CELEBRATING 50 YEARS OF EDUCATION AT SEA
By Shawn J. Dake
When the M.S. SEVEN SEAS cast off from a New York pier October 22, 1963 with 275 students aboard, it marked the beginning of university-level shipboard education, a concept that would continue almost uninterrupted for the next fifty years and beyond. As that Golden 50th Anniversary arrives, the program has utilized five different ships over the years, gone through several changes of name and provided a most unique and memorable educational experience to countless students and faculty.
The origins of what today is Semester At Sea can be traced back to a specific date in the “Roaring ’20’s,” September 18, 1926. The S.S. RYNDAM of the Holland America Line was about to set sail from Hoboken, New Jersey, for a voyage around-the-world unlike any other. Instead of a passenger list made up of the wealthy elite, there would be 504 students and 63 faculty and staff on board. The “University World Cruise” was the brainchild of Professor James Edwin Lough from New York University. He thought outside the box, and outside the campus with the idea that there were alternative methods to traditional teaching. By all reports, the cruise which lasted seven and a half months, was a great success, however it was not repeated again the following year and the idea lay dormant for several decades.
The SEVEN SEAS is seen in a Europe-Canada Line postcard. From the collection of Shawn J. Dake.
Revival came in the early 1960’s. Turning once again to Holland America Line, a charter contract was first signed in February, 1963 to utilize the 12,575 gross ton SEVEN SEAS, from their Europe-Canada Line subsidiary. A California businessman named Bill Hughes put forward the educational program, taking the name of the ship to create “The University Of The Seven Seas.” Initially the program was not accredited or affiliated with any other schools. This was rectified in 1965, when Chapman College in Orange, California began administering the program, renaming it “World Campus Afloat.” For four months, college students would sail aboard with course credits counted toward their regular shore-based studies at home. After the success of the first charter voyage, the program was so successful that it was repeated the following three years aboard the same ship.
U.S.S. LONG ISLAND at sea on July 8, 1941 as an aircraft carrier. Photo from the National Archives.
The ship that would eventually become the SEVEN SEAS was originally launched with completely different intentions on January 11, 1940. The vessel was a standard C-3 cargo ship built for the American operated, Moore-McCormack Line by the Sun Shipbuilding & Drydock Company in Chester, Pennsylvania. Launched as the MORMACMAIL she would never sail for her owners. The ship was taken over by the U.S. Navy and converted to an auxiliary aircraft carrier with the new name of U.S.S. LONG ISLAND. After the war, she was actually sold for scrap in 1947, but was rescued from oblivion following purchase by a Swiss firm, operating under the name Caribbean Land & Shipping Company. They converted her to a very basic passenger ship carrying 1,300 immigrants out to Australia from Italy. Aircraft hangers and flight decks gave way to passenger cabins and dormitories For this service she was renamed NELLY retaining that name from 1948 until 1953. At the start of that year she was rebuilt and substantially upgraded becoming the SEVEN SEAS. After one round voyage to Australia, the ship returned to Germany and was chartered by the Europe-Canada Line, jointly owned by Holland America Line and Royal Rotterdam Lloyd. In 1955 the ship and company would be fully acquired by Holland America Line. The Europe-Canada Line was established especially to provide inexpensive emigrant travel to Canada. As this trade decreased the ship relied more frequently on student travel. By April, 1963 the route of the SEVEN SEAS was switched to Bremerhaven-New York, and operating student voyages to North America became her primary task. Capitalizing on her student appeal, the ship was selected to operate that first semester voyage lasting from October, 1963 until February, 1964. In this role, a maximum of 900 students could be carried aboard the 492 foot long ship. The program established itself with repeat voyages in 1964 and 1965, giving the ship year-round employment on student college trips around the world and trans-Atlantic crossings during the peak summer months. The ship was over 25 years old when fire broke out on July 17, 1965 while en route to New York. Extensive repairs were carried out but mechanical problems continued to plague her. The SEVEN SEAS operated her final trans-Atlantic voyage in September, 1966, after which she was sold for a stationary use, appropriately as a hostel for students attending the University Of Rotterdam. She lasted until May of 1977 when the old ship was sold for scrap and broken up in Belgium.
