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New Dawn For MV AURORA: Off The Delta And On The Waterfront

Posted on Monday, August 9, 2010 by

Updated with larger images — August 14, 2011.

Join Peter Knego on one of his 2010 Sea Treks aboard the 1955-built MV AURORA (ex WAPPEN VON HAMBURG, DELOS, PACIFIC STAR, POLAR STAR, XANADU, EXPEX, FAITHFUL) as she is towed from her recent moorings at Rio Vista in the Sacramento River Delta to her new home, Pier 38 on San Francisco’s revitalized waterfront.

Click here to access the ongoing AURORA blog with all the latest news on the ship.


Please Click On Images To View A Larger Version

MV XANADU at Los Angeles on April 28, 1976. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 1976.

My first encounter with the gorgeous miniature ocean liner now called AURORA was in Los Angeles harbor on April 28, 1976 during her next to last cruise season. At the time, she was named XANADU and plushly appointed in Asiatic furnishings and fittings that befit her Kubla Khan “Pleasuredome” name.

MV EXPEX on July 4, 1989. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 1989.

I next saw her with a large container on her stern as the expedition ship EXPEX in the outer Los Angeles harbor anchorage in the late 1980s as she was awaiting a stillborn career.  By this time, after a long layup near Seattle and a subsequent auction, most of her fittings and furniture had been sold off or pillaged.

MV FAITHFUL on February 19, 1994. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 1994.

In 1991, the Wilmington, CA-based Christian organization Friendships purchased her, renamed her FAITHFUL, and painted her hull dark blue, topped with a red band. For years, I struggled to get access to the ship while she was both in the anchorage and later at a berth in Wilmington but was, as Suze Orman would say, “Denied, denied, denied!” Later, I learned the ship was filled with homeless Christian missionaries — which explains the panicked looks and elusive answers I received at her gangway.

MV FAITHFUL on September 6, 2003. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2003.

Once the FAITHFUL was seized by the Coast Guard, another chapter of ignominy began. A man claiming to be a Florida-based doctor supposedly bought her for use as a floating eye clinic. Nothing happened while the ship lingered for years at the Southwest Marine shipyard in Terminal Island. And then, finally, I was granted permission to visit in 2003 and was pleasantly surprised to find her in relatively good condition despite some serious cosmetic neglect. I posted a history and tour on the “old” MaritimeMatters (which is being revived as an updated Decked!) and later learned that this supposed doctor was allegedly using my exposition to “show” the ship to potential buyers, take huge deposits, then disappear. Sigh.

She's got the Alameda "blues"! Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2008.

A mystery buyer stepped in and towed the vessel to Alameda — amazingly, after all those years of deferred maintenance, she actually made it!  A webcam would document her progress as she was rebuilt into a deluxe yacht but alas, this project foundered and the ship was abandoned at a forlorn section of the waterfront. If the banging of barges tied to her sturdy hull wasn’t enough to do her in, she was pillaged by local transients and drug addicts. Finally, the City of Alameda evicted the once grand little liner in 2008. A Rio Vista-based businessman, Kurt Lind, was paid to tow her to the Sacramento River Delta where it looked like she would be finished off.

The transformation begins... Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2009.

Another businessman, Christopher Willson, took the tarnished FAITHFUL off Mr. Lind’s hands. Instead of allowing her to be scrapped, he set about cleaning her up, patching holes, restoring woodwork, scraping rust, priming and painting.  The ship would return to her XANADU livery with a white hull, blue pen stripe and deep blue funnel.

Talking Head in front of AURORA. Photo by Christopher Willson 2009.

Meanwhile, the History Channel contacted me in late 2009 in search of a run down cruise ship to use as a backdrop/prop for one of their “Life After People” episodes. I suggested the FAITHFUL (since renamed AURORA)  and we all headed up to Rio Vista to find that she was surprisingly not run down. Alas, there were no moldy, rotting ransacked interiors anywhere to be found — the History people must have thought me nuts!

