This Man Bought A Cruise Ship On Cragislist And Has Been Restoring It For Years

(CNN) — It’s not every day that you can find a cruise ship for sale on Craigslist. So Chris Willson was immediately intrigued when he came across an 89.3m boat listed on the classifieds site in 2008.

The “pocket” cruiser, built in Germany, was anchored in the California delta and its owner was ready to sell it.

After seeing the ad pop up several times, Willson, who was working on virtual reality travel development, decided to investigate.

“I posed as a potential buyer, even though I really had no interest in buying a boat,” Willson told CNN Travel.

“It was a bit out of my comfort level, to say the least.”

Once he made the trip to the delta and interior river estuary in Northern California and climbed aboard, Willson was shocked to see just how much the 2,496-gross-ton ship had been overlooked over the years.

However, when he began to explore further, he realized that beneath all the “garbage” on board was a rather impressive five-level ship.

closing of the transaction

Chris Willson and his partner Jin Li now live aboard the cruise ship he bought in 2008.
Credit: Christopher Willson

“It has one of the most spectacular layouts of any boat I have ever seen,” he adds. “The stairs are beautiful.”

“It’s almost the same as finding an old ’60s Corvette in the garage. You can see the quality is there, but it’s so run down you almost feel bad about it.”

After researching the ship’s history, he discovered that it was built by the Blohm and Voss shipyards in 1955 and was the first major passenger liner built by Germany after World War II.

The more he learned about the ship, originally named Wappen von Hamburg, the more convinced he became that it was a project he was willing to take on.

After carefully considering the magnitude of what owning a mini cruiser would entail, Willson came up with a restoration plan and decided to take the plunge.

Although he hesitates to talk about the amount he paid, he says he was able to “get a very good deal with the owner of the boat”.
“Next thing I know I own a boat,” Willson adds.

But once he signed on the dotted line, he had to think about where he was going to put it. Fortunately, Willson secured a lease in the California river town of Rio Vista and arranged to have the boat towed there.

An exciting project


Willson worked on the vessel, which is docked at a marina in Little Potato Slough, Calif., with the help of volunteers. Credits: Christopher Wilson

That’s when the restoration process began. The first step was to get rid of all the trash that was on board. Willson says there were hundreds of bags of household trash along with old mattresses and blankets, and he was looking for volunteers to help.
“I thought it would be a long project,” Willson says. “The scale was huge. It’s pretty much the same as redoing 15 houses on your own.”

After spending a few months traveling about three hours from his home in Santa Cruz to work on the ship, Willson decided to move aboard with his partner Jin Li so he could fully concentrate on the project, while keeping it safe.

“When I got on board, a lot of my friends and family didn’t believe it,” he admits. “It was a pretty big lifestyle change. But I see it more as an upgrade, even though we’re off-grid and mostly run on generators and solar grids.”

As he began to dig deeper into the ship’s history, Willson says he learned that as well as being the inspiration for the popular TV series ‘The Love Boat’, it was the filming location for the siege. of the criminal organization Specter in the 1963 James Bond film “From Russia with Love”.

The ship served as a cruise ship for about two decades, he said, going through several different owners and names before being anchored in Vancouver.

After a few missteps and several owner and name changes, she was towed to Alameda, California in 2005. Plans were put in place to convert her into a luxury yacht, but ultimately fell through.

The ship remained at Alameda for several years until it was bought by a businessman and moved to the California Delta. The ship was thought to be about to be scrapped when Willson saw it listed on Craigslist in 2008.

historic ship

“The more I learned about the history, the more I thought it might be a land attraction, like the Queen Mary [un transatlántico retirado anclado en Long Beach que ahora es una popular atracción turística]“, he explains. “I would like to turn it into a museum and allow people to take guided tours [al barco]”.

He estimates it would cost around $3 million to turn the ship into a seaside attraction.

Willson, who had no ship experience, spent some 14 years renovating the ship, with the help of volunteers.

“I’m pretty handy,” he says, explaining that he’s rebuilt many cars in the past and previously worked as an electromechanical engineer in disaster recovery.

He renamed the ship the Aurora after spending his first night on board.

