(CNN) – It’s not every day that you spot a cruise ship for sale on Craigslist. So Chris Wilson was immediately intrigued when he stumbled upon the 293-foot boat listed on the listing site in 2008.
The decommissioned “pocket” cruise ship built in Germany was moored in the California Delta at the time, and its then owner was eager to unload it.
After seeing the list come up many times, Wilson, who had been working on the development of virtual reality tours, decided to do a little research.
“I was kind of posing as a potential buyer when I wasn’t really interested in buying the ship,” Wilson told CNN Travel. “To put it mildly, it was a bit above my comfort level.”
After sailing down into the delta and estuary of an inland river in Northern California and boarding, Wilson was struck by how much the 2,496 gross-tonne ship had been so neglected over the years.
However, when he began to explore further, he realized that under all the “garbage” on board was a rather imposing five-level vessel.
Closing the deal
Chris Wilson and his partner Jean Lee now live aboard a cruise ship he bought in 2008.
“He has one of the most impressive layouts of any ship I have ever seen,” he adds. “The stairs are great.
“It’s almost like finding an old ’60s Corvette in the garage. You can see the quality is there, but it’s so neglected that you almost feel sorry for it.”
Digging into the ship’s history, he discovered that it was built by the Blohm and Voss shipyard in 1955 and was the first significant passenger liner built by Germany after World War II.
The more he learned about the ship, which was originally named Wappen von Hamburg, the more convinced he was that he was ready to take on the project.
After carefully considering the scope of what it means to own a mini-cruise ship, Wilson drew up a recovery plan and decided to take a chance.
While he doesn’t want to discuss the amount he paid, he says he was able to “work out a really good deal with the ship’s owner.”
“The next thing you know is that I have a ship,” adds Wilson.
But once he signed the dotted line, he had to figure out where he would put it. Luckily, Wilson was able to secure a lease in the Californian river town of Rio Vista and arrange for the ship to be towed there.
Wilson works on a ship docked in Little Poteito Slough, California with the help of volunteers.
That’s when the recovery process began. The first step was to get rid of all the rubbish on board — Wilson says there were hundreds of bags of household trash, along with old mattresses and blankets — and find volunteers to help.
“I thought it was going to be a long project,” Wilson says. “The scale of this was huge. It’s almost like remodeling 15 houses all by yourself.”
After spending several months on the three-hour journey from his home in Santa Cruz to work on the ship, Wilson decided to move aboard with his partner Gene Lee to focus fully on the project as well as ensure its safety.
“When I first came on board, many of my friends and relatives did not believe,” he admits. “It was a pretty big lifestyle change. But I see it more as an upgrade, even though we are off the grid and running mostly on generators and solar panels.”
As he began to delve into the history of the ship, Wilson says he learned that not only was it the inspiration for the hit television series The Love Boat, but it was also a filming location for the headquarters of the Specter criminal organization in 1963. James Bond film From Russia with Love.
The ship served as a cruise ship for about two decades and went through several owners and several names before docking in Vancouver, he said.
After several false starts and a change of ownership and name, she was towed to Alameda, California in 2005. Plans were made to turn her into a luxury yacht, but they ultimately failed.
The ship remained in Alameda for several years until a businessman bought it and moved it to the California Delta. The ship was thought to be on the verge of being scrapped when Wilson saw it advertised on Craiglist in 2008.
“The more I learned about the history, the more I thought it could be a coastal attraction, like the Queen Mary. [a retired ocean liner moored at Long Beach that’s now a popular tourist attraction]he explains. “I would like to make a museum out of this and let people take tours. [of the ship].”
He estimates that it will cost about $3 million to turn the ship into a shore attraction.
Wilson, who had no experience on ships, spent about 14 years repairing the ship with the help of volunteers.
“I’m pretty crafty,” he says, explaining that he’s rebuilt a lot of cars in the past and used to work as an electrical engineer doing disaster recovery.
