All text and photographs (unless stated otherwise) © Paul Timmerman
I visited this classic passenger ship in October 2005 in the Greek port of Piraeus and took a most interesting tour on board. Photographs made during my visit can be seen on my Topaz - photo page.
Go to the Topaz photo page to have a look on board and visit this remarkable grand old lady of the seas......
The current charterer of the Topaz is the Japanese Peaceboat organisation. Peaceboat has a connection to the United Nations' Economic and Social Council. Since 1983, this organisation uses a chartered passenger vessel to organise special cruises. During these cruises, passengers and crew can participate in activities linked to the countries and their inhabitants visited by the Topaz. Locals are invited onboard to discuss the current situation in their country and in many cases through special projects, help is provided in the form of development aid for poor countries or humanitarian help when a country or region is the vicitim of a disaster like an earthquake, famine etc.
Apart from helping people, Peaceboat's second goal is to make people, Topaz passengers in this case, aware of the problems confronting today's world. Passengers are even offered a three month course to increase their knowledge of the topics they will be confronted with during their voyage around the world.
History of the Topaz
After the war, the Canadian Pacific Railway Company was left with a fleet consisting of just two cargo vessels, two passenger vessels, Maplecove en Mapledoll which were in fact converted freighters and three transatlatic liners: Empress of France (1928), Empress of Scotland (1930) and Empress of Australia (1924).
All these vessels were clearly past their best. A fourth Empress, the Empress of Canada was tragically lost because of a devastating fire. At first, Canadian Pacific wasn't in a hurry to modernize their fleet, but when the competition started introducing new ships, they were forced to take action. Holland America had introduced the Rijndam and the Maasdam, ships aimed at the tourist class market (which was quite a novelty in these days as before, all had been focussed on first class) and Cunard didn't have less than four ships on order.
To fight the competition, Canadia Pacific bought French Line's De Grasse and renamed her Empress of Australia. Next, orders were placed for three new Empresses (Empress of Britain 1956, Empress of England 1957 , Empress of Canada 1961 ).
The first vessel, the Empress of Britain was launched in 1955 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. She had a distinctive profile and a very modern appearance. Before returning home, the Queen and and the Duke of Edinburgh were shown several mock up cabins and drawings of public rooms of the new liner. In fact, the Empress of Britain was the third ship to bear this name, the first was introduced in 1906 and the second had been taken into service in 1931.
Empress of Britain
March 1956, Empress of Britain carried out her sea trials and these proved to be very succesful. Immediately afterwards, she was handed over to her new owners. Comments of the press showed that her interiors were just as modern as her appearance. By carriyng 900 tourist and just 150 first class passengers, she followed the trend set by Holland America's Maasdam and Rijndam which, catering alsmost exclusively for tourist class passengers were called "the Economy Twins" by the travelling public at the time. Aboard Empress of Britain, tourist class accommodations had been fitted out in such a way, that there was virtually no difference between tourist and first class accommodations. One of the public rooms, the Empress Room, even was available to two classes, a most uncommon feature those days. On April 20th 1956, she left Liverpool on her Maiden Voyage.
In the years that followed, Empress of Britain was also employed on cruises, for example to the Canary Islands, Morocco and Portugal in the winter of 1963.
In the meantime, more and more travellers decided to cross the Atlantic by jet airplane. The number of passengers slowly started to decline. Home Lines was one of the first shipping companies to react to this this development by withdrawing their Homeric from the North Atlantic route. At the same time, they ordered their partly finished newbuilding Oceanic to be finished as a full time cruise ship instead of a liner as originally planned. This decision made quite a few people in the trade raise their eyebrows, but as it turned out, the Oceanic became the most succesful cruise ship of her time.
In September 1963, the Empress of Britain made her 108th and last Atlantic liner voyage to Canada. When she returned she was chartered by a new company, called the Travel Savings Assocation with ambitious plans to attract passengers to cheap cruises. Passengers embarked on a savings program and when they had saved enough to pay for the voyage, they could finally embark on their dream ship... The man behind this ambitious plan was a business man from South Africa, Mr. Max Wilson. Apart from the Empress of Britain, he also chartered the Empress of England, P&O's Stratheden and the Reina del Mar of the Pacific Steam Nav. Cy. Canadian Pacific even took a large share in the company.
Alas, in 1964, TSA cancelled all charters as their ambitious plans had not materialized. Because of the declining trade to Canada, Canadian Pacific had no furher employment for the Empress of Britain and she was offered for sale. She was acquired at once by Greek Line who still saw great potential in the Atlantic route to New York served from Mediterranean ports. At the end of 1964, she left the Mersey for the last time and headed for Greece for an extensive refit. She was renamed Queen Anna Maria. During her refit her passenger spaces were much improved, all of her cabins became air-conditioned and in most of them bathrooms were installed.
Topaz - menu card
A very large nightclub was created and four pools were installed on her Lido deck. The only change to her beautiful outward appearance was a new rounded stern three decks high instead of her former terraced after decks. Happily, her looks weren't spoiled as this was done in a most skilful way, e.g. the windows in her stern were exactly matching those more forward in size.
In 1965, she left her new homeport of Piraeus for her first introductory cruise to Haifa, Israel. After this, she settled in her trans-Atlantic schedule. A round voyage took her 28 day's to complete. Between her liner voyages she made cruises to the Caribbean and out of New York.
Greek Line however, gradually ran into serious financial trouble, mostly because of rapidly rising fuel costs and a declining number of passengers on her liner voyages because of the competition of the jet-aircraft. At the end, she occasionally made cruises between periods of lay-up. In 1975 Greek Line collapsed and Queen Anna Maria was laid up in Perama Bay, the "Bay of Doom" where hundreds of out of work ships silently await there final voyage to the breakers.
Carnival brochure 1980
Queen Anna Maria was lucky to find new employment soon, as the owner of a new cruise line, Carnival Cruises, a Mr Ted Arison was immediately interested. He saw great potential in her as a full time cruise ship and after a thorough inspection he bought her. Carnival's other vessel, their first ship, was Empress of Britains former fleetmate Empress of Canada, now renamed Mardi Gras. Within two months, Queen Anna Maria, now renamed Carnivale was taken into service. She had not been altered much, but Carnivale's architect Joe Farcus hd upgraded her interