A superb brochure view of the ship during her CARIBE 1 days with Commodore Cruise Line. Rob O'Brien collection
Above, the ship in San Juan in January 1992. Photo: John Maggio/Rob O'Brien collection
A fond farewell to this REGAL lady as she is remembered for being a well loved, and long accomplished ship. Left, at Freeport, a week before departing for Alang. Right, departing New York in 2001 Photo: William J. Donall
The contract to build OLYMPIA became effective on March 3, 1951, between Alexander Stephens & Sons Limited and the fourteen-year-old Greek Line. The order was to build a new ship at the Linthouse Govan yards of some 25,000 gross tons, the first new build for the shipping line. While the shipyard lacked expertise in building a North Atlantic liner, the service of the new vessel was intended to run on the well-established route from New York, Cherbourg, Southampton, and Bremerhaven. Hull number 636 slid down the Alexander Stephen & Sons Clyde launch ways on April 16, 1953, perhaps intending to be named Frederica, after the reigning Queen of Greece. However, due to financial disputes with the Greek government, the launching ceremonies were canceled, and the hull was never christened by the time she met her element. At this point, it was uncertain whether the new liner would fly the Greek flag. Only on October 12, 1953, when the shipyard officially handed over the newly christened OLYMPIA, she received a registry under the Liberian flag and ownership with the Transatlantic Shipping Corporation, otherwise known as the Greek Line.
OLYMPIA's interior design and décor had been nothing short of interesting and successful, especially as she followed in the wake of Holland America Line’s successful RYNDAM and MAASDAM budget class duo. From the exterior standpoint, modern architectural elements were employed, including a sharply raked bow, cruiser stern, and a tripod mainmast. Better yet, her bow incorporated a knuckled design that gave way to vertical bulkheads instead of the angled as usually found on shipboard designs. This knuckled design would echo in the likes of larger liners such as the CANBERRA, ORIANA, and SOUTHERN CROSS. Upon her October 20, 1953, maiden voyage, the new Greek flagship outclassed the Dutch duo in almost all regards and raised the standards in budget Atlantic travel. From the inside, she boasted an impressive 22 public rooms and even had the only 300-seat balcony theater at sea until the introduction of Cunard Line's SAXONIA of 1954. Accommodating her passenger load was preliminary in the Tourist class arena for which she was designed, numbering 1,160. An additional 146 berths could be added as they were interchangeable between First class and Tourist class. Of the Tourist class cabins, 50 percent had only two berths, and 50 percent had private facilities. The dining room for the lower 1306 passengers was 115 feet wide, the largest of its kind afloat with 580 seats.
As the largest liner and flagship of the Greek Line, it was decided to employ the OLYMPIA on transatlantic service making calls between Bremerhaven, Southampton, Cherbourg, Cobh, Halifax, and New York. Departing Glasgow on her maiden voyage also made her visit Belfast, Liverpool, Southampton, Cherbourg, and Cobh, across the pond to Halifax, then lastly, to NY. Finally, in the winter months, it was off cruising. Still, before sailing into warmer waters, the ship was admired and condemned for her décor, with evaluations calling her intimate, cozy atmosphere: while the accommodations were labeled simple. The negative came from the publication, The Shipping World, which called her ship decoration ‘uninspired’ and ‘leaving the senses confused.’ This criticism dwelled mainly from her public rooms, mainly a product of different designers, each of them ‘working in a different way’ at somewhat ‘different times.’ These various schemes in decoration contrasted with the quiet and drear of the Drawing Room, Library, and Almack's with the chic and somewhat "loud" Zebra and Mycenean Rooms.
The SS OLYMPIA at New York, November 1953. Photo from the collection of Richard I. Weiss. Below, the ship as seen at Pireaus in the summer of 1969. Photo: copyright Peter Stafford 1969
By May 1988, refit changes were made in Norfolk, Virginia, in various forms; most notably, the grilled funnel had been replaced by the more traditional funnel she bore until the end of her career. Sadly, the theater was converted into a bar and disco on the upper balcony, and the Card and Drawing Rooms on Upper Deck were converted into suites. Thankfully, the paneling and artwork were left intact as Suites E and F and Mini-Suites U90 and 91 were formed.
However, with the growing number of cruise ships coming online that same year under the Regal banner, the CARIBE 1 celebrated her 40th birthday with the new name, REGAL EMPRESS. Her new career would commence with sailings from Port Manatee, Florida, during the winters and New York during the summers. It was in New York that she enjoyed much success, replacing the voids left by venerable liners like the AMERIKANIS, GALILEO, and the popular BRITAINS who departed the waters of the Hudson in 1994.
