The Rise And Fall Of A Family Cruise Business
A History Of The Company And It’s Origins In
Alaska Cruise Lines, Westours and West Line
Shawn J. Dake
A study in contrasts: Small Ship versus Big Ship cruising. The SPIRIT OF '98 meets the VISION OF THE SEAS at San Diego, Ca. on January 6, 2001. Photo by Shawn J. Dake
Cruise West, a company that can trace it’s origin to the infancy of Alaska tourism, reached the end of the line in 2010. The long, fascinating history of this company and it’s predecessors spans nearly 64 years. During this time Alaska went from being a territory, virtually unknown to tourists, to the 50th state which now sees an annual influx of mega-sized cruise ships arriving each summer filled with thousands of passengers. At the time of it’s demise Cruise West was the largest operator of American flagged cruise vessels. Until very recently, this was a highly regarded company, specializing in destination intensive, small ship experiences primarily in Alaska, Canada and along the Columbia River but also offering voyages on foreign-flagged and chartered vessels throughout the world. Cruise West shut down their offices and stopped taking future reservations on September 7, 2010. Following completion of two scheduled cruises in the Pacific Northwest and a European river cruise, the company ceased all operations on September 18th. The closure of the Seattle-based company is the latest defeat in the long decline of the U.S. cruise industry over the past 40 years. Many factors undoubtedly played a role in the failure of Cruise West. The deep recession combined with overly ambitious expansion plans including the acquisition of the U.S. Flag ships of Clipper Cruise Line in 2006, adding a foreign flagged vessel on continuous world cruise service in 2010, along with charter arrangements in areas beyond their realm of expertise all contributed to the demise of Cruise West. It is indeed a sad ending to what had been one of the few success stories in cruising under the American flag.
As a young pilot Chuck West flew a C-47 similar to this in India and China. The Douglas Aircraft C-47 Dakota also called a Skytrain was a World War II version of the DC-3 airliner. Photo by Shawn J. Dake, copyright 2009.
Cruise West can trace it’s origins back to November, 1946 when Charles B. (Chuck) West opened a small travel agency in Fairbanks, Alaska. Arctic Alaska Travel Service began pioneering efforts in Alaskan tourism the following year with the founding of Arctic Alaska Tours. It has been a long and often illustrious road that’s led to the massive influx of cruise ships and tourists in Alaska today. Chuck West grew up in Los Angeles and became hooked on aviation at age 11 following a sightseeing flight. He would later learn to fly small planes himself. As a young man he worked for Western Airlines in sales. In 1943 he married Marguerite Lee, an Alaskan girl who had been attending college in California. During World War II, Chuck West was a pilot, in command of a C-47 flying over “The Hump” into China. Following the war, he became a bush pilot based in Fairbanks, Alaska flying for Wien Air. Seeing the potential for tourism in what was then still the territory of Alaska, he began flying passengers to the remote villages of Kotzebue and Nome. Having met with initial success the operation expanded into motor coach tours, eventually meeting passengers from the vessels of the Alaska Steamship Company.
The ALEUTIAN was one of the four Alaska Steamship Company vessels bringing the first cruise-tour passengers to Alaska. Schallerers real photo postcard from the collection of Shawn J. Dake.
The s.s. ALASKA off Ketchikan in Southeastern Alaska. Schallerers real photo postcard from the collection of Shawn J. Dake
At the time, Alaska Steam were operating four passenger ships, the ALASKA, ALEUTIAN, BARANOF and DENALI, carrying passengers from Seattle to Seward. Tours were matched to pickup arriving passengers heading to the Alaskan interior and to drop off those sailing back to the lower 48. The basic program was really very similar to the Cruise/Tours operating today. Sadly, in September, 1954, the Alaska Steamship Company abandoned their passenger services that had operated for the previous 60 years. Passengers still had to be found to fill the motor coaches. Canadian Pacific Railway with the PRINCESS LOUISE operated from Vancouver to Skagway, and Canadian National had the PRINCE GEORGE, but neither of these lines could offer sufficient space for Chuck West’s tours. Drastic measures would have to be taken if his buses were to remain full. By 1957 he was determined to start his own cruise operations as a secure source of passengers. Westours was founded as the parent company for the renamed Alaska Hyway Tours, the Grayline sightseeing franchise in Alaska, a small chain of three hotels and most importantly the brand new Alaska Cruise Lines. The company began with two ships acquired from the Union Steamship Company of British Columbia. Union Steam had been founded in 1889 and ran a fleet of relatively small steamers to remote ports in Canada and Alaska.
