California Dreaming From Steam Ship to Startup Hub

The first German ocean-going steamer that was allowed to be built after World War II is getting a new lease of life near San Francisco and Silicon Valley as a startup hub.
Wappen von Hamburg steamship when it first launched in the 1950s.

When the Wappen von Hamburg set sail for the first time in May 1955, the weekly German newspaper Die Zeit cheered.

“This ship makes a daytrip to Heligoland and back possible again,” it wrote, and went on to enthuse about its “strong engine,” salons, rooms and verandas, and the beautifully-shaped armchairs and tables.

The vessel was the first German ocean-going steamer that was allowed to be built after the World War II. After its launch in 1955, the ship plied between Hamburg and Heligoland and was the pride of West Germany’s shipbuilding industry. It was constructed by the Blohm & Voss shipyard, had space for 1,600 people, and it cost 5.8 million deutsche marks, at the time $1.45 million.

More than 60 years later, two hour’s drive west of San Francisco: the one-time maritime symbol of the hopes for a post-war German economic miracle is moored in the middle of the channel delta between California’s capital, Sacramento, and the Pacific.

Though the ship has survived, it is no longer beautiful. The paint is peeling, rust is rampant, its cabin windows no longer shine. And yet on a recent Saturday morning, the deck was filled with life. A group of 30 young people had spent the night in the cabins and were now setting up rows of chairs on the upper deck for an environmental conference.

Despite its pitiful condition, the ship radiated a kind of elegance. Chris Willson, Ship owner

Chris Willson is the owner and savior of the ship. The 42-year-old entrepreneur is wearing a dusty cap, a short-sleeve shirt and jeans. He invites me into the salon, next to the bar. He had managed to make a bit of a fortune selling electronics on eBay.

“I have the gift of seeing value in what others dismiss as junk,” Mr. Willson said.

That includes the former Wappen von Hamburg, which he rechristened as the Aurora. Now, together with Sean Ironstag, the founder of start-up Oceanus, he is making the ship available to tech enterpreneurs.

Mr. Willson stumbled upon the vessel in 2008 during one of his bargain-hunting forays. Curtis Lind had listed the ocean liner on Craigslist. The businessman had taken it over from the California city of Alameda, where the ship had been anchored for years.

The once proud Wappen von Hamburg cost $700,000. Mr. Willson drove to the ship and found a derelict pile of junk, trash in the cabins, puddles of water, ripped-out interior paneling. “It was a catastrophe,” he says. But something attracted him to it anyway. “Despite its pitiful condition, the ship radiated a kind of elegance,” he says. And its 1950s mechanics still worked amazingly well.

Mr. Willson decided against selling it off as scrap metal. “It’s a piece of history. It has to be preserved.” He eventually got the ship in trade for consulting services. Mr. Willson not only knows his way around eBay, but he is also an award-winning web designer.

He has been working at reconstructing the ship for over a year and a half now and has gotten the 6,000 horsepower Maybach engines running. The ship is capable of maneuvering. Most of the cabins are habitable again, the musty smell has dissipated, the restaurant with a small stage is even cozy. The ship will look quite snazzy with a fresh coat of paint.

The Wappen von Hamburg has an eventful history. After several years serving as a ferry between Hamburg, Cuxhaven and Helgoland, Arend Wulff, the head of HADAG, the public transport company in Hamburg, sold it in 1960 for 4.36 million deutsche marks to the Greek cruise line Nomikos based in Piraeus.

The Greeks turned the 1,600-passenger steamer into a spacious luxury ship with elegant cabins for 186 passengers, who could divide their time between the swimming pool, sun chairs, souvenir shop, restaurant and bar. Renamed the Delos, in 1961 the ship set the standard for comfortable cruising on the Aegean Sea.

The Greeks sold the cruiser in 1967, according to marine historian Peter Knego, to an American cruise line that offered cruises on the Pacific from out of Vancouver - up to Alaska and down to the South Seas. The Delos became the Pacific Star and later the Polar Star. Then it served as a yacht for telephone sex mogul Joel Eisenberg.

A postcard commemorating the ship, which was launched in the 1950s.

As the Aurora, its fate now lies in Mr. Willson’s hands. For the Californian tinkerer, it’s his mission in life. "I want to take the ship back again to its days of glory,” he says.

Revamping a ship as a hub for startups makes business sense. Office rent in San Francisco and Silicon Valley is at a record high. At the same time, a lot of money is flowing into startups. But the project isn’t all that simple.

In the past, projects wanting to lure founders from the mainland to the high seas to avoid rigid visa requirements or high rents in international waters have had a difficult time. But Mr. Ironstag and Mr. Willson aren’t planning to go all that far out to sea anyway. The Aurora is supposed to cruise off the coast of San Francisco.

The former Wappen von Hamburg would then once again be launched amid high hopes, as happened back in the the 1950s.

This article first appeared in the business magazine WirtschaftsWoche. To contact the author: [email protected]