“I woke up to one of the most beautiful sunrises I’ve ever seen,” says Willson. “There was an aurora effect with the clouds and the water. I remember thinking at the time that ‘Aurora’ was an appropriate name.”

With the help of volunteers, as well as Li, who Willson says played a vital role in preserving the Aurora, he completed renovations to some hallways, as well as a lounge and several cabins.

“Our biggest accomplishment was removing the old wood from the bridges and spending a huge amount of time welding new steel plates to completely seal the bridges,” he says.

“The biggest challenge is not so much the work on the boat, but managing the politics behind it. Does the county or the city want their boat there?”

After a few years in Rio Vista, Willson was offered a berth at Pier 38 in San Francisco and moved the Aurora there. However, things did not go as he hoped and Willson was then asked to find a new home for the ship.

He brought it back to the California Delta in 2012, mooring the Aurora at a marina in Little Potato Slough, located about 15 miles from the town of Stockton in California’s Central Valley.

Since then, the Aurora has been stationed “in cool, shallow water” at this location and it looks like it will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Although the vessel is unseaworthy, Willson points out that it has a “sound bottom” and, after consulting various marine engineers, is confident that “with proper maintenance and supervision” it can remain in good condition. safely where he is.

“As long as we don’t take it out where there’s a lot of electrolysis and stuff like that,” he adds. “It’s safe for now, but we plan to move it closer to the bay when its restoration is more advanced.”

He hopes to raise enough funds to get the boat out of the water and do the bass again at some point.

Fund raising

Aurora cruise ship

Willson financed most of the work himself, but hopes to raise enough money to turn it into a museum. Credits: Christopher Wilson

“As far as the actual work on the ship, I learned a lot,” he says. “There’s nothing he can’t fix. But it takes a lot of money to do it.”

Apart from a few small donations, Willson has so far funded most of the renovations himself.

He was able to raise money for the work by buying items from markets and state auctions and reselling them on online auction sites like eBay, as well as working as a consultant on other historic ship projects.

But while that revenue has kept the project going, it’s not enough to fund the full restoration, and Willson is determined to finish what he started.

After discovering the “Ship Happens” YouTube channel, which details the efforts of a British couple refurbishing an 80-year-old WWII ship they bought on eBay, Willson was inspired to bring his own story to the platform with the aim of generating interest, as well as funding.

In February, he launched the Aurora Restoration Project and the channel has nearly 70,000 subscribers.

“Since the whole YouTube thing happened, we’ve had hundreds and hundreds of people volunteering,” he says.
Willson hopes his success will help speed things up, and he says he’s already seeing results.

“Things are accelerating,” he says.

However, producing video alongside a ship’s renovation proves tricky, and he “always strikes the balance” when it comes to juggling the two.

“Once I start to feel more comfortable with it, we hope to start bringing in groups of volunteers several days a week,” adds Willson.

End in sight?

aurora cruise

A grand staircase aboard the ship, which Willson renamed the Aurora. Credit: Christopher Willson

Although there is still a long way to go, Willson is getting closer to his goal of turning the Aurora into a museum.
Although he has also considered turning the ship into a bed and breakfast, or even a wedding venue, he thinks a museum is the more “realistic” option.

“It’s something we try to give back to people,” he says. “We don’t want to fix it and make our own private yacht.”

And there’s certainly plenty to see aboard the Aurora. The ship has 85 cabins, plus an upper saloon with its own private foredeck, swimming pool, large galley and theatre.

“We have restored a small number of cabins on board, but we still have a lot to do and we will soon offer the possibility to the public to sponsor a cabin restoration,” he said.

Willson and his team of volunteers are currently working on the back of the Aurora and aim to fully restore the kitchen and dining room by the remainder of 2022.

In recent years, Willson has received furniture from other historic ships for use aboard the Aurora.

“We got a big donation from the Island Princess, one of the ships ‘The Love Boat’ was filmed on, which was recently demolished,” he says.

For now, Willson enjoys working and living on the ship and looks forward to the day when it can be opened to the public.

“There is nothing more spectacular than being able to work and live in something so unique,” ​​he adds.

But do you have any hope that this spectacular ship will ever sail again? “If the money comes, you can sail again,” he says. “Otherwise it can be a great museum.”

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