Scholars' Association News
Issue 23
August 2012


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The Christina and her steam engines

1999, winter - naval architect and marine engineer Constantine Philippou came across the historic yacht, Christina, docked at a pier in Perama. The workers were about to refit the yacht with modern diesel engines while the two steam engines would be dismantled to await their turn for a buyer who would sell them for scrap. It was then that it dawned on him that an heirloom of the naval and business history of our country would perish forever. The steam engines of the yacht had to be rescued.

But the venture was costly and exacting. Who could possibly be their final consignee? Who could restore them to their former glory and offer them again to the public? And above all: who could sponsor their restoration project? Constantine Philippou turned to Pavlos Ioannidis, then vice-president of the Onassis Foundation, and he was certainly not disappointed. The BoD immediately embraced the rescue and restoration plan of one of the two steam engines from the yacht with which the name of Onassis had been inextricably linked.

“When Constantine Philippou suggested that we undertook the steam engine’s restoration, we joyfully welcomed the idea because this way we could salvage a memento from both Onassis himself and his yacht, the most impressive and luxurious of its time," admitted Pavlos Ioannidis to ΑΩ.

The final recipient of the donation was the Laboratory of Marine Engineering at the National Technical University of Athens. Today, the first thing the visitor lays eyes on when entering the high-ceilinged building in Zografou Campus, is the imposing steam engine from the yacht. Much larger in size than modern turbojet engines, clean, painted and varnished, the steam engine stands there at the service of the students. Next to it stand two newer engines: a diesel engine and a turbine engine. Their presence is a tangible testament to the technological evolution in marine engineering. According to Nikolaos Kyrtatos, professor and head of the Laboratory, the steam engine is electrically powered by the Laboratory staff once every fortnight so that its impeccable state is not compromised. It is also relatively silent in comparison with more modern ship engines, as Onassis, a true enthusiast, wanted his co-travellers, especially the female ones, to feel as comfortable during the trip as possible.

But how did the steam engine end up on the dock at Perama?

After Onassis
Aristotle Onassis willed his yacht to his beloved daughter; if Christina for some reason did not want her, the yacht would go to his wife Jackie. If in turn, Jackie refused to take her, the yacht would be turned over to the Greek government, on condition that maintenance work was carried out and the yacht then offered for use to each incumbent head of state.
Her maintenance costs were extremely high: many hundreds thousands of dollars annually. In 1978, Christina Onassis presented the yacht to the Greek government to be used by the incumbent President of the Republic..
Pavlos Ioannidis states that “As trustees of the estate of Christina Onassis, before delivering the yacht, we made sure that all equipment aboard was recorded in detail.”

The transition from the Greek government to her new owner
Although the Hellenic Navy undertook the maintenance work on the yacht, so that she was always ready to set sail accommodating the Greek President and his noble guests, she was used only once by Christos Sargetakis. Konstantinos Karamanlis refused to use her, thus she remained docked at the Hellenic Navy shipyard, overtaken by technological achievements concerning fuel consumption, speed and modern day requirements for air-conditioning.
Pavlos Ioannidis explains that “In 1999, the Greek government announced its decision to sell the yacht to the Greek ship-owner, Yiannis-Pavlos Papanicolaou, who transformed her into a modern high-quality charter boat. The yacht underwent complete refurbishment and was fitted with new engines; the old engines were removed and one of them was salvaged thanks to Constantine Philippou’s initiative and the sponsorship from the Onassis Foundation.

Following this action, as trustees of Christina’s estate, we agreed to the the Greek government’s decision with the inviolable condition that we should remove all furniture and personal objects from Aristotle Onassis’s cabin. Then, the Greek government would have the right to keep as many of the objects aboard the yacht as it deemed necessary, while the rest would be bought by the Onassis Foundation. Amongst these objects was Onassis’ collection of model navy ships from the Napoleonic era, which we donated, apart from two pieces, to the Hellenic Maritime Museum. The rest of the objects were packed and sent to Skorpios island, where they are stored, probably still even today, for Athena Onassis. Some of the items purchased by the Onassis Foundation are displayed in the neoclassical building on Amalias Avenue. Amongst them is the dining table from the yacht, the piano Maria Callas used, some of Onassis’s weapons, small furniture items, decorative objects and paintings” (see photographs).