He renamed the ship the Aurora after spending the first night on board.
“I woke up to one of the brightest sunrises I have ever seen,” Wilson explains. “It created an Aurora-type effect with clouds and water. I remember at the time I thought “Aurora” was the right name.”
With the help of volunteers, along with Lee, who, according to Wilson, played a key role in the preservation of the Aurora, he completed the repair of some of the passages, as well as the living room and a number of cabins.
“Our biggest accomplishment has been removing the old wood from the decks and spending a huge amount of time welding on new steel plates to completely seal the decks,” he says.
“The biggest challenge is not so much working on the ship as it is dealing with the politics behind it. Does the county or city want your ship there?”
A few years later in Rio Vista, Wilson was offered a berth at Pier 38 in San Francisco, and he moved the Aurora there. However, things did not go as he expected, and Wilson was later asked to find a new home for the ship.
He ferried it back to the California Delta in 2012, mooring the Aurora to a jetty in Little Potato Slough, about 24 kilometers from Stockton in California’s Central Valley.
Since then, the Aurora has been here “in fresh shallow water” and is likely to remain there for the foreseeable future.
Although the ship cannot float, Wilson stresses that it has a “hard bottom”. and after consulting with a number of marine engineers, he is confident that “with proper maintenance and supervision” he can safely remain where he is.
“Until we take it out to where there’s a lot of electrolysis and stuff like that,” he adds. “She’s safe for now, but we have plans to move her closer to the bay as she progresses further in her recovery.”
He hopes to raise enough funds to get the ship out of the water at some point and rebuild its bottom.
Wilson funded much of the work himself, but hopes to raise enough funds to turn it into a museum.
“In terms of working on the ship, I learned a lot,” he says. “There is nothing that I don’t know how to fix. But all this requires a lot of money.”
In addition to a few small donations, Wilson funded most of the renovations himself.
He has been able to raise funds for the job by buying items at 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 ship projects.
But while that income has supported the project so far, it’s clearly not enough to fund a full restoration, and Wilson is determined to finish what he started.
“Since YouTube started, we’ve had hundreds and hundreds of people volunteering,” he says.
Wilson hopes his success will help speed up the process and says he’s already seeing results.
“Things are getting better very quickly,” he says.
However, producing a video at the same time as refurbishing the ship proves to be a challenge, and it still “falls on its feet” when it comes to juggling both.
“Once I get the hang of it, we hope to have groups of volunteers coming in a few days a week,” adds Wilson.
Completion in sight?
The front staircase aboard the ship that Wilson renamed the Aurora.
Although this is still a long way off, Wilson is gradually moving closer to his goal of turning the Aurora into a museum.
While he has also thought about turning the ship into a bed and breakfast or even a wedding venue, he thinks a museum is the most “realistic” option.
“That’s what we’re trying to give back to people,” he says. “We don’t want to refurbish it and make it our own private yacht.”
And, of course, there is something to see on board the Aurora. The ship contains 85 cabins, as well as an upper salon with its own large bow deck, a swimming pool, a large galley and a theater.
“We have restored a small number of cabins on board, but there are a lot of them left, and we will soon be offering the public the opportunity to sponsor a cabin restoration,” he says.
Wilson and his team of volunteers are currently working on the fan-shaped, or rear, Aurora and aim to fully restore the galley and dining area by the end of 2022.
In recent years, Wilson has obtained furniture from other historic ships for use aboard the Aurora.
“We received a large donation from Island Princess, one of the ships on which we filmed The Love Boat, which was recently decommissioned,” he says.
Wilson currently enjoys working and living aboard the ship and is looking forward to the day he can open it to the public.
“There is nothing more exciting than being able to work and live on something so unique,” he adds.
But does he harbor any hope that one day this impressive vessel will set sail again?
“If the money comes in, she can be sent on a cruise again,” he says. “If it doesn’t, it could be a great museum.”