The former WOOLVESEY CASTLE, a "Castle-class" corvette identical to the three ships purchased by Union Steamship Company of British Columbia. Courtesy of Gordon Ghareeb.
After World War II the company converted three “Castle-class“ corvettes into passenger-cargo ships. Union Steamships was not finding the three ships profitable, even when sailing full. With limited cargo capacity and Canadian union restrictions becoming increasingly difficult to deal with, they were amenable to the offer of chartering one of the ships for the summer of 1957, and ultimately selling two of the vessels to the new Alaska Cruise Lines in 1958.
The GLACIER QUEEN in the original Alaska Cruise Lines colors which matched their motor coaches. Postcard from the collection of Shawn J. Dake.
Another view of the GLACIER QUEEN cruising in Alaska in the updated livery of Westours. Postcard from the collection of Shawn J. Dake.
The first ship, the COQUITLAM was renamed the GLACIER QUEEN. It had been built in 1944 for the British as the small warship HMS WALMER CASTLE, before going to Canada and being renamed HMCS LEASIDE. The sister ship would become the YUKON STAR.
YUKON STAR in an early real photo postcard. Publisher unknown.
The YUKON STAR and the GLACIER QUEEN sailed under the Canadian Flag from Vancouver, British Columbia. Postcard from the collection of Shawn J. Dake.
This ship was also completed in 1944 as the HMS SANDGATE CASTLE, and immediately went to the Canadians as the RCN ST. THOMAS. After acquiring her in 1946 Union Steamships changed the name to CAMOSUN and later CHILCOTIN when the third sister ship of that name was sold to the fledgling Greek company, Sun Line. The ships were 253.6 feet long with a breadth of 36.7 feet and a gross tonnage of approximately 1,835 tons. Each could carry 148 cruise passengers. Driven by a single screw the ships could make a respectable 15 ½ knots along the inside passage. The third converted corvette would latter play a role the company’s fortunes, although not a happy one.
Alaska Cruise Lines brochure from 1959. From the collection of Bjorn Larsson.
GLACIER QUEEN, YUKON STAR staterooms. Brochure from Shawn Dake collection
Alaska Cruise Lines repainted their ships in a blue and gold livery, matching the colors on the buses of Alaska Hyway Tours. After the first season the funnels featured a blue triangle with a white polar bear as their logo. To make them more suitable for cruising a cocktail lounge was added to the forward part of the ship. Shuffleboard courts were painted on the decks while inside the cabins were brightened up, transforming the vessels into comfortable little cruise ships. Sailing from Vancouver, ports of call included Prince Rupert, B.C., and the Alaskan ports of Ketchikan, Petersburg, Juneau, Haines, cruising Glacier Bay and Tracy Arm with Skagway as the northern terminus. The trip could be divided up into four-day one-way voyages or as a roundtrip cruise. The cruises were very successful and by 1962 the company was looking at adding a third ship. Initially, plans called for building a brand new ship.
Had it been completed the ALASKA QUEEN would have had a similar profile to Alaska State Ferries such as the TAKU shown here. Photo by Shawn J. Dake c. 2010.
The 250-passenger vessel was to have been named the ALASKA QUEEN and would have been 350 feet long. The designer was Philip F. Spaulding who had previously created the beautiful COHO for Black Ball Transport, and had recently finalized plans for the first three Alaska State Ferries. A contract was negotiated with the Victoria Machinery Depot to build the ship for $3.7 million. However, when costs were projected to rise by well over a million dollars, Chuck West called the project off. It is the little known story of a cruise ship that never was. The need for additional tonnage was still great, and the search led to Greece. There the third sister ship of the GLACIER QUEEN and YUKON STAR was cruising under the Sun Line banner as their first STELLA MARIS.
The lovely Sun Line ship STELLA MARIS was acquired by Westours and renamed WESTAR. Postcard from the collection of Shawn J. Dake.
