Grace on the waves

Not for 20 years has a new cruise ferry been brought into service between Finland and Sweden, but Viking Line’s new Viking Grace is no ordinary ship. This is the world’s first passenger ferry to run on liquefied natural gas.


The crew is going through the regular checklist in the engine control room. There is a rush of expectation and excitement in the air – this is the third time the vessel is about to steer out of the harbour. I’m whisked away and soon find myself standing outside a thick steel door, equipped with a safety lock. We are about to enter the engine room.

I prepare myself for the strong smell of fuel. But, as I step in, I realize that there will be no assault on my nostrils.  

In a couple of minutes the engines will be started. Everything looks as it usually does in an engine room, except that this one is shining with cleanliness. And then there are yellow pipes running to the engines from the ceiling, supplying natural gas from the LNG (liquefied natural gas) tanks at the stern.

The engines have been started. The MS Viking Grace, the latest cruise ferry of Viking Line, is on her way out of Turku harbour.  

On board is a man with a big smile. Kari Granberg is Viking Line’s project manager for the Viking Grace. Having been heavily involved in the project right from the start, he describes as a great relief to see the cruise ferry up and running.

There’s also a bit of emptiness. “I have been going at full speed with this project for two years,” he says.
But like a father seeing off his child on the first day of school, there is a great deal of pride in Granberg’s voice. Not without reason. Apart from being the first passenger cruise ship in the world to run on LNG – and thus the most environmentally sound cruise ferry – Viking Grace is a stunning result of top-notch engineering and state-of-the-art design.

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Polluted waters

The Grace operates between Turku and Stockholm; from her large windows you have a view of thousands of small islands scattered across the sea between Finland and Sweden. But although the scene is beautiful, there are perils lurking in the waters.

The Baltic Sea faces challenges, the biggest of which is eutrophication, caused when the water receives excess nutrients that stimulate excessive plant growth. This enhances algae bloom, of which some is toxic. During hot summers when algae flourish, it is even advisable to refrain from swimming in the sea. A more severe problem is their effect on the ecosystem.

The Baltic Sea is relatively shallow, about 55 metres on average, and is almost closed off from the Atlantic by the straits of Denmark, so any pollution that enters Baltic waters tends to stay there. Add to this its busy maritime traffic, inadequate coastal sewage treatment in some cities, and excess phosphorus from farming and industry, and you realise why this sea is among the most heavily polluted in the world.

The shipping industry is in a hurry to meet new environmental legislation. There are several directives coming into force in 2015 and 2016. One states that from 2015 onwards, the limit on exhaust gas sulphur emissions will be lowered to 0.1% from the current limit of 1%. The whole Baltic is a Sulphur Emission Control Area.

Another is the NOx directive on nitrogen, stating that by 2016, emissions must be reduced by 80% from current levels. Grace complies with both directives.


Gas is the future

Saving the Baltic Sea has become an acute concern for most people living by its shores. It was axiomatic that Viking Line’s new cruise ferry would comply with environmental legislation from the very start. 

“It is evident that gas will be the fuel of the future,” says the company’s CEOMikael Backman. 
Customers, too, are increasingly concerned about the environment.

“Passengers, both leisure and business travellers, are keenly aware of the environmental aspects. Grace is the natural choice for conferences by companies with environmental certificates, for instance,” says Granberg.

Viking Line had been eyeing natural gas technology since 2004, but as the supply of LNG in the Baltic Sea was non-existent, they had to wait. In 2007 the drawings were taken out again and, this time around, things looked brighter.

When it became clear that LNG infrastructure would be built in Nynäshamn outside Stockholm, Viking Line took up long-standing negotiations with suppliers of LNG solutions. Wärtsilä won the contract.

Business manager Jukka Paananen from Wärtsilä Ship Power was the man who led the sales project at Wärtsilä. It was one of the more challenging projects of his career. New ground was being broken.

“The most difficult aspects were getting all the technical details right. We had to go through every single button to make sure that everybody agreed on what was being specified and contracted. It was all very technical,” he says.

But at the same time, it was hugely inspiring.

“Everybody knew that we were doing pioneering work. Although we now have a lot of experience of dual-fuel engines, there were certain new challenges, because this was the first passenger cruise ferry to run on LNG.”

There were also a lot of negotiations with the authorities on the LNG infrastructure. The project started in 2011 and, two years later, the ship is cruising on the Baltic Sea, so it has been a swift success.

Sulphur emissions are being cut to protect the Baltic Sea’s fragile ecosystem.

Major news item

A new ferry for the Finland-Sweden route was big news. Twenty years had passed since a champagne bottle had been smashed against a cruise ferry hull by either Viking Line or its main rival on the route, Tallink Silja.

During the heyday of the cruise industry in the 1980s, there were inaugurations almost annually. The result was overcapacity. The economic recession that hit Finland in 1990, at the same time as air travel became much cheaper, led to a restructuring of the business model. A 200 million-euro investment seemed like a huge risk.

