Posted by: aurorayacht | August 26, 2012

Lady in a Jam by Peter Knego

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.”

Christopher Willson’s Aurora Yacht website.

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.

Keep up to date with MaritimeMatters’ Peter Knego on Twitter by clicking here

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 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

Posted by: aurorayacht | May 19, 2010

History of the Aurora

She was the first ship built by Blohm & Voss post WWII in 1955, Germany gave special attention to this vessel as she was considered the Pride of Germany, No expense was spared and the builders were truly masters of their art, it had a major retrofit in 1960. Intended to cruise between Hamburg and other nearby ports it was called the Wappen Von Hamburg. Since it was a day ship, it had a huge initial capacity of more than 1,600 people. Its 6,000 horsepower engines could power the ship at 18 knots.
In 1960, the Wappen Von Hamburg was sold to the Greek Nomikos Line and renamed the Delos. She was refitted with a swimming pool, full air conditioning and cabins for 186 single class passengers. Also on board were some of the first on-board “stores” offering items to the passengers as well a spa and a beauty salon.
“Delos was considered a pioneering cruise ship and outclassed the motley fleet of aged but interesting ships sailing from Greece to the Aegean at the time,” Mr. Peter Knego wrote on the Maritime Matters website.
Delos stayed on the Greek Islands run until 1967 when it was purchased by Westours and renamed the Polar Star.
“Polar Star was a perfect fit for the burgeoning Alaska cruise market.” Knego wrote. “She joined stalwart regional mainstays like the CP and CN veterans Princess Patricia and Prince George on summer Inside Passage cruises from Vancouver. In the winter, she sailed for Westours subsidiary West Line on cruises along the Pacific Coast to Mexico and even ventured as far as Tahiti and the South Pacific.”

Credits:  I would like to that Cai Rönnau of for providing us with a fabulous set of historical images from his archives.

Westours was the brainchild of Chuck West, one of the great entrepreneurs in the history of the Alaskan visitor industry.

“In 1946, while working as a pilot for Fairbanks-based Wien Airlines, Mr. West organized air tours to Nome and to the Eskimo village of Kotzebue on the Arctic coast.” Seattle Times writer Tom Boyer noted in West’s October 7, 2005 obituary. “As the air-tour company grew, he started a hotel chain for tourists, a fleet of tour coaches and an Inside Passage cruise line. The company, called Westours, established its headquarters in Seattle and thrived for two decades. In the early ’70s, when a union dispute left him in financial difficulty, Mr. West sold his company to Holland America and continued to work there.”

Eventually West – often called “Mr. Alaska” by others in the visitor industry – left HAL and formed Cruise West and continued serving the Inside Passage with smaller cruise ships.
In 1970, the Polar Star was transferred to West Lines and renamed the Pacific Star. In 1972, she was sold to Xanadu Cruises of Panama and renamed the Xanadu.



“During her time sailing for Xanadu Cruises, Xanadu was touted for her yacht-like external beauty as well as her rather chic interior decor, which, peppered with personal artifacts from the owner’s wife’s collection, had a Southern Asiatic theme,” Mr. Peter Knego wrote in Maritime Matters. “Promenade Deck featured a nice open forward expanse of deck and promenades that extended aft to a very generous sunning and sports deck. The observation lounge was divided into two separate areas: the Library of Kubla Khan on the port side and the Kinbalu Card Room starboard.”

Unfortunately by the mid 1970s Xanadu Cruises was suffering from industry doldrums and was significantly hurt by the world-wide fuel crisis. The industry as a whole had tailed off and wouldn’t recover until “The Love Boat” television show started building interest in the late 1970s.
The Xanadu was laid up in Vancouver from 1977 into the early 1980s. In 1985, she was sold to a company in Los Angeles to be used as a exhibition and trade fair ship and named the Expex. This was to be known as her final run. The Expex business never took flight and this was the beginning of a bad era for the former Wappen Von Hamburg.




Unfortunately, funding to refurbish the ship never came. The friendships organization utilized this ship for dockside living for close to 100 persons that worked and lived on her.  Friendships could no longer maintain her needs and she was then sold to Dr. James Mitchell. Dr. Mitchell’s key negotiation was that he intended to turn this vessel into a children’s hospital ship ( according to Sandra Tipton of ) The price was almost at a give away. No more then 2 weeks later Dr. Mitchell had her up on the chopping block for sale once again. 
In 2005 Dr. Mitchell sold the Faithful to a Delaware Corporation Al Boraq Aviation who had her towed to Alameda to be refurbished by Bay Ship and Yacht as a private luxury yacht. As time went by nothing happened.  Alameda deamed her as an abandoned vessel and the process to make her go away began. Federal courts seized her and the story continues…  to this day Dr. James Mitchell still claims ownership for this vessel and has pulled multiple internet scams to unsuspecting potential buyers. 