The RYNDAM was built in 1951 for the Holland America Line. Postcard from the collection of Shawn J. Dake.
By the later half of the 1960’s, passenger business on the North Atlantic was in severe decline. On September 14, 1966, to replace the retired SEVEN SEAS, Holland America transferred the 1951-built RYNDAM to their subsidiary Europe-Canada Line which was renamed ECL Shipping Company. The World Campus Afloat programs would continue aboard this ship which was almost perfectly designed for the program with fairly deluxe accommodations for 39 passengers on the Boat Deck in what had previously been the First Class section and much more basic rooms for 852 students in the original Tourist Class cabins. Holland America Line had already turned a large portion of their business over to cruising, however in 1967, the outbreak of the Seven-Day War halted virtually all cruises in the Mediterranean. On August 28, 1967 the ship was turned over to the Scheepvaart Maatschappij Trans Ocean. This spelled the end of operations for the ECL and Holland America’s experiment with the Europe Canada Line. The student voyages continued to operate under the aegis of Chapman College including an extended cruise to South America. For the summer of 1968, Trans Ocean expected that traffic on the Atlantic would be sufficient to support the ship. On May 24th at New York City, the ship was renamed the WATERMAN. For that one brief summer the WATERMAN, made just five roundtrip trans-Atlantic crossings to Southampton and Rotterdam. Bookings were so low that following the completion of the last crossing, on October 10, 1968 the ship was returned to Holland America Line regaining her original name, RYNDAM. Thanks to the continued patronage of Chapman College, there were still a few more voyages ahead as a floating university. In the autumn of 1970, the RYNDAM became the first Holland America Line ship to employ a largely Indonesian crew. The experiment was successful and the warm people from that nation continue to serve on the company’s ships to the present day. But the end was near for the 20 year old RYNDAM. Early in 1971 she was laid up at Schiedam before being sold to the Greek-owned Epirotiki Cruises the following year and renamed ATLAS. Radically rebuilt, the ship served them for many years successfully operating cruises in the Mediterranean and Caribbean. Eventually, the ship was sold and after 1988 operated as a cruising casino ship in the United States with subsequent name changes to PRIDE OF MISSISSIPPI, PRIDE OF GALVESTON and in a stationary role as the COPA CASINO at Gulfport, Mississippi. By 2003, the ship was sold for scrap but sank in the Caribbean en route to India on March 3rd.
A rare Chapman College brochure depicting the SEAWISE UNIVERSITY while still in Florida. Collection of Shawn J. Dake.
From 1965 to 1975, Chapman was the primary academic sponsor. The grandest plans for expanding education at sea would come during their tenure. When Holland America Line withdrew the RYNDAM from the program, a new shipping partner would need to be quickly found. No more ardent supporter of shipboard education could have been found than Mr. C.Y. Tung, the wealthy shipping owner of Orient Overseas Line. Tung was about to embark on a buying spree of redundant ocean liners, including a good portion of the American merchant fleet from American Export Lines and American President Lines. But the biggest prize of all was to acquire the retired Cunard Line passenger liner QUEEN ELIZABETH which at the time was not enjoying a very glamorous retirement in South Florida. At auction in 1970, for $3.2 million, he was able to obtain the largest passenger ship in the world which he promptly renamed SEAWISE UNIVERSITY, a play on his own initials C.Y. along with the stated primary purpose of what the ship would do in her new role. Students would be able to come aboard the ship for a semester or more, traveling on long voyages throughout the Pacific and the world.
The SEAWISE UNIVERSITY puts to sea again on her final voyage to Hong Kong. Photo from the Robert Lenzer collection
Former second and third class lounges would function as classrooms. While education was taking place onboard, regular passengers could also sign on for extended cruises on what was still regarded as a very famous, if somewhat aged ship. The original elegance of the liner would remain largely intact but with the addition of Chinese touches to the décor that supposedly would blend in with the traditional British elements. As was shown on subsequent conversions of other older liners to Orient Overseas standards, this often met with limited success.
An assortment of brochures and newsletters in anticipation of the arrival of the S.S. SEAWISE UNIVERSITY, including the original maiden voyage brochure for 1971 in the upper left. From the collection of Shawn J. Dake.
