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  • Writer's pictureAlexandros Vrailas

The CHRISTINA O in Zakynthos

The year of 2016 was for me a year full of surprises in regards to seeing various ships from the Greek coastal service for either the first time in my life or for the first time under different liveries and colours. However, the biggest hit of the summer came at the most random moment of my summer stay in Greece. Indeed, that moment lasted just five minutes, but it was quite significant for me.

So these five minutes occurred during my stay in the island of Zakynthos, an island that has been the setting of several of my blog posts this year. It happened during a regular summer morning, at a time where my family and myself would go and spend some time on the island's well-known beaches. We tend to go to the same ones, but, just out of curiosity, my parents wanted to see another beach for a few minutes. It was called Vassilikos, being named after the village that is located on the Eastern peninsula of the island. It is a very famous beach, but it was the first time we ever went to see it. And there, upon arriving on the shore, I quickly saw the beautiful turquoise sea, which was the first image someone would normally see upon arriving in the area. However, I randomly turned my face towards the right to see whether we would be able to see the island of Marathonisi (which I talked about on the Zakynthos Tour Boats Blog Post back in March), when I suddenly saw a big classic white boat standing in front me. The picture was the following:

The beautiful-and recognisable-boat standing right in front of me in Vassilikos Beach in Zakynthos.

I saw the ship and was completely shocked. I blinked my eyes twice to make sure I was not dreaming. But, right after the second blink, I realised that what I was seeing was actually real. Indeed, this classic white boat was none other but the legendary yacht CHRISTINA O, which belonged to the historic Greek shipowner Aristotelis Onassis. This ship, although not a regular passenger ship like the ferries or the high speed craft from the Greek coastal service, is, perhaps, the most popular Greek ship of all time. She has been the center of much media attention, especially when she was owned by Onassis, as the latter was, from the 1950s to his death in 1975, among the richest and most famous men in the world at the time. Onassis remains the greatest Greek shipowner to have lived, having owned 100 tankers at the time of his death through his company, Olympic Shipping. This company is still active today in honour of his legacy, operating supertankers under the Greek flag.

His personal life aside, Onassis has been the idol of many Greek entrepreneurs, and has even inspired me in some ways. He was certainly very charismatic and controversial, but he always treated his crew with respect, offering them excellent standards of living both aboard ships and ashore. He frequently stressed a good maintenance of his fleet, and always sought to improve his maritime relations with both Greek and foreign authorities. But most importantly, Onassis was inspired by Greece, loved the country, and maintained a Greek heritage throughout the entirety of his activities worldwide. And these aspirations serve as the bases of the Alexandros S. Onassis Foundation, which he founded at the time of his death, and named after his late son, Alexandros Onassis. The latter was supposed to be the man that would carry on his shipping empire for the decades to come. However, he tragically lost his life in 1973, following an airplane crash near Ellinikon. He was an air transport enthusiast (his father also founded and owned the company Olympic Airways before it was nationalised and later bought by Aegean Airlines) and was riding his favourite airplane, the Piaggio P136, along with two pilots that were testing the plane. In fact, it is believed that the plane left from the CHRISTINA O prior to its tragic crash. Alexandros' death had a profound effect on his father, who never recovered and ended up sadly losing his life two years later, thus ending the immense shipping enterprise he had built. However, both the Onassis Foundation and Olympic Shipping continue to exist today, carrying the immense legacy and history Onassis left.

Among his various endeavours, which include owning the beaches of Monaco or whale-hunting frigates, one of Onassis' most famous possessions was perhaps the one of his historic yacht.

The CHRISTINA O was built in 1943 in Canada as an anti-submarine frigate for the Canadian Navy during World War II. She was completed in the city of Montréal as the HMCS STORMONT. As a frigate, she participated notably in the Battle of the Atlantic against the Germans, and was also present at the Normandy landings in 1944. After the end of the war, she and her sister ships were deemed to surplus requirements. In 1947 she began a conversion from a frigate to a yacht in Germany, though these plans were initially abandoned and she remained laid-up awaiting a buyer.

The moment that defined her career came in 1954, at the age of 11. The ship was bought by Onassis with the view of converting her into a luxurious superyacht. The Greek shipowner originally wanted to buy her and 10 other frigate sister ships in order to operate them as passenger ships in the Greek coastal service. However, the Greek Government at the time unfairly opposed his planned deployments, and he instead decided to buy just one of these frigates, which happened to be the HMCS STORMONT. She was brought back to Germany, where she began immediate conversion. Her exterior and current look was designed by Cäsar Pinnau, while the interiors were designed by the illustrator Ludwig Bemelmans. The ship was renamed CHRISTINA, which was the name of Onassis' daughter. She was also involved in her family's shipping environment, just like her older brother Alexandros. She inherited Aristotelis' fortune and fleet after his death, and was the President of the Onassis Foundation until her sudden death in 1988.

