Rescued twice from the scrapheap, Frances and Michael Howorth chart 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 consistently in use carrying the rich and famous.
The yacht that now bears the name Christina O has been seen in various guises since her hull was first constructed during the second world war as a river class frigate for the Royal Canadian Navy and has, in her distinguished and varied career been given four different names and survived four distinctly different 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.
Her luck continued when she became the yacht Christina after the Greek ship owner Aristotle Onassis purchased her and converted her into his private yacht. After his death she became 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, good fortune again smiled upon her as another Greek ship owner, a friend of the Onassis family rescued her from near certain oblivion and restored her to her former glory re christening her Christina O.
The yacht began life as a 1724-ton River class frigate built by Vickers in Montreal and commissioned into the Royal Canadian Navy in 1943 for anti-submarine work. During the Battle of the Atlantic, she was a guard and escort for merchant ships and witnessed the D-Day landings in Normandy. In November 1945 she was decommissioned and sold off as surplus to requirements for her scrap value of $34,000 and was purchased by Onassis who was, by then, emerging as one of Greece’s most successful and entrepreneurial ship owners.
There followed a six-year refit costing US$4 million that was completed in 1954 and Onassis named her Christina, after his daughter born in 1950. The finest materials were sourced across Europe and used in the conversion.
The whole of Europe was scoured to find materials of the highest quality so that Christina could be converted into a ship suitable for Royalty. Nothing was spared. A seaplane, stored on deck and lifted by a crane, provided quick and easy access to and from the vessel; an open top Fiat 500 roadster provided guests with transport once ashore. Nine further tenders including a glass-bottomed boat for sightseeing ensured that guest enjoyment of water toys was never lacking.
Finished to the same standard seen inside some swish five-star hotels, everything had a slightly over the top feel about it. Ari’s bar with its stools said to be covered in leather cured from the foreskins of sperm whales was one such extravagance. Entertaining lady friends in the bar, Onassis liked to tell them that they were sitting on one of the world’s biggest… (perhaps you can guess the rest.) Ari’s may perhaps, be one of the most famous of watering holes on earth when it comes to spotting the rich and famous, and maybe, when it comes to boogieing, possibly the mosaic base of the swimming pool that rises up displacing the water to become a dance floor, has a reputation that is equal to it.
Onassis named his yacht Christina after his only daughter and used the boat to host some of the world’s most powerful and influential people. Royalty, presidents, prime ministers were joined by captains of corporate industry together with stars of the silver screen aboard the splendid yacht.
The impressive 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-board Christina that Sir Winston Churchill first met John F Kennedy in 1957 and the yacht hosted the wedding reception of Prince Rainier III and Grace Kelly in 1956.
The yacht was also used for two of the world’s most high-profile marriages; that of Prince Rainier of Monaco to Grace Kelly and later when Onassis himself married America’s former first lady, Jackie Kennedy in 1968. Onassis, frequently dropped a discreet word to bring the paparazzi running, realizing that their stories would do both him and his business a world of good.
Onassis died in 1975 and at his funeral, the yacht lay at anchor off the island of Skorpios with her ensign flying at half-mast; it was to be her last day of dignity for some time.
Then in 1998, new owners set about arranging restoration to her former illustrious glory. The 3-year refit saw her interior completely gutted, with important features salvaged, preserved and placed into storage for use later.
Her original steam engines were removed, and she was renamed in tribute to her first private owner as Christina O.
The owners wanted to restore the yacht to her original state, in a style that Onassis would have approved of. However, the two rebuilding’s were 45 years apart and many modern amenities and safety features had to be incorporated into the ship. Aristotle had spent $4 million in 1954 equivalent to $27 million in 1999. Her new owners were to spend over double that before they saw their dream finished.
The rebuilt Christina O offers a huge volume within five enclosed decks, four of which are entirely or partly available to passengers. In addition, guests also have use of vast open deck spaces high up on the compass deck forward of the funnel furnished with steamer-style teak sun loungers and a bar, below, the bridge deck abaft the funnel, is a spacious teak decked area. This deck area is much the same as it was during the yacht’s heyday when Onassis and Maria Callas used to cavort together.
Onassis had originally commissioned the swimming pool with a faithful copy of the famous mosaic Minoan bull and gymnast from the Palace at Knossos and was perfectly recreated for him by craftsmen. The yacht retains this feature, and the bottom of the pool can still be raised flush to the deck by electric motors, to serve as a dance floor on the after main deck.
Aft on the main deck, the same mooring bollards and winches which appeared as posing stools for several of the former owner’s famous guests in numerous photographs remain intact. Perhaps, best known from a historical perspective is the aftermost main deck saloon, known as the Lapis Lounge, together with its adjoining bar, a hideaway much enjoyed by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. It is lined in oak with iroko panelling beneath a white-beamed deck head the celebrated, Onassis lapis lazuli-trimmed fireplace, also remains in place.
As Onassis’s Christina she was a grand lady and now thanks to her latest owner’s passion and perseverance, her days of dignity have returned, as the rebuilt Christina O she is still arguably the most famous yacht in the world, and again a star in her own right.
Now available for charter, she has, in recent years, hosted celebrities including the late Anna Nicole Smith, Paul McCartney and Tommy Lee of Motley Crue.
This luxury motor yacht available through Mediterranean yacht brokers; Morley Yachts who act as her central agents, is a one of a kind and offers a totally unique yachting experience with a story worthy of Hollywood.
Today, Christina O is one of the few yachts classified as a passenger vessel and has the capacity to sleep 34 guests. Key features of her famous interior are still enjoyed today by those who charter her. Ari’s Bar, the legendary place where the likes of Sir Winston Churchill enjoyed a private drink at a bar made from an ancient Spanish galleon still has the same foreskin covered bar stools.
The stately dining room can seat 42 guests (28 seated around the main table). Other features include a Steinway piano. While in the Callas Lounge, named after the singer Maria Callas, the walls are decorated with original memorabilia from the Onassis era. The lounge also features an original Steinway grand piano and guests can listen to the entire collection of Callas’ recordings.
The Lapis Lounge has, as its centrepiece, the same stunning fireplace, made from Lapis Lazuli, while the room also has a self-playing electric piano. The master suite now called the Onassis Suite is made up of a bedroom, sitting room and bathroom. Key features include a Sienna Marble fireplace and an original Renoir artwork.
On deck, her aft-deck dance-floor is another original feature from the Onassis era. A mosaic that recreates a scene of a Minoan bull and gymnast at the Palace of Knossos on Crete, it can be lowered to form the bottom of the swimming pool.
To cruise on Christina O is to walk the same decks and corridors as some of the world’s most illustrious names and, in doing so, add your own to a piece of yachting history. The yacht continues to be used in the entertaining spirit Onassis intended with large deck areas, three public lounges, a spa, a gym and a Jacuzzi.
The Morley Yachts offices in Monaco manage the yacht for charter. The yacht is available this year in the south of France and Italy and her charter rates for the season on MYBA terms range between €560,000 and €630,000.
Frances and Michael Howorth are an award-winning team of travel writers specialising in coverage of luxury yachts both large and small and are our yachting correspondents.
Photo credit: Stef Bravin