Peter Newall travelled recently on the five week, 50th anniversary cruise to Canada aboard the former Russian liner MARCO POLO. This is the first of a two-part feature celebrating the life of this iconic ship.
All photos and images copyright Newall Dunn Collection unless otherwise noted.
PART ONE THE ROMANTIC ALEKSANDR PUSHKIN
The early 1960s was a great period for the Soviet Union as it re-emerged from behind the Iron Curtain, in the post-Stalin era, onto the world’s stage. Not only did it put the first man in space but also socialism was on the rise after the Cuban revolution in 1959. Soviet influence and trade was spreading in Africa, South America and Asia and by the mid-1960s it is estimated that Soviet merchant ships were calling at over 800 ports in 90 different countries. To deal with this expansion the USSR started a huge rebuilding programme for its merchant fleet and this included passenger liners. Between 1958 and 1964 V.E.B. Mathias-Thesen-Werft at Wismar built the highly successful, nineteen-strong MICHAEL KALININ-class which become the backbone of the Soviet passenger liner fleet.
In 1960 a further order was placed with the East German yard for a large single-class, 20,000-ton passenger ship, IVAN FRANKO, which could be used for cruising and for liner services. In fact, five of these impressive 750-capacity ships were built between 1964 and 1972. They were named after famous Russian, Ukrainian and Georgian poets and writers. Three, IVAN FRANKO, TARAS SHEVCHENKO and SHOTA RUSTAVELI, were registered at Odessa under the ownership of the Black Sea Steamship Company whilst two, ALEKSANDR PUSHKIN and MIKHAIL LERMONTOV, were registered at Leningrad under the ownership of the Baltic Steamship Company. The profile of these twin screw, 20 knot, motorships was very striking. They had a unique appearance with a raked bow, rounded stern, ice-strengthened hull and a very pronounced sheer. The superstructure was also tiered with a single mast and a streamlined funnel.
In October 1964 the Baltic Steamship Company announced in the British travel press that it would be operating the first regular Russian transatlantic service since 1909 and the first to Canada. The new route would be inaugurated in April 1965 by ALEKSANDR PUSHKIN, the second of the new liners, which was being fitted out in East Germany. For some reason there was a delay in her completion and she was only handed over in August which was too late for the summer only Canada service. Named after the famous Afro-Russian romantic poet, her first call at Tilbury on October 25, 1965 was during her maiden voyage carrying Russian passengers on a cruise. What she did between her delivery in August and October is a bit of a mystery. All five ships were also used by the Russian military and had additional space for a large number of troops. A friend who was based in Lagos around this time told me that one of these liners turned up unannounced and stayed in port for a few days. He remembers seeing a number of very pale skinned Russians who were reported to be submariners on a rest and recreation trip. It was also reported that she was to be used for the 1965 World Youth Festival that was to be held in Algeria but was cancelled following the military coup that ousted the pro-Soviet president Ben Bella.
ALEKSANDR PUSHKIN’s first voyage across the Atlantic commenced on the April 13, 1966 when she sailed from Leningrad for Quebec and Montreal via Helsinki, Copenhagen and Tilbury. She arrived at Quebec on April 26. This was a monthly service and ran from April to September. It was also such a momentous event that the Russians issued a special commemorative stamp. Six years later she was joined on the service by the last of the poet class, MIKHAIL LERMONTOV.
She was required by the Atlantic Conference, which set Atlantic tariffs, to operate as a two-class ship. Although many cabins did not have private facilities, all had outside windows and she was very popular with younger passengers and tourists to Europe.
During the winter months ALEKSANDR PUSHKIN offered value for money cruises from Tilbury to the West Indies and the Canary Islands. Before the establishment of the Russian-owned CTC Cruises the UK passenger agents for the Baltic Steamship Company was Royal Mail Lines. Russian style was promoted and this included folk dances by members of the crew, caviar, stroganoff and of course all types of vodka. On the 1970 Christmas and West Indies cruise the ship was stopped mid ocean so that passengers could enjoy shark fishing! That was certainly very unusual and it would be interesting to know how many sharks were caught.
In the early 1970s IVAN FRANKO returned to her builders for a major improvement to her passenger accommodation when her boat and saloon decks were extended forward slightly spoiling her well-balanced superstructure. The top set of cranes was also removed during the refit. Here she is having the work done alongside the newly completed MIKHAIL LERMONTOV.
In 1975 ALEKSANDR PUSHKIN underwent the same modification. The Wismar shipyard, now known as Nordic Yards, recently discovered this unique set of photographs of the refit underway. All these images are courtesy of Nordic Yards.
Despite the changes to her profile she remained a handsome-looking ship. She continued to do transatlantic summer voyages but following the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 she ceased her Canadian operations in 1980. With UK passengers becoming less willing to use shared bathrooms and toilets ALEKSANDR PUSHKIN was no longer suitable as less than half her cabins had private facilities. In 1984 her ownership was transferred to the Vladivostok-based Far Eastern Company and she began a new career In Australia. Once again she was popular with younger passengers who did not mind sharing facilities. However, towards the end of the decade her days were numbered without a radical overhaul. The Soviet Union was also starting to fall apart and in 1990 she was laid up for sale in Singapore.
She remained at Singapore for a year until she was bought by Gerry Herrod for a new cruise company he was setting up called Orient Lines which would offer cruising in the Far East to more unusual destinations. ALEKSANDR PUSHKIN was the ideal size for this operation and she was appropriately renamed MARCO POLO after the famous Italian explorer. As the 1965-built hull and superstructure was in very good shape the $60 million rebuild, which took over two years in a Greek shipyard, focussed on the creation of a completely new ship within the existing hull. She was gutted and new interiors installed which would turn her into the stylish cruise ship she is today. New cabins were installed on the former promenade deck whilst a new top deck was fitted which meant raising the height of her funnel. The style of her interior artwork reflected her new role as an exotic destination cruise ship which is why there is so much oriental art around the ship.
MARCO POLO entered service in November 1993 on Orient Lines’s first cruise from Mombasa to South Africa. She was a great success, so much so that Orient Lines was bought by Norwegian Cruise Lines in 1998. Despite the change in ownership she continued to operate as a separate brand. Although still a popular ship she did not fit in the NCL fleet and was sold in 2007 to her current owner, the Greek-owned Global Maritime Group. She was then chartered by the German tour operator Transocean. Unfortunately, two years later Transocean went bust and in January 2010 Cruise and Maritime Voyages, which had previously sub chartered the ship from Transocean, took over the full charter of MARCO POLO.
Part two of the story will feature the 50th anniversary cruise to Canada as well as an engine room to bridge tour of this wonderful ship.
A well-known shipping writer, cruise journalist and cruise ship lecturer, Peter Newall is a former British Airways executive who has, in the past 57 years, visited and travelled on many famous ships. As well as numerous articles he has written nine highly acclaimed books including the definitive histories of Union-Castle, Orient and Cunard Line. He also owns the Newall Dunn Collection, the extensive collection of historic merchant shipping images.
A well-known shipping writer, cruise journalist and cruise ship lecturer,
Peter Newall is a former British Airways executive who has, in the past 57
years, visited and travelled on many famous ships. As well as numerous
articles he has written nine highly acclaimed books including the
definitive histories of Union-Castle, Orient and Cunard Line. He also owns
the Newall Dunn Collection, the extensive collection of historic merchant