The OLYMPIA was well designed with a cruising role in mind, as evidenced by the full air conditioning, acres of outdoor deck space, and two pools that were being enjoyed by all of her passengers. Transatlantic crossings were soon becoming a thing of the past, as the 1970s would soon prove, and like most liners during this time, OLYMPIA was used more and more for cruising necessary to survive the decline in trans-ocean traffic and avoid the scrap yard. These cruise duties consisted mainly of seven-day voyages to Bermuda and Nassau from New York and three-day cruises ‘to nowhere’ out to sea. So as to remain viable in the booming cruise market and the growing number of cruise ships that were being introduced, OLYMPIA would need to be converted for full-time cruising. This change took place in 1970, with her aft decks extended at Promenade Deck, the mainmast removed and was ready to take on her reconfigured 1,032 passengers.
Emerging from this refit resulted in a one-class vessel and no less than three outdoor pools and private facilities in every cabin. While it was apparent that OLYMPIA was now a better running mate for QUEEN ANNA MARIA, the 1950s styling, dark wood paneling, and linoleum decking were changed in favor of shag carpets and new color palettes of orange, avocado green, and turquoise. Accommodation throughout the ship was upgraded, and new suites were created. The most prominent taking place at the forward end of the Promenade Deck, with the Mycenaean Room, once a 1st class space- was converted into twelve suites. On Upper Deck, Almack saw the name change to Card Room, and the Zebra Club was redecorated as the Calypso Room.
For the Greek Line, the cruise industry became more competitive, and operational costs were on the rise. As a result, OLYMPIA and QUEEN ANNA MARIA collected rust due to a lack of maintenance on the part of the operator for costs they, unfortunately, could not afford. By the oil crisis of 1973-1974, it was all over, as the future of the Greek Line came to an end. It became clear that the OLYMPIA was too costly to operate, and she was forced into lay-up while her fleet mate was held in service a little longer. A year later, both ships were under arrest, and for the next eight years, the OLYMPIA sat lonely and neglected at Perama, Greece. The ship's period of rusting became so great that her original stack crumbled from decay. During that time, Carnival Cruise Line and the Sheraton Hotel Company looked over her, but nothing came to light. Then, in defiance of talk of a final voyage to the scrapyard, the purchase in 1981 by the Sally Line of Finland came as a much-needed surprise. The plan was to use the ship as a floating hotel with possible use on a few voyages in the Caribbean; the long-forgotten liner was renamed CARIBE in 1982.
While in Piraeus, Greece, she underwent a major refit of her public spaces and virtually all of her accommodations. Additionally, her tripod mast was replaced with a more modern radar mast, and her remaining king posts and the decayed funnel were all removed. By this time, the plan to convert the former OLYMPIA into a hotel ship had been canceled. Further work was carried out in Hamburg, Germany, as she was towed under the revised name, CARIBE 1, where her steamship status changed with the outfitting of new Klockner-Humbolt-Deutz diesel engines. This new engine room would help produce an average of 20,270 HP and allow her to attain a service speed of 18 knots.
OLYMPIA color cross section by Laurence Dunn. Rob O'Brien collection
The Purser Square on the left as it appeared in 1953. On the right, one deck below and 55 years later, the Agora Shop, which became Shore Excursion Desk in REGAL EMPRESS years. Image & photo Rob O'Brien collection
Nearly two months after her debut, OLYMPIA was back in the headlines following an incident involving her grounding on a mud bank in Southampton due to an electrical system failure. This incident left the vessel in a state of darkness and ‘not under command’ due to the steering motor having been affected. March of the following year saw further mechanical problems during one winter cruise with General Electric carrying out the repair works upon her return to New York. In March of 1955, the OLYMPIA began sailing transatlantic to the Mediterranean, between the ports of Piraeus and New York, via Messina, Naples, Lisbon, and the Azores. On outbound sailings, Halifax was often replaced by the port of Boston. In 1965, she transferred her flagship title when the Greek Line purchased the former EMPRESS OF BRITAIN, and the ship was refitted as the QUEEN ANNA MARIA. A few years later, the former flagship extended service to Haifa, Israel, and Limassol in Cyprus. However, it was not until September of 1968 that she finally hoisted the Greek flag as the dispute with the Greek Government had finally been resolved.
