City at Sea
Nearly a mile long and 25 stories high, Freedom will be the largest vessel to ever sail the seven seas.
by Jim Wilson
Norman L. Nixon loves to talk about the enormity of it all. "Walk in a straight line for about 12 minutes," he says. "If you don't dawdle, you'll cover slightly less than a mile. Now, make a right turn and walk beyond the length of two football fields. Duplicate these lines to make a rectangle, then look up to the height of a 25-story building. This is what Freedom will be." Listening to him talk about it, you begin to understand why Nixon doesn't refer to Freedom Ship as the world's largest vessel, but the world's first floating city.
"Freedom will be large enough to bring on more than 50,000 residents, 15,000 employees, 20,000 day guests and still have four times as much roaming-around square footage per person as the most modern cruise liners," Nixon says during POPULAR MECHANICS' visit to see how his ambitious plan is progressing. Taller than the highest buildings in most American cities and topped with a runway that can handle jets, Freedom may someday be the globe-trotting address for 17,000 homes and 4000 businesses. Its dimensions are so colossal that it will have to be assembled at sea. Once it's built, Freedom will circle the earth every two years, following the balmy breezes as it approaches the world's major ports (see map below). The wealthiest of her "citizens" will leave their 15-ft. by 80-ft. ocean-view apartments and board their private jets or yachts for jaunts to shore. Meanwhile, the 15,000 people who work aboard the ship will gear up for the next on-rush of day visitors anxious to shop at its duty-free stores and guests checking in to vacation in its hotels and time-share condominiums.
As might be expected, this plan for a ship capable of carrying as many as 115,000 people — no pets allowed — has raised skeptical eyebrows among naval architects and nautical historians. They point out, among other things, that the sheer scale of Nixon's project makes it an effort fraught with unknowns. No kidding. The reason is not simply a matter of Freedom's proposed 4320-ft. length, which is nearly five times that of the currently largest cruise ship, Carnival Cruise Line's 900-ft. Destiny, but the enormity of its mass. When naval architects compare ships, they speak in terms of tonnage rather than length. The Destiny displaces 100,000 tons of water. The largest vessel afloat, the supertanker Jahre Viking, displaces 564,739 tons. Freedom will displace 2.7 million tons.
"The general public is amazed we can design a ship that is simple and easy to build and affordable for a significant portion of the population," says Nixon. To do this, Nixon is applying a lesson he first learned as an engineering student at the University of Arkansas in the early 1960s — keep it simple. And the technology behind Freedom is as basic as it gets. Airtight compartments keep it afloat. Linked together, they function as a steel beam.
Nixon says that while there are many factors that determine a beam's maximum length, a steel beam can reasonably be expected to span a distance 15 times its height. "A ship with an effective depth of 80 ft. of hull [measured from keel to main deck] can theoretically span a maximum of 1200 ft.," Nixon says. "On Freedom, the effective beam runs 350 ft., from the bottom of the ship to the aircraft runway." The result is a 4320-ft.-long floating beam that draws 37 ft. of water as it rides atop waves, rather than plowing through them.
"We're not doing anything new," Nixon says. "We've taken technologies used in one area and applied them here." Indeed, Nixon says that during World War II the Navy used floating docks longer than Freedom. More recently, Kvaerner, the Norwegian ship and oil platform builder, proposed that the U.S. Department of Defense build a 5249-ft. floating airfield capable of supporting 10,000 troops. Called SeaBase, it would use Kvaerner's patented linking system to join three giant semi-submersible drilling rigs into a landing field.
Although similar in scope to these massive seagoing projects, Freedom actually began as an equally ambitious project on land. "We were on the verge of building an entirely new city on the 50-sq.-mile uninhabited island of East Caicos, south of the Bahamas. It was to serve as a modern Hong Kong," says Nixon. "Had the then chief minister not lost his reelection bid, we would probably be at work on the island today. In retrospect, the loss of this opportunity appears to have been the best thing that could have happened."
When a search of natural and manmade islands failed to turn up a suitable alternate location to East Caicos, one of Freedom city's original backers suggested building an island that could visit different countries each month. Strange as this suggestion seemed, it was something Nixon had actually done before. During the 1980s, he was part of a team of engineers who built a $1 billion modular ethylene plant in Japan and then towed it as more than 100 modules to Saudi Arabia, where it was reassembled. Encouraged by Nixon's hands-on experience in seagoing modular construction and the fact that he has licenses to practice structural, electrical, sanitary and civil engineering, his early supporters elected to follow his dream to sea. "And so," he says, "the Freedom Ship project was born."