A relevant note written by Constantine Philippou says: “In 1999, after finishing some work at the Perama Repair Yard, I noticed the moored yacht. After asking around for a while, I learnt that the stripping of the engine room had begun, which meant the destruction of all its machinery. So, the thought of salvaging at least one of the steam engines dawned on me and I hurriedly strove to persuade the contractor to postpone the works and of course to locate the ship’s new owner.
After persistent efforts – as the ship’s owner was abroad – I managed to persuade him to agree to the delay involved in dismantling the engine rather than to destroy it for scrap.  At the same time, I contacted the Alexander S. Onassis Foundation and Mr. Pavlos Ioannidis in person, even though I had not met him before.  The Foundation agreed to sponsor the venture on condition that I would personally oversee the dismantling and restoration work on the steam engine without any compensation whatsoever.”

The restoration and NTUA
Specialized craftsmen and experts in old steam engines were sought and the various parts of the engine were finally transferred to D. I. Karras marine engine-works, where they underwent maintenance and were re-assembled.

“The new problem that arose was who was going to be the recipient of this heirloom, which should at least be preserved as a museum exhibit representing a technology that now belongs to the past” continues Constantine Philippou in his note. Finally, the steam engine found its new owner; the National Technical University of Athens.

On Zografou Campus, the steam engine found its new home. Professor Nikolaos Kyrtatos, who is also an Onassis Foundation Scholar, saw to it that the engine was placed in the Laboratory of Marine Engineering. So, the transfer of the engine from Perama to the Campus with a special vehicle and crane was planned. In September 1999, there was a small yet official ceremony and the engine was handed over. Pavlos Ioannidis represented the Onassis Foundation at the event.

“It was a challenging venture”, explains Professor Kyrtatos. “It was like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle, putting it together piece by piece. And the restoration cost was huge. For the engine to be relocated from the repair shop to our Laboratory – the engine weighs around 50 tonnes – it was cut in half. Then, it had to be re-assembled and also to be fully functional. It was a tough and long ‘operation’ but it was worth it. It is a historic item we rarely come across nowadays, and it bears unique educational importance testifying to the continuity and gradual evolution of engineering history.”

The entire feat enjoyed the moral support of the Hellenic Institute of Maritime Technology and the Hellenic Marine Technical Consultants Association. “The historic steam engine from a historic ship is presently kept at our country’s most celebrated technical institution of higher education, where I am certain it will be preserved as a contribution to our students’ education and as an exhibit of historic importance which combines a technology that led the Greek navy to great achievements and a name that remains a legend in the navy world across the globe" concluded Constantine Philippou.

On May 11, 2000, the Laboratory of Marine Engineering hosted an event on the theme:  “Marine Propulsion Engines:  the diesel engines of the present and the steam engine of the past”.  In light of the event, the refurbished steam engine of the fabled Christina (sponsored by the Onassis Foundation) was presented and the then new research team of Marine Engine Testing at NTUA was introduced.  Pavlos Ioannidis attended the event on behalf of the Onassis Foundation, and delivered an address. Constantine Philippou also gave a speech entitled 'Steam - Steam Engine:  a historical flashback – The engine from the yacht’, while Themistoklis Xanthopoulos, then Dean of the Institute, touched on “The rotation of the steam engine on the Christina.

Onassis’s Pride
This is a 4-cylinder reciprocating "Compound" steam engine, with an output power of 2,750 HP at 185 rpm manufactured by Canadian Vickers of Montreal in 1943. It is one of the two engines installed in the Canadian Navy frigate STORMONT (GRT 1602) which served during World War II as escort to convoys transferring military supplies to the allied powers in Britain and Russia. It was purchased by Aristotle Onassis in 1953.