However, Viking Line felt that now the time was right.

“Our fleet is quite old so it was apparent that a change was needed. We felt that our customers were ready for new experiences, which is why we opted for the concept of building a proper cruise ferry,” the CEO says.

The Viking Grace is more about experiences than mere transport. Viking Line hired Finnish top interior architect Vertti Kivi to design the public spaces. He had no prior experience of the interior of a cruise ferry – or any kind of vessel for that matter – which was one of the main reasons why he got the job.
In public spaces, the Grace gives the impression that you are in the lobby of an upmarket hotel (with great views, one might add). The interiors are discretely elegant but not intrusive. The archipelago can be the centre of attention.

Backman wanted to offer passengers a completely new experience, where they would not necessarily notice that they were on board a cruise ferry. It feels like going on a lavish getaway. There is a luxurious spa on board, lots of great restaurants – fine dining and more casual options – and a huge tax-free shop. The cabins are also a big improvement on the standard accommodation.

Indisputable benefits

There are certain signs that you are travelling on a gas-operated vessel as soon as you see her. First of all, there is no smoke from the funnel. If you find soot on the deck, it has come from another vessel. And then there are the huge gas tanks at the stern.

Currently there are no cost savings from switching to LNG, but the environmental benefits are all the greater. The advantages over diesel oil are indisputable.

“The SOx emissions on Viking Grace are close to zero, and NOx emissions are at least 80 per cent lower. Particulates are negligible and CO2 emissions are 25 percent lower,” says Paananen. 
And there are substantial benefits in handling gas, which does not smell. This significantly improves the working conditions of the crew.

“A headache used to be a daily companion for a lot of people on diesel vessels, including myself,” says Granberg.

Gas is also clean. On this point Viking Line actually expects to save a buck or two, because the decreased need for cleaning machinery will cut the cost of maintenance. Wärtsilä has signed a five-year maintenance agreement, its first long-term agreement for a gas-operated vessel. The agreement covers the four Wärtsilä 50DF dual-fuel main engines, as well as the Wärtsilä LNGPac gas system’s safety valves. The overall target is to extend the intervals between maintenance and to ensure optimal operating efficiency and fuel consumption, thereby lowering operating costs.

Double-walled pipelines

Contrary to what action films tell us, gas does not catch fire easily. In order to ignite it in the engines, the Wärtsilä dual-fuel engines use pilot diesel injection.

“We all know what happens if you play with matches next to petrol. It will flare up. LNG in a cup doesn’t react to a match because the mixture of air and evaporated gas must be precisely right,” says Paananen. 
Still, safety precautions are important. The gas in the tanks situated on Grace’s stern deck is transported in double-walled pipelines to make sure that leakage does not occur. The air space between the pipes is monitored with gas detectors.

The Viking Grace loads up on gas in Stockholm. The terminal is situated in Nynäshamn south of the city. There, the gas is loaded onto three trucks that transport it to a small vessel, the Seagas, anchored in Värta harbour close to downtown Stockholm.

When Viking’s ship arrives in the morning, she is greeted by Seagas and about 75 tonnes of gas are transferred. Her consumption is between 50 and 55 tonnes of gas per Stockholm-Turku-Stockholm round trip, so refilling is about six times a week.


Green is nice

The crew is excited that the Grace is such a clean ship. When I talk to the people working on board, everyone – from the engineers to the restaurant waiters – seems to take pride in working on board the cleanest ship in the world.

The environmentally friendly solutions are not limited to the use of LNG. Granberg points out that the environment has been considered in every single detail on board. The elevators, for instance, regenerate over 70 percent of their energy whenever they brake.

“The electricity goes back to the grid, just like a hybrid car,” he explains. The elevators are manufactured by a Finnish company Kone.

Wärtsilä supplied a sound-absorbing system to minimise the noise from the engines. This has been welcomed not only by Grace’s passengers but also by the thousands of people who spend their summers in island cottages along her route. These cottage owners also appreciate Grace’s hydrodynamic hull, which minimises wave formation.

The use of disposables is minimised in all of Grace’s eight restaurants. Naturally glass, paperboard, plastic, metal and biowaste is sorted. Whenever possible, the food served in the restaurants is locally produced.

On the bright day in late winter when I sailed, vast areas of white ice were spread out before my eyes. Hundreds of small islands were each covered with a thick layer of snow. The Viking Grace glided through the waters between them.

Every now and then came the sound of ice being crushed by the hull. A day could easily be spent just looking out of the windows. The archipelago outside Turku offers stunning views.

Compared to other passenger ships, there is hardly any vibration on board the Grace, thanks to the very low-pressure impulses generated by the propellers. As I sit in the champagne bar adjoining the fine dining restaurant, I can leave my glass of gracious yellow bubbles on the neat little table and trust that it will stay there.

Am I really at sea? 

Viking Grace


Engines & Equipment

5 year maintenance agreement

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