Chris Willson and a WAPPEN VON HAMBURG model kit unfolded. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2009.

After meeting Christopher Willson, I felt confident his dreams to restore the vessel would succeed. He had even obtained a small  collection of WAPPEN VON HAMBURG images and artifacts and knew every nook and cranny of his new charge.  For a rare change, it was a relief to have someone so welcoming of my efforts to bring attention to the ship.

Twilight on the river. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2010.

On July 31, 2010, I parked my car at Pier 38 in San Francisco and hopped into a van with some of the crew that would be working on the AURORA’s tow from Rio Vista to San Francisco. Due to river currents and tidal conditions in the Bay, the tow needed to begin at 03:00 the following morning. We arrived in Rio Vista just as the sun’s final rays hit the top of the ship’s mast.

MV AURORA: twilight on deck.

Two months prior, I had been part of a similar maneuver, the transfer of the 1944-built troopship USNS GENERAL JOHN POPE, from her layup berth in Suisuin Bay to drydock at San Francisco’s BAE Systems. Unlike the POPE, which was headed to the breakers, the AURORA’s move was filled with hope and optimism.

Cabin 107, facing forward.

And, unlike the POPE, we actually had safe, comfortable quarters to sleep in. I was given Cabin 107 on the ship’s starboard side, just aft of the forward lobby on A deck. Not only did it have a large bed and electrical power, it was rigged with wifi so I could even do a blog post while the tow was in progress. More advanced than some of the modern cruise ships I report from…

Half moon over ROBERT GRAY.

A group of twelve or so of us crossed over to the tug ROBERT GRAY, a 1936-built former research vessel, to enjoy a fresh cooked chicken burrito and rice dinner, then headed back to the AURORA to rest up. Despite the comfortable surroundings, I barely slept an hour before hearing hurried footsteps on the deck above and seeing the glow of lights outside my large picture window. It was 03:00 and the action was about to begin.

03:00: First movements.

The gangway was being hoisted and lines to shore were being cast off as the ROBERT GRAY held us steady, her smoking, cowl-topped “oil can” funnel bathed in the glow of a waning half moon. On the GRAY’s starboard side was a landing craft that was unleashed and brought into action, coaxing the AURORA out of her moorings and into the river stream where the currents would help turn her south. Once in position, the craft would hitch up along the AURORA’s port side and add some horsepower to augment the GRAY’s efforts.

Facing the dawn.

It was hard to believe it was a midsummer California night in the unexpected  polar wind that chilled the AURORA’s upper decks. Bundled in a down jacket as we silently maneuvered downstream, I watched the constellations fade as a glow appeared over our wake.

Hail Delta dawn...

The irony of sunrise on a ship named for the goddess of the dawn, heading into a new future, was too much to resist. For the next hour or so, I remained topsides, watching as our tow exited the mouth of the Delta and into the oncoming currents of Suisuin Bay. We drifted close to a reed-covered island as the GRAY and landing craft struggled to point AURORA’s nose in a westward direction. Once we were safely on course, I headed back into the sanctuary of 107 for a couple hours of deep slumber.

Telegraph and Suisuin Bay.

When I awoke at 10:30, the curtains parted to a familiar sight. We were approaching the USNS Reserve Fleet with its rafts of merchant and military ships. At this point, I knew the tow would take much longer than its projected ten hour duration.

Reserve Fleet, ctd.

Although it was slightly warmer, the wind was still fierce on the AURORA’s upper decks. Off the starboard wing lay the distant Reserve Fleet. I wondered which of its vintage collection of ships would be culled next and sent off for scrap.

Over stern from Aft ----- Deck.

Facing forward from aft Lounge Deck.

The overhead sun bathed AURORA’s decks in brilliant light as she plunged through the choppy green waters of Suisuin. If it was this rough in the shelter of Suisuin, I wondered what awaited us in the more vast reaches of the San Pablo and San Francisco Bays.

