Sanctuary In Stockton

Knego reflects upon the state of today’s diminishing classic liners and recaps his most visit to the 1955-built MV AURORA in Stockton, California.

Aurora Restoration Project

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MIDSHIPCENTURY: Fittings From Classic Ocean Liners and Cruise Ships

THE SANDS OF ALANG: The latest DVD about shipbreaking in Alang, India

All photos by and copyright Peter Knego 2016 unless otherwise noted.

Friday, September 2, 2016

MV VERONICA at Alang in May 2016. Photo by Kaushal Trivedi, copyright 2016.

This just hasn’t been a banner time for classic liners and cruise ships. In the past year, the perfectly preserved Turkish time capsule AKDENIZ of 1955 and the botched up but still beguiling VERONICA (ex KUNGSHOLM of 1966) were broken up for scrap. If that wasn’t enough, long dormant hope for a return to service for the SS UNITED STATES fluttered, then fleeted away when Crystal Cruises announced and then dropped its option to rebuild the onetime American speed champion into a luxury cruise ship.

MV AMEN at Alang in April 2015. Photo by Kaushal Trivedi, copyright 2016.

Even the two original Love Boats, the former PACIFIC and ISLAND PRINCESSes, couldn’t muster up a preservation scheme, despite their pop culture cachet, both ending their lives under the scrapper’s torch, the former after nearly capsizing at Aliaga and the latter, ghoulishly named AMEN, at Alang.

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The QUEEN MARY is in need of some serious TLC.

Meanwhile, the prospects for a few other increasingly rare classics are tinged in varying shades of bleakness. The ASTORIA, the heavily rebuilt former STOCKHOLM of 1948, whose bow sliced open the ANDREA DORIA 60 years ago, may end service next year if she cannot find a new charterer after her final cruise for British-based CMV. Her laid up erstwhile fleetmates FUNCHAL of 1961 and PORTO of 1966 are also clinging to shriveled tendrils of hope from a lonely mooring in Lisbon. Further, and even more incredulously, the beloved QUEEN MARY continues, to borrow a line from Blondie, “fade away and radiate” at her Long Beach moorings as her lease holders plan a toothless revamp of her hotel rooms, all the while not addressing years of accumulating exterior and structural disrepair. For the world’s most famous ocean liner, it’s rather like applying bandaids and rubbing alcohol to necrotizing fasciitis. And QE2, well, it’s more of the same purgatory at Dubai, except that her boats and davits have alarmingly gone AWOL, exposing what sheltered decking she had to more of that relentless Arabic sun…

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The 1955-built MV NORDSTJERNEN operates on seasonal voyages in and around Spitsbergen under charter to Hurtigruten.
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Cruise and Maritime Voyages’ MV MARCO POLO, the former ALEXANDR PUSHKIN of 1965.

Aside from CMV’s hard-working but endangered MV MARCO POLO, a few distant preserved classics in Asia, a handful of active and preserved Hurtigruten liners, the atomic wonder NS SAVANNAH and the magnificent SS ROTTERDAM of 1959, all of which have been written about in recent posts, hope for more such happy afterlives seems fleeting, at best.

WAPPEN VON HAMBURG aerial view. Christopher Willson collection.

All, that is, except for one graceful little lady that is eking out a quiet retirement and gradual but loving and determined restoration in the Sacramento River Delta. After being written off countless times during her 60 year existence, the little AURORA is like a stubborn ham actor refusing to exit her watery stage.

WAPPEN VON HAMBURG. Christopher Willson collection.
WAPPEN VON HAMBURG. Christopher Willson collection.

I was long overdue for a visit to the AURORA, which despite and most likely due to her compact size, is one of the world’s last surviving ocean liners. Fortunately, she has been in good, caring hands since Christopher WIllson purchased her in 2008. For a quick recap, AURORA began her career in 1955 as the rugged WAPPEN VON HAMBURG for short day trips to Helgoland from Bremerhaven.

MV DELOS rendering postcard. Christopher Willson collection.

In 1961, she was completely rebuilt into the deluxe Greek cruise ship DELOS for Nomikos Lines and had her first brush with pop culture when she was featured as the Spectre yacht in the 1963 Bond flick, “From Russia With Love”.

MV POLAR STAR postcard. Christopher WIllson collection.

In 1967, she became the POLAR STAR (and in 1970, PACIFIC STAR) for Westours. She was the unnamed but rather lascivious backdrop in an early chapter of Jeraldine Saunder’s “The Love Boats” book. Although she was never featured in the TV series, she was truly one of the first “Love Boat”s.

MV XANADU at San Francisco circa 1976. Christopher Willson collection.

In 1972, she became XANADU for Xanadu Cruises, who operated the yacht-like liner in Alaska and along the Pacific Coast of Mexico and Central America until 1977, when she was laid up at Seattle.

MV FAITHFUL laid up on the Sacramento River in 2008. Christopher WIllson collection.

A long, slow decline followed when she took on the name EXPEX in 1984 to become a trade fair ship (didn’t pan out) and FAITHFUL in 1991, to become a missionary and supply ship funded by the Christian Friendships Foundation in Wilmington, California. Although she never entered such service, Friendships painted her hull dark blue and kept her filled with would-be missionaries until she was shut down by the U.S. Coast Guard in 2003. Some nefarious dealings clouded her ownership after that but in 2007, she was towed up to Alameda, California, where plans were unveiled and then quickly shelved to rebuild her into a deluxe private yacht.

Christopher Willson.

In 2008, Christopher WIllson found the then derelict ship in a Craig’s List advertisement, and took on the task of purchasing and restoring her, bit by bit. At 293-by-43.4 feet, the AURORA is an ambitious and daunting project but she is just small enough for a man with a vision, determination and a little help to manage.

