The end of the line

Photo above by Ray Phillips

In 1978 the AUSTRALIS was approaching her fortieth birthday. She had enjoyed a long and productive existence going well beyond her twenty year life expectancy. However the aging liner had worked hard and the wear and tear was very evident. The ravages of time, the ocean and the skimping on maintenance in her final years, manifested themselves in the form of leaking pipes, weather-beaten decks, frayed electrical wiring and more frequent mechanical failures. She also emitted an unpleasant odor ingrained over the years from a combination of kitchen smells, smoke, fuel oil, lubricants, and backed up toilets. The old Queen was due for a major overhaul and it would take a lot of money to restore the luster and mechanical vitality of her younger days. While she was still eminently sea worthy her operating cost were rather high when compared to some of the newer ships. Chandris was unwilling to make the investment and the AUSTRALIS was for sale.

 

Venture Cruises summer 1978

venture1In the spring of 1978, a group of American travel agents offered Chandris $5 million for the 38 year-old liner. . The offer was quickly accepted.

Capitalization the ship’s glory days as the luxury liner America, they planned to offer cut rate cruises out of New York City.

The cruise from hell.

900 booked passengers showed up for what they thought was a non-stop party aboard a luxury liner. The ship  had cabins for 600. Passengers without space were sent to rooms with a variety of defects, some were half painted, others full of garbage, or with exposed wiring. If they had a bed they lacked bedding. If they had a toilet there was no toilet paper. Some toilets were clogged or lacked a working flush or would not stop running. Six hours into the cruise passengers were still wondering around the ship looking for a cabin. Many gave up and spend the night sleeping in passageways with their baggage as pillows.

There was no hot water, no cold water, or no water at all. The ship’s outdoor pool was empty.  Rats were sighted. The ship headed back to port to advert a near mutiny.

Travel agents don’t make good ship operators and  fines and lawsuits piling up the owners walked away from the mess and the ship was ordered sold at a bankruptcy auction

Italis 1978 - 1980

ItalisChandris repurchased the ship and re-positioned her with 3-day cruises in the Mediterranean. Renamed ‘ITALIS’ she sailed with her badly corroded forward funnel removed, giving the ship a stunted look.

At 40 years of age the old girl had a hard time keeping up with the newer ships. Although the public rooms were still grand, other areas were not at all up to current cruise ship standards.  Many of the cabins were in a deteriorated state, and a bent propeller sent pulsating vibration through the lower decks. Larry O’ Driscoll sailed on her that summer, “On boarding for the first time and knowing nothing of her history, it was obvious she had once been an “Uptown Girl” now down on her luck. The life belts still carried the name AMERICA and the fittings and fixtures showed she was from a different era. When we cruised on her she still looked majestic.”

In the Fall of 1979 she sailed back to Greece hoping to find a buyer.

Former SS America passenger Frank Day was one of the last visitors to board the ship.

Hello! I sailed on the America four times while she was still in
service with USL, but went aboard yet again under very surprising
circumstances. In July of 1979 I was in Monrovia, Liberia to cover a
summit of the Organization of African Unity for the U.S. State
Department. One afternoon shortly before the OAU event began I was
standing on the terrace of the Intercontinental Hotel high on a hill
overlooking Monrovia harbor. Just before sunset a beautiful liner
from a bygone era sailed into the harbor. It took me all of two
seconds to recognize her, though she was missing a funnel and had
been renamed the Italis.

The Liberian government had chartered her as a floating hotel during
the month-long OAU summit, as there wasn’t enough hotel space in the
capital. The ship became an instant hit with the Monrovians, and
hordes of people went on board to drink and gamble. On the third
night or so her captain noted with alarm how low she was sitting in
the water and ordered everybody off who didn’t have business aboard.

For the next month I was aboard almost daily, although I was staying
elsewhere. Many of my journalist friends, possibly all of them, were
staying on board, and we shared many meals in the First Class dining
room which was instantly recognizable. Some of the ship’s most
beautiful art deco decorations were a bit chopped up by later
additions such as slot machines, but by and large everything I
remembered was still there. On my first trip on the SS America I was
so little that I spent much of the crossing in the nursery aft on the
uppermost deck; it was still there but had been converted to other
uses. At one point I was able to stick my head into one of the first
class staterooms; it was completely unchanged. Seeing those pale
blond 1930’s furnishings gave me an unbelievable wave of nostalgia; I
had forgotten what they looked like.

One of my journalist friends on board was so taken with the human
interest story of an American diplomat (me) being reunited with this
much loved ship from his youth that he wrote a short piece for his
wire service. Overall, though, it was a little unsettling seeing
this lovely, elegant queen of the North Atlantic in such reduced
circumstances in a squalid West African port. I and a few of my
colleagues stayed on in Monrovia for a few days after the summit was
over, and stood on the terrace of the Intercontinental to watch her
departure. We knew from the crew, an interesting assortment of
people I must say, that as far as they knew the ship had no onward
plans; it was sad to see her sail out into nowhere.
Frank Day 5/26/2006

The last voyage

For the next ten years the Ex America, West Point, Australis, America 2, and Italis languished with the other rusting hulks in the “Graveyard of Abandonment” at Elefsina Greece. Hope arrived on August 31, 1992 in the form of two Thai businessmen, who held hotel interests in the Far East. They purchased the ship for $2 million with plans to tow her to the growing seaside resort of Phuket, Thailand for conversion to a luxury hotel. A Ukrainian flag tug, the Neftegaz 67, was hired for $ 920,000 for the agonizing slow 100-day voyage to her new home.