The summer of 1953 raised Onassis’s spirits quite high; on the one hand, as in Hamburg he christened his 45,000 ton tanker – the biggest of its time – Tina Onassis; and on the other hand in Howaldtswerke (HDW) in Kiel, the conversion of the Canadian frigate Stormont into a privately-owned luxurious yacht began – the yacht was to be christened Christina.
The purchase of the ship gave Aristotle Onassis immense satisfaction. In Pavlos Ioannidis’s words, it was the most luxurious private yacht of its time: Onassis was very proud of his asset and almost considered it home. “This is the only place in the world where I don’t feel a stranger” Onassis once said. Nowhere else was he happier than when on his 325ft (99m) yacht. The conversion of the old Canadian frigate into what King Farouk of Saudi Arabia once described as “the ultimate opulence” had cost Onassis more than 4 million dollars.
The yacht’s library was packed with works by Greek classical authors and other leather-bound books. In the dining room, two paintings depicted Tina Onassis in ice-skates in one and Alexander and Christina having a picnic on the grass in the other. The bar stools were covered with white whale skin. The pool bottom rose to deck level, instantly becoming a dance floor, inlaid with mosaics portraying scenes from Greek mythology. The sense of affluence was enhanced by the lapis lazuli mantel of the fireplace, the bar handholds ornately carved with themes from the Iliad and Odyssey, and the staircase with the marble handrail.
For himself, Onassis had reserved a 4 bedroom suite with a bath of blue Sienna marble, a replica of a bathroom from a Minoan palace. On the walls hung Venetian mirrors. There were nine more suites, each named after a Greek island. The “Ithaki” suite always accommodated the finest of guests, among whom were Greta Garbo, Jackie Kennedy, Maria Callas, Winston Churchill, Umberto Agnelli of the FIAT Group, John Paul Getty and many Hollywood stars.
It is rumoured that Richard Burton had once said “I am positive that there is no man or woman that will not be seduced by this yacht”.  This yacht was where Onassis’s fabled romances evolved, first with Maria Callas and then with Kennedy’s widow.

Love for the sea and innovation
But why is it that Onassis, who so loved the sea, chose a frigate for his personal yacht instead of a sailing boat, which one may consider more fitting to the temperament of a traditional Greek. Pavlos Ioannidis answers this question: “Niarchos owned a sailing boat; Onassis always wanted to break new ground; to seek the modern.”
The yacht featured the last word in technology with systems highly innovative for the time: radar, communications, air-conditioning, electronic temperature control for the pool water, and much more.
The yacht was usually docked either at Skorpios or in Monte Carlo, and Onassis used her frequently for cruises  to Venice, the Ionian islands, Piraeus, Delos, Mikonos, Lesvos, Athos, Istanbul, Smyrna, Crete, while he even went as far as the Caribbean.  His amphibian aircraft, Piaggio, later to prove fatal for his son, always escorted him on his trips and was at the service of his guests.  “Aboard Christina, Onassis combined work with pleasure”, states Pavlos Ioannidis. “It was more of a home.  He loved pampering his guests, he adored the sea just as he did every part of his business.  Stelios Papadimitriou asked him once ‘What will happen afterwards, Mr. Onassis?’  ‘You will keep my business alive’ answered Onassis,  ‘I am the business’.”

London, 2012
Christina O, as the yacht is currently called, sixty years after its construction, has been docked at Canary Wharf in the London Docklands for the past few months, where it operates as an exhibition hall with an elegant restaurant and a room hosting business events. During the Olympic Games in August, the legendary yacht is expected to attract a host of tourists visiting London for the Games.
The person who led the rescue operation of the yacht’s steam engine, Constantine Philippou, passed away recently at the end of March 2012. The yacht’s first master, who literally cherished her, is no longer alive.  And yet the steam engine, a symbolic representation of Aristotle Onassis’s innovative spirit, is still with us and his inspired business legacy continues through the Foundation he created in memory of his beloved son, Alexander.


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