Thursday, March 15, 2012

Ship History 10

                                      MS Willem Ruys

                                Forgotten in time, yet known by another name.


                                                     Kevin Scott Bolinger

    Welcome aboard, one and all, and thank you for joining me on this look at a rather unique ship. She is not remembered under the name she was launched with, yet history  cruelly recalls her days as one of the most infamous ships to sail the seas. A ship plagued with trouble almost from the day her keel was laid. A ship that took nearly a decade to get into service. That ship, launched as the Willem Ruys, would go down in history, forever known as, the Achille Lauro.

    Our tale begins at the eve of the second world war. The Rotterdamsche Lloyd shipping line from the Netherlands, was looking to build a new ship for the Dutch East Indies route. In January of 1939, the keel for this ship would be laid at the De Schelde shipyard, in Vlissingen, Netherlands. Sadly, work on her hull would be halted by the outbreak of war. As the Germans advanced, bombing raids would fly over the shipyard. Her hull was hit, not once, but on two different raids. While the Germans occupied the country, they decided to continue construction of the hull, for their own purposes, yet even they ultimately abandoned it.

Willem Ruys, in the 60's
    The war took its toll on all of Europe, and recovery was slow. The ship was soon a rusted hulk, yet it was decided, after the war, to finish her construction. She was finally ready for launching, in July of 1946. It was here that she was finally given a name, Willem Ruys, after the founder of the line’s grandson, who had been captured and shot during the war. Her fitting out soon commenced, and in late 1947, she was finally ready for her maiden voyage.
Almost ready for launching.

     Her dimensions were hardly award winning, being only 630ft long and 82ft wide, with a tonnage only slightly over 21,000. She was powered by eight diesel engines, powering two screws, with a service speed of 22 knots. What was remarkable about her was the design of her superstructure, which allowed, for the first time, for lifeboats to be hung lower on the hull. This was an innovation which has since become commonplace in modern times, allowing for lifeboats to be offloaded in an emergency in a swifter fashion.
She had a passenger accommodation of around 900.

    On December 2nd, 1947, she left on her maiden voyage. She would serve her line well, and had a friendly rivalry with her running mate and chief competition, the MS Oranje.  The two ships dominated the East Indies run, yet, in 1949, the Dutch East Indies became independent, and passenger numbers plummeted. She suffered a few minor fires during this period of her life, but nothing serious. Most ships suffered minor fires, usually due to the wiring cracking its insulation due to the normal flexing a ship does while it plies the oceans of the world. In May of 1958, she had her first major collision, with her own rival, the MS Oranje. The ship was not badly damaged, though the Oranje was, yet there had been no loss of life to either ship. Shortly after the collision, she was sent back to her builders for a refit and repairs.
Oranje and Willem Ruys (rear) docked together.

    She emerged a different vessel. Her tonnage had been increased to just over 23,000, and her passenger accommodation had been increased to 1,000. It was decided to move her to the North Atlantic run, with stops in New York. Eventually, Canada was added to the ships itinerary. Soon after, it was decided to move both ships to the Australian run, using the Panama and Suez canals. For a time, this was successful, however, their success was not to last. As air travel became more common place, the shipping lines were falling to the wayside. In 1964, both the Willem Ruys and the Oranje were laid up in Rotterdam, and were eventually sold.

Bow of  Oranje  after the collision.
    The new owner was the Flotta Lauro Line, of Italy. The Willem Ruys was renamed the Achille Lauro, after the lines founder and owner, and the Oranje was renamed the Angelina Lauro. The two ships were to be converted to cruise ships, and in January of 1965, work commenced. On August 29th of that year, an explosion rocked the Achille Lauro, and a fire broke out. She was quickly made safe, and repairs began alongside her continuing conversion. This naturally delayed her return to service.

