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(CNN) — It’s not every day that you spot a cruise ship for sale on Craigslist. So Chris Willson was immediately intrigued when he stumbled across a 293-foot vessel listed on the classified advertisements website back in 2008.
The retired “pocket” cruise ship, built in Germany, was moored in the California Delta at the time, and its then owner was keen to offload it.
After seeing the listing pop up numerous times Willson, who was working on developing virtual reality tours, decided to do some investigating.
“I kind of posed as a potential buyer, even though I really didn’t have any interest in purchasing a ship,” Willson tells CNN Travel. “It was a little out of my comfort level, to say the least.”
Once he made the trip down to the inland river delta and estuary in Northern California and stepped onboard, Willson was struck by how badly the 2,496 gross ton ship had been neglected over the years.
However, as he began to explore further, he realized that there was a pretty impressive five-level vessel beneath all the “junk” on board.
“She has one of the most spectacular layouts of just about any ship I’ve seen,” he adds. “The staircases are magnificent.
“It’s almost the same as if you found an old 60s Corvette in the garage. You can see the quality is there, but it’s so neglected, you almost feel bad for it.”
After doing some digging into the background of the ship, he discovered that it was constructed by the Blohm and Voss shipyard in 1955, and had been the first significant passenger liner built by Germany after World War II.
The more he learned about the ship, which was originally named Wappen von Hamburg, the more convinced he became that this was a project he was willing to take on.
After carefully considering the enormity of what it would mean to own a mini cruise ship, Willson put together a restoration plan and decided to take the plunge.
While he’s loath to discuss the amount he paid, he says he was able to “work out a really good deal with the owner of the vessel.”
“The next thing you know, I own a ship,” Willson adds.
But once he’d signed on the dotted line, he had to figure out where he was going to put it. Thankfully, Willson was able to secure a lease in the California river city of Rio Vista and arranged for the ship to be towed there. CNN
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That’s when the restoration process began. The first step was getting rid of all of the trash on board — Willson says there were hundreds of bags worth of household type garbage along with old mattresses and blankets — and setting about finding volunteers to help.
“I figured it was going to be a long project,” says Willson. “The scale of it was massive. It’s almost the same as redoing 15 houses all by yourself.”
After spending a few months traveling for around three hours from his home in Santa Cruz to work on the ship, Willson decided to move on board with his partner Jin Li so that he could fully focus on the project, as well as keep it secure.
“When I first moved aboard many of my friends and family were in disbelief,” he admits. “It was a rather large change in lifestyle. “But I view it as more of an upgrade, although we are off grid and running on mainly generators and solar grids.”
As he began digging further into the history of the ship, Willson says he learned that, not only had it been the inspiration for popular TV series “The Love Boat,” it was also the filming location for the Spectre criminal organization headquarters in the 1963 James Bond movie “From Russia with Love.”
The vessel served as a cruise ship for around two decades, he says, and went through several different owners, as well as names, before being moored in Vancouver.
After a few false starts and more ownership and name changes, it was towed to Alameda, California in 2005. Plans were put in place to turn it into a luxury yacht, but they ultimately fell through.
The ship remained at Alameda for several years until it was bought by a businessman and moved to the California Delta. The vessel was thought to be on the verge of being scrapped when Willson saw it advertised on Craiglist in 2008. CNN
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