The ship had received an even more extensive conversion as a small, luxurious passenger ship, decorated to the high standards Sun Line was famous for. In Greece it was known as the “Princess Of Cruise Yachts” and was the first fully air-conditioned cruise ship in the region. Built as the British warship HMS GUILDFORD CASTLE it was completed in March, 1944 but a few months later went to Canada and was rechristened HMCS HESPELER. Union Steamship Company converted the corvette to a passenger liner in the summer of 1947 and under the new name of CHILCOTIN began cruises to Alaska. As Union Steamships wound down their operations, the ship was sold in 1958 to become the founding vessel of the new Sun Line fleet. Emerging as the STELLA MARIS the vessel measured 1,924 gross tons, just a bit larger than her sisters. She ran very successfully for the Greeks until being retired after the summer season in 1965. Chuck West viewed her as the perfect consort to his existing fleet purchasing the cruise ship and renaming her WESTAR. In a twist of fate, the former Canadian ship that had made the long journey to Greece, was returning to Vancouver once again. The newest Alaska Cruise Line vessel began the delivery voyage from Piraeus, Greece. On January 28, 1966, just a few days into the trip, disaster struck. During refueling at Sardinia, a fuel line became disconnected spraying pressurized oil into the engine room. The ship exploded and caught fire, becoming a total constructive loss. The reunited trio of sister ships was not to be, and the second attempt to add a third ship had ended in tragedy. Alaska Cruise Lines sold the burnt out hulk for scrapping at La Spezia, Italy, saving only the ship’s bell.
Two views of the POLAR STAR which joined Westours in 1968. Postcards from the collection of Shawn J. Dake.
Perhaps three times is the charm as the next attempt to add a ship was finally successful in 1968. Chuck and Marguerite West had taken a cruise to the Greek Islands in August of 1967 aboard 2,496 gross ton, Greek cruiser DELOS. The ship had been built in 1955 for the Germans as the WAPPEN VON HAMBURG. The vessel had a beautiful array of public rooms with lovely woodwork, comfortable cabins, air conditioning and a swimming pool. The dimensions were 293.6 feet in length with a beam of 43.4 feet. Alaska Cruise Lines bought the 186-passenger vessel and renamed her POLAR STAR. The purchase and extensive refurbishing brought the cost to $3.5 million, while helping make the company a force in Alaska cruising. Like the earlier pair of ships, the latest addition was registered in Canada. The new flagship was instantly popular with her passengers. By 1969, a fourth ship was purchased, this time with loans for $5 million.
The 4,438 gross ton CABO IZARRA
Became the WEST STAR in 1970. Postcards from the collection of Shawn J. Dake
The CABO IZARRA was a nearly new Spanish cruise ship, having been built in 1967. This vessel would operate in international trades as well as summers in Alaska and was to be foreign-registered in Liberia. During the winter the ship would cruise the South Pacific. For this operation the corporation was titled as The West Line, Inc., a division of Westours. The initial five day coastal cruise from Los Angeles to Vancouver, via San Francisco and Victoria took place April 10, 1970. For this voyage the ship was promoted as the m/v IZARRA.
The first brochure for the inaugural cruise of Westours newest ship. From the collection of Shawn J. Dake
Renamed the WEST STAR and still sailing with a Spanish crew, this ship would not have as easy an entry into service as her fleet mates. The foreign crew suffered some service issues with the language barrier, but much worse caused a great deal of problems with the unions representing the crews on the Canadian registered ships. The unions literally picketed the original two ships out of existence.
A West Line postcard for the PACIFIC STAR. Postcard from the collection of Shawn J. Dake
In 1970, the POLAR STAR was renamed the PACIFIC STAR, when the ship was repositioned for year-round service from Tahiti. The West Line sold her in 1972 to Xanadu Cruises who revamped her interiors to an Asian theme and renamed her XANADU. For five years the ship remained with this company, followed by years of lay up and neglect first at Vancouver, then later at a wharf south of Tacoma, Washington.
The PACIFIC STAR continued cruising in the mid-1970's as the XANADU. Photograph by Shawn J. Dake.
The same ship today has a new lease on life as the AURORA. Photograph by Chris Willson
In the mid-1980’s the increasingly derelict ship was towed to Los Angeles harbor with subsequent name changes, first to EXPEX and later FAITHFUL. As an example of the durability of this fine vessel, it is still around in 2010, currently in a stationary role at San Francisco, California under the new name AURORA.
