Restoring the Aurora, a cruise ship with a storied past

·4 min read

The year was 1955, and the Wappen Von Hamburg had just started its life, ferrying tourists from Hamburg, Germany to the island of Helgoland in the North Sea.

So, how the heck did that ship end up, six decades later, on a river near Stockton, California, surrounded by blueberry fields?

Chris Willson purchased this ex-cruise liner for roughly $800,000 on Craigslist.  / Credit: CBS News
Chris Willson purchased this ex-cruise liner for roughly $800,000 on Craigslist. / Credit: CBS News

"I was actually surfing on Craigslist one day and this thing popped up," said Chris Willson, current owner of the ship, which has been re-christened Aurora. "And it kind of piqued my curiosity.

Correspondent Luke Burbank asked, "Do you remember what the ad said?"

"Actually, it just said 'classic cruise ship for sale," he laughed. "My intent wasn't even to get involved with this."

A former software developer, Willson said initially he just wanted to shoot some video of the inside of the ship: "My idea was to do a virtual tour of the ship, not to buy the ship!" he laughed.

But something about the boat intrigued Willson, so much so that he ended up bailing it out of some legal trouble it was in, towing it to various locations, and eventually paying, he says, around $800,000 for it, making him the owner of a piece of maritime history.

And, also, a lot of trash. "It was full of garbage," he said. "Every single room – household garbage, cups, cans, mattresses scattered all over the place. It was a disaster."

Motoren voraus! / Credit: CBS News
Motoren voraus! / Credit: CBS News

When he sprang the news of his purchase to his brand-new girlfriend, Jin Li, she said she didn't dare look inside the ship: "You see so much horrible. You don't know what's gonna be behind the door or what's in the room.

"I said, 'I don't know about this boat. I don't know what this guy's doing. Thank God we were just dating!'"

But together, slowly, painstakingly, they got to work restoring the ship, with some parts, like the lounge, now looking good.

The lounge of the Aurora, brought back to its midcentury splendor.   / Credit: CBS News
The lounge of the Aurora, brought back to its midcentury splendor. / Credit: CBS News

"We do things like movie night in there," said Willson. "It's just a comfortable place."

And other parts looking, well, less good. He showed Burbank the wheelhouse ("which is pretty ugly"), which over time had been robbed of some of its nautical gear. "The wheel was looted out of here. You know, we have an idea of where some of these things are at, but getting them back is, I think, going to be kind of an impossible mission."

Chris Willson shows correspondent Luke Burbank the wheelhouse of the Aurora.  / Credit: CBS News
Chris Willson shows correspondent Luke Burbank the wheelhouse of the Aurora. / Credit: CBS News

Stripped to the bone and left to rot, Aurora is a survivor with a storied past. Credited as an inspiration behind the hit '70s TV show "The Love Boat," Aurora also made an appearance in "From Russia, With Love," as a Bond villain's yacht.

Ocean liner enthusiast, maritime historian and collector Peter Knego said of the ship, "You look at her, you see those curves and superstructure, her bow, her stern, she's a beautiful creation. And she's so lucky to still be around. Every ship of her generation pretty much is gone."

Knego knew of Aurora's history long before it appeared in a Craigslist ad, because he has a particular passion for all things midcentury and nautical. That would explain why his home in Oceanside, Calif., is a living maritime museum.

Peter Knego shows a scale model of the Aurora (nee Wappen Von Hamburg) compared to a scale model of the Titanic. / Credit: CBS News
Peter Knego shows a scale model of the Aurora (nee Wappen Von Hamburg) compared to a scale model of the Titanic. / Credit: CBS News

Amazingly, Aurora is one of the only remaining midcentury ships still afloat. The rest either sunk or were turned into razor blades – literally! "We shave with them," Knego said. "Canned green beans are made, cars are made out of them, rebar. They're all recycled into new forms of existence."

Burbank asked, "When they talk about turning it into razor blades, that's not just a figure of speech?"

"No! Unfortunately, no."

Work being done on restoring the Aurora.  / Credit: YouTube
Work being done on restoring the Aurora. / Credit: YouTube

Thanks to a mostly volunteer crew and, now, a popular YouTube channel, Willson's hope is to turn the ship into a floating hotel, or maybe even a museum, anything that will keep it from going to the scrapyard. Thankfully, he's got Jin Li (whom he also met on Craigslist, incidentally) along for the ride.

"Now I feel the boat is bringing a lot of people together, brought me and Chris even tighter, and brought a lot of interesting people, the local people, the people from Facebook and social media," Li said. "And I think there's more and more people gonna say, 'Well, maybe sometime, a small guy has a big dream wasn't a bad idea.'"

   For more info:

Aurora Restoration Project on YouTube and InstagramAurora Restoration Project (Facebook Group)History of the Aurora (Wordpress)Peter Knego's MidShipCinema

   Story produced by Amy Wall. Editor: George Pozderec.

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