ROBERT GRAY from AURORA.

Meanwhile the ROBERT GRAY chugged away, sort of like the little train that could…

Bowing to the Benecia Bridge.

Benecia behind.

All eyes were fixed on the top of the AURORA’s mast as she neared the Benecia-Martinez Bridge, the first of four major spans we would pass under en route to San Francisco.

Over starboard prow.

From the fo’c’sle, it was quite a thrill to see the AURORA’s prow cutting through the green murk.

ROBERT GRAY spray.

'Tween ships splash.

As we rounded the bend into the Carquinez Strait, the seas picked up even more. The ROBERT GRAY’s bow was awash in spray although AURORA seemed to take it all in stride. At this point, word spread throughout the ships that the Port of San Francisco was threatening to deny the AURORA’s delivery to Pier 38. Phone calls to lawyers ensued and the tow carried on, albeit at a sluggish two knot pace. I took advantage of the wifi waves to make a quick post to MaritimeMatters.

AURORA from ROBERT GRAY.

A ladder was jury-rigged between the AURORA and GRAY, allowing us to cross over to the tug for some early afternoon nourishment. I watched from the vantage of the GRAY’s foredeck as we passed underneath the Carquinez Bridge and into San Pablo Bay.

AURORA from above.

Meanwhile, back on the AURORA…

I hate heights but the chance to climb up to the mast platform while the ship was underway wasn’t going to happen again soon.

AURORA stern from ROBERT GRAY.

Chris was going to try and launch a whaler from the GRAY so I could get some footage of AURORA in her element. We crossed back to the GRAY to see if Captain Lind could execute the maneuver before the fog rolled in.

AURORA bow to Richmond Bridge.

Although there was a lull in the chop, making conditions perfect, the first mate vetoed launching the whaler for us. His reasoning that we were behind schedule and could not afford the hour or so it would take to stop the tow, launch, let us circle the ship and take the whaler back on board made good sense.

Richmond bollards.

Back over on AURORA, I headed up to the fo’c’sle as we approached one of my favorite bridges, the Richmond-San Rafael. I have always been fascinated with its Bactrian camel like appearance with twin “humped” cantilever spans. Although its aesthetics pale in comparison with the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, the 1956-built Richmond is still a pretty impressive sight.

AURORA bridge to Richmond Bridge.

After the shadow of the massive bridge had passed across the AURORA’s upper decks, I began re-documenting the ship’s interior spaces.

Aft stairtower vestibule, MV AURORA.

The after staircase is a grand descent in miniature.

Broken birds and maple veneers uncovered.

In the forward lounge, the handsome maple veneers were recently freed of layers of black wall paper. Hopefully, the woodwork will be restored to its original configuration and the carved and painted ducks can “fly” again.

AURORA in her element.

While in the dining room, I heard Chris calling my name. He and Juraj Martanovic had arranged for a zodiac to pick me up, circle the ship a few times and head with a couple members of the towing crew to Pier 38, where they would help with the lines. Well, the lighting was still spectacular and the seas calm in the shelter of Angel Island, so off we sped!

Bow-licious.

Paul, the zodiac “driver”, was patient as I juggled the cameras and captured the AURORA in various digital media. Once complete, I stowed the cameras away in the lifebelt cabinet and held on for dear life as he throttled the zodiac at top speed through the chilly waters. We were literally flying at times, especially as we crossed the stretch of bay inside the Golden Gate. It calmed a bit as the San Francisco waterfront encroached and we reached Pier 38.

AURORA under the Bay Bridge.

Dripping wet and elated, I bundled up and headed to Pier 32, where even the fishermen were shivering in the unseasonably chilly fog. “Kerplunk!” — my wide angle lens suddenly slipped out of its carrying case and into the bay — a small sacrifice for a rare and happy occasion in a year that has not been kind to vintage ships. Finally, at about 8:00 PM, I could see the AURORA in the distance. Some thirty minutes later, she passed under the Bay Bridge. Her marathon was almost over.