The revised inaugural schedule for the SEAWISE UNIVERSITY is set for the Spring of 1972. From the collection of Shawn J. Dake.
The initial plan was for the SEAWISE UNIVERSITY to carry up to 1,800 students along with 800 cruise passengers. Other advertising suggested the former Queen would hold 1,500 passengers, all in First Class with private facilities. Detailed deck plans were drawn up and several brochures, both in color and two-tone were issued. Optimistically, the inaugural voyage was originally intended to take place in the Fall of 1971. The first brochure showed the ship departing Los Angeles on September 3rd sailing westbound around-the-world, eventually arriving in New York on December 23rd. This was later pushed back to Spring, 1972 when the first guests could board in Honolulu, Hawaii on April 9th for a six day Pacific crossing to Vancouver, British Columbia. For this “Special Pre-Maiden Voyage” fares started at only $165.00. From Vancouver on April 18th, a three-day coastal cruise would bring the ship to the Port Of Los Angeles for the first time, arriving at 9:00am on April 21st. For three days the ship would be showcased to the press and travel agents before getting underway on the maiden 75-day Circle Pacific Cruise lasting from April 24th until July 9th. It was of course, never to be. The former QUEEN ELIZABETH burned to death during the final stages of refitting in Hong Kong harbor on January 9, 1972. With fires breaking out simultaneously in at least three and possibly six places, the destruction was undoubtedly sabotage although the specific motivation has never been proven. The most likely scenario involves conflicts between Chinese Communist construction unions opposed to C.Y. Tung who was a Nationalist Chinese. It was a blow to the shipping world and potentially devastating to the continuation of the World Campus Afloat program.
SEAWISE UNIVERSITY on fire in Hong Kong harbor. Photo from South China Morning Post.
But C.Y. Tung remained dedicated to the idea of students receiving an education at sea. He held the belief that a ship used for educational purposes would promote goodwill and understanding among nations and between different cultures. His philosophy can be noted in a quote that still remains aboard the current ship: “Ships can transport more than cargo, they could carry ideas.” Even today, the “Tung OOCL Scholarship,” set up in 1995 continues to support the education of young people.
The UNIVERSE CAMPUS joined the program as a quick replacement vessel and went on to become the longest serving ship in Semester At Sea history. Photo by Shawn J. Dake.
Although much less ambitious than his plans for the SEAWISE UNIVERSITY, in 1971 he had purchased the laid up American Export Isbrandtsen liner/cruise ship ATLANTIC and had her quickly refit as a substitute vessel when it became apparent that the great ship would not be ready in time for the fall semester. Registered in Monrovia, Liberia and with her name changed to UNIVERSE CAMPUS the ship left Los Angeles harbor on September 4, 1971 for her first cruise as a floating university. Following the destruction of SEAWISE UNIVERSITY, the World Campus Afloat program would become her permanent role. She would go on to become the longest serving ship the program has had, being engaged in student voyages for a period of 24 years.
A true Atlantic liner, the UNIVERSE CAMPUS had an enclosed promenade deck painted in an unfortunate shade of green. Photo by Shawn J. Dake.
Like the RYNDAM before her, the UNIVERSE CAMPUS was almost entirely a Tourist-Class vessel with a small number of First Class cabins along the top deck. The ship was originally built as a fast, 20-knot “Mariner Class” freighter, launched by the Sun Shipbuilding & Drydock Company in 1953 as the BADGER MARINER. In 1957, she was purchased by Arnold Bernstein for his newly formed American Banner Line and converted to a passenger liner at Ingalls Shipbuilding yard at Pascagoula, Mississippi. The ship that emerged was renamed ATLANTIC with accommodations for 40 in First Class and 860 Tourist Class passengers. The service between Belgium, Holland and New York would only last for two seasons. At the end of 1959 the ATLANTIC was sold to American Export Lines and entered service for them as a “top flight” tourist ship on May 15, 1960. As good a she may have been, travel by ship was already in decline and her trans-Atlantic service from New York to Mediterranean ports was neither popular nor profitable. After just one season, the ship spent most of the winter months cruising to the Caribbean and beyond. Although the aft deck sported a very large swimming pool, the ship was no match for her running mates INDEPENDENCE and CONSTITUTION. Still losing money, the ATLANTIC was withdrawn from service and laid up in October, 1967. Her fate would remain uncertain until the events of 1971 brought her to Orient Overseas Line and a longer career than any of her previous three incarnations.
