This man bought a cruise ship on Craigslist

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(CNN) – It doesn’t happen every day that you notice a cruise ship for sale on Craigslist. So Chris Willson was immediately impressed when he came across a 293-foot vessel listed on a classified ads website in 2008.

A retired “pocket” cruise ship, built in Germany, was moored in the California delta at the time, and its then owner wanted to unload it.

When Willson, who was working on the development of virtual reality shows, saw that the list had appeared several times, he decided to do some research.

“I acted like a potential buyer, even though I wasn’t really interested in buying a boat,” Willson told CNN Travel. “It was at least out of my comfort level.”

When Willson embarked on an inland river delta and estuary in Northern California and boarded, he was amazed at how neglected the 2,496-tonne ship had been neglected over the years.

However, as he began to investigate further, he realized that beneath all the “junk” on board was a rather impressive five-level vessel.

Conclusion of an agreement

Chris Wilson and his partner Jin Li now live aboard a cruise ship he bought in 2008.

Christopher Willson

“He has one of the most remarkable designs of all the ships I’ve seen,” he adds. “The stairs are amazing.

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

After digging into the background of the ship, he discovered that it was built by the Blohm and Voss shipyards in 1955 and was the first major passenger ship built by Germany after World War II.

The more he learned about the ship, which was originally called Wappen von Hamburg, the more he was convinced that it was a project he was willing to accept.

After careful consideration of what it would mean to own a mini cruise ship, Willson drew up a recovery plan and decided to bounce back.

Although he does not want to discuss the amount he has paid, he says he has managed to “make a really good deal with the shipowner.”

“The next thing you know, I own a ship,” Willson adds.

But once he had signed the dotted line, he had to figure out where to put it. Fortunately, Willson managed to secure a lease in the California river town of Rio Vista and arranged for the ship to be towed there.

Passion project

Willson, with the help of volunteers, worked on a ship moored in the port of Little Potato Slough, California.

Willson, with the help of volunteers, worked on a ship moored in the port of Little Potato Slough, California.

Christopher Willson

That’s when the recovery process began. The first step was to get rid of all the garbage on board – Willson says there were hundreds of bags of household waste along with old mattresses and blankets – and find volunteers to help.

“I thought it was going to be a long project,” says Willson. “The scale was huge. It’s almost the same as if you had remodeled 15 houses yourself.”

After spending 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 that he could focus fully on the project and secure it.

“When I first moved on board, many of my friends and family did not believe,” he admits. “It was a pretty big change in lifestyle.” But I see it more as an upgrade, even though we are off-grid and running mainly on generators and solar networks. ”

As Willson began rummaging further into the ship’s history, Willson says he learned that not only was it the inspiration for the popular TV series “The Love Boat,” but it was also the location of the 1963 Specter criminal headquarters. James Bond film “From Russia with love.”

The vessel served as a cruise ship for about two decades, he says, and passed through several different owners as well as names until it landed in Vancouver.

After several erroneous starts and several changes of ownership and currency, she was moved to Alameda, California in 2005. Plans were made to turn it into a luxury yacht, but in the end they failed.

The ship remained in the Alameda for several years until it was bought by a merchant and moved to the California delta. When Willson saw in 2008 that the vessel was advertised on Craiglist, it was considered on the verge of scrapping.

Historic vessel

“The more I learned about history, I thought it might be an attraction on the coast, something like Queen Mary. [a retired ocean liner moored at Long Beach that’s now a popular tourist attraction], ”He explains. “I would like to make it a museum and let people do tours [of the ship]. “

He estimates that transforming the vessel into a coastal attraction would cost about $ 3 million.

Willson, who had no previous experience working on ships, spent about 14 years renovating the ship with the help of volunteers.

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

After the first night on board, he renamed the ship Aurora.

“I woke up to one of the brightest sunrises I’ve ever seen,” Willson explains. “It was an Aurora-like effect with clouds and water. I remember thinking ‘Aurora’ was an appropriate name at the time.”