"Dawn" in the night.

I shuffled back over to Pier 38 as the tow circled south and turned so that the AURORA could berth with port side to the pier.

Close to home.

After the securing of her lines, her seventeen hour voyage was finally complete.

MV AURORA at Pier 38. Photo and copyright Juraj Martanovic 2010.

In the words of Nina Simone, “It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me — and I’m feeling good….” Here’s to a bright and successful future for the AURORA in her new home!

Click here to access the ongoing AURORA blog with all the latest news on the ship.

Very special thanks: Christopher Willson, Martin Cox, Jin Li, Juraj Martanovic, Shanon Sladwick

28 Responses to New Dawn For MV AURORA: Off The Delta And On The Waterfront

  1. steve toth

    August 9, 2010 at 3:09 pm

    This is very great news, it is so nice to see her looking good again after all the neglect. Simply a beautiful little liner!

  2. Peter Finch

    August 9, 2010 at 7:49 pm

    What a lovely little ship! She has some of the most attractive aspects of German postwar design. Her lines are really gorgeous–balanced and elegant.

    Thanks for a nicely written story and great photos: it’s good to read [and see] that this beautiful vessel will see a new life.

  3. Corey palm desert

    August 9, 2010 at 10:38 pm

    Great pictures. How long until she is opened to public.

  4. David Walker

    August 10, 2010 at 12:35 am

    Peter, another brilliantly documented transit. Well done! Great action shots from the tugs and zodiac. Would love to see more of her interior. What fate lies ahead for her?

  5. david templae

    August 10, 2010 at 9:29 am

    hi peter what great pictures of a great ship, hope can visit her one day

  6. Kimberly

    August 10, 2010 at 5:53 pm

    Peter, you have such an eye for detail. Always a pleasure to read your posts.

  7. steve toth

    August 11, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    please say you have more pictures.

  8. C. Shelby

    August 11, 2010 at 10:38 pm

    ***Terrific transformation and great news following so many dismal endings for these solid ships. I spotted this craft along the river near Rio Vista on many a day trip – fun to live in a fairly active marine area of CA.

    Congrats Gents – and continued Good Luck!

  9. Corey palm desert

    August 13, 2010 at 12:43 am

    Since ship is small I think she has great chance of being profitable . She has great location also. It makes happy to hear about a old ship not being scrapped. Once again Peter thanks for all the effort into traveling and also expense. You take us along for the ride.

  10. Mage Bailey

    August 13, 2010 at 4:14 pm

    This article is truly marvelous. Thanks for showing us the beginning of the transformation, and giving us all hope. We will stop by and visit her next time we are in the city. And too, We are so very sorry about the loss of your lens. Double darn.

  11. Al McDougall

    August 15, 2010 at 7:45 pm

    A quick question…there is talk that the ship is still for sale from a medical doctor…any foundations for this?

    If it’s been moved to Pier 38 and likely to be open as an attraction soon, this would seem to be a bit odd…if it’s still for sale…

    Is there any basis in fact for any of this?

  12. Peter Knego

    August 16, 2010 at 1:02 am

    As stated in the blog, that was apparently a scam. The ship is not for sale.

    All the best, Peter

  13. Dan

    August 16, 2010 at 6:19 pm

    Peter,
    Did get the chance to tour the engine room onboard the ship?

  14. Al McDougall

    August 16, 2010 at 7:32 pm

    OK…To be honest I’m glad she’s found a good home and that there are people in the community that will be looking after her. BZ to those that did so much to get her back into shape.

    With respect to the scam, it would appear that the individual is still at it.