The fleet that should have been sailing to Alaska in 1970 before Union disputes over crewing the WEST STAR ended the careers of the two original ships. From the collection of Shawn J. Dake.
With the two smallest ships sidelined by Canadian union pickets, in 1970 Westours chartered Epirotiki Lines ORPHEUS to fill in summer service in Alaska and offer winter cruises to Mexico. This fine cruise ship was originally built by Harland & Wolff, Belfast in 1948 as the MUNSTER for the Liverpool to Dublin service. She stayed with Westours through 1972 before returning to Greece.
The ORPHEUS had a long and varied career including two seasons under charter to Westours. Postcard from the collection of Shawn J. Dake
The union difficulties continued, forcing all three of the Canadian registered vessels permanently out of Alaska service. For the 1971 season only the ORPHEUS flying the Greek flag and with a Greek crew and the WEST STAR, registered in Liberia but now carrying a Canadian crew would operate. The cruises were sold as Seattle to Skagway voyages, but due to U.S. cabotage laws prohibiting foreign ships from sailing between two U.S. ports, the journey began in Victoria, British Columbia with Canadian Pacific’s PRINCESS MARGUERITE providing the connection from Seattle. Baggage could be checked straight through for transfer between the ships.
West Line brochures from the early 1970's. From the collection of Shawn J. Dake.
In a situation not unlike the current troubles with Cruise West, Westours had been expanding rapidly and was becoming over extended, just as the economy was heading into a downturn. With the foreign operations they were literally sailing into unfamiliar waters. Combined with the striking unions and several financial reversals, Westours was in real danger of bankruptcy. March 1, 1971 could have been the end of the story, for on that day a $1 million dollar payment was due on the WEST STAR. Investors had to be found and they were in Rotterdam. After tense negotiations, Holland America Line purchased Westours for $1.25 million, a fraction of what the company had been worth. Despite retaining the title of “president and chief executive officer” the Dutch had no intention of keeping Chuck West in the company that he had founded. The casually dressed Alaskan was used to running the company his way and constantly butted heads with the staid, traditional Hollanders who were now in fact his boss. In just two short years he was forced out. His last day on the job was February 23, 1973. He signed a two-year “non-compete” clause. His departure coincided with the first large, modern cruise ships journeying to Alaska each summer.
The WEST STAR at Canadian Pacific's old pier B-C, in Vancouver on July 1, 1974. This location is now the site of Canada Place. Photo by Shawn J. Dake c.2010
Holland America Line could supply what Westours alone could not; Large capacity ships to bring greater numbers of passengers to Alaska, not only on roundtrip cruises, but also cruise-tours to view Mt. McKinley and the interior, with some trips venturing into the Yukon Territory of Canada. Initially, still sailing as Westours, the WEST STAR remained the primary ship. It was eventually sold to Philippine interests becoming the DONA MONTSERRAT, before later being traded to China with a renaming to XING HU. In 1975, Holland America brought their newest ship, the PRINSENDAM to Alaskan waters. This was followed in subsequent years by the VEENDAM, STATENDAM and even the flagship ROTTERDAM. Alaska vacations continued to be marketed as Holland America Westours through the summer of 1998 when the Westours portion of the name was finally dropped. For a brief period they tried calling the land portion Holland America Tours but it just didn’t have the same ring to it. Today it is simply Holland America. By whatever name, the company that began as Westours, continues to dominate every aspect of Alaska tourism.
Chuck West revived his cruise business by using blocked space on Alaska Marine Highway vessels like the MALASPINA shown here in the Lynn Canal off Skagway. Photo by Shawn J. Dake c.2010
The new ferry COLUMBIA was added to the Alaska Marine Highway system in 1974. Photo by Shawn J. Dake c.2010
After being forced out of his company by the Dutch, Chuck West started over. Although banned from competing directly with Holland America, he got around it by forming a “public carrier” bus company he renamed Alaska-Yukon Motorcoaches. The four buses would connect at Haines with the Alaska Marine Highway ferries, taking passengers from there by road to Anchorage. In 1975, the two year non-competition agreement was up and Chuck West was off and running again, founding TravAlaska Tours which grew into Alaska Sightseeing/Cruise West. His son Richard (Dick) West became the executive vice president of the parent organization West Travel, Inc., in 1984. By that year 14 cruise ships were sailing in Alaska; quite a contrast from the pioneering years of the 1950’s and ’60’s. TravAlaska packaged cruise-tour itineraries with many of these ships but never with Holland America. One of the primary ships that they regularly contracted space on was the CUNARD PRINCESS, although Paquet’s RHAPSODY (formerly the STATENDAM) and Princess Cruises SUN PRINCESS and ISLAND PRINCESS were also regularly in the mix.