In her new colors, as Achille Lauro
    She had a few major changes to her outward design. Her slim funnels were made higher, and were split near the tops. Her superstructure was increased slightly. She was painted blue, in the Lauro Line colors, with white stars affixed to her stacks. In this guise, she was put on the Australian run, though declining passengers on the service would see her laid up once again. It seemed, with her name change, came a whole new brand of luck, in this case, bad.

     She began to be plagued by more minor fires, and a major one in 1972 put her out of service for a short time. She had become relegated to being a simple cruise ship. In 1975, she had her second major collision, this time with the freighter Youseff, resulting in the sinking of the latter, with heavy loss of life. She suffered another major fire in 1981, and was once again taken out of service. The following year she was laid up in Tenerife, due to the Lauro Line going bankrupt. She was  put under charter to the Chandris Line in early 1985, and made ready for cruising once again. 
 Leon Klinghoffer, murdered in cold blood.

    In October of 1985, an event would occur that would forever cement the ship in the annals of history. While she was sailing past Egypt, on October 7th, 1985,  four men representing the Palestine Liberation Front took control of the ship. They had moved sooner then they had planned, due to a crew member discovering the men prematurely. They demanded the release of 50 Palestinians currently held in Israeli prisons, and ordered the ship to the port of  Tartus, Syria. The authorities refused their demands, and would not allow the ship to dock. In retaliation,  the men singled out disabled Jewish/American passenger Leon Klinghoffer, who was confined to a wheelchair, and killed him. They then threw his body and wheelchair overboard, then lied to his wife about what had happened to him. The ship made its way to Port Said, where, after negotiations, the highjackers  left the ship for safe passage to Tunisia. Then President, Ronald Regan, ordered the plane carrying the men forced down, and they were arrested by the Italian authorities. The event caused tension between Egypt, who owned the plane that had been forced to land, and the United States. In retaliation, the ship was held in port, but was eventually released.

    In 1990, a television movie called “Voyage of Terror :The Achille Lauro Affair” was aired. It starred Burt Lancaster and Eve Marie Saint. It was overly dramatized and many of the exterior shots of the ship were actually of random cruise ships and even a few freighters, however, it was well received, despite a few inaccuracies.

Nearing the end of her life.
    For the rest of her life she would be forced to suffer through lay ups, seizures by port authorities for lack of payment of docking fees, and more minor fires. The stigma of the high jacking would follow her the rest of her life.  She would continue to cruise various parts of the world, yet her age was quickly catching up with her. Soon, she would meet her final end.

The fire that claimed her in 1994.
    On November 30th, 1994, off the coast of Somalia, whilst on route to South Africa, an explosion occurred in one of her engines, yet due to a lack of proper supervision, it ended up causing a fire that quickly burned out of control. The crew tried to battle the fire, yet it was in vain. The ship was carrying over 1,000 passengers, who were safely evacuated, and the remaining crew gave up fighting the fire, abandoning ship, the last few crew members being taken off by helicopter. The ship was left to burn on her own, and on December 2nd, she finally succumbed to the damage, and sank.  Her long sad life had finally come to a rather dramatic end.

A sad end to a stately ship.
    Some ships seems to be bright spots in the history of ocean travel. Other seems to become tragic victims of circumstance, being remembered for event beyond their control. The Willem Ruys is a name that most people will never recognize, lost in the flow of time and memory, yet if you mention the name Achille Lauro, and ears perk up. Many who were alive during those tense days of 1985, will forever remember the name of the ship that was take over by just four men. Many do not realize that the ship, which some assumed had been a newer vessel, was in reality far older than given credit.  Not many ships survive through nearly 50 years of life, yet the Willem Ruys managed it, despite having so much adversity thrown her way, even while she was still in her cradle.

One of the last pictures of the Achille Lauro.
    I hope this little article has shed some light on the history of the infamous vessel. There will not be another new article this month, as I want to concentrate on having my next article ready for mid April.  So, join me then, when I will tackle the most famous ship of all time, the RMS Titanic. Till then, may the wind be at your backs. Bon voyage!

MS Willem Ruys, 1947-1994


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