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Bill Miller Chronicles Onassis’ Yacht “Christina”

Bill Miller Chronicles Onassis’ Yacht “Christina”

(image from Wikipedia)

May 2024 Issue: World Ship Society’s Port of New York Branch Newsletter

The Luxurious “Christina” by Bill Miller

In a book published in 1996, Winston Churchill’s last private secretary recalled some of the British prime minister’s final travels. In particular, he recounted an evening onboard the celebrated yacht CHRISTINA. It was a summer’s night in the late 1950s and that grand vessel was moored off Monte Carlo. Sitting around the aft, canvas-tented deck were Churchill himself, Maria Callas, Greta Garbo, the Duke & Duchess of Windsor and the ship’s owner and host, tanker billionaire Aristotle Onassis. Festively, the 300-foot-long yacht was strung with lights. Its funnel was illuminated. White- jacketed stewards served Champagne and caviar. Over the years, other guest lists included the likes of kings and queens, Eastern sheiks, Eva Peron, Elizabeth Taylor, and Frank Sinatra. Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco held their Monte Carlo wedding reception onboard in 1956.

After Onassis died in 1976, the CHRISTINA was laid-up. Later, it was sold to the Greek Government for a token one dollar and renamed ARGO. It was intended that the famed ship might be used as a government yacht, hosting officials, and spreading Greek commerce and culture. Instead, it was unused, neglected and was just about forgotten. Myself, I saw her in Perama Bay, near Piraeus, in the winter of 1979. The once immaculate craft was all but lost (and noticeably listing) among such out-of-work liners as the OLYMPIA, ELLINIS, and the former AUSTRALIS. It was eventually sold off, however, in 1998 and lavishly refitted (for $50 million in a shipyard in Croatia) as a luxury yacht for the high-end charter market. Reaffirming its rich history, the yacht was renamed CRISTINA O. It later made some charter cruises, carrying as few as two dozen passengers for fancy, high-end tour operators and even made a “guest appearance” (with Prince Charles and Diana on their Mediterranean honeymoon) in the TV series The Crown.

Initially, the 1,850-ton vessel had been extravagantly rebuilt at a Hamburg shipyard in the mid Fifties. At the same dockyard, Onassis was then building some of the largest oil tankers of the day. The yacht had been a Canadian frigate, built in 1943, and which Onassis later bought at auction. He had it gutted and made it over as his mini-floating palace. Onassis did, however, decide to keep the old, original steam reciprocating engines because they were so quiet, but resulting in an operating speed of only 12 knots. Never the smoothest-riding vessel, she was “absolutely awful,” according to one officer, when pushed to 16 or even 18 knots, and, evidently, Onassis sometimes suddenly decided to hurry home. Once, so it was said, and with Churchill as well as Garbo onboard, the yacht all but capsized in a fierce storm off Capri. Later, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis reportedly so enjoyed the CHRISTINA that she overlooked its shortcomings. She and Ari honeymooned onboard in 1968.

There were eight guest cabins onboard, each named and fitted with priceless paintings and added touches such as solid gold water taps. Although splendidly furnished, the cabins were reportedly a bit compressed. Since it had been a warship and therefore slim in beam, space aboard was quite narrow. For example, the clothes hangers could not be hung squarely in the closets. But these were minor faults when compared to the utter luxury of the vessel. The swimming pool floor, for example, was a mosaic of acrobats and a bull done in mock lapis lazuli, which was copied from the Knossos Palace on Crete. The bottom of the pool could be hydraulically raised at night to create a dance floor and could be surrounded by lighted jets of spraying water. The nearby bar had stools made from whale bones. A twin-engined Piaggio amphibian craft was cradled at the stern and could be lowered into the seas by a small crane. This plane, often described as a “high-spirited pony”, was used to ferry the more adventurous of Onassis’s guests and to fetch mail and daily newspapers. It later crashed while taking off from Athens airport, killing young Alexander Onassis, Ari’s son and principle heir.

With Sir Winston and Lady Churchill onboard, Onassis brought the CHRISTINA to New York in April 1961. There was a ceremonious welcome with escorting tugs and a spraying fireboat. Even so, Onassis reportedly was less than pleased with the state of the Manhattan piers and so had the yacht moored in mid-Hudson, anchored off West 79th Street. He and his two important guests landed by launch. Afterward, the CHRISTINA was moved to Cunard’s Pier 92, at West 52nd Street, and remained there for several days.