With a newly registered tonnage of just 14,533 tons, her emergence in July of 1983 with the Commodore Cruise Line revealed that while a new heart was beating below decks, her new funnel came as a surprise as it consisted of nothing more than exhaust pipes decorated in framework design. Coupled with this bold new look, a few modern amenities, and still sporting her old-world charm, the intimate size of the CARIBE 1 attracted a loyal following from the traveling public. The two-level theater, the wrap-around glass-enclosed promenade, the former first-class pool, and her beautifully paneled library all remained intact. The Aegean Club on Sun Deck first saw life as the renamed Out Island Club before taking on the more permanent name Commodore Club. In 1984, the Aegean Pool on the same deck and the Olympic Gym and Sauna just aft of it was fully enclosed, yielding the newly molded Mermaid Bar and Lounge. Reminiscent of the six etched mirrors found in the Caribbean Dining Room, the room was installed with similar motifs consistent with the theme of the bar a few decks up. Together with her fleet mate BOHEME, the next decade of cruises was spent in Caribbean waters. Here, the ship began to be marketed as the ‘Happy Ship,’ although the Finland-built BOHEME was the original recipient of that name. By 1985, CARIBE 1 was the sole 'Happy ship' in the Commodore Cruise Line as the BOHEME came under the house flag of the Church of Scientology.
While returning from a cruise on August 4, 1994, with a complement of 1,000 passengers, a serious fire broke out somewhere in the funnel. As the ship was docking, NY firefighters broke glass windows on Restaurant Deck and quickly controlled the fire. With the passengers offloaded, it was found that the fire damage had destroyed the Aegean scene painting at the forward end of the Caribbean Dining Room. The REGAL EMPRESS was back in service nearly eight days later, on the 27th, and in place of the painting, a new mirror panel was installed. In 1996, the liner received livery changes consisting of a midnight blue band running almost the entire length of the ship from the bow knuckle to her aft promenade lido. The color scheme was also added for the boot topping, and the funnel saw a return to her former glory days, with the crown of the Greek Line becoming the new logo of Regal Cruises. At the bow, the anchor wells were painted blue, and the letters of her name saw a larger scripted form.
By 1997 a necessary refit at Mobile, Alabama, upgraded the ship to meet impeding S.O.L.A.S. (Safety Of Life At Sea) 1997 regulations. This upgrade included reconfiguration of paneling around stairwell and lobby enclosures and the lighting of passageways. In order to remain somewhat competitive in a growing market and increasing demand for the ever-present balconied cruise ships, the enclosed Promenade deck at the forward end was lost to new private verandas. A total of 12 of these were added from cabins numbering P1-12, along with four of the largest cabins, P1 to P4, actually receiving Jacuzzis. The former Atlantic Bar at the stern was replaced with a buffet named La Trattoria. The cinema at the upper level saw change as the Mirage Disco and, in 2000, was modified for a 15-seat Children’s Playroom on the starboard side. Also added during this time was the counterpart of the port side, an Internet café named Stu’s, with a capacity for 30 people. While these changes came at a cost to some of her original public spaces, it was deemed wise on the part of her operators in order to maintain competitive.
When a $730,000 claim against Regal Cruises surfaced, the ship was seized by U.S. Marshals, forcing the company to go under in April 2003. As a result of their demise, the REGAL EMPRESS was purchased at auction by the 1999 -founded Imperial Majesty Cruise Line for an alleged $1 million. This Pompano, Florida-based company had already been successfully operating the former SOUTHERN CROSS, later the AZURE SEAS, under the name OCEAN BREEZE. So when she was sold for scrap in 2003, the REGAL EMPRESS was a logical and perfect replacement. On June 24, 2003, the REGAL lady took over the two and 3-night cruises sailing out of Port Everglades, Florida, twice a week on two-night and Friday three-night voyages. In the subsequent years, she would visit Nassau or, on occasion, Freeport, also in the Bahamas.
The popular Discovery Channel series MythBusters tested the theory that it’s possible to water ski from the back of a cruise ship. In June of 2007, the REGAL EMPRESS was the ship the producers used, and the video has since been re-aired and can also be found on the YouTube website.
In September 2008, the EMPRESS was taken out of service and redeployed to Texas to aid in the recovery left from the destruction of Hurricane Ike. Imperial Majesty Cruise Line had the ship used as housing facilities as most hotels in the area were either damaged or fully booked. The cruise line took a cautious approach to ensure all wear and tear were kept at bay. At some point, the detailed model of the ship located on the port side of the Upper Deck was removed. Before returning to service on December 1 of that same year, the carpeting was replaced, and the model on Upper Deck was allegedly moved to the main offices of the company.
