At a stately sixty seven years old at the time of writing, Cruise and Maritime Voyages’ veteran Azores- soon to be renamed Astoria- can now claim the rightful title as the oldest post war passenger ship still to be in service anywhere. Her story- and her history- is one of the most amazing in the annals of ocean liner travel.
Originally built as the Stockholm in 1948 for the Swedish American line, the 12,000 ton ship was a diminutive minnow when compared to, say, the colossal Cunard Queens. The United States was barely more than a gleam in the eyes of the brilliant William Francis Gibbs. And some, more prescient folk were already eyeing the new generation of propeller driven long haul flights with a certain amount of uneasiness.
It seemed sensible to the ever practical Swedes to introduce this first, modest post war build to the Atlantic trade. The Stockholm carried around 548 passengers in smart surroundings, on modestly luxurious crossings between Gothenburg and New York.
She was not really overly successful in this role, and soon gained a reputation for being a less than stellar sea boat on the Atlantic. And, with a second generation of giant Atlantic superliners now appearing in the forms of the United States and the Liberte, it soon became obvious that she was, indeed, too small to be really competitive.
But she was a pretty little ship, with a graceful, ice strengthened bow and a staunch, single funnel. The Stockholm was not a ship that sought to break records or seek the headlines.
But soon the headlines would seek her.
On the night of July 25th, 1956, the ice strengthened bow of the Stockholm slammed into the port flank of the Italian liner, Andrea Doria, off the coast of Nantucket.
Both ships had been groping their way through a thick fog when the accident happened. The bow of the Stockholm crumpled like so much wet cardboard, killing five of her crew. But, crucially, the bulkhead behind it remained intact. Though her bow was a shambolic, mangled mess of torn steel, the little Swedish liner was never in any danger of sinking.
The Andrea Doria was not so fortunate. With her port side sliced open over the length of several decks, the graceful Italian liner was doomed. She lingered for something like twelve hours before finally plunging under the Atlantic ocean.
The story made headlines around the world. It took a full three months to repair the bow of the Stockholm, but her reputation was tainted forever in many eyes. And, with the successful advent of commercial jet air travel from 1958 onwards, it came as no real surprise when the Swedes decided to sell her on the quiet to East German interests.
Renamed as Volkerfreundschaft, she would sail on as a cruise ship, essentially unchanged, for the next twenty five years. I once saw her in Southampton back in 1986, from the decks of the inbound QE2, and was amazed that she still existed even then.
There then followed a period of use as an accommodation ship for refugees in Norway, under the name of Fridtjof Nansen that last through until 1989. And then, to the amazement of many, the ship- already forty one years old- found a new buyer that was intent on returning her to passenger service.
She was towed round to Genoa- ironically, the former home port of the Andrea Doria- and rebuilt from the waterline upwards as a contemporary style of cruise ship, albeit one with a far more boxy configuration. A vast stern sponson was added to improve her still problematic seakeeping qualities. Her indoor public rooms were redone in a kind of late art deco styling, and she was put back into service, cruising around Cuba and the Caribbean. It was a role that was to continue until 2005.
During this time, she would sail under various names such as Italia Prima, Valtur Prima and, most, memorably, as the Caribe.
Then, in 2005, she was purchased by the Lisbon based Classic International Cruises. Renamed the Athena, she set out on a series of sailings that would take her as far out as Australia and the Antipodes. In the summer, she was often chartered out to German and French groups, for voyages down to the Norwegian Fjords, and down to Croatia.
It was in that latter guise that I got to spend an incredible, truly memorable week aboard her in September, 2010, cruising down to Croatia and Montenegro out of Venice. The ship (see earlier blogs) was a delightful, beautifully styled little time capsule, smartly sailed and immaculately maintained.
When Classic International Cruises imploded after the death of founding father and guiding light, George Potamianos, the ship got yet another life extension when she was bought by a successor company, Portuscale cruises. One of the first things that Portuscale did- and every fortunately, as it turns out- was to charter out the ship to the British operator, Cruise and Maritime Voyages.
The charter ensured that the ship- by now called the Azores- survived the dissolution of Portuscale. she received an extensive renovation and, her with her hull painted black, the Azores now caters to the British market as a small, highly styled cruise ship, a uniquely appealing vessel in an age where ever larger ships seem to be the norm.
At the age of sixty seven, her stout old hull is as sound as ever, and many of her cabins are incredibly roomy. After all, she was built as a transatlantic liner, and cabin space was a hugely important consideration.
If you are lucky enough to sail on her, check out the original, double height rows of portholes in the original main dining room. And, if you look carefully, you might even find one of the original, Swedish American line champagne buckets on board as well.
Quite recently, the original bell of the Stockholm was retrieved from its watery grave, where it had got lost amid the mangled remains of the luckless Andrea Doria. After more than five decades beneath the icy Atlantic, it was briefly returned to the ship that it had left so abruptly on a foggy summer’s night back in 1956.
Happily, no final bell has tolled for the Azores, due for yet another renaming next year as the Astoria. She will be sailing on charter to a French company next year, but there is a handful of sailings available in the UK market on her next spring. And, of course, she still has a very full calendar of cruises to operate for Cruise and Maritime Voyages themselves throughout the remainder of this year.
It is often said that cats have nine lives, but this surely is an instance of at least one ship that can claim the same. At sixty seven not out, this amazing vessel is a ship well worth sailing while she is still around.