SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

A Tale of Two Cruise Ships
Whatever Happened to the Rotterdam and the Polar Star?



May 28, 2007

Ketchikan, Alaska - In the twenty-first century, nothing becomes obsolete faster than old cruise ships.

In earlier days of "cruising" it was not unusual for venerable liners like the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth to sail the oceans for decades. Now - in an time of on board climbing walls and ship-wide wi-fi - passenger liners seem to be outdated the minute their keels hit the water.

The era of "industrial" cruising also means that ship size also increases so rapidly that cruise lines are already planning newer, larger vessels even before vessels already in production are launched.

With that in mind, here is the story of two ships that were around when the Alaska cruise industry started to boom more than three decades ago.

Unlike many of their fellow ships, the Rotterdam and the former Polar Star have not been scrapped on the beaches of India or the Mediterranean, but only the Rotterdam - soon to become a floating visitor attraction in its namesake city - has a bright future. The Polar Star sits nearly abandoned in a West Coast harbor.

jpg Rotterdam V

Rotterdam V
Photograph courtesy

The Rotterdam in this story is not to be confused with the Rotterdam currently plying Alaskan waters. The current Rotterdam is the sixth vessel of that name to sail for the Holland America Lines and was put into service in 1997 to replace the aging Rotterdam V.

The fifth Rotterdam went into service in 1958. Writing for the Maritime-Matters website, cruise ship expert Peter Knego said that the Rotterdam is "arguably the most magnificent and well-preserved vintage liner in existence."

"Launched by Queen Juliana in a gala ceremony on 13 September 1958, and completed the following summer, the Rotterdam was the last great Dutch 'ship of state', employing the finest artisans from Holland in her construction and fitting out process," Knego wrote. [Photographs of the S.S. Rotterdam V as she was launched 1958.]

The nearly 750 foot ship made her maiden voyage from Rotterdam to New York on September 3, 1959 powered by twin turbines that churned out more than 38 thousand horsepower and moved the ship at a cruising speed of 21.5 knots.

Although Holland America Line initially used the ship for its trans-Atlantic passenger crossings, it became clear by the mid 1960s that the jet airplane was going to overtake the passenger ship as the primary mode to long distance transportation. By 1969, the ship had been converted to a full-time cruise ship and the accommodations - originally 665 first class and more than 800 tourist class - were converted to just under 1,300 cruise ship berths.

Even in an era when ocean cruising was considered a luxury, the Rotterdam was more luxurious than most ships.

"A singular secret stairwell (inspired by that of the Chateau Chambord) cleverly served both classes, each of which had a full deck of public rooms and equivalent dining rooms," Knego wrote. "On her early cruises, she became one class by the mere opening up of her stairwell, offering all passengers the full run of the ship without a noticeable distinction between the two class levels. Fortunately, her owners did little to alter the ship's original configuration and decor over the years (with the exception of her Lido Cafe in place of the Cafe de la Paix, some minor changes to the forward Promenade Deck level, and a slight expansion of her after decks). Twin domed dining rooms, a grand ballroom with a sweeping staircase, fine woodwork , ceramic art, murals, and polished brass distinguished Rotterdam from the 'new builds' that followed, and she attained a distinct and loyal following."

In 1971, Holland America Line purchased controlling interest in the Alaska based Westours for $1.25 million, setting the stage for the company's aggressive move into the Alaskan market which was just then transforming from the era of the smaller coastal Canadian owned ships to the larger multinational lines such as P&O.

In 1975, the Prinsendam became the first Holland America Lines ship to sail the Inside Passage. According to the official HAL history on the company website, the vessel sailed in Indonesia in the Spring, Fall and Winter and was joined by the Veendam in 1976 on the Alaska run.

In October of 1980, a fire broke out on the Prinsendam while it was sailing south of Yakutat. All 520 passengers and crew were safely evacuated by the Coast Guard and the ship placed under tow. But it capsized and sank west of Sitka.

One of the ships chosen to replace the Prinsendam on the rapidly expanding Alaska summer run was the HAL's flagship, the Rotterdam. It was sailing regularly in the Inside Passage after 1983.

In 1989, Carnival Cruise Line purchased Holland America but allowed HAL to continue to operate its Alaska run semi-autonomously. By now there were four full size HAL ships operating summers on the Inside Passage.

By the mid 1990s, as even more new ships were coming on line and the Alaska market was doubling in size, it was decided to replace the Rotterdam with a new fleet flagship. On September 27, 1997, the Rotterdam made its last run and was replaced by the new Rotterdam, number VI, which continues to be the HAL flagship.

"When (now Carnival-owned) Holland America Line announced the vessel's retirement due to stringent new SOLAS regulations in 1997, a wave of grief befell most ship enthusiasts," Knego wrote. "Following HAL's claim that bringing the ship up to the new standards would cost upwards of $40 million and severely impact Rotterdam's vintage charm, it was at first believed she would become a floating hotel in the City of Rotterdam. When this deal collapsed, she was purchased by Premier Cruises, renamed Rembrandt, and refitted for a fraction of the purported cost to add emergency track lighting and enclose her main staircase."

The switch to the new cruise line was controversial, according to Knego.

"Although Premier skillfully maintained the ship's 'ocean liner' character, classic ship aficionados were horrified to learn of plans to convert the Rembrandt into the Big Red Boat IV for Los Angeles-based three and four day party cruises," Knego wrote. "While no specifics were given as to what interior alterations would be made, the idea of turning this masterpiece of sea-going art and architecture into a 'party boat'. needed to be strongly reconsidered. Delft ceramics, mythological tapestries, grand staircases, fine wood paneling, stained glass, solid brass, and leather upholstery from another, more graceful era would go unappreciated and possibly even abused by a clientele that wanted little to do with her elegant heritage."

