Cutting a ship in half might seem like the first leg of a voyage to the scrapheap. But for the Star Breeze and two other small cruise ships owned by Seattle-based Windstar Cruises, it’s more of a rebirth.

In a $250 million project, each in turn will be sliced in two at an Italian shipyard starting in the fall. Almost like snapping together a giant set of Legos, new, prebuilt middle sections will be added to all three. The stretch will add about 84 feet to each vessel and dramatically increase its capacity by 100 passengers, to 312.

“They’re beautiful older ships,” built about 30 years ago with thicker hulls than those built today, said spokeswoman Mary Schimmelman. Aside from stretching the ships and renovating their interiors, the work includes an engine upgrade to comply with new International Maritime Organization environmental rules that take effect in 2021. According to Windstar, the new engines will produce less than 0.5% sulfur content and reduce nitrogen-oxide emissions.

Such radical surgery on a seagoing vessel “is done fairly often” with anything from commercial fishing boats to cargo ships and cruise ships, said Hal Hockema, president of Seattle naval architecture firm Hockema Whalen Myers Associates.

“Lengthening existing vessels if they are in good condition, and operable to current standards, actually makes good economic sense,” said Hockema, who isn’t involved in the Windstar project.

Usually the work is spurred by changing industry conditions — the need to sail farther to catch fish, for instance, can make it feasible to enlarge a fishing vessel by either lengthening it, widening it, or both, he said.

Schimmelman said building new ships “in the luxury realm” like Windstar’s could cost upward of $500,000 per berth, suggesting a price of more than $150 million per vessel.

Fabrication of the new staterooms and new sections of hull has begun, she said. Once the 440-foot-long Star Breeze is done sailing the ports of Europe in October, it will head for the Fincantieri shipyard in Palermo to be cut through and reassembled as an 522-foot ship with 50 additional staterooms. By next spring it should be sailing again, with a crew enlarged from 150 to about 190.



As the ships are rejuvenated, Windstar itself is also reviving its financial fortunes. In 2010 it was the only asset of Ambassadors International, a public company that went bankrupt. Sold to mogul Philip Anschutz, it’s part of his Xanterra travel company. The Star Breeze, Star Legend and Star Pride were previously owned by Cunard and then Seabourn, another Seattle-based cruise company.

Only one sails the Pacific Northwest’s classic cruise route, to Alaska and back; the other two ply European waters during the summer and then head to the Caribbean and Latin America for winter sailing.

The Star Legend attracted local notice last summer when the 63-foot-wide ship squeezed into the Ballard Locks and sailed into Lake Union with a few feet to spare on either side.

Schimmelman said the stretched ships would still be able to manage that stunt. And they’ll fit into all their current river and harbor ports of call, except one lock that provides access to the French port of St. Malo, where the ship will have to dock outside the harbor.