Rescued twice from the scrapheap, Captain Michael Howorth charts the fall and rise of one of the world’s best known superyachts in the international charter market.
Self-made shipping millionaire Aristotle Onassis rose from rags to riches. His magnificently famous superyacht Christina made that very same voyage from warship to a hedonist’s plaything. Twice in her 75 year life the vessel has been recovered from the hands of a steel-hungry scrapyard. Now fully restored a second time, she has become a celebrated charter yacht carrying the rich and famous.
The yacht, now bearing the name Christina O, has been seen in various guises since her hull was first constructed during WWII as a river class frigate for the Royal Canadian Navy. In her distinguished and varied career, she has been given four different names, and survived four distinct phases of fortune. In her first guise as HMCS Stormont, she had the good fortune to survive the War having seen service guarding and escorting merchant ships during the Battle of the Atlantic and in support of the D-Day landings. This run of luck continued when she became the yacht Christina after the Greek ship owner Aristotle Onassis purchased and converted her into his private yacht. After his death, she became the Argo, the property of an embarrassed Greek government who did not know what to do with her, and so did nothing. After years of ill-fortune, neglect and abuse, fortune again smiled kindly upon Argo when another Greek ship owner, a friend of the Onassis family, rescued the yacht from certain oblivion. She was restored to her former glory and re-christened Christina O.
She began life as a 1,724-ton River class frigate – HMCS Stormont – built by Vickers in Montreal, and commissioned into the Royal Canadian Navy in 1943 for anti-submarine work. In November 1945, she was decommissioned and sold off as surplus to requirements for a scrap value of $34,000. Purchased by Onassis, who was then emerging as one of Greece’s most successful and entrepreneurial ship owners, she was taken to the Howaldtswerke yard in Germany where much of his fleet conversion work was commissioned. At HDW in Kiel, her interior was gutted, the hull cut and replaced to create a clipper bow, and her long run sheer was broken by a well deck in the counter stern. The six-year refit, costing US$4 million, was completed in 1954 and Onassis named her Christina, after his daughter born in 1950.
When she emerged from the yard, the only remains of the old frigate were the central portion of the riveted hull and topsides together – and the twin 2,700 bhp oil-fired steam engines that provided an impressive top speed of 18 knots.
Everything had a slightly over the top feel about it. A seaplane provided quick and easy access to and from the vessel, while an opentop Fiat 500 roadster gave guests transport ashore. Nine tenders, including a glass-bottomed boat for sub-surface sightseeing. Ari’s bar, with its stools said to be covered in leather cured from the foreskins of sperm whales, was another such extravagance. Entertaining lady friends in the bar, Onassis liked to tell them that they were sitting on one of the world’s biggest…well, perhaps you can guess the rest! Arguably, Ari’s was one of the most famous of watering holes on the planet when it came to spotting the rich and famous.
Shipping heiress Tina Livanos, who was the shipping magnates first wife, commented “the yacht is his real passion; he’s like a housewife fussing over it, constantly looking to see that everything is impeccable.” Onassis was, by all accounts, famous for falling in love aboard Christina, and clearly loved her with the same passion he displayed towards the ladies. A crew member once explained, “You could smash up a $20,000 speedboat into pieces and not a word would be said by the boss, but spit on Christina’s deck and you were out of a job.”
Christina could be seen frequently gracing the quay at Monaco, or alternatively at anchor off his private island of Skorpios in the Ionian Sea. The guest list included the Aga Khan, King Farouk of Egypt, King Faud of Saudi Arabia, Eva Peron, John Paul Getty, John D Rockefeller, John Wayne, Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, and Rudolph Nureyev, Maria Callas, (with whom Onassis enjoyed a romance), Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, as well as a host of starlets eager to make the silver screen. It was on Christina that Sir Winston Churchill first met John F Kennedy, in 1957, a year after the yacht hosted the wedding reception of Prince Rainier III and Grace Kelly. Of course, the yacht was used when Onassis himself married America’s former first lady, Jackie Kennedy in 1968. It also welcomed Adlai Ewing Stevenson II, the American politician, noted for his intellectual demeanour and advocacy of liberal causes in the Democratic Party. A former governor of Illinois he ran, unsuccessfully, for president against Dwight D. Eisenhower before serving as Ambassador to the United Nations during which time he was a frequent visitor onboard.
Onassis died in 1975. At his funeral, the yacht lay at anchor off Skorpios with her ensign flying at half-mast. It was to be her last day of dignity for some time. His daughter Christina inherited the yacht, but had little interest in her father’s fabulous ship and, three years after his death, it was given away to the Greek state as a gift. The government declared she would become the country’s presidential yacht and renamed her Argos, but in reality they were embarrassed by her perceived opulence and had little use for her. So she lay unloved, discarded and frequently looted at Salamis, a Greek naval base.
Some twelve years later, the government tried to sell the dilapidated yacht for US$16 million and, while there was some casual interest, no one was willing to stump up such a large amount for a yacht that would clearly devour multiples of that to refit her back to tiptop condition. The price dropped year on year until she was sold to an American, Alexander Blastos, for $2.2 million. Subsequently, the Associated Press reported that the $220,000 deposit check had bounced and Blastos was later imprisoned for fraud.
The yacht remained the property of Greece and continued to languish in the seedy backwaters of Salamis. Twenty years of neglect would normally finish off a less substantial yacht, but this lady was built of stronger stuff.
In 1998, another Greek shipping magnate and family friend of Aristotle Onassis, John Paul Papanicolaou, purchased the yacht. A graduate of Columbia University he had learned his trade in ship management in the New York offices of the Greek Livanos shipping group. Now a modern-day ship owner himself, he purchased the yacht and set about arranging restoration to her former illustrious glory. The three-year refit started in Salamis where her interior was completely gutted. Important features were salvaged, preserved and placed into storage for later use.
Her original steam engines were removed and she was renamed in tribute to her first private owner as Christina O. Once seaworthy, she made the voyage under tow through the Corinth Canal to northern Croatia, and the Victor Lenec yard in Rijeka where the main rebuilding of the yacht was undertaken by a myriad of specialist subcontractors all working directly for Papanicolaou. The naval architect Costas Carabelas was put in charge and he worked closely with the interior designer Apostolos Molindris.