The 480-passenger Ocean Pearl will score an historic first next year when the Pearl Cruises' vessel becomes the first non-Chinese ship to navigate the Yangtse River on a series of 12 10-day sailings some 200 miles upriver to Nanjing.

The 12,456-ton vessel, which underwent a $7 million restoration earlier this year when 22 cabins were added during a 12-foot expansion, will be forced to modify its equipment before next April 12 when the Ocean Pearl becomes the largest passenger ship to ever operate on the heavily congested river.

Marketing Vice President Debbie Nathanson said that Pearl Cruises negotiated for almost a year with a whole range of Chinese bureaucratic officials before the one-ship cruise line was granted permission to operate on the fabled Chinese river.

"The ship had to be equipped with special amber navigational lights that must be visible from more than 9,000-feet and we also had to install port and starboard lights that flash 120 times a minute," Nathanson said. "It will also have to cruise at the slowest 'dead slow' speed whenever it's on the river."

While the Yangtse River has long been a major water highway for a vast number of cargo ships, small river boats and Chinese junks, Nathanson explained that Chinese officials had been reluctant to permit foreign-flagged vessels to operate there because of important fish breeding farms scattered throughout the river.

Nathanson said that Chinese officials will also require that a pilot boat - as well as a river pilot accompany the Ocean Pearl crew along the entire length of the river on each sailing.