The SHELTERED SEAS began the Alaska Sightseeing/Cruise West tradition of small ship cruising. Cruise West photo.
Another new idea that began at that time was daylight cruising aboard the 90 foot yacht SHELTERED SEAS. Sailing between Ketchikan and Haines up to 70 passengers saw all of the inside passage during the day, staying ashore at hotels along the way. This was the beginning of the West’s small ship cruising concept.
Two views of the SPIRIT OF GLACIER BAY, Cruise West's first overnight vessel. Postcards from the collection of Shawn J. Dake.
The PACIFIC NORTHWEST EXPLORER was acquired from the bankrupt Exploration Cruise Lines. Photo by Shawn J. Dake c.1982.
The same vessel makes a pretty picture as the SPIRIT OF ALASKA. Alaska Sightseeing/Cruise West postcard from the collection of Shawn J. Dake.
As conventional cruise ships grew ever larger, a segment of the traveling public clamored for an alternative. Cruise West was ready to fill that niche. In 1990, they acquired their first overnight ship, the 52-passenger SPIRIT OF GLACIER BAY which provided two-night cruises from Juneau to it’s namesake destination. Taking advantage following the bankruptcy of Exploration Cruise Lines, that company’s 78-passenger PACIFIC NORTHWEST EXPLORER was purchased and renamed the SPIRIT OF ALASKA. Operating under the American flag, these cruises sailed from Seattle to explore the Inside Passage. Built by Blount Shipyards in Warren, Rhode Island, they were ideal for close-up cruising having a shallow draft and bow landing ramp for going ashore practically anywhere. Many passengers enjoyed the experience of these boats pulling right up to a waterfall, the cascade splashing on the bow, or seeing a whale or a bear at close range. In 1993, the company added three more interesting ships.
The SPIRIT OF COLUMBIA docked across from the VOLENDAM at Ketchikan, Alaska. Photo by Cody Durkin (http://www.mastermarf.com)
The SEASPIRIT was 10 years old when Cruise West purchased the ship in 1993. Postcard from the collection of Shawn J. Dake.
The ship was renamed SPIRIT OF ENDEAVOUR seen here at Ketchikan on July 24, 2008. The GOLDEN PRINCESS towers over it in the background. Photo by Cody Durkin (http://www.mastermarf.com)
The SPIRIT OF COLUMBIA was the former NEW SHOREHAM II, also built by Blount in 1979. The SEASPIRIT had most recently sailed for RSVP Cruises, and was renamed SPIRIT OF ENDEAVOUR. She had originally been built at Jeffboat in Indiana during 1983 as the NEWPORT CLIPPER, the first ship of Clipper Cruise Line. The most interesting addition was the SPIRIT OF ‘98, a cruise ship built as a replica of an early 20th century coastal steamer.
The PILGRIM BELLE, built in 1984 while looking like a steamer from 1924. Postcard from the collection of Shawn J. Dake
As VICTORIAN EMPRESS the ship ran cruises on the St. Lawrence River. Postcard from the collection of Shawn J. Dake
SPIRIT OF '98
Two Cruise West views of the SPIRIT OF '98. Postcards from the collection of Shawn J. Dake
The Klondike Dining Room aboard the SPIRIT OF '98. Photo by Shawn J. Dake c.1995
SPIRIT OF '98 at Skagway, Alaska on July 2, 1995 with the YORKTOWN CLIPPER which Cruise West would later purchase. Photo by Shawn J. Dake c.1995
Coastwise Cruise Line originally built her in 1984 as the PILGRIM BELLE, but her time with them was short, subsequently being renamed COLONIAL EXPLORER and again in 1988 as the VICTORIAN EMPRESS for St. Lawrence Cruise Lines. For a small vessel the cabins and public rooms were extremely attractive maintaining the theme of a journey to Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. Some staterooms opened onto the deck, steamboat style.