For use as a cruise ship the name was changed to UNIVERSE in 1976. Orient Overseas Line brochure photo.
Chapman College continued to sponsor World Campus afloat through the 1975 semesters. Rising fuel prices and economic uncertainties would lead them to withdraw from sponsorship. The oil crisis had put all of the other Orient Overseas Line passenger ships out of business. C.Y. Tung was convinced that he could keep one vessel operating in the U.S. market by offering budget cruises. In 1976, the ship had her name shortened to simply UNIVERSE and began offering cruises from Los Angeles to Mexico. These ranged from three-night party cruises to 11-night sailings along the entire length of the Mexican Riviera. The cruises were entertaining, but a Tourist Class liner from the 1950’s was hardly a match for the modern vessels of the “Love Boat” era. If the ship was going to find permanent employment it would need to be with educational voyages for less demanding students. Fortunately Dr. M.A. Griffiths who had led the World Campus Afloat program at Chapman, along with C.Y. Tung himself through his Seawise Foundation which provided both the ship and the backing, established the Institute For Shipboard Education (ISE) in 1976. A new academic sponsor was found in the University Of Colorado at Boulder and together with ISE, the first voyage of the renamed Semester At Sea (SAS) got underway in 1977. The UNIVERSE undertook increasingly interesting voyages. In 1979, before China had fully opened to tourism, it carried 500 American students to the mainland of the primitive, but burgeoning country. The list of guest speakers and world leaders also became more fascinating. That same year students were visited by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat during a call to his country. Other luminaries over the years have subsequently included Mother Teresa, Indira Gandhi, Mikhail Gorbachev, Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela, author Arthur C. Clarke who was also a regular passenger and Archbishop Desmond Tutu who still comes aboard the current ship as a lecturer. In 1981, the University Of Pittsburgh took over academic sponsorship of the program. Between semesters, the UNIVERSE gained great popularity for longer 14-day sailings to Alaska during the summer months, geared mainly toward senior citizens, under the marketing name World Explorer Cruises.
The UNIVERSE with a blue hull and funnel in Alaska during her final season in 1995.
Throughout the 1980’s and early 1990’s the ship carried on the established pattern of voyages, Semester At Sea trips lasting approximately four months in the Spring and Fall, summer cruises to Alaska and the occasional winter cruises positioning through the Panama Canal, which were sold to the general public. For the most part, the UNIVERSE remained a relatively trouble-free ship. But by the mid-1990’s steam turbines were becoming a vanishing breed on ships. A decision needed to be made in 1993 on whether to withdraw the ship or spend money on a costly refit. Orient Overseas Line decided to keep their favorite old ship around and in 1994 she appeared in a new exterior guise. The hull was painted dark blue, with white upper works. The formerly yellow funnel was now also dark blue with the traditional red plum blossom logo still on the stack. It was a big change, but the ship appeared quite handsome in her old age. Unfortunately cosmetics don’t keep a ship running. The ship’s old machinery was becoming increasingly troublesome as the boilers began to give out. The Spring 1994 voyage had persistent problems that kept it from its scheduled itinerary. The ship made several unscheduled stops, riding at anchor while repairs were carried out. The planned stop at Manila, Philippines was cancelled and the ship proceeded to an anchorage at Singapore where the students were disembarked and flown on to their next planned port call at Osaka, Japan. After temporary repairs the UNIVERSE met them again at Shanghai to complete the final leg of the voyage to Hong Kong where a previously scheduled dry dock visit took place. Despite this setback, 1994 was memorable as the UNIVERSE became the first ship with American passengers to visit Vietnam after the U.S. travel embargo was lifted. After two and a half decades of serving students and passengers for World Campus Afloat, Semester At Sea, and World Explorer Cruises, 1995 would be the final season. Contracts for a replacement ship were already in place. The 14,138 gross ton, 564 foot long, 43 year old UNIVERSE made her last voyage across the Pacific to Alang, India where it was scrapped in 1996.
UNIVERSE EXPLORER postcard from the collection of Shawn J. Dake.
