Christopher Willson may be regarded in the world of ship lovers as a miracle worker and a bit of a hero. When he became the owner of an unwanted and derelict former cruise ship, instead of scrapping her and turning a quick profit (at a time when steel prices were at an all time high), he discovered beauty under layers of rust and peeling paint and methodically set about bringing her back from the abyss. In the process, he learned that he was also restoring a significant piece of maritime history. But it has not been smooth sailing for Willson and his floating charge, which faces a formidable new challenge from the Port Of San Francisco. Please read on for Willson’s recap of the developments since we featured his ship’s arrival at Pier 38 last August.
Christopher Willson with a vintage set of plans for his ship. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2008.
“I found this vessel in a state of disrepair and three and a half years later, she has come a long way with the help of skilled volunteers and large material donations from various companies in the San Francisco area. Make no mistake, she is coming back to life and is not the same ship she was three and a half years ago.”
Launch of the WAPPEN VON HAMBURG. Courtesy of Christopher Willson.
Now called AURORA, Willson’s ship was built by the Blohm and Voss shipyard in 1955 as the WAPPEN VON HAMBURG. For a fully detailed Decked! feature about the ship, please click here. The first significant passenger liner built by the Germans after World War Two, she was also the first to be fitted with Maybach diesels. The 2,496 gross ton vessel was operated by a company called Hadag for its Hamburg to Heligoland North Sea cruise service.
MV DELOS at Santorini. Christopher Willson collection.
In 1960, the WVH was sold to Nomikos Lines and rebuilt as its deluxe Aegean cruise ship DELOS. The DELOS was one of the first modern ships to regularly operate in the Aegean market and was followed by a new generation of boutique cruise ships.
POLAR STAR post card image. Christopher Willson colleciton.
In 1967, she was sold to Westours (now a division of Carnival Corporation-owned Holland America Line) who renamed her PACIFIC STAR and later POLAR STAR for expedition style cruising in the South Pacific and Alaska. In 1972, POLAR STAR was traded to Donald L. Ferguson, who renamed her XANADU and revamped the ship with his own collection of Asian antiques.
MV XANADU in her heyday. Peter Knego collection.
The yacht-like XANADU was one of just a handful of expedition cruise ships in existence at the time and considered by many to be the most luxurious. High operating costs and the fuel crisis would soon bring a close to her career and in 1977, she was quietly laid up in Seattle where many of her fittings were eventually auctioned off. Her gradual decline had begun…
MV EXPEX off Los Angeles. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2008.
XANADU was next to become the floating exhibition ship EXPEX and spent several years at anchor off Los Angeles harbor with a forty foot container atop her stern. Nothing came of the venture and EXPEX was sold to Wilmington, California-based Friendships, who renamed her FAITHFUL with plans to restore her for Christian relief ship service. Although FAITHFUL received a new coat of blue paint on her hull and some refitting was done to her interior, she never undertook her intended role and instead languished at Los Angeles until being seized by the Coast Guard. In the process, scores of homeless Christian squatters were evicted from the ship.
Southwest Marine languishing. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2003.
FAITHFUL was acquired by a Florida-based doctor who planned to make her a floating children’s hospital. Instead, the ship sat at the Southwest Marine shipyard at Terminal Island, forgotten by all but a lone watchman, occasionally appearing as the backdrop in reality television shows and commercials.
A plan to restore FAITHFUL into a yacht saw her back on the high seas for a risky tow to Alameda in early 2007. Meanwhile, nothing came of the plans and she became an unwitting haven for visiting addicts and transients who further pilfered and vandalized her once elegant interiors. A tug of war over her ownership ensued with her supposed former owner taking deposits from prospective buyers and not delivering the ship.
Arrested at Alameda. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2007.
Finally, the City of Alameda had enough and after a two year legal process, the ship was declared abandoned and a towing company was hired to get the FAITHFUL out of their vicinity. She ended up in the Sacramento River Delta near Rio Vista and was about to be scrapped when Chris Willson acquired and renamed her AURORA.
He found a berth in Rio Vista and began the long, expensive and difficult process of restoring his ship.
As I have followed the ship since her XANADU era in the mid-1970s, it was inevitable that Chris Willson and I would meet. That opportunity came in late 2008 when The History Channel contacted me in their search for a derelict cruise ship. I immediately thought of the former WAPPEN VON HAMBURG and put The History Channel in touch with Willson to bring a film crew on board to shoot her as a setting for one of their “Life After People” episodes. Although on the outside the AURORA looked faded and forlorn, it was evident that Willson had already accomplished the Herculean task of cleaning up her interior. I was delighted but The History Channel people were understandably disappointed when their “abandoned” ship looked so well cared-for.
Bright spot in the blues at Rio Vista. — the hull painting begins! Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2008.
Last year, Willson was offered a berth in San Francisco at Pier 38, directly across from the AT&T Park.