After 3 years and $4 million invested for her conversion from a frigate to a yacht, the CHRISTINA finally set sail. She served as Onassis' main point of refuge from public life and from stressful moments. She was usually docked in either Monaco or the Greek island of Skorpios on the Ionian Sea, which was owned by the Onassis family during the second half of the 20th century. She was also his main mode of transportation during his summer vacations. Her crew was very well experienced and always maintained her according to the perfection demanded by her owner. As Onassis became popular worldwide, the ship also became a hit, being one of the most recognisable modes of transportation on the world. She reached a rise to international stardom in 1957, when she was used for Onassis' Mediterranean summer cruise, which hosted several celebrities, such as Greek opera singer Maria Kallas (who also became Onassis' love interest for many years), British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, Welsh actor Richard Burton, Prince Rainier of Monaco, British actress Elizabeth Taylor, Swedish actress Greta Garbo, Egyptian King Farouk I, future United States President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his wife (and Onassis' future wife) Jacqueline. The list goes on and on. The cruise became very popular, and the Greek destinations were particularly the most acclaimed highlights, therefore promoting tourism in Greece.

The ship features an elegant master suite, eighteen staterooms for guests, a library, a large dining room, a music hall, a kid's play zone, three lounge areas, a fitness center and an amazing outdoor pool with a minotaur-themed mosaic floor that could rise at the push of a single button to become a dance floor. She also has a special indoor bar, called 'Ari's Bar', in honor of the shipping magnate's nickname. She can fit approximately 250 passengers, which was quite a big number for a yacht during the 1950s. She also had an airbase on her stern, and this is where she would usually carry Alexandros' doomed plane, the Piaggio P136. The ship was also the host of two historical weddings: the marriage of Prince Rainier of Monaco with famous American actress Grace Kelly in 1956, and the wedding of Aristotelis Onassis to former United States First Lady Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy in 1968.

The historic CHRISTINA O seen in Vassilikos Beach in Zakynthos. She has kept the exact same appearance as the one she had when she was owned by Onassis.

Everything seemed to be perfect for the ship (despite her advancing age) when tragedy struck the Onassis family in 1973, after Alexandros' death. Aristotelis' first wife Tina died the following year, and she was then followed by Aristotelis himself, who was unable to cope with his son's loss and had lost the will to live and to operate his ships. As a result, after his death, the ship was initially laid-up in Skorpios, before she was donated by her namesake, Christina Onassis, to the Greek Government in order to operate as a presidential yacht in 1978. As a result of this donation, she was renamed ARGO and was installed in Floisbos, operating frequently from the late 1970s to the early 1980s. However, her role soon became diminished and she was subsequently abandoned by the Greek State, which did not even bother to convert her into a historic floating museum or to organise historic cruises with her. She was therefore abandoned in Floisbos and listed for sale. Many auctions failed, until she was finally bought by Greek shipowner Giannis Pavlos Papanikolaou in 1998. The latter was among the Onassis family's good friends and business partners, and, having traveled aboard the ship as a child, he sought to redeploy the ship as a tribute to her previous owner. She was therefore renamed CHRISTINA O in 1999, and she was heavily refurbished during two years, in Rijeka, in Croatia. She returned to service in 2001 under her new name, operating under charter to several groups that wished to travel aboard her.

Papanikolaou died in 2010. Three years later, the ship was again listed for sale. She was apparently bought by Russian interests, and she still remains active despite the various disputes over different owners and charterers. She at least operated in Greece in 2016, as I was able to see her in Zakynthos, and, in 2017, when she underwent a refit in Perama. She is currently the thirty-first largest yacht in the world, while also being the seventh oldest yacht among the Top 100 largest yachts in the world. Quite a remarkable record for this historic ship, more than sixty years after she was first deployed for the great Aristotelis Onassis.

A final picture of the CHRISTINA O in Vassilikos Beach in Zakynthos, before we left the beach. I would go on to see her two days later in the Laganas Beach as well, though I unfortunately did not have a camera that day.

My summary of this post is simple: in just five minutes, I managed to witness history. This short visit of the Vassilikos Beach, which was originally a random visit of the place, just to have a look at the beach, turned out to be one of the most memorable moments of my summer. It marked the first time in my life that I saw this legendary ship, and I truly managed to get a taste of the glorious legacy her owner left, and which I have gone to idolise thanks to his historic shipping career.

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