Chilean cruise company Antarctica21 begins today operations of the PC6 ice-class Magellan Explorer, the world’s first expedition ship custom-designed for Antarctic air-cruise travel. The maiden voyage departs from Punta Arenas and includes Ushuaia, Puerto Williams, Cape Horn and Antarctica.
The vessel was delivered by Valdivia’s Asenav shipyard on October 24 and christened in Punta Arenas on November 8. She represents a major engineering and commercial achievement for Antarctica21 and Asenav, who are also indirect partners in the ship’s ownership. The vessel’s US$ 50 million funding was covered by a mix of locally sourced equity and debt.
The shipowner is Minke Shipping, an investment vehicle established by three partners: the first is a company made up of the majority of Antarctica21 shareholders; the second, a Family Office associated with some of Ultramar’s partners; and Mr. Eberhard Kossman, controlling shareholder of Asenav. Magellan Explorer was then chartered to Antarctica21, with ship management awarded to V.Ships Leisure, a division of V.Group. As for the debt side, financing was provided by Santiago-headquartered Banco Internacional.
Being a private and mostly locally funded cruise investment in Latin America makes the Magellan Explorer an improbable success story. The expedition cruise market is dominated by large European and American conglomerates, with ships mainly built and financed in Europe.
In Latin America, ship financing is heavily dependent on state-owned banks and funds. Shipbuilding is plagued by competitivity issues, with delays and cost overruns a commonplace reality. However, the worldwide booming expedition market is presenting many opportunities, and Asenav was able to position itself as a reliable specialist for small cruise vessels. In 2017, the yard delivered the Ventus Australis to Australis Expeditions, after building a respectable portfolio of ferries, small cruise and expedition yachts over the previous years.
When asked about why Asenav was chosen as builder of Magellan Explorer, Mr. Francesco Contini, Executive Vice President, Sales and Marketing of Antarctica21, commented: “For various reasons, including [the yard’s] experience building small expedition vessels, its geographic proximity, its strong motivation and interest on the project”. The contract performance was “very good, with great cooperation of their team with the many executives and consultants involved”.
The ship will compete in a market facing an unprecedented upsurge in expedition newbuildings to be delivered over the next few years. Most of them are ice-classed and will operate in Antarctica during the local summer. So, what makes the Magellan Explorer special?
Two things, according to Mr. Contini. Firstly, “its size. The vast majority of new expedition ships focus on the 200-passenger segment. Magellan Explorer has a maximum capacity of 100 passengers. The ship’s size is directly related with the type of experience offered. The Antarctic Treaty rules limit the maximum number of visitors to 100 per shore excursion. For Magellan Explorer, this means all guests can disembark together, without taking turns. Besides, the travel experience with a limited number of guests is more exclusive and intimate”.
When sailing under this air-cruise mode, Magellan Explorer will even lower its capacity to 75 passengers, which is associated with the number of seats of the company’s BAE 146 / AVRO RJ aircraft. The airport used by Antarctica21 is located on King George Island, part of the South Shetland Islands and home to various international scientific stations, such as Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Russia and China, among others.
The second point Mr. Contini makes is that Magellan Explorer is purpose-built not only for Antarctica, but also for their specific business model. The ship was “designed specifically for air-cruise Antarctic operations, with big range and many specific details that allow it to operate in a remote region for up to 60 days without returning to port”. Such features include oversized water tanks, fuel tanks and provisions spaces, as well as retractable roll stabilizers and an ice-detecting radar.
Antarctica21 adopts the unique model of combining flights with cruise operations, thus avoiding the complications of the Drake passage in certain itineraries. This is further explained by Diana Galimberti, Antarctica21’s Executive Vice President, Product and Operations: “One of the special features of the air-cruise model is that the ship remains in Antarctica for extended periods of time. Most ships’ itineraries start and end at a port, where passengers turnover takes place and where all the necessary supplies are loaded. Magellan Explorer has been designed to maximize its range, making it the first ship in the world designed specifically for Antarctic air-cruises”.
The vessel also features luxury accommodation, observation, dining and living spaces. A large expedition warehouse and embarkation area operates in conjunction with two gangways, which provide guests with access to a fleet of 10 Zodiac boats for shore excursions.
However, all this comes with a price. According to Antarctica21’s website, the 11-day sold-out maiden voyage started at 4,995 USD per person. After that, the expeditioner interested on sailing the 8-day “Classic Antarctica Air-Cruise” itinerary must be willing to pay at least 14,595 USD.
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