What is the largest cruise ship afloat?

The world's largest cruise ship departed from Turku, Finland, on Oct. 30 en route to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where it will make its U.S. debut.
Credit: Oasis of the Seas.

The world's largest cruise ship is making its first transatlantic crossing from Finland to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where it will make its U.S. debut. Though colossal, the ship relies on the same physical principles as its smaller brethren to stay afloat.

The massive ship, called the Oasis of the Seas and built by STX Finland for Royal Caribbean International, stands 20 stories high, is as long as four football fields, and can accommodate 5, 400 guests at double occupancy.

The two typical measures of size are length and weight, which is measured as displacement, or the weight of water the ship must displace to stay afloat. "She is 1, 180 feet long and displaces 100, 000 tons, " said Paul Miller of the Department of Naval Architecture & Ocean Engineering at the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland, referring to the Oasis of the Seas.

For comparison, the RMS Titanic, which sank in 1912, was 883 feet long (269 meters) and weighed about 58, 000 tons.

In terms of space available, the Oasis is nearly five times larger than the Titanic. Specifically, the Oasis can hold 225, 282 gross registered tons, while the Titanic could hold 46, 329 grt.

This measurement was derived long ago to describe a ship's space for a common cargo — wine. Since wine was shipped in "tuns" that each held 8 barrels or about 242 gallons, a ship that could carry 8, 000 wine barrels was considered a 1, 000-tun ship. "Tun" evolved into "ton" and then into "gross registered ton."

The Oasis is 50 percent larger than the runner-up, which is a group of Freedom-class ships (such as Freedom of the Seas), according to Royal Caribbean International.

Staying above water

How does such a huge ship float?

"It's just like any other ship. It has to displace an equal amount of water to how much it weighs, " said Matthew Collette, assistant professor of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering at the University of Michigan. If it didn't, the ship would sink.

"To keep it stable they had to make the ship very wide. It's 66 meters (217 feet) wide, " Collette said. That means the Oasis can't fit through the Panama Canal, which is just 105 feet (32 meters).

About 30 feet (9 meters) of the ship sits beneath the water, which is a small percentage of the ship's overall height.

Dealing with the elements

The idea of a cruise generally means sunny skies, and such ships will change their ports of call to avoid large storms or hurricanes, Collette said. That's not to say rough seas are out of the question.

"It's hard to know for sure how this ship would ride without knowing the details of its design, but wide, shallow ships such as this tend to be 'snappy' in that they have so much stability they tend to snap back upright after a wave has passed, which can be uncomfortable to be on, " Collette said. "The sheer size of this ship will also help it, as larger ships tend to be better rides in rough weather."

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