On December 31st, 1994 the American Star left Greece rounded the strait of Gibraltar and headed down the west coast of Morocco. On Saturday, January 15, 1994 the tug and her tow were fully engaged in battling a storm with winds of over 80 MPH  and 50 feet high waves.   As the Neftegaz 67 slugged it out with the wind and sea, the unwieldy bulk of the AMERICAN STAR was either shouldering up the back of a fifty foot wave and straining the tow line or running dangerously fast down a wave towards the stern of the Neftegaz 67. The towline was detached. The elements were now in control, with the wind pushing the powerless liner relentlessly towards the rocky shores of the Canary Islands.

The American Star drifted through the night towards the Canary Islands. At 6:15 AM on the overcast morning of Tuesday January 18, 1994 wind and waves slammed the old ship broadside on to Playa Garcey on the lower west coast of the island of Fuerteventura. The point of impact was one that was guaranteed to cause the most damage. Her bow and stern hit the soft yellow sand; the mid-section struck a rock formation. The sea wasted no time in finishing the weakened vessel off. Wave after wave relentlessly slammed the vessel’s keel, against the rocks. By mid-morning the weakened keel began to break apart.

Island authorities were not pleased. Previous shipwrecks had polluted the beaches, and created permanent eyesores. In addition, rumors were circulating in maritime circles that the AMERICAN STAR had not received a professional tow and had been deliberately set adrift. The owner’s decision to send the ship around the West Coast of Africa was viewed, by some, as a calculated attempt to collect the insurance proceeds. Seeking answers Spanish authorities ordered the Neftegaz 67 to report to Las Palmas on Grand Canary. Instead the tug set course at full speed for Moroccan territorial waters. The chase was on with the Spanish Armed Forces dispatching a helicopter and the armed cutter Centinela with orders to intercept and stop the escaping tug

American38.1One of the first responders to the wreck was Rafael Pastor Bedoya.

Dear Larry:

I am happy you have received the pictures so soon (I sent them to you last Week), and that you like it.

In total there are three men in white suits. One is Mr. Pedro Mederos at that time chief surveyor of Las Palmas Harbor Master Office (Capitania Maritima),   Las Palmas Harbor Master. Other is Mr. Francisco Ribelles, at that time one of the surveyors of the Harbor Master Office, being today surveyor in Algeciras Harbor Masters Office (Gibraltar Strait). The third is myself; I am the one who in some of the pictures is wearing a blue cap of a US War Ship, the “USS Yellowstone”.

The first group, In January, was a few days after the wreck. A representative of the ship-owner came to Las Palmas and chartered our helicopter to go and see the possibilities of a salvage. Then I took pictures from the air and some on shore where we landed, just in front of the wreck. You can see in that picture a person belonging to the navy (the representative of the navy in Fuerteventura), a person in blue uniform but without the white cap, the other, he was the pilot of the helicopter, other person with a rather green suit, the representative of the ship-owner, and also myself wearing blue jeans.

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The second set of pictures where taken aboard one month later on board. The reason was: After the grounding some people of Fuerteventura went on board to steal anything they could find. Some of these people found tins containing paints and some other product showing the symbols of the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code (Flammable, corrosive, etc.), they thought the tins could be radioactive and warned the local authorities. The representative of the Central Government called me very concerned. I could not believe this, as we had information about the ship. However, in order to calm people and avoid problems with the media, I decided to go on board and inspect the ship.

The helicopter took us on board, where we spent about five hours visiting all the compartments not flooded, and some other that we estimated dangerous due to the collapse of bulkheads due to the high pressure of the water. As we had supposed there where no radioactive materials or anything really pollutant, apart from some materials used for the construction of the ship (Asbestos, etc) and some tins of paint, dissolvent, etc. in a compartment located in the fore part, just behind the forepeak and chain lockers.

When we did that visit, some people had been on board before and, I suppose that many thing had been already stolen (small pieces and so on), but most of the furniture and essential objects where still on board. For instance, I remember at least two big and wonderful pianos. The visit will be something that we will never forget, such a wonderful ship, though old and on her way to the scrap yard, with these majestic spaces, the cabins, the bridge, etc. broken by the middle, continuously knocked and shocked by the waves.

The third set of pictures, which are only two or three, were taken a few months later. For other reasons, I was flying bound to Lanzarote and a professional photographer came with us onboard. I asked the pilot to hover the wreck and the photographer took some pictures. These are the big ones and you can appreciate their quality.

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When we took these last set of pictures hovering the wreck, some people where on board taking one of the pianos from the ship to shore by mean of a wire and because they got frightened of our presence getting nervous, the piano fell into the sea.

Later on, in following months, because of the action of the sea and the ship acting as a wall, a beach was formed between the ship and shore, in low water people were able to go on foot to the ship, many of them got on board. But, this place was very dangerous in high tide and some people died. I remember that our search & rescue services had to intervene a few times. But, although I do not remember exactly, I think that at least more than five people died in the wreck trying to leave it when the tide was rising.

I have a copy of your book, but I sent another one to the Captain of our search and rescue ship which was there during the wreck (Salvage Vessel “Punta Mayor”) and, later on, spent a few days running behind the Tug called “Neftegaz 67”. He reminds that case very well and, like myself, has enjoyed your book a lot.

Best Regards

Rafael Pastor Bedoya.

 

 

AMERICAN STAR
Carole Barley.

Strange majesty
In the red, white and blue.
You tower,
Broken backed but unbowed
As the tide retreats.

Held forever.
Dream of your realm
Of flat horizons,
As the trade winds turn
The tracks of your tears
To rust.

Echoes of laughter
At the Captain’s table
Now the squabble and flit
Of gulls.
Eyeless portholes stare
As the sun picks peeling paint.

The strong straight line
Of your absurd
Anchor chain
Moves me…

Keep your secrets.
There is beauty
In your dereliction.