More innovations and yet more U.S. homeporting have been announced by Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL): the Norwegian Dawn will sail year­ round from New York City to the Bahamas, starting May 18 - marking the first consistent winter service homeported in New York in nearly two decades.

In addition, NCL will position the Norwegian Majesty in Charleston, South Carolina, for winter seasons beginning Nov. 8.

Allowing NCL to tap into the tri-state drive market year-round, the Norwegian Dawn's itinerary will depart New York each Sunday, sail southward at a 25-knot clip and reach warmer weather by midday Monday (according to NCL), then make calls in Port Canaveral, Miami, Nassau, and Great Stirrup Cay, before a final sea day on the return north.

"Leaving New York on Sunday, by Monday at lunch time, passengers will be in their short sleeves on deck as the ship sails off the coast of the Carolinas," explained Colin Veitch, president of NCL.

Even before its inauguration ceremony, Veitch said the plan had been to sail the ship in New York year-round - but the first winter, originally, was to be 2004-05. Stronger-than-expected response to the ship by N.Y. agents prompted NCL to bump up its plans.

Even before the latest announcement, New York had benefited from a new trend wherein ships sail southward to the Bahamas and the Caribbean during the summer - NCL started last year with the Norwegian Sea to be replaced by the faster Dawn, Carnival Cruise Lines' Carnival Legend starts this summer, and in 2004, Cunard Lines's Queen Mary 2.

Other cruise lines confirmed their interest: In its quarterly conference call, Royal Caribbean International (RCI) President Jack Williams asserted, "We are looking at New York, and it could be a viable option down the road as a year-round market."

Offering Bahamas cruises in mid-winter may not be without complications. While many ships have sailed from New York in the winter in the past, maritime historian Ted Scull explained, "The problem is, most of today's ships are built for calm waters. They're not really built to withstand the heavy seas" as were the earlier liners that sailed from New York in the winter during the transatlantic off-season. He predicted NCL's passengers might run the risk of an "unpleasant sailing experience" on both their way down the Eastern Seaboard and the way back up. The cold weather itself may also be somewhat of a factor. "While it's actually very pleasant to sail south into balmy weather from the cold," said Scull, "it's not so pleasant after you've been in the Bahamas to sail back."

According to Veitch, the Norwegian Dawn was originally built to operate in the South China Sea, and its sister sails in the Pacific between Hawaii and Fanning Island - so it is up to the task. "The ship is very solid," he said. "It will maintain its speed and offer a smooth ride. And it will hug the coast on its way down to Cape Hatteras."

While NCL's plan is innovative by modem-day cruise standards, there is actually a rich and long tradition of vessels offering frequent winter service from New York. According to Scull, many vessels sailed from the port until the early 1980s - among them the QE2, Rotterdam, Sagafjord, Nordic Prince, Atlantic, Oceanic, and Homeric - offering two-week cruises to the Caribbean as well as longer voyages. Cruises to pre­ Castro Cuba from New York were also popular.

In addition to these historical precedents, there is also an analogous market across the Atlantic: Several European lines now operate winter cruises homeported in Italy and the U.K., their ships sailing through several days' worth of cold weather as part of 11-day voyages to the Canary Islands and elsewhere.