With the help of volunteers, he and Li, who, according to Willson, played a key role in maintaining Aurora, completed the renovation of some of the passages, as well as the lounge and several cabins.

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

“The biggest challenge is not so much working on the ship, but dealing with the politics behind it. Does your ship want a county or a city there?”

After several years in Rio Vista, Willson was offered a berth on Pier 38 in San Francisco and moved Aurora there. However, things did not work as he had hoped, and Willson was later asked to find a new home for the ship.

In 2012, he had it transferred back to the California delta, with Aurora docked at the port of Little Potato Slough, located about 15 miles from Stockton in California’s Central Valley.

Aurora has since been placed “in fresh shallow water” and seems set to remain for the foreseeable future.

Although the ship is unable to swim, Willson emphasizes that it has a “solid bottom”, and, in consultation with a number of marine engineers, is convinced that “with proper maintenance and supervision” it can safely stay where it is.

“Unless we take it out where there is a lot of electrolysis and so on,” he adds. “It’s safe for now, but we plan to move it closer to the bay as it continues to be renovated.”

He hopes to raise enough money to pull the ship out of the water and remodel the bottom at some point.

Increasing finances

Willson funded most of the work himself, but hopes to raise enough money to turn it into a museum.

Willson funded most of the work himself, but hopes to raise enough money to turn it into a museum.

Christopher Willson

“I’ve learned a lot about the actual work on the ship,” he says. “There’s nothing I can’t fix. But it takes a lot of money to get there.”

In addition to a few small donations, Willson has so far funded most of the renovation work himself.

He has been able to raise funds for work by buying items from flea markets and government auctions and reselling them on online auction sites such as eBay, as well as working as a consultant on other historic vessel projects.

But while this revenue has kept the project going so far, it’s certainly not enough to fund a full recovery, and Willson is determined to finish what he started.

When Willson came across the YouTube channel Ship Happens, which details the efforts of a British couple renovating an 80-year-old former World War II ship they bought from eBay, he was inspired to put his own story on the platform to increase interest, as well as financing.

“Since the whole YouTube issue came about, we’ve had hundreds and hundreds of people volunteering,” he says.

Willson hopes his success will help speed things up and says he already sees results.

“Things are picking up very quickly,” he says.

However, producing videos in addition to renovating the ship is proving difficult and he is still “finding his feet” when it comes to juggling both.

“As soon as I start to feel more comfortable with it, we hope to start coming groups of volunteers a few days a week,” adds Willson.

Finishing in sight?

A large staircase aboard the ship Willson renamed Aurora.

A large staircase aboard the ship Willson renamed Aurora.

Christopher Willson

Although we have a long way to go, Willson is slowly approaching his goal of turning Aurora into a museum.

Even though he was thinking about turning the ship into a bed and breakfast or even a wedding venue, he thinks the museum is the “most realistic” option.

“This is something we’re trying to bring back to people,” he says. “We don’t want to fix it and make it our own private yacht.”

And there is definitely something to see on board the Aurora. The ship contains 85 cabins, as well as an upper lounge with its own large front deck, swimming pool, large kitchen and theater.

“We have restored a small number of cabins on board, but we still have many, many and we will soon offer the public the opportunity to sponsor the refurbishment of the cabin,” he says.

Willson and his team of volunteers are currently working on the tail or back of Aurora and aim to completely restore the kitchen and dining area for the rest of 2022.

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

“We had a big gift from Island Princess, one of the ships they actually filmed ‘The Love Boat’, which was only recently scrapped,” he says.

Willson still enjoys the work and life on board the ship and is looking forward to the day when he will be able to make it available to the public.

“There really is nothing more spectacular than the opportunity to work and live on something so unique,” he adds.

But does he have any hope that this magnificent vessel may sail again one day?

“If the money comes, it can sail again,” he says. “If not, it can be a great museum.”

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