Beyond the levee.

It’s an 80-mile drive from my aunt’s home in Oakland to Stockton, the unlikely Sacramento River Delta setting that has been the AURORA’s home for the past three years. Beyond Stockton’s industrial harbor and urban Central Valley sprawl, there lies a maze of tributaries, levies and farmland. After exiting the potholes and chaos of Interstate 5 and heading west on 8 Mile Road, one is eventually rewarded with a view of the AURORA, her sleekness beckoning from beyond the corn fields.

MV AURORA at Stockton.
Astern of AURORA at Stockton.

Prior to boarding, I paused to capture the ship before she was consumed by the encroaching afternoon backlight.

MV AURORA Entrance Foyer stairs.

When stepping on board, I always reflect back to the 1990s, when, for over a decade, the ship sat in local Los Angeles waters and was completely off limits to visitors. It was extremely frustrating and more than a bit ironic to literally be wandering the world in search of forgotten liners and come home to find her doors perpetually shut. Needless to say, crossing into her shell doors and beholding that elliptical sweep of her main lobby staircase will always be a joyous sight. It is an impressive slice of 1950s marine architecture, especially for a ship of her size.

MV AURORA Main Lounge facing aft from port. Eero Saarinen “tulip” chairs from MV MERMOZ in foreground.

Just steps away, the Lounge, in my humble opinion, is looking better than ever…

MV AURORA Lounge bar area with glass fiber Kay Korbing chairs from MV WINSTON CHURCHILL of 1968.
MV AURORA port side of Lounge.

Since my last visit in 2013, the AURORA has become the designated sanctuary for many of the furnishings and fittings I was able to rescue from less fortunate ships that met the shipbreaker’s torch in Alang.

Mahogany chairs from the Swedish ferry MV TRELLEBORG of 1958 and cocktail table designed by Nino Zoncada for the MV STELLA OCEANIS of 1967.

Instead of letting the furnishings lie around collecting dust and storage fees, it was time to put them back to use aboard the AURORA.

Mahogany and leather RMS WINDSOR CASTLE chairs that originally came from the staterooms of the SS PRETORIA CASTLE/SA ORANJE and/or EDINBURGH CASTLE of 1948.

Similarly, one deck below, in the Dining Room, various nooks boasted more elements of nearly forgotten maritime history.

MV AURORA aft stairs.

We forged our way up to the open Promenade Deck via the aft staircase, another grand ascent one would expect to find on a ship five times the size.

MV AURORA aft deck area.

In the past year, Chris and his team have been busy at work on the ship’s decks, funnel and superstructure. On the aft Promenade Deck, he pried up the rotten woodwork (much of it ply that was added when the ship was laid up in Los Angeles as the FAITHFUL).

MV AURORA aft deck area facing aft.

The deck was blasted to the steel before corroded sections were cut out and replaced with new plating.

MV AURORA starboard Promenade Deck.
MV AURORA starboard Promenade Deck, facing aft.

Work on the starboard Promenade is underway, along with repairing and/or installing new rails and drainage. When that is completed, the same will be done to the port side.

MV AURORA window on the delta.
MV AURORA wheelhouse.

Although the wheelhouse is still in its early stages of renewal, corroded decking has been replaced inside and some of the ship’s original navigation equipment has been located, hopefully to be returned. In turn, it is my wish that a pair of donated officers’ desks from Ellerman Line’s MV SPERO of 1966 and a cabinet or two from the RMS TRANSVAAL CASTLE will soon take the place of long since discarded original furnishings in the adjoining chart room.

Twilight over Mt. Diablo.

We wrapped up our tour of the decks with a quick visit to the fo’c’sle where the sun was beginning to cast a hazy glow on the lovely, cambered layer cake tiers of her superstructure.

MV AURORA plans unrealized.

Back inside, Chris shared a copy of the architectural drawings of what the prior owners had hoped to do with her proposed conversion into a luxury yacht. Among the changes would have been an extension to the Bridge Deck (shown on the plan as Flying Bridge Deck) with a swimming pool and a helipad on aft Promenade Deck (shown as Bridge Deck).

XANADU waterlilies.

Before I left, Chris gifted me with a box of copper waterlilies that were once installed in the ship’s aft stairtower, dating from  the XANADU era. With their bright orange and white enamel work, they bespoke their 1970s vintage.

MV AURORA sunset.

Although the AURORA remains Chris Willson’s work in progress, his efforts are a beacon to the world of shiplovers who have watched helplessly as the last few of her contemporaries have slipped away. One can actually contribute to AURORA’s continued preservation with donations, tools, and even volunteering to work on board. For more information and continued updates on her status as well the fascinating story of how Willson obtained and began the process of preserving her, please go to: Aurora Restoration Project

AURORA aftergolow.

As I climbed back into my rental car, I was struck by the warm glow of the setting sun emanating from the Lounge windows. AURORA is still very much alive.

Very special thanks: Chris and Jin Willson

Peter Knego

Peter Knego

Having documented over 400 passenger ships and taken more than 200 cruises, MaritimeMatters’ co-editor Peter Knego is a leading freelance cruise writer, a respected ocean liner historian and frequent maritime lecturer both on land and at sea.  With his work regularly featured in cruise industry trades and consumer publications.  Knego also runs the website which offers MidCentury cruise ship furniture, artwork and fittings rescued from the shipbreaking yards of Alang, India.  He has produced several videos on the subject, including his latest, The Sands Of Alang and the best-selling On The Road To Alang."
Peter Knego

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