines. "Oceanic" and "OceanBreeze" use diesel generators to produce electricity, but the other four use turbo generators. When asked to explain why the ships have never needed re-engining, Mr. Norvik said, "These ships were built to meet the highest specifications. In fact, they exceeded what their building contracts called for." A continuous maintenance program aboard each ship allows engineers to inspect machinery on a cyclical basis to prevent problems from arising or, if they do occur, to nip them in the bud. Surveyors visit the engine rooms regularly; if they find something needs to be repaired or replaced, or identify a procedure that requires attention, they will notify the Chief Engineer and the Technical Operations Department. Usually a deadline is set for the correction to be made.

Down in Premier’s engine rooms, not much has changed since the ships were built. Most passengers will never see Kjell Norvik when he is aboard ship. He no longer wears a Chief Engineer’s uniform, but with his knowledge of steam turbines, and the skill of his engineering officers and engine-room crews, he expects that Premier’s ships will have many years of successful steaming ahead of them.