Restoration of the Aurora, a cruise ship steeped in history

It was 1955 and the Wappen Von Hamburg had just begun its life, ferrying tourists from Hamburg, Germany to the island of Heligoland in the North Sea.

So how on earth did this ship end up, six decades later, on a river near Stockton, California, surrounded by fields of blueberries?

Chris Willson bought this former cruise liner for around $800,000 on Craigslist.

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“I was actually surfing Craigslist one day and this thing popped up,” said Chris Willson, current owner of the ship, which has been renamed Aurora. “And that piqued my curiosity.

Correspondent Luke Burbank asked: ‘Do you remember what the ad said?

“It actually just said ‘classic cruise ship for sale’,” he laughed. “My intention wasn’t even to get involved in that.”

A former software developer, Willson initially said he just wanted to shoot a video from inside the ship: “My idea was to take a virtual tour of the ship, not buy the ship!” he’s laughing.

But something about the boat intrigued Willson, so much so that he ended up saving it from a legal problem it was in, towing it to various places and ultimately paying, he says, around $800,000. for this, making him the owner of a piece of maritime history.

And, also, a lot of waste. “It was full of garbage,” he said. “Every room – trash, cups, cans, mattresses strewn all over the place. It was a disaster.”

Motoren voraus!

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When he broke the news of his purchase to his newest girlfriend, Jin Li, she said she didn’t dare look inside the ship: “You see so many horrible things. in the room.

“I said, ‘I don’t know about this boat. I don’t know what this guy is doing. Thank God we were just dating!'”

But together, slowly, painstakingly, they set to work restoring the ship, with some parts, like the saloon, now in good condition.

The Aurora’s living room, restored to its mid-century splendour.

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“We do things like movie nights there,” Willson said. “It’s just a cozy place.”

And other parts that seem, well, not as good. He showed Burbank the wheelhouse (“which is quite ugly”), which over time had been stripped of some of its nautical equipment. “The wheel was looted from here. You know, we have an idea where some of these things are, but getting them back will be, I think, kind of mission impossible.”

Chris Willson shows correspondent Luke Burbank the Aurora’s wheelhouse.

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Stripped to the bone and left to rot, Aurora is a survivor with a storied past. Credited as an inspiration for the hit ’70s TV show “The Love Boat,” Aurora also made an appearance on “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 that superstructure, her bow, her stern, she’s a beautiful creation. And she has so many fortunate to still be there. Every ship of its generation has almost disappeared.”

Knego knew Aurora’s story long before it appeared in a Craigslist ad, as he has a particular passion for all things mid-century and nautical. This would explain why his home in Oceanside, California is a living maritime museum.

Peter Knego shows a model of the Aurora (née Wappen Von Hamburg) compared to a model of the Titanic.

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Amazingly, Aurora is one of the only mid-century ships still afloat. The rest sank or turned into razor blades – literally! “We shave with them,” Knego said. “Canned green beans are made, cars are made from them, rebar. They’re all recycled into new forms of existence.”

Burbank asked, “When they talk about turning it into razor blades, isn’t that just a figure of speech?”

” Nope ! Unfortunately no.

Work in progress on the restoration of the Aurora.


Thanks to a mostly volunteer crew and, now, a popular YouTube channel, Willson hopes to turn the ship into a floating hotel, or maybe even a museum, anything that will keep it from being scrapped. Fortunately, he has Jin Li (whom he also met on Craigslist, by the way) with him.

“Now I feel the boat brings a lot of people together, brought me and Chris closer, and brought in a lot of interesting people, local people, Facebook people and social media people,” Li said. And I think more and more people are going to say, ‘Well, maybe one day a little guy has a big dream, that wasn’t a bad idea.'”

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Story produced by Amy Wall. Publisher: George Pozderec.