The first Semester At Sea voyage on the UNIVERSE EXPLORER commenced in February, 1996. This ship was nearly as old as the one it replaced, having been built in 1958 as the BRASIL for the Moore-McCormack Lines service to South America. Constructed by Ingalls Shipbuilding Corporation of Pascagoula, Mississippi, this ship originally carried 553 passengers all in first class. Along with her sister ARGENTINA, the ships were considered very fine luxury liners but only lasted in their original service until September, 1969 with both were laid up. The BRASIL later served as a cruise ship for a number of different lines including Holland America Line as the VOLENDAM, MONARCH SUN, then again VOLENDAM, with frequent subsequent renaming to ISLAND SUN, LIBERTE, CANADA STAR, QUEEN OF BERMUDA, and finally ENCHANTED SEAS for Commodore Cruise Lines before joining Semester at Sea as the renamed UNIVERSE EXPLORER. The name saluted both the previous ship and the continuation of passenger cruises under the World Explorer banner. Commodore Cruise Lines provided the ship on a charter basis with management handled by International Marine Carrier. At 23, 879 gross tons and a length of 617 feet, it was a bigger ship than its predecessor and had better sea-keeping qualities.
UNIVERSE EXPLORER at Vancouver, B.C. on September 27, 1997 before the start of a fall semester. Photo by Kevyn Jacobs.
The first Semester At Sea voyage was successful and the students no doubt enjoyed the considerably larger cabins than were available on the old UNIVERSE. However a tragedy would take place that first summer during a cruise to Alaska. On July 27, 1996 fire broke out in the laundry room, killing five crew members and injuring 56 other people. Repairs costing $1.5 million were completed at Vancouver, B.C. Back on the usual schedule of Semester At Seas voyages the ship settled into a normal routine, sailing around-the-world at a leisurely pace and spending multiple days in each of the ports so the students and faculty could fully explore the destinations. Students affectionately referred to their floating home as “the big white mother.” In 1999, a historic trip found the ship in Havana, Cuba, the first time in decades that a cruise ship with a largely American contingent of passengers had been allowed to sail there. During 2000, the ship made the first summer voyage for Semester At Sea, introducing shorter term educational voyages operated in- between the regular world cruises.
The retired UNIVERSE EXPLORER sails off for the last time past the new EXPLORER at Portland, Oregon. Semester At Sea photo.
Compared to her predecessor, the tenure of the UNIVERSE EXPLORER would not last long. The Institute For Shipboard Education, was searching for a replacement for the sturdy but aging steamer. Monetary disputes over the charter and the discovery of a number of mechanical problems during a drydock visit led to her perhaps premature demise. As a historic footnote, this ship technically made the last passenger crossing of the Pacific Ocean under steam while sailing on the Spring 2004 Semester At Sea. Unfortunately, she had reached the end of her days. The UNIVERSE EXPLORER was retired in 2004 and followed the same fate as her predecessor sailing to India for scrap. . For a brief period of time in October, the UNIVERSE EXPLORER was together with the new EXPLORER at Portland, Oregon. Ship stores, computers, 152 boxes of library books and other educational materials were transferred from one ship to the other dockside. As the UNIVERSE EXPLORER sailed off to meet her fate the two ships exchanged poignant whistle salutes. This changeover also marked the end of the long relationship between ISE and the Seawise Foundation founded by the late C.Y. Tung. The old ship was beached at Alang on December 7, 2004 and demolition was completed in the first half of 2005.
The EXPLORER became the new Semester At Sea ship in the Fall of 2004. Photo by Shawn J. Dake. © 2011
By coincidence, the new EXPLORER already bore a portion of the name of the previous ship. The OLYMPIA EXPLORER had been newly constructed for Royal Olympia Cruises in 2002, as yard number 962 by the famous Blohm & Voss shipyard in Germany. It was actually ready to sail in May of 2001 but disputes between owner and builder kept it from being accepted on schedule. By the end of 2003, Royal Olympia was heading for bankruptcy as a direct result of the company being unable to restructure $250 million in loans used to finance the building of this vessel and a sistership. The OLYMPIA EXPLORER was purchased by KfW German mortgage holding bank. The bank kept the ship laid up at anchor in the harbor at Long Beach, California while they searched for a buyer or charter arrangement. The Institute For Shipboard Education negotiated a 15-year lease and took over operation of the ship in 2004. At less than two years of age, the ship was virtually new. It fit into the Semester At Sea program like a glove, requiring only minor modifications and a few wall partitions to form classrooms before it was ready to sail. After just three years of operating the ship under charter, ISE secured a loan of $83.5 million, and the ship was purchased outright in December, 2007.
