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For most of the time, you spend on a cruise you’ll be, well, cruising. As you move leisurely between your various destination ports, it is difficult to get a feeling for how fast you are actually going – especially when the travel is so smooth.

What is the maximum speed of a cruise ship?

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As you might expect, that depends on the ship. The fastest cruise ship operating today is probably the Norwegian Gem, at an estimated 27 knots full-out. Of course, it rarely travels at this speed, but it makes several winter runs to the East Coast of America. When doing so, it travels at near top speed until it gets to the warmer (and much more holiday-ish) waters of the Bahamas.

However, the Royal Caribbean’s four fastest ships, including the Radiance of the Seas and Brilliance of the Seas, might be even faster. These ‘Radiance class’ cruise ships have an official maximum cruising speed of 25 knots. However, ‘maximum; is considered 78% of full power. They may not ever do it unless there is some kind of emergency, but the Radiance ships could possibly top 30 knots. They can even do 18 knots in reverse, but that would also be extremely rare to see in practice.

What powers modern cruise ships?

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Most modern cruise ships use either diesel-electric engines or gas turbines for power. Diesel electric engines use a huge diesel-fuelled internal combustion engine to run a generator, whose electric output is then channelled to one or more electric engines that run the ‘screws’ – the propeller-like devices that move the ship through the water. A gas turbine engine is more like a jet-powered steam engine. Air is compressed and fuel is added, which is then burned. As the exhaust gas vents from the rear of the engine, it turns a large turbine which provides the power for the ship.

However, gas turbines are still rare on cruise ships. The first was Celebrity Cruises’ Millennium in 2000. Notably, the Queen Mary 2 also uses a version of the technology.

How fast do cruise ships typically ‘cruise’, then?

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Typically, a cruise ship will take a relatively calm pace of 21 to 24 knots, which is 24 to 27 mph. Even then, cruise ships tend to accelerate to ‘cruising speed’ only when fairly far away from the port or other vessels. They don’t exactly stop on a dime, and when you’re piloting something the size of a respectable office building, every bit of manoeuvrability counts!

One of the reasons they go slower than they have to is to provide a gentle ride for their passengers. After all, how relaxing is a speedboat? But perhaps a more important factor is fuel efficiency. Travelling at full speed is typically very inefficient. As a diesel-powered cruise ship can use 10 gallons of fuel to move just a few hundred feet, efficiency is a huge issue. So respect for the environment and the simple cost of running these ships mean they usually travel at or near their most efficient speed, not their fastest.

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About Author

Claire Wilde

Claire has worked in the travel industry since leaving college in 1994. One of this blog's most regular contributors, Claire covers cruise news and industry trends.

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