In 2015, Marco Polo will be celebrating her special golden anniversary and fifty memorable years of ocean voyages and cruising. During the past half century Marco Polo has sailed the seven seas and all the oceans of the world visiting every Continent from Antarctica to the Arctic.
We are truly proud to be the custodians of such a fine classic ship which is steeped in maritime tradition and adored by so many of our passengers. To mark such an auspicious occasion, in 2015 we will be operating a special commemorative programme of cruises including special themed nights and dinners, quizzes and a nostalgic trip down memory lane to the swinging sixties and 1965, the year Marco Polo was launched.
From Poet to Explorer - a remarkable maritime history
Second of a quintet of ‘poet’ class ships named after Russia’s greatest poets and writers, the liner Alexandr Pushkin was built at the Mathias-Thesen Werft in Wismar, former East Germany in 1965. These five ships were the fastest, largest and most prestigious liners in the Soviet passenger fleet, a fleet that at the time was the largest in the world. The Pushkin’s sleek profile and innovative design featured all accommodation for both passenger and crew having a sea view (albeit less than half had private facilities), full air-conditioning, stabilisers, and a heated indoor swimming pool with a sliding glass roof that could be opened in favourable weather. Commissioned as the flagship of Leningrad’s Baltic Shipping Company, with Leningrad her homeport and port of registry, the ship’s hull was specially strengthened for the icy Baltic waters. Given the global political climate of the time, her construction also took into consideration the possibility of alternative military use as a troopship and as such the provision and storage areas were unusually large, permitting a cruising range of over 10,000 nautical miles.
The Pushkin entered service in August 1965 with a series of cruises before taking up her intended employment during the following spring, reopening a Soviet service on the North Atlantic, dormant since the onset of the Cold War in the late Forties. A regular transatlantic service between Leningrad, Bremerhaven, London, Le Havre and Montreal was established and the schedule continued through to the late Seventies. The transatlantic service operated in the summer months, with cruises to warmer climes during the winter often under charter to western companies.
An enclosed wraparound promenade on what is now Pacific Deck meant that daily constitutionals could be made even in the ravages of the rough and stormy Atlantic. On the very top deck were kennels for passengers of the canine variety – cats and birds could also be carried. A small number of motor vehicles were transportable thanks to two side loading doors and lifts down to a hold. On today’s Magellan Deck there were also two sheltered promenades along either side of the ship. A cinema, library (stocked with Soviet literature) plus five bars would keep adult passengers happy whilst children could amuse themselves in the small playroom complete with slide and roundabout, or small paddling pool. A peaceful lounge by day and nightclub until the early hours graced today’s Navigator Deck. An extensive refit in 1975 improved Alexandr Pushkin for further cruising; several ‘inside’ cabins were added, her main lounge was extended forward and upwards to become a double-height ballroom with a balcony, an outside swimming pool was installed in what is now Scott’s Bar, and her tonnage increased from 19,860 GRT to 20,502.
Although very popular cruising for the British market out of the UK (mostly Tilbury) in the late sixties and early seventies, the arrival of her brand new sister ship Mikhail Lermontov in 1972 saw the latter ship taking over this role and the Pushkin moved to the West German market. For the years 1979 – 1984 she was under permanent charter to Germany’s Transocean Tours. On a six week voyage starting at the end of August 1984 the ship bade farewell to Europe as she sailed on her final voyage for the Baltic Shipping Company on the long trek to Vladivostock and transferral to the Far Eastern Shipping Company. Re-registered in Vladivostock, she entered a new stage of her career under charter to CTC Cruises Australia. Many of these cruises were advertised as ’18-30 Holidays’ and by all accounts were as wild as one would imagine.
In February 1990 the ‘Alex’, as the Aussies fondly named her, arrived in Singapore supposedly for a refit, but with the collapse of the Soviet Union and consequent financial difficulties in addition to necessary and expensive technical upgrades, she was laid up in a grimy backwater. Fortunately, Gerry Herrod, an astute British entrepreneur with several successful ventures behind him including a luxury cruise line, realised the immense potential of such an elegant and sturdy lady and by 1991 had purchased her. Renamed Marco Polo and flying the Bahamas flag, she was brought to Greece where a renovation entailing the entire gutting of the ship and lasting almost three years at the cost of US$60 million was carried out. The superstructure was extended aft and upwards, and her funnel was heightened, enhancing her beautiful silhouette. The Dining Room, ship’s galley, engines and original swimming pool are all that remain that are identifiable. The three stairwells which previously were spiral with a void so that one could see all the way vertically up/down through the ship were converted into today’s ‘square’ stairways. The original ship’s bell from Alexandr Pushkin is now on display in the Nansen Card Room.
The ship, now measuring 22,080 tons, emerged into the next stage of her life in November 1993, with her maiden voyage as Orient Lines’ Marco Polo from Mombasa to Cape Town. She had been designed specifically for expedition-destination cruising in the Far East, hence the specially commissioned Asian and Oriental artwork found aboard today, with December – February to be spent in Antarctica. For these months a helicopter was carried on her purpose-built heli-deck in order to scout for whales, wildlife and ice-free passages.
The classic liner quickly developed a keen and loyal following and established herself as a market leader. By 1998, one of the world’s largest cruise lines, Norwegian Cruise Line, made Orient Lines an offer they couldn’t refuse, and not only the ship but the cruise line itself was bought by NCL.
In March 2008, Marco Polo was acquired by her present owners, Greece’s Global Cruise Lines, and operated by Cruise and Maritime Voyages, is frequenting many of her former haunts, not least her homeport of Tilbury for London, in this her latest career.
Courtesy of Peter Newall