Freedom promises to be as different from today's oceangoing vessels as the Queen Elizabeth II is from the Mayflower. Starting with the keel, Freedom doesn't have one. This backbone is missing because Freedom is constructed of 520 airtight steel cells. Each will measure 80 ft. tall. Depending upon its location, each will be 50 to 100 ft. wide and 50 to 120 ft. long. Assembled ashore on rails, they will be bolted together to form base units, each about 300 by 400 ft. These will then be floated out to sea and joined to form the completed base.
About 10 months after the start of construction on the first airtight cell, three base units will have been assembled at sea. At this point, the tempo of construction will increase. Meanwhile, on shore, four assembly lines will be dedicated to building airtight cells. At sea, work will begin on the 25-story superstructure. By the 17-month mark, the last base unit will be bolted in place and the 25th level completed.
Two years after the start of construction, 4000 of Freedom's planned 21,000 units will be ready for occupancy. Her boilers will be fired up and she will set sail.
Well, not exactly. Freedom won't have the sort of boilers you find on traditional ships. She will be propelled by 3700-hp motorized units protruding through 100 of her watertight cells. About half of these will be shrouded propeller units. The balance will rotate 360 degrees, like those used on tugboats. At about $1 million each, these are among the world's most expensive marine powerplants. But, again, thinking like an engineer first and architect second, Nixon sees their cost as a bargain. This is because they can be linked to a central PC-type computer system. The helm thus becomes a joystick. And even this isn't necessary. Using GPS, Freedom's captain could simply sketch the ship's route on a touch-screen and the $6 billion ship would find its own way. Theoretically.
Once under way, life aboard Freedom will be more like living in a bustling city than being on a vacation cruise. Because of its size, the ship will have its own railway system. Courtyards set about its decks will create interior park and recreation areas. Nixon has calculated that the resident population can support its own local economy, which means that residents will, in many cases, also be operating businesses at sea, in malls throughout the length of the ship.
As with a land-based city, these amenities and businesses will not appear overnight. The construction schedule calls for Freedom to set sail on its first 2-year cruise as soon as its first 4000 units are finished. The rest of the ship will be built at sea. This is strictly an economic decision. "Freedom will attract labor from around the world," says Nixon. "The cost of the ship's labor force will be quite low by developed nations' standards."
By now, Nixon has grown accustomed to criticism from the mainstream shipbuilding community. One of its first complaints was his inability to furnish blueprints of the completed ship. "Ships are designed by naval architects who then turn them over to structural engineers. We began with the structural engineering and will let the architects make it pretty," he says. In retrospect, this turned out to be a good strategy.
"We originally estimated the average condo sales price would be $250,000. But it is averaging over $800,000 per unit," Nixon says. To slow the sale of the most expensive units — those facing the ocean — Nixon recently jacked up the price by 20 percent. But, he says, they are still outselling the less expensive interior units, which cost as little as $24,000, by 10 to 1. Nixon has responded by adding another level. He also has added a second airstrip atop the ship and increased its capacity to handle 100,000-pound jets.
The "we" to which Nixon repeatedly refers as he describes Freedom is a team of 24 engineers and consultants who work with his Sarasota-based firm, Engineering Solutions, via Internet connections.
Like Nixon, many are technical experts from outside naval architecture. Their backgrounds have spurred on a number of decidedly non-nautical solutions to the problems of living at sea. For example, rather than burning the cheapest marine fuel, Nixon has specified engines that require more expensive diesel fuel. His rationale is that this cleaner-burning fuel will reduce long-term engine maintenance costs and create less pollution.
Freedom's proposed environmental systems are also a major break with tradition. For instance, sewage won't be flushed into the ocean. Instead, sanitary waste will be incinerated in electric toilets. "This eliminates the need for wastewater treatment," says Nixon. It is also the reason for a no-pets policy for residents and visitors. Graywater from washing will be recycled into drinking water. Recycling is cheaper than desalinating seawater. Waste heat from the engines will be recycled for spinning generators and heating space and hot water. Nixon even has a plan to turn trash into cash. Freedom is so large that it will be possible to store recyclable materials until the ship reaches a port where the scrap will fetch the highest price.
As this issue of PM went to press, Nixon said he was evaluating bids from shipyards in South Africa, Brazil, Poland and Mexico in preparation for beginning construction this year. If the project develops as planned, we'll be filing our next progress report on it from sea.
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