  15. Glenn Paull

    August 23, 2010 at 1:52 pm

    Thank heaven for people like Christopher Willson for playing such a pivotal role in this saga. a great complement this handsome little ship will make to an already beautiful and very interesting waterfront. And thanks to Peter Knego for bringing us such an interesting and well presented segment – First Class as always.

  16. Joseph Sturges

    August 23, 2010 at 8:59 pm

    Congratulations for those responsible in bringing the AURORA into a new phase in her life.

    Bravo Zulu to all those responsible for saving her.

  17. Dan

    August 26, 2010 at 1:40 am

    If only the SS Britanis had this kind of financial support when she was up for sale in the 1990’s. That’s a ship that I would have loved to have seen saved for the San Francisco waterfront. It’s good to know that the Aurora is was rescued from the fate that came upon the Britanis and the SS Catalina.

  18. Brent Burgess

    September 19, 2010 at 1:57 am

    I am afraid that the Scam is still up and running. This man needs to be dealt with by the authorities, as We are trying to purchase a ship like this for Medical, Disaster Relief purposes.
    Best of luck to the restoration.
    If anyone knows of a ship similar that is available please let me know.

  19. Marlan Shelton

    October 16, 2010 at 1:15 pm

    It’s great to see the ship I knew as the Xanadu looking so good. I spent a wonderful week aboard cruising the inside passage in 1975. The small port side cabin overlooking the bow was mine. It was a once in a lifetime experience.

    Keep up the good work.

  20. Gordon Willson

    February 9, 2011 at 11:45 am

    Beautifully written, Peter. I watched as the Aurora seemed to glide under the Carquinez Bridge. I’m proud of Chris and Shannon both for what they have accomplished. I only wish I could visit the Aurora more often.

    Looking forward to your next post.

  21. Mike Johnston

    June 11, 2011 at 6:49 am

    I was on the expex in 1985 when we were anchored in San Pedro Harbor. It has always been of interest to me. She is a beautiful ship. I was trying to find out where she was to get a tour.
    If anyone can contact me with info on a phone number and or email address, please forward to me at email below. I spent several months living on her. She holds a special place in my heart. I would love to see her again. I am so glad to see someone took an interest in her.
    My email is baampilotcars@frontier.com

  22. hank

    June 14, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    Hi Peter. Any recent news on the Aurora?

  23. Peter Knego

    June 17, 2011 at 11:20 pm

    News on AURORA has gone silent. I’m keeping fingers crossed but expectations at bay…

  24. Bob Graham

    August 14, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    Always great to see a fine ship saved. Fingers crossed too.

  25. Paul Smith

    May 13, 2013 at 2:04 pm

    I see she’s back in the Delta now. how’s the progess and what’s the current plan for the future?

  26. Ida Tornovski

    September 22, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    I am about to start another of my short stories about odd Interviews. One of them ranks high on the list. EXPEX, 1985, in Long Beach Harbor.

    I wondered whatever had happened to that ship. The then-owner was glad I spoke German and could tell him the meaning of the words on the old-fashioned helm: “Voraus” and “Zurueck.” Ahead and Back. Handy to know. No kidding.

    I spent a day and night to be interviewed for a “working world cruise.” Relax. His family was onboard otherwise I would not have stayed around this Iranian peacock.

    There was a nice young mechanic on board. In a gentle manner, he took out his pocket knife and scratched at the paint. It told me that this old rustbucket was not ready to sail around any world. (Could it have been “Mike” from above?)

    What a journey for this venerable old lady. So glad she is being restored.

  27. Uwe Heynitz, Hamburg

    January 5, 2014 at 10:10 am

    Hello, I’m glad to hear good news about this old lady.
    I’ve been on her in the 50th on the way to Helgoland.
    I have seen a model building plan or kit… can I buy one?

    All the best
    Uwe (Hamburg)

  28. Paul

    February 10, 2014 at 8:59 am

    Any news? A few months ago I read that someone wanted her to be a floating brewpub in Stockton. Update?

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