The woman walking ahead of me on our way to the Astoria theater suddenly stopped and stared at a glass display case.
“What is a bell from the old Stockholm ship doing on this boat?” she asked.
The answer is quite simple. And definitely fascinating.
The Astoria is the old Stockholm.
And we are cruising aboard the historic ship on the Sea of Cortez. I boarded in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, for a six-night cruise and will disembark in Puerto Penasco, Mexico. Some passengers boarded in Puerto Penasco for an 11-night roundtrip cruise.
In this first post, I am going to tell you about the Astoria’s tragic misadventure which put the Stockholm in the history books. Then, in following posts, we’ll walk around the Astoria to learn more about the grand old ship, my cabin, cuisine, entertainment and shore excursions.
I will tell that I am already quite fond of the Astoria and hope this year will not become a requiem for a beautiful old lady. She does have a devoted following and I hope she can survive a while longer.
Launched in 1948 and originally christened the Stockholm, the ship has had many reincarnations over its 72 years. The oldest cruise ship currently sailing, the Astoria joined the Cruise & Maritime Voyages fleet in 2015. However, CMV announced in January that 2020 will be the ship’s farewell season.
Astoria’s final CMV journey includes cruises from England in March, April, September and October. “Limited space is available for the last chance to sail with CMV onboard this truly classic liner,” the CMV website notes.
Built as part of the Swedish America Line, the ship has had a storied life, including a notorious collision with the Andrea Doria in 1956. She also sailed behind the Iron Curtain as an East Germany cruise ship where many defectors would jump overboard seeking asylum when the ship navigated Western waters. She also served as a barracks ship for asylum seekers in Norway during the 80s and survived being attacked by pirates in 2006.
Ironically, when my fellow passenger stopped in surprise at the Stockholm bell, we were on our way to hear ship historian Peter Knego talk about “A Tale of Two Floating Cities” – the Stockholm and the Andrea Doria.
“She is an amazing little ship,” Knego said. “Her hull was fashioned to cross the Atlantic in the most challenging of sea conditions … She is sort of an unsung little modest ship that has outlived them all.”
Despite her age and many adventures, the Astoria is in remarkably good shape, due in part to a major refinement in 1994. During that project, the ship was stripped virtually to her hull and reconstructed.
“This historic ship is a perfect fit for those who actually cherish the experience of being at sea,” Knego said.
Launching of Stockholm
To start at the beginning, the Stockholm was at the time the largest passenger ship ever built in Sweden, although she was one of the smallest in regular Atlantic service. Departing from New York, she was under the watch of third officer Johan-Ernst Carstens-Johannsen.
The Italian liner Andrea Doria, on the other hand, was considered one of the most beautiful ships afloat with three outdoor swimming pools and an art gallery filled with paintings, tapestries and surrealist murals. Passengers including Italian immigrants, vacationers and notable travelers, such as actress Ruth Roman, were aboard.
The Andrea Doria even boasted a life-size bronze statue of the ship’s namesake, a 16th century Genoese navigator. Passengers were assured of safety because the Andrea Doria was equipped with the latest safety technology on the seas, including newfangled radar. The Andrea Doria had 11 watertight compartments and was captained by venerable Italian mariner Captain Piero Calamai who had won medals of military valor in both World War I and World War II.
What could possibly go wrong?
Bad weather, incorrect communication and wrong maneuvers seemed to combine for a maritime tragedy. On the fateful day of July 25, 1956, the Andrea Doria was on her way to New York on her 101st transatlantic crossing. She carried 1,134 passengers and 572 crewmembers. Off the coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts, the Andrea Doria encountered thick fog.
At the same time, the Stockholm was leaving New York for her homeport of Gothenburg, Sweden, with 747 passengers and crewmembers aboard. By about 10:30 p.m., the two ships were approaching one another from opposite directions off the foggy coast of Nantucket. Both ships were trying to shave a bit of sailing time off their journey when the weather conditions should have encouraged more caution.
“These ships had to stick to schedule or it would cost a fortune and mess up the lives of passengers who had to be somewhere at a certain time,” Knego said.
Neither ship was aware of the other until it was too late. Both tried to avoid a collision but the Stockholm’s thick icebreaker bow sliced through the Andrea Doria’s starboard side, leaving a gaping hole and ripping open seven of her 11 decks.
Five Stockholm crewmembers were killed by the impact and Andrea Doria passengers were swept into the sea.
Although the Stockholm was in no danger of sinking, the larger Andrea Doria was listing more than 20 degrees on its starboard side, allowing seawater to spill through the compartments. “The Andrea Doria was mortally wounded,” Knego said.
To make it even worse, the Andrea Doria’s eight portside lifeboats couldn’t be launched because the ship was capsizing. “There weren’t enough lifeboats for the passengers on the Andrea Doria,” Knego said.
While the Stockholm began rescuing passengers and other smaller boats arrived to help, a massive French ocean liner the Ile de France answered the distress call and used floodlights and lifeboats for rescues in the darkness.
‘Miracle Girl’ aboard the Andrea Doria
At 10:09 a.m. the next morning, the Andrea Doria disappeared beneath the Atlantic. The Stockholm made it back to New York under its own power with 545 Andrea Doria survivors onboard.
“It’s a godsend that the Andrea Doria stayed afloat about 12 hours so passengers could be rescued,” Knego said. “It could have been much worse.”
Forty-six passengers died on the Andrea Doria. An unusual story on one of the largest sea rescues in maritime history was the bizarre tale of Andrea Doria passenger 14-year-old Linda Morgan.
“Her stepsister and stepdad were killed immediately upon the crash,” Knego said. Her mother was severely injured. But Morgan was somehow miraculously lifted from the bed she shared with her stepsister and thrown onto the crumpled bow of the Stockholm where she safely remained with only a broken arm when the two ships separated.
In another unusual twist, Linda’s father, ABC Radio Network news commentator Edward P. Morgan, was reporting on the deadly collision of the ocean liners. He not once mentioned that his own daughter was on the sunken ship and was believed to have been killed.
When the “miracle girl” returned to New York City aboard the Stockholm and was reunited with her father, the newsman made an emotional broadcast about how difficult it was to report the news without letting his own personal grief and extreme anguish interfere.
Debate continues today as to which ship as at fault, Knego said. “Both contributed to the collision but Captain Calamai was a completely broken man.”
Calamai stayed with the ship until all passengers were safety evacuated. Then he planned to go down with the Andrea Doria as he felt he should. However, fellow crewmembers said they would not leave until he left. Calamai was the last man off the sinking ship.
Calamai never captained another ship. “He wandered the streets of Italy,” Knego said. “When he died, they said he asked, “Is everybody in the lifeboats?”
Today, the opulent Andrea Doria lies in a watery grave, 240 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean.
Stockholm and her bell reunited
As for that dented bell that once graced the bow of the Stockholm, it also went down with the Andrea Doria, trapped in the gaping wound of the Italian beauty. No one thought it would ever be seen again.
As years went by, the wreck of the Andrea Doria became a challenging and dangerous dive site. Known as the Mt. Everest of diving because of its poor visibility and unpredictable currents, the wreck has claimed more than a dozen divers trying to explore its watery grave. Slowly, some artifacts were recovered from the sunken ship, including the bell from the Stockholm herself.
After being traded around here and there, the bell was bought by Cruise & Maritime Voyages and returned to the name-changed Stockholm, now the Astoria.
Seems appropriate that the ship and her bell have been reunited in what may be the final days of the historic Stockholm’s long cruising career.
Cover Photo: The Astoria is now in her ‘Farewell Season’ with Cruise & Maritime Voyages, credit Jackie Sheckler Finch
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