Posted on Monday, August 9, 2010 by Peter Knego
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Meanwhile the ROBERT GRAY chugged away, sort of like the little train that could…
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.
From the fo’c'sle, it was quite a thrill to see the AURORA’s prow cutting through the green murk.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After the shadow of the massive bridge had passed across the AURORA’s upper decks, I began re-documenting the ship’s interior spaces.
The after staircase is a grand descent in miniature.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
After the securing of her lines, her seventeen hour voyage was finally complete.
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!
Very special thanks: Christopher Willson, Martin Cox, Jin Li, Juraj Martanovic, Shanon Sladwick