But before major changes could be made to the ship, Premier Cruises folded and the Rotterdam/Rembrandt was docked, first in Halifax, Nova Scotia and then in the Bahamas in 2000.

Then followed several aborted proposals to "rescue" the ship. First, in 2001, a group of ship enthusiasts in the Netherlands announced a plan to restore the ship and put it on permanent display in the Netherlands.

Then the next year, a start up company, Cruiseshares, announced plans to purchase the ship and convert in into floating "time shares." But that proposal foundered.

In July of 2002, several members of the Rotterdam city council proposed returning the ship to its namesake port. Officials in Amsterdam also considered relocating the ship there, but neither plan went anywhere.

In 2003, representatives of the city of New York toured the ship to assess its suitability as a floating homeless shelter. Several other "mothballed" cruise ships in the Bahamas were also considered but the proposal was abandoned.

Then the municipality of Rotterdam re-entered the scene and after three years of up and down negotiations and the creation of a foundation to lead the effort, the Rotterdam was purchased and is currently being restored at a shipyard and Germany. It is expected to be permanently docked in Rotterdam in 2008.

While the future is bright for the preservation of the Rotterdam, the future is less clear for the Polar Star, which was one of the first "cruise" ships to serve the Alaska market in the late 1960s. It is sitting in a San Francisco area harbor after an attempt to turn it into a hospital ship failed in the late 1990s.

jpg Polar Star

Polar Star
Photograph courtesty MARITIME MATTERS: Ocean liner history and cruise ship news

Although half of the size of the Rotterdam, the Polar Star was considered one of the more luxurious of the "pocket" cruise ships. At just under 300 feet in length it was more like a large yacht than a cruise ship.

Originally built in 1955, it had a major retrofit in 1960. Intended to cruise between Hamburg and other nearby ports it was called the Wappen Von Hamburg. Since it was a day ship, it had a huge initial capacity of more than 1,600 people. Its 6,000 horsepower engines could power the ship at 17 knots.

In 1960, the Wappen Von Hamburg was sold to the Greek Nomikos Line and renamed the Delos. She was refitted with a swimming pool, full air conditioning and cabins for 186 single class passengers. Also on board were some of the first on-board "stores" offering items to the passengers as well a spa and a beauty salon.

"Delos was considered a pioneering cruise ship and outclassed the motley fleet of aged but interesting ships sailing from Greece to the Aegean at the time," Knegos wrote on the Maritime Matters website.

Delos stayed on the Greek Islands run until 1967 when it was purchased by Westours and renamed the Polar Star.

"Polar Star was a perfect fit for the burgeoning Alaska cruise market." Knego wrote. "She joined stalwart regional mainstays like the CP and CN veterans Princess Patricia and Prince George on summer Inside Passage cruises from Vancouver. In the winter, she sailed for Westours subsidiary West Line on cruises along the Pacific Coast to Mexico and even ventured as far as Tahiti and the South Pacific."

Westours was the brainchild of Chuck West, one of the great entrepreneurs in the history of the Alaskan visitor industry.

"In 1946, while working as a pilot for Fairbanks-based Wien Airlines, Mr. West organized air tours to Nome and to the Eskimo village of Kotzebue on the Arctic coast." Seattle Times writer Tom Boyer noted in West's October 7, 2005 obituary. "As the air-tour company grew, he started a hotel chain for tourists, a fleet of tour coaches and an Inside Passage cruise line. The company, called Westours, established its headquarters in Seattle and thrived for two decades. In the early '70s, when a union dispute left him in financial difficulty, Mr. West sold his company to Holland America and continued to work there."

Eventually West - often called "Mr. Alaska" by others in the visitor industry - left HAL and formed Cruise West and continued serving the Inside Passage with smaller cruise ships.

In 1970, the Polar Star was transferred to West Lines and renamed the Pacific Star. In 1972, she was sold to Xanadu Cruises of Panama and renamed the Xanadu.

"During her time sailing for Xanadu Cruises, Xanadu was touted for her yacht-like external beauty as well as her rather chic interior decor, which, peppered with personal artifacts from the owner's wife's collection, had a Southern Asiatic theme," Knego wrote in Maritime Matters. "Promenade Deck featured a nice open forward expanse of deck and promenades that extended aft to a very generous sunning and sports deck. The observation lounge was divided into two separate areas: the Library of Kubla Khan on the port side and the Kinbalu Card Room starboard."

Unfortunately by the mid 1970s Xanadu Cruises was suffering from industry doldrums and was significantly hurt by the world-wide fuel crisis. The industry as a whole had tailed off and wouldn't recover until "The Love Boat" television show started building interest in the late 1970s.

The Xanadu was laid up in Vancouver from 1977 into the early 1980s. In 1985, she was sold to a company in Los Angeles to be used as a exhibition and trade fair ship and named the Expex.

In 1991, the ship was purchased by the California based organization Friendships and was renamed the Faithful. The plan was to turn the ship into a Christian missionary and relief vessel to be used in the Caribbean and the West Coast of North and South America.

Unfortunately, funding to refurbish the ship never came. The ship was seized for non-payment of moorage fees and then purchased by Florida based philathropist Dr. James Mitchell who intended to turn the vessel into a hospital ship.

That project also came to naught and in 2005, the ship was towed to Alameda, California where it was to be refitted as a private yacht.

But that deal also fell through and the ship is reportedly for sale once again, nearly 30 years after it last sailed regularly as a cruise ship.


On the Web:

Historical Ketchikan... Historical Alaska - More Feature Stories by Dave Kiffer

Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
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Dave Kiffer ©2007

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