The SPIRIT OF DISCOVERY at Skagway, Alaska, August 13, 2010. Photo by Shawn J. Dake c.2010
Yet another addition was the 84-guest SPIRIT OF DISCOVERY. This ship was built for the original incarnation of American Cruise Lines in 1976 as their first INDEPENDENCE. It ran for one season during 1986 for the short-lived Great Pacific Cruise Lines of Seattle as the m.v. COLUMBIA. It now has the dubious distinction of having sailed for three different defunct U.S. cruise lines.
The Bahamas registered SPIRIT OF OCEANUS at Canada Place pier in Vancouver, B.C. Photo by Peter Knego c.2003
The lounge aboard SPIRIT OF OCEANUS. Photo by Peter Knego c. 2003
A typical stateroom aboard the SPIRIT OF OCEANUS. Cruise West photo.
SPIRIT OF OCEANUS, sailing from Vancouver. Photo by Peter Knego c. 2003.
Another momentous year was 2001 when Cruise West invested in the operations of a much larger ocean-going ship flying a foreign flag. The renamed SPIRIT OF OCEANUS began her career in 1991 with Renaissance Cruises as the 4,200 gross ton RENAISSANCE V, also sailing for a time under charter as the HANSEATIC RENAISSANCE. In 1997 she was sold to Malaysian interests becoming the SUN VIVA. Star Cruises acquired the ship in 2000 renaming her MEGASTAR SAGITTARIUS, but soon sold the unwanted ship to Cruise West. This was a big investment and a major change for Cruise West as the 114-passenger ship was rather more luxurious than their existing vessels. The new ship would sail in the South Pacific during the winter, then cruise through Asia and the Russian Far East on the positioning trips to Alaska for the summer. The cruises called at incredibly exotic ports and commanded premium prices.
The PACIFIC EXPLORER at home in Cristobal, Panama. Photo by Shawn J. Dake c.2007
A Polar Bear in the tropics with the Temptress "T" still visible on the funnel. Photo by Shawn J. Dake c.2007
Another departure was the addition of a ship based in Central America. Cruise West joined forces with Temptress Cruise Lines and began marketing their TEMPTRESS EXPLORER. This 100-passenger ship was built in 1970 at New Orleans as the FORCE TIDE. It was subsequently renamed NORPAC II in 1987 and PACIFIC WARRIOR in 1992 before going to Temptress in 1995. During 2002 Cruise West renamed the ship again, becoming the PACIFIC EXPLORER and repainting it in their funnel colors; the blue circle with a Polar Bear looking rather incongruous in the heat of Panama and Costa Rica.
Charles B. (Chuck) West autobiography Mr. Alaska. From the collection of Shawn J. Dake
Father and Son, Chuck and Dick West on the bridge of a Cruise West vessel.
Chuck West passed away in 2005 at his cabin in Haines, Alaska. He had continued running the company until the early 1990’s when he passed the title of chairman and CEO on to his son Richard West. At the time of his passing he was 90 years old and had devoted over 50 years to the development of tourism in Alaska and worldwide.
The YORKTOWN CLIPPER photographed at Skagway on July 2, 1995 originally cruised in Alaska for Clipper Cruise Lines. Photo by Shawn J. Dake c.1995
Docked at Sitka, Alaska, the YORKTOWN CLIPPER went from competitor to become SPIRIT OF YORKTOWN, one of the larger members of the Cruise West fleet. Postcard from the collection of Shawn J. Dake
The NANTUCKET CLIPPER became the SPIRIT OF NANTUCKET, then was renamed again when it came West as the second SPIRIT OF GLACIER BAY. It was intended that the ship be renamed again in 2011 as the SPIRIT OF AMERICA before fate intervened. Cruise West photo.
