A start-up U.S.-flag cruise company, American Voyager Cruises, is negotiating to purchase and reflag the 950-passenger Leeward and 800-passenger Norwegian Dynasty, ships currently operated by Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) and owned by Neptune Maritime OY (formerly SILJA/EffJohn). U.S. Congress is possibly just days or weeks away from introducing legislation to allow the reflagging of these two ships in return for the signing of a newbuilding order at a U.S. yard.

In keeping with the proposed bill, American Voyager is conducting a competition for the construction of one to two cruise vessels, reportedly in the 1,000-1,500-passenger-range. At least one U.S. yard, Ingalls, said it was involved; according to a spokesperson, Ingalls will be submitting design information to American Voyager in mid-August.

The new cruise line is reportedly considering itineraries for its fleet along all three U.S. coastlines -­ although early indications seem to point to an initial focus along the West Coast.

It should be noted, however, that American Voyager Cruises is not alone in its interest for the Leeward and Dynasty. According to Art Sbarsky, NCL's executive vice president, his company's contract to operate the two ships runs through fall 1999 - and NCL is currently in negotiations regarding the continuation of that arrangement.

Beyond the issue of who gets the two ships, another lingering question about the American Voyager story is: Who are they? All sources contacted by Cruise Industry News had been told to protect the identities of the company's executives.

Enacting Legislation

According to a May 8 letter by a prominent maritime lobbyist (name withheld upon request) to Representative Wayne Gilchrest (R.-Maryland), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, "A number of leading figures in the shipping and tourism industries have come together to form American Voyager Cruises. This company has entered into an agreement with Silja giving American Voyager an exclusive 60-day option to purchase these two vessels."

The letter continued, "Upon the acquisition of these cruise vessels, and assuming the enactment of legislation granting a waiver of the Passenger Vessel Services Act (PSA), American Voyager will document these cruise vessels under the laws of the U.S., operate them with American citizen crews, and comply with all applicable U.S. laws, regulations and tax obligations."

According to the letter to Congressman Gilchrest, the proposed legislation would:

• Allow reflagging of the Leeward and Dynasty for service in the U.S. domestic cruise trade, with the exception of intra-Hawaiian-island trade or any other domestic trade served by a U.S. cruise vessel of at least 10,000 tons having at least 275-passenger capacity.

• Stipulate that the two vessels will not commence operations until American Voyager has entered into a binding contact to build in the U.S. "a replacement vessel or vessels."

• Require that the Leeward and Dynasty must leave the U.S. cruise trade within two years of the delivery of the last U.S.-built cruise vessel.

• Allow American Voyager to place the Leeward and Dynasty back under foreign registry if the newbuilding contract does not go through.

According to Carl Bentzel, senior counsel of the Senate Commerce Committee, "The proposal we're looking at is similar to the Hawaii legislation."

One source said that the American Voyager legislation could be patterned after the U.S. Cruise Fleet Development Proposal espoused by U.S. labor interests at recent PSA reform hearings. However, the source expects that the new bill will not include an earlier provision giving U.S.-flag ships priority over foreign ships for U.S. National Park permits, nor a provision allowing business/convention travelers to be granted a tax deduction for international voyages on U.S.-flag ships.

Bentzel concluded, "They (American Voyager) are moving along at a fair clip, and I expect legislation to be introduced in the near future, by the end of this session." Another source expected the legislation to be introduced "any time now. It could be tomorrow."