In the early morning hours of Feb. 17, 2007 two tugboats dragged the boat to a mooring location in Solano County near the city of Rio Vista, where she was to spend the remainder of her years, possibly to be reincarnated as a restaurant. 
That’s the ongoing saga of the Faithful, which became the subject of some public interest after the City Council voted in January to have the boat towed for $200,000 by Curt Lind of Cal Equipment. 
Following the council vote, three people came forward offering to save the city money by paying out of their own pocket to have the boat towed away. However, the city declined the offer. 
“They were just wishing and hoping,” development services director Leslie Little said. “They don’t have the wherewithal to do it.” 

The city trusted Mr. Lind, a longtime boat salvager, to take the vessel to a property he either owned or controlled near the Rio Vista. Alameda made a contract with Mr. Lind to grant him title of the vessel.  

Lind complied with a Coast Guard-approved tow plan for the boat, which included outfitting the tugboats with radar. 

After the boat was towed, Lind sent pictures to the city proving he had been successful. 

The city had been working for more than 2 years to come up with a plan to get rid of the Faithful, which was illegally moored off the former Fleet Industrial Supply Center on Alameda’s West End. 

The future was looking grim for this historical gem. Mr. Lind spent close to a year trying to find a suitable home for this vessel and nothing was panning out.  The problem is that no one can find a home for her according to Mr. Lind.  After much trying the option of scrap came up.  This was the easy way out but it’s hard for a man like Mr. lind to see a historical vessel with great potential turned to scrap. 

In 2008 Mr. Chris Willson negotiated with Mr. Lind and a deal was established. The ship was moved to the city of Rio Vista to begin restoration.  She has been docked at this location for a little over a year now with plans to move her to a location that suits her. 

This ships story still has a few chapters left and will remain under full restoration under the ownership of Mr. Chris Willson.  

Learn how you can help in the restoration process. We need materials, donations and volunteers to keep this dream alive. We greatly appreciate your help and generosity.

Help us bring this historical gem back to life


 Thank you Mr. Peter Knego for keeping the dream alive.

Thank you Mr. Curt Lind of Cal Equipment for making this all possible.

Posted by: aurorayacht | May 16, 2010

Historical Images

Here are some historical photographs of the Wappen Von Hamburg in 1955 and 1956 donated by our new friend,  Cai Rönnau.

The Wappen Von Hamburg has an extremely rich past and will serve as a museum with images, artifacts, and extensive documentation regarding the history of Luxury Liners.

-All content & images copyright Aurora Yacht Collection.

Posted by: aurorayacht | May 15, 2010

Aurora Before and After

The story of this vessel has been nothing short of a movie in the making but that’s another story.  When I found this vessel on the Delta, she was under negotiations for being scrapped.  This would have been a simple strategy as the market for steel was at an all time high.  However, from the moment I saw this vessel, I felt connected.  As I studied her history, both good and bad, it became clear that I had to put my best foot forward to keep her from being scrapped.

Most individuals took one look at this vessel and saw a giant eye sore in the middle of the California Delta.  The condition it was in made it very difficult, for most, to focus on what could be.  Additionally, countless negative newspaper articles from the ship’s past portrayed a bleak future for this future Luxury Liner.  This pessimism overshadowed some rich historical facts.  Most apparent is the structural aspects of this vessel.  This is the first post WWII ship built in Germany and they truly did an amazing job on the construction.  I just couldn’t walk away.

Now it is much easier for people to see the future of the Aurora.

Posted by: aurorayacht | May 10, 2010

Donate and Help us Restore a Historical Gem

  It has been nearly 3 years since I found this vessel near the quaint little City of Rio Vista California. Her condition appeared rough and the outlook for this Historic German Liner was grim. This is when We sprang into action. Saving her from a fate of scrap We began negotiations with the the City of Rio Vista to bring her to a location to begin a new life. The location had a large price tag but options were limited and We needed to move fast in order to save this vessel from being sold for scrap. The location had a dilapidated dock and no facilities to help make the restoration of this vessel easy. We had a rough year to say the least. We are however thankful to the City of Rio Vista for making this possible. We have worked very hard on restoring this vessel to a point that she may again see a bright future.
Work on this former beauty has been expensive and completely out of pocket. We have avoided taking on any investors in order to make sure this vessel would remain in Our hands and safe from becoming yet again a failed venture as it has in the past with former owners and dreamers. She is now safe and is moving full speed in her recovery. We would like to soon open her to the public as a Luxury Liner Museum. This would feature art, furniture and other artifacts from many Liners of the Past. We hope to educate people on the importance of saving ships with a rich historic past such as this vessel.
We need your help to make this happen. As you can imagine this is an expensive venture and has taken a great deal of funds to bring her this far. All donations are appreciated and will go directly to materials and tools to help bring back one of the most beautiful and well built ships every made. We are proud to have come this far and look forward to the future of this vessel. May she once again be revised and enjoyed as she once was.

Donations can be sent by PayPal to the email address (( )) if your interested in helping this vessel breath a new life. If you have questions about other ways of transferring your donation please contact us at the same email (( )) and thank you for your interest and support.

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