In 2006, Cruise West purchased the remaining U.S. flagged vessels of Clipper Cruise Lines. Their largest ship, the 138-passenger YORKTOWN CLIPPER, built in 1988, was renamed SPIRIT OF YORKTOWN. Smaller fleetmate, the 102-passenger NANTUCKET CLIPPER became the SPIRIT OF NANTUCKET. For the first two seasons it remained on the East Coast operating similar programs to those offered by the previous owners, but new cruising grounds for Cruise West. This ship had the unfortunate habit of running into things and suffered it’s first serious accident after striking an uncharted object in the Intercoastal Waterway off Virginia on November 8, 2007. The ship was holed, but repaired and over the winter was brought to the West Coast for Alaska service. It was subsequently renamed the SPIRIT OF GLACIER BAY (ii). In June it hit a rock while cruising Tracy Arm causing only minor damage. Just over a month later on July 7, 2008 the ship ran aground and was left high and dry on a sandbar in Tarr Inlet at Glacier Bay National Park. With the downturn in the economy the ship was withdrawn from service in 2009 and remained laid up. Had the company survived, plans for 2011 called for a rival of cruising on the Mississippi River aboard the same ship to be renamed SPIRIT OF AMERICA. The 1,471 ton vessel had originally been constructed in 1984. Sadly, since 2008 there has been no regular overnight passenger service on America’s inland waterways for the first time since steamboat service began in 1811.
SPIRIT OF GLACIER BAY, July 7, 2008, National Park Service photo.
The SPIRIT OF GLACIER BAY (ii) high and dry on the mud in Glacier Bay on July 7, 2008. United States Coast Guard photo
Until Cruise West added the SPIRIT OF OCEANUS and the TEMPTRESS EXPLORER all of the small ships were under the U.S. flag. Although they were best known for their up-close cruises in Alaska, the itineraries had been expanding to include Pacific Northwest cruises, trips on the Columbia River, wine country cruises in California and winter excursions into the Sea Of Cortez. It remained a relatively small, family run company and that translated to the intimate atmosphere aboard the ships. That changed somewhat in 2008 when Dietmar Wertanzl was brought in as president and CEO of Cruise West. His background was with big ship lines such as Crystal and Celebrity and with the land operator Tauck Tours as their Chief Operating Officer. His key mission was to grow the customer base while keeping costs down. He could not have started at a worse time. In October, 2008 when the stock market plummeted, the reservation lines at Cruise West simply stopped ringing. That November, the company laid off a third of their staff and removed two ships from Alaska service the following summer. As the economy worsened, cancellations on the relatively high-priced cruises increased. According to Dick West, before mid-2008 bookings were up by 25% over 2007 levels. During 2009, tourism to Alaska was off by 40%. The company continued to hold on through the 2010 summer season while seeking financial backing from new investors. Many negotiations looked promising but with the credit market having dried up each potential deal fell apart. By July, the company was in serious financial straits requiring a bridge loan just to make it through the month. Dick West put up all the equity in his home for a $1.5 million loan by Columbia Bank. There was still hope that a private equity company would invest in Cruise West and that agreement was to be finalized by August 27th. The bond company and the Federal Maritime Commission had given them until that date to secure the additional financing. It didn’t happen. On August 30th Dietmar Wertanzl resigned and the title of CEO passed back to Dick West. September 1st the Maritime Administration was notified that Cruise West was no longer taking bookings for cruises. A week later the rest of the travel industry was given the news that Cruise West had failed.
The CORINTHIAN II, a sistership of the SPIRIT OF OCEANUS operated under charter on voyages to Antarctica from Ushuaia, Argentina. Photo by Shawn J. Dake c.2006
By the final season in 2010, Cruise West was venturing into areas they had never been before, offering selected voyages on chartered ships in areas like the Galapagos Islands, European river cruises and as remote as Antarctica. Two of those ships were even near sisters of their own SPIRIT OF OCEANUS, the former Renaissance vessels RENAISSANCE III which had been renamed GALAPAGOS EXPLORER II and in Antarctica the former RENAISSANCE VII now the CORINTHIAN II. The European riverboat was the 361-foot long AMADEUS DIAMOND. These new programs reportedly sold well, and were profitable for the company at a time when their traditional cruises were floundering.
The SPIRIT OF OCEANUS began what would have been the longest World Cruise during 2010, but ended far short of the final goal when Cruise West failed in September. Cruise West photo.
The most ambitious project however was the plan for a continuous 335-day circumnavigation of the globe aboard the 60-suite SPIRIT OF OCEANUS. This would be the most exclusive and port intensive World Cruise since Bergen Line offered similar trips aboard the venerated STELLA POLARIS of 1927. On March 6, 2010, 71-passengers departed from Singapore, including two that were staying aboard for the full World Cruise, along with 72 crew. The trip could be booked as a whole voyage or any of 24 different segments, divided into six “chapters.” Upon completion of the third chapter the storybook cruise ended at about the halfway point. The innovative voyage was abruptly terminated at St. John’s Newfoundland. Columbia Bank moved to force the sale of the SPIRIT OF OCEANUS to cover their credit card exposure for people who had paid but had not yet sailed. The ship was immediately sold to TN Cruise K/S of Denmark for an undetermined use. International Shipping Partners of Miami will manage the vessel and likely charter it to another operator. In yet another strange coincidence, the ship has reportedly been renamed SEA SPIRIT, the very same name of a vessel previously purchased by Cruise West.
The SPIRIT OF ENDEAVOUR seen cruising in Glacier Bay during happier times, was among the first to be sold. Photo by Peter Knego, c.2003.
Like Westours before it, Cruise West ran into deep financial difficulties from which it could not recover. The difference was Cruise West could not find a buyer in time during the worst economy since the Great Depression whereas Westours was lost, yet saved by the Holland America Line purchase. The loss of Cruise West leaves passengers with fewer alternatives in small ship cruising, with the reformed American Cruise Lines and Blount Small Ship Adventures being the only serious competitors left flying the U.S. flag. Perhaps some of the ships will end up with one of these companies. The assets of Cruise West were liquidated very quickly. The SPIRIT OF ’98, SPIRIT OF ENDEAVOUR and SPIRIT OF DISCOVERY went first, for pennies on the dollar, all proceeds being taken by the banks that held notes on the vessels. Four other ships are controlled by GE Capital which is searching for a buyer. Cruise West did not immediately file for bankruptcy protection, maintaining that they have no cash or assets left. If true, it indicates that the company may have been grossly mismanaged over the past few years. The lack of a bankruptcy filing has made it more difficult for creditors to register claims. Given the recent track record of companies operating small ships in U.S. waters, it seems unlikely that there will be a revival of the type of cruise programs that Cruise West specialized in. It would take a buyer with tremendous cash reserves and nerve to step into this difficult cruising environment. It is a shame because throughout the years small ship cruising as popularized by the West family, has been a great way to travel. Not everyone wants to cruise on a ship with 2,000 to 6,000 other passengers. Sailing with about 100 guests presents a completely unique experience that is treasured by those that have had the pleasure of trying it.
The SPIRIT OF DISCOVERY at Juneau, Alaska on August 20, 2010, just days before Cruise West ceased operations. Photo by Shawn J. Dake c.2010.
In conclusion, it is fitting to leave the last words to Cruise West’s Chairman and Managing Director, Richard (Dick) West. Following the closure this statement was placed on the company’s website and it nicely sums up the philosophy of this line and the final difficulties it faced. It reads in part, “I have never given up hope that we might be able to find a way to survive by working with various interested parties. I am absolutely heartbroken that this family legacy has come to an end. We have a product that appeals to the type of traveler that wants to experience the destination, not the inside of a ship. We have a passionate following of repeat guests and I am particularly distressed that our most loyal guests who have booked with us will now not be able to travel. We have done absolutely everything to maintain operations, but with limited resources and the current tight financial market, we simply cannot continue. It is with a heavy heart that we close our doors, knowing that guests, travel agents, and partners will not receive the kind of personal attention that they have grown to expect from us. I want to extend my most sincere thanks to our loyal employees, many of which have been here for decades. I am devastated that, though they have given abundantly of their time and energy, we will be unable to continue delivering memorable experiences.” The concluding paragraph sums up this history and ends the story: “Cruise West believes that small is beautiful. Small-ship explorations allow up-close and personal experiences unmatched by traditional larger cruise lines. For nearly 64-years, Cruise West has provided authentic travel experiences. Cruise West will cease operations on September 18, 2010.” Their presence in the cruise industry and the history of Alaska will truly be missed.
Article Copyright 2010 by Shawn J. Dake
Thanks to Martin Cox, Gordon Ghareeb, Mark Goldberg and Peter Knego for their expertise in all things related to passenger ships.