(CNN) — It’s not every day that you see a cruise ship for sale on Craigslist. So Chris Willson was immediately intrigued when he stumbled across a 293ft vessel listed on the classifieds site in 2008.
The German-built retired “pocket” cruise ship was anchored in the California Delta at the time, and its then-owner was keen to unload it.
After Willson, who worked on developing virtual reality tours, saw the list pop up multiple times, he decided to investigate.
“I posed as a potential buyer when I really wasn’t interested in buying a ship,” Willson told CNN Travel. “It was a little out of my comfort level, to say the least.”
As he made the journey to the inland river delta and estuary in Northern California and boarded, Willson was struck by how neglected the 2,496-ton vessel had been over the years.
However, investigating further, he discovered that among all the “garbage” on board was a rather impressive five-story ship.
Seal the deal
Chris Wilson and his partner Jin Li now live aboard the cruise ship he bought in 2008.
“She has one of the most spectacular layouts of almost any ship I’ve 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 you almost feel bad for it.”
After doing some research on the ship’s background, 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, originally named the Wappen von Hamburg, the more convinced he was that he was ready to take on the project.
After carefully considering what owning a mini cruise ship would entail, Willson put together a restoration plan and decided to take the plunge.
Though reluctant to discuss the amount paid, he says he “got a really good deal with the ship’s owner.”
“The next thing you know, I own a ship,” adds Willson.
But once he signed on the dotted line, he had to figure out where to put it. Luckily, Willson was able to secure a lease in the river town of Rio Vista, California, and arrange for the ship to be towed there.
Willson has been working on the ship, which is moored at a marina in Little Potato Slough, California, with the help of volunteers.
At that time the restoration process began. The first step was to clear out all the rubbish on board – Willson says there were hundreds of bags of household rubbish along with old mattresses and blankets – and set about finding volunteers who could help.
“I thought it was going to be a long project,” says Willson. “The scale was enormous. It’s almost the same as renovating 15 houses all by yourself.”
After a few months of traveling from his Santa Cruz home for about three hours to work on the ship, Willson decided to board the ship with his partner Jin Li so he could focus fully on the project and keep it safe could hold.
“When I first came on board, many of my friends and family members were incredulous,” he admits. “It was quite a big lifestyle change. “But I see it more as an upgrade, even though we are off-grid and mainly work with generators and solar grids.”
As he began to delve deeper into the ship’s history, Willson said he learned that it was not only the inspiration for the popular television series The Love Boat, but also the filming location for the headquarters of the crime organization Specter in 1963 James Bond film From Russia with Love.
The ship served as a cruise ship for around two decades, he says, going through several different owners and names before being docked in Vancouver.
After a few false starts and more ownership and name changes, it was towed to Alameda, California in 2005. Plans were developed to convert it into a luxury yacht, but they ultimately fell through.
The ship remained in Alameda for several years until it was bought by a businessman and relocated to the California Delta. The ship was believed to be about to be scrapped when Willson saw it being advertised on Craiglist in 2008.
“The more I learned about the story, the more I thought it might be a coastal attraction, akin to 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 it and have people do guided tours [of the ship].”
He estimates that it would cost around $3 million to turn the ship into a land-based attraction.
Willson, who had no previous experience working on ships, has spent around 14 years renovating the ship with the help of volunteers.
“I’m pretty smart,” he says, explaining that he’s converted a lot of cars in the past and previously worked as an electrical mechanic in civil protection.
He renamed the ship Aurora after spending his first night on board.
“I woke up to one of the most brilliant sunrises I’ve ever seen,” explains Willson. “It formed an aurora-like effect with the clouds and the water. I remember ‘Aurora’ was an appropriate name back then.”
With the help of volunteers, along with Li, who Williams says has played a key role in preserving the aurora, he has renovated some of the hallways, as well as a lounge and a number of cabins.
“Our greatest achievement has been removing the old wood from the decks and spending a tremendous amount of time welding in new steel plates to completely seal the decks,” he says.
“It’s not the work on the ship that’s the biggest challenge, it’s dealing with the politics behind it. Does the county or city want your ship on board?”
After several 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 expected and Willson was later asked to find a new home for the ship.
He shipped it back to the California Delta in 2012 and docked the Aurora at a marina in Little Potato Slough, about 15 miles from the town of Stockton in California’s Central Valley.
Since then, Aurora has been stationed here “in the fresh, shallow water” and is expected to remain so for the foreseeable future.
Although the ship cannot sail, Williamson emphasizes that it has “firm bottom”. and after consulting a number of marine engineers, he is confident that “with proper maintenance and supervision” it can stay safely where it is.
“As long as we don’t take it out where there’s a lot of electrolysis and stuff like that,” he adds. “She is safe for now, but we have plans to move her closer to the bay as she progresses further with her recovery.”
He hopes to raise enough money to eventually pull the ship out of the water and redesign the underside.
Willson funded most of the work himself but hopes to raise enough money to turn it into a museum.
“As far as the actual work on the ship goes, I’ve learned so much,” he says. “There’s nothing I don’t know how to fix.
Aside from a few small donations, Willson has funded most of the renovations himself so far.
He was able to raise the finances for the work by buying items from flea markets and state 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 kept the project going so far, it’s certainly not enough to fund the full restoration, and Willson is determined to finish what he started.
“Since the whole YouTube thing started, hundreds and hundreds of people have volunteered,” he says.
Willson hopes the success will help speed things up and says he’s already seeing results.
“Things are picking up speed very quickly,” he says.
However, producing videos alongside the renovation of a ship is proving difficult, and he’s still in the process of “finding his feet” when it comes to juggling the two.
“Once I’m more comfortable with that, hopefully we’ll have groups of volunteers several days a week,” adds Willson.
Completion in sight?
A grand staircase aboard the ship that Willson renamed the Aurora.
Though there’s still a long way to go, Willson is getting closer to his goal of turning the Aurora into a museum.
While he also considered converting the ship into a bed and breakfast or even a wedding venue, he thinks a museum is the “most realistic” option.
“It’s something we want to give back to people,” he says. “We don’t want to fix it and make our own private yacht out of it.”
And there’s certainly plenty to see aboard the Aurora. The ship contains 85 cabins as well as an upper lounge with its own large foredeck, swimming pool, large galley and theater.
“We have restored a small number of cabins on board but have many, many more ahead of us and will soon be offering the public the opportunity to sponsor a cabin restoration,” he says.
Willson and his team of volunteers are currently working on the Aurora’s fantail, or stern, and plan to fully restore the galley and dining area for the remainder of 2022.
In recent years, Willson has received furniture from other historic ships for use aboard the Aurora.
“We had a big donation from the Island Princess, one of the ships they actually filmed ‘The Love Boat’ on that was recently scrapped,” he says.
For now, Willson is enjoying work and life aboard the ship and looks forward to the day when he can open it to the public.
“There really is nothing more spectacular than being able to work and live on something so unique,” he adds.
But does he have any hope that one day this spectacular ship will set sail again?
“When the money comes in, she can be put back into cruising,” he says. “If not, it can be a great museum.”