While several vintage liners like the REGAL EMPRESS have weathered the 1997 S.O.L.A.S. convention laws, the 2010 version called for the removal of combustible materials for those ships that were grandfathered in the 2005 S.O.L.A.S. annex. Together with the weak travel economy of 2001, and the rising prices of oil and steel, the next seven years have forced the largest string of vintage liners to retire early due to these strict regulations. The result in almost every case is a one-way ticket to the dreaded "Beach of Doom," a small shanty beach town in Alang, India. It is there that the ship is torn apart piece by piece and the steal is melted down, and the villagers use all other remaining material. Nevertheless, a few lucky candidates have managed to slip through the cracks, most notably the popular QE2 finding planned future use as a hotel in the rich country of Dubai and the ROTTERDAM V being homeported in Rotterdam.
In 2004, the REGAL EMPRESS appeared to be heading in the same direction of preservation. According to Rueben Goossens of ssmaritime.com, an informal agreement was made between Imperial Majesty Cruise Line and the Greek government to return the ship to her home country. The agreement was made in 2004 with the President of the line, Arthur Pollack and Greek/American senator Leonidas Raptakis. Sometime after that, Mr. Pollack left the cruise line, and politics reigned supreme as the best-laid plans for saving the ship showed signs of weakening. By 2005 an actual agreement was drawn with Senator Raptakis and the owners of the ship Celebration World Cruises. The plan was to berth the ship next to the battleship S.S. OLYMPIA as a hotel, museum, restaurant, and Tourist center. It made sense to save a passenger ship built for the Greek government with the same former name. However, plans changed, and instead, the Senator re-focused his attention on saving a Liberty ship, ironically with no ties to Greece. The easier-to-acquire ship arrived in that country in January 2009 and has been renamed HELLAS LIBERTY.
In May 2008, the car ferry operator Color Line withdrew their 35,483-ton PRINSESSE RAGNHILD from service. Several months later, the 1981-built RAGNHILD was sold to Celebration Cruise Line for $23 million, signs that they would replace the REGAL EMPRESS in anticipation of looming S.O.L.A.S. regulations as well as her engines being rated to end its longevity sometime after January of 2009. In October of 2008, the PRINSESSE RAGNHILD arrived in the states and was soon moved to Freeport, Bahamas, to undergo modifications of cabins and the addition of pools as well as a second casino. With all work completed by February, she arrived in Port Everglades on the 24th of the same month and was sailing on trial cruises during the early days of March. The official first cruise took place on March 9, sailing under the Celebration Cruise Line banner and not under the Imperial Majesty Line as was first thought. Although the two have overlapping owners and managers, they are not the same, and it will appear the Imperial name will cease.
REGAL EMPRESS had been anchored off Gibraltar on April 29, 2009. A month later, on May 15, the EMPRESS was making her through the Suez Canal, her final destination to Alang, India. Resting place for so many classic liners before her. On July 24, the REGAL lady was beached on those very shores under the name REGAL EMPRESS, as seen at Martin Cox's www.maritimematters.com website for the August 1 posting. As of November 1, 2009, the same site revealed that the entire bow from stem to bridge housing is completely gone. The end has come for this "Regal" lady; by early 2010, all that will remain are her memories for the many folks who have had the chance to sail on this charming and long-serving ship.
Preparing (above left) and departing (above right/ and below) on one of her cruises out of New York in July, 2001. Notice in these images that the anchor well has been painted blue. Above left photo by: Charles E. Crawford.William J. Donall photos, above right.
Above, a wonderful closeup of the vessel & detail of the ship, notice the Veranda suites on the port side and the large tender aft of Lifeboat 1. Photo by William J. Donall.
The BAHAMAS CELEBRATION at Freeport, in December 2008 being refitted for service and eventually to replace the former CARIBE 1.
Photos & copyright, Rob O'Brien 2008 Unless otherwise noted.
Above, CARIBE in Miami, January 1992. Behind her looms the funnels of two Carnival Cruise Line ships. Photo: John Maggio/O'Brien collection
The OLYMPIA at the pier and departing New York(below); the date November 9, 1960. From the collection of Rich Turnwald
REGAL EMPRESS berthed at the N.Y. passenger ship terminal on her maiden voyage with Regal Cruise Line in May of 1993. Photo: John Maggio/Rob O'Brien collection
REGAL EMPRESS & OLYMPIA comparision.
OLYMPIA & REGAL EMPRESS comparison. On the left the ship in Halifax, Nova Scotia August, 1959. On the right and almost 50 years later the REGAL lady in Nassau, Bahamas in January 2009. Image(left) John A. MacIntosh, PhD/Rob O'Brien collection. Photo(right) Rob O'Brien Copyright 2009
A Regal Cruise Line issued photograph of the vessel at anchor. Photo: Rob O'Brien collection, courtesy of John Maggio
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