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With Reuben Goossens
Ex Empress of
By: Barry Evetts
The Topaz seen whist under charter to Thompson Cruises
With more and more of the last generation of classic passenger liners ending up under the blow torch on the mudflats of Alang, India, or gently rotting away in lay-up in the backwaters of Eleusis Bay near the Greek port of Piraeus, it is comforting to know that this fine 1956 built vessel has at least two and a bit more years to run under charter to the Japanese Peace Boat organisation and with luck – and the ingenuity that her present owners have displayed so far – several years more in service after that - until SOLAS 2010 comes into force.
Perhaps by then the funds will be around from somewhere to ensure a life thereafter as a permanently moored hotel ship - cum conference and exhibition venue.
I won’t go into too much historical detail here. Peter Knego’s excellent pictorial biography of this fine lady at www.maritimematters.com covers that only too well, but suffice to say that the one-time ‘Empress of Britain’ - later metomorphsised in to Greek Lines ‘Queen Anna Maria’ - was lucky enough when her owners went into bankruptcy in the mid 1970’s to be saved from the blow torch then - unlike her less fortunate sister, Shaw Savill’s Ocean Monarch ex Empress of England.
As ‘Carnivale’ she was plucked from the mortgagee bank’s hands by Ted Arison’s then upstart Carnival Cruise Lines for something less than US$3,000,000 and pressed into service running inexpensive Caribbean cruises from Miami. For the next 18-years or so she remained under their ownership as Carnival grew from a bit player with two former Canadian Pacific liners and one converted former Union Castle mailship to a fleet of a dozen or more ever larger – ever more dazzling – purpose built cruise ships.
Unable to match the dazzle of Carnival’s new ‘Inspiration’ class and others – and after an unsuccessful attempt to rebrand her for the Spanish speaking market out of Puerto Rico as the ‘Fiesta Marina’, she was traded-off as the ‘Olympic’ to Carnival’s one-time suitor Epirotiki Lines, following Carnival’s first attempt to secure a foothold in the European cruise market. Never really suitable for 3 and 4 day Greek Island cruising, in 1997 she passed into the hands of Paris Katsoufis’ Kyma Ship Management, a company which enjoyed an existing close relationship with both Carnival and Epirotiki.
It was an ideal match. Renamed ‘The
Topaz’, she went to a team who knew how to get the best out of a classic
vessel. Katsoufis cut his teeth operating such ships
as ‘Dolphin 1V’ (ex ‘
On the hotel and catering side, Kyma teamed up with Austrian based Maritime Hotel Management (a company whose ability to produce a value-for-money product on a tight budget I had previously experienced first hand when I was involved some years ago in the setting-up of the Crucero Express cruise ferry operation between Cristobal, Panama and Cartagena, Colombia).
‘The Topaz’ began her first
season under charter to
When converted to a cruise ship her aft decks were greatly extended [PK]
With accommodation for my wife and I in an outside cabin on the Bolero Deck – a modular job installed into what had once been part of the first class dining room - at some £550 per head - including air travel from Bristol and transfers to the vessel at Teneriffe – to say nothing of drinks being included as well (which is something of a Maritime Hotel Management speciality it seems), it sounded like bargain.
Having realistic expectations we were not disappointed. With her present configuration of some 1050 berths – and we were told she was a full ship – she never seemed crowded, other than when trying to get a table in the informal topside dining area – The Yacht Club - at peak meal times. And that being the case, we had the alternative of the slightly more formal Topaz Dining Room four decks below anyway.
Food was adequate and plentiful, house wine
flowed freely, and service with a mostly Filipino or East European smile
– and sometimes even a joke – was generally attentive.
Entertainment consisted of the usual floorshows, dance bands, etc, but this
aspect of cruising has never been a
The profile of ‘The Topaz’ had changed a little from her earlier incarnations, with cargo derricks forward dismantled during a 1997 refit and cabins built into a forward extension of the promenade deck. At her stern, the Yacht Club had been built above the Broadway Show Lounge, itself an addition made by Greek Line when the ship was first refitted in 1964. Original wood panelling from her Canadian Pacific days can be found in some of the public rooms. There’s an extensive observation area at boat deck level, forward of the bridge housing and above the newly (1997) added cabins. And most of the extended lido area aft, a prominent feature of her refit/rebuilding as ‘Queen Anna Maria’ - when she switched from a North European to Mediterranean route across the Atlantic in the mid 1960’s –remains, with two pools plus a Jacuzzi.
It’s a pity though that her indoor swimming pool, in use as I understand it until just a few years ago, had been converted into a storage area.
After a summer season in the Western Mediterranean, based out of Palma de Majorca, ‘The Topaz’ had, when we joined her, recently repositioned to a seven-day itinerary from Las Palmas and Teneriffe (with fly/cruise and cruise-and-stay passengers embarking and disembarking at either port), with calls on the following two days at Lanzarote and Agadir, Morocco, followed by a full day at sea, a day in Madeira, a day at the island of La Palma in the Western Canaries, thence back to Las Palmas and Teneriffe.
Most of the sea passages were gentle overnight affairs in relatively sheltered Canarian waters. But these mid-Atlantic latitudes can still put on a display of autumnal weather in late November and both our arrival at, and departure from, Agadir, in a heavy swell - and a full day at sea in similar conditions between there and Madeira - gave ‘The Topaz’ a chance to show off her deep-sea pedigree in conditions that I would not particularly like to experience in a top-heavy balconied behemoth drawing a mere twenty-eight feet six inches!
The perceived wisdom in the cruise industry – as in any other industry - is that progress comes in the form of a bigger, better, newer product – even if it is a 1984 built hand-me –down instead of a 1957 built hand-me –down. So Thompson have now replaced ‘The Topaz’ with the ‘Thompson Spirit’, ex ‘Patriot’ ex ‘Niew Amsterdam’, and ‘The Topaz’ has – since June 2003 - moved on to her new role with the Peace Boat Organisation.
It is certainly a role that will see her
continue to show off her deep-sea pedigree, with a variety of round-the-world
itineraries that include long hauls across the Indian,
And what comes after her
current charter expires in 2006? A renewal with Peace Boat perhaps, if she
still suits their
In theory, she can cruise on right up until
2010, but will there still be a market for her? She had a large following in
Could she be a starter for budget cruising
Could she be a starter for budget cruising from Australia for a four to six month southern summer season with a couple of months of positioning voyages between the UK and Australia/New Zealand and a northern summer season based in British waters?
I certainly wish her luck!
Page One … Empress of Britain – History Page
Page Two … SS The Topaz
Page Three … Topaz Photo Album
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Commenced in the passenger Shipping Industry in May 1960
Where the ships of the past make history & the 1914 built MV Doulos Story
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