“We had a safe place in the small city of Rio Vista that we could have continued to utilize as we restored this fabulous vessel. But we were assured that if we came to San Francisco, we could have the apron of the pier and we would be outside of the jurisdiction of the Port of San Francisco due to the lease terms. It all sounded great — a home near AT&T Park with a million dollar view.”
“We labored hard for months gathering the money to finance the tow and working on the vessel to make her look good for her new home. Finally the time came to move. It was a big day and we had a great crew.”
I was invited to participate in the exciting event. For a fully illustrated recap, click here to read MaritimeMatters’ “Off The Delta and On The Waterfront” Sea Treks blog.
From the zodiac to AURORA in transit. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2011.
Aft from fo’c’sle in transit. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2010.
Under the mast. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2010.
“Nearly 12 hours into the tow we received a call from the Port of San Francisco’s head wharfinger, who told me ‘You cannot dock this vessel at Pier 38’. I told him that we did not have the fuel to return and could not go back. I then called the lease holder who offered us the berth and was assured that the port was just ‘toying’ with him.”
Tug ROBERT GRAY underway with AURORA en route to San Francisco. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2010.
The tow continued…
Noctural arrival. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2010.
“Not much later, we received clearance from the wharfinger, who told us to go ahead and place the ship at Pier 38 and he would come by in the following days and inspect how we were tied up.”
“I neither saw or nor heard from the port concerning this issue until days ago. After being at the pier for a few weeks, we contacted another port wharfinger in an attempt to set up a meeting with the man who initially contacted us. We wound up meeting the other wharfinger at a coffee shop and told him what had happened. By that time, we were wary of the lease holder’s intentions with the ship and told the wharfinger we didn’t want to be there and needed to find a new location.”
“Weeks later, the port contacted the police to make sure we had the proper facilities on board and that we were abiding by the law. The police came and starting running numbers on personal property and searching the ship. We seemed to pass their inspection and had no further issues. Two weeks after that, the port prompted a Coast Guard inspection. Three gentlemen from the Coast Guard came out and the wharfinger showed up on a bike for the tour. The Coast Guard was looking for hazardous waste and leaks — again we passed with flying colors. The wharfinger had a perturbed look on his face when the Coast Guard could find nothing to fault us with.”
MV AURORA at San Francisco on July 4, 2011. Photo and copyright Christopher Willson.
“Recently, the lawsuit between the pier’s lease holder and the Port of San Francisco ended in the port’s favor. In the interim, the lease holder did everything to stand in the way of our restoring this vessel and went so far as to run off some of our most valued crew members. We had no idea what the port was going to be like when they took over but were happy to see them win the lawsuit — the moment it happened, we celebrated!” Along with four other pier tenants, I went to the Port of SF’s office to find out what we should be doing. Not one person would tell us anything. We just waited. A few weeks went by and we had no idea what was coming.
“ On August 12, 2011 the wharfinger (the one who first demanded the ship turn around during the tow) and a group of port authorities showed up on the pier and came directly back to the AURORA, shouting ‘AURORA! AURORA, this is the port!’ I rushed to the gangway and was given a bright orange paper that said, ‘WARNING: Under no circumstances will this vessel be allowed to remain at its present moorage. This vessel must be removed in 72 hours.’ They deemed the pier unsafe due to structural and electrical concerns. However, all of the other businesses that are paying good money were overlooked. I was further told that after 72 hours, all services would be disconnected.”
“The wharfinger looked into my eyes as if he wanted to destroy me. I him that we could not proceed at this speed and we would require help to move from this location. He refused to listen and simply told me that I should have known this was coming. All vessels at Pier 38 received the same notice and most have no place to go. The wharfinger told us that he has dealt with 50 ships in the past and doesn’t mind towing this one away for scrap.”
“We have one more day prior to the power being turned off and are not sure where to go. We are capable of finding another location but at this point, we cannot move the vessel to a new location without proper finances or a donated tug.”
“We all know the history of this ship. Alameda spent nearly two years and several hundred thousand dollars to remove her as an abandoned vessel. For the Alameda officials that spearheaded the removal, this was a bargain price. Although San Francisco may have much better resources, it is still very expensive and could take years to fight in court. In the meantime, I will not give up my fight to see this beautiful ship find a new home and prosperous future.”
Despite his limited resources, Willson has made remarkable progress by restoring electrical power to the vessel and refurbishing both deck and interior areas. We will report more on the saga of the AURORA as it continues to unfold…
MV AURORA Observation Deck (from mast). Photo and copyright Christopher Willson 2011.
MV AURORA foc
MV AURORA renewing foc
MV AURORA refurbished captain’s quarters. Photo and copyright Christopher Willson 2011.
MV AURORA Lounge. Photo and copyright Christopher Willson 2011.
MV AURORA C Deck common area. Photo and copyright Christopher Willson 2011.
MV AURORA restored electrical supply room. Photo and copyright Christopher Willson 2011.
AURORA at dusk. Photo and copyright Christopher Willson 2011.
For more information and further updates on the saga of the AURORA, please go to: The Aurora Yacht website