The EXPLORER brought a virtually new ship to the program for the first time. Photo by Shawn J. Dake © 2011
The current ship measures 24,318 gross tons, is 590 feet long, with a 84 foot beam. Passenger capacity is 836 double occupancy in accommodations that range from basic cabins to luxurious suites with private balconies. The speed of the ship is impressive. When cruising on all four main engines, it travels at 27.5 knots and is capable of doing over 30 knots. After years of utilizing solidly built older ocean liners, the initial experience with a small, fast cruise ship was perhaps not what Semester At Sea had hoped for. On January 26, 2005, the EXPLORER ran into a series of massive storms while crossing the North Pacific. A wave estimated to be 50-feet high smashed windows on the bridge, and briefly compromised some of the electronic navigation systems. Students were instructed to stay seated on the floors as the ship tossed around in the heavy seas. The damaged ship diverted to Honolulu for repairs and the students were flown to Hong Kong to continue their courses. The EXPLORER caught up with them in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and continued the world voyage without further incident. The experience did raise severe safety concerns and is frequently cited as one of the main reasons the University of Pittsburgh decided to end its 24-year academic sponsorship of the program. Many of the professors from that university continued to serve aboard the ship. The new academic sponsorship was taken over in 2005 by the University of Virginia and the ISE relocated their headquarters to Charlottesville, Virginia where it remains at this writing. It was under their supervision that the decision was made to purchase the ship in 2007, marking the first time the program had owned their own vessel. Semester At Sea now regularly embarks students on voyages lasting up to 100 to 110 days, frequently traveling Around the World in the Spring and Fall. Shorter summer semesters are typically 65 to 70 days duration. Between student semesters there are short term sailings and “Enrichment Voyages” of between 20 and 30 days. Frequently these visit ports in Central America and include a transit of the Panama Canal. On these trips the ship can be booked by regular passengers who cruise along with faculty and distinguished lecturers. Topics can address any number of issues including history, culture, literature, geology, biology and things related to the regions in which the ship travels. The ship can rightfully boast of having a 9,000 volume library among its comfortable amenities. For those that view cruising as an opportunity to learn while enjoying their time at sea, the EXPLORER provides the perfect opportunity. Regular passengers are also invited to join the semester-long student voyages as “Lifelong Learners,” and along with the faculty, even have exclusive use of the beautiful Glazer Observation Lounge on the top deck.
The Glazer Observation Lounge is one of many attractive public rooms aboard the EXPLORER. Photo by Shawn J. Dake © 2011.
Over 50 years, Semester At Sea has had an impact on countless students and teachers who count their voyage on one of these ships as the greatest experience of their lives. The goal of providing a greater understanding of the world and its cultures, has been more than met with the experiences gained by seeing them first-hand. These voyages provide a taste of the world. The ships are the vehicle to get people to those places but in doing so they become part of the experience themselves. The five ships detailed here each have a fascinating story to tell in their own right. This is an ongoing history with much of the future of education at sea still to be written. Even as much as ships have changed in the 50 years since the m.s. SEVEN SEAS set sail, the wonderful experience that a Semester At Sea provides to everyone onboard, remains much the same as it has always been.
Semester At Sea, since 1963. Photo by Shawn J. Dake © 2011.
Special thanks to Peter Knego and Martin Cox
Shawn J. Dake, freelance travel writer and regular contributor to MaritimeMatters, worked in tourism and cruise industry for over 35 years. A native of Southern California, his first job was as a tour guide aboard the Queen Mary. A frequent lecturer on ship-related topics he has appeared on TV programs. Owner of Oceans Away Cruises & Travel agency, he served as President of the local Chapter of Steamship Historical Society of America. With a love of the sea, he is a veteran of 115 cruises.
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