PHOTO: Cunard’s S.S. Ivernia in her prime. (photo via Flickr/Municipal Archives of Trondheim)
I’ve had the pleasure of becoming friends with acclaimed cruise travel journalist and ocean liner historian Peter Knego thanks to our shared travels and close proximity as residents of San Diego, California.
He is a remarkable man who has made it his life’s work to not only document the recycling of retired ships but to preserve as many fixtures as possible from onboard.
As such, his home is a treasure trove and museum of the former glories of vintage ocean liners and the storied beginnings of the modern cruise industry. However, for those who can’t visit in person, the next best thing is his wonderful documentary film, “On the Road to Alang.”
In the movie, Knego visits the city in India where he explains the “deep hunger for recycled steel” spawned by economic growth despite impoverished conditions.
He describes Alang itself as “both hellish and holy” for ship lovers and an opportunity to witness their final days as they are literally broken up for raw materials. Several miles’ worth of small villages leading to the beach trade everything from life vests to engine parts.
The beach, of course, is the epicenter where the long gentle grade of the sand and changing tide levels make it ideal for this kind of laborious work.
At high tide, ships are grounded at full speed ahead before stripping begins at low tide. Passenger vessels—at least the older ocean liner varieties—are more challenging to reach closest to shore with their deeper drafts, requiring partial deconstruction farther in the water and winching to get them nearer.
Knego is absolutely correct in saying the Indians have, “made the process of recycling an art.” For someone both mesmerized by ocean liners and abandoned places, Alang and the entire ship-breaking process fascinates me. I’m sure it will interest anyone curious about the history of the industry and just what happens to cruise ships when they outlive their usefulness.
Passenger ships specifically showcased in the documentary include Sun Lines’ former Stella Solaris flagship, Premier Cruise Line’s Big Red Boat III, Commodore Cruise Line’s Enchanted Isle, Empress Cruise Lines’ Mayan Empress, Cunard Line’s former Ivernia and Sylvania sister-ships, Canadian Pacific’s original Empress of Canada and more.
Most detailed in the footage are Sylvania, last the Albatros for Phoenix Reisen, and Empress of Canada, last Apollon for Royal Olympic.
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What’s perhaps most remarkable is how many original fixtures and those installed during the course of ships’ careers remain onboard all the way to the very last days. Many of the Cunard-era interiors of the Sylvania were still intact including doors, stair rails, cabinetry and wheelhouse equipment. Meanwhile, Empress of Canada once served as Carnival Cruise Line’s first cruise ship, Mardi Gras, and retained its ocean liner maple leaf-etched glass as well as colorful Joe Farcus screens.
Of course, from a sheer mechanical standpoint, it’s wild to see how cuts are made down many decks that are eventually broken up by larger blocks much in reverse of how cruise ships are today assembled. One shot even shows a portion of Big Red Boat III’s deck collapsing on itself as it is prepared to be broken down to nothing.
All of this leads to everything from furniture and wall art to trash cans and modular bathrooms being unceremoniously strewn about by merchants quick to sell all that remains—much that Knego has thankfully shipped back to preserve and sell to collectors through his midshipcentury.com website, where a DVD of the documentary can be purchased.
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Among the artifacts documented and saved are master works by Italian painter Emanuele Luzzati taken off of Sun Lines’ Stella Solaris and Stella Oceanis and melamine stair tower panels by Italian production designer Enrico Paulucci.
The documentary even shows how Knego received all of the various pieces and fixtures back in the States in two large 40-foot shipping containers after waiting six to seven long months. Then rounding out the hour-long footage is an intriguing history of many other passenger ships that have gone to the breakers at Alang to sadly be scrapped.
Altogether, the film is a wonderful look at a seldom seen segment of the cruise industry that is well worth any ship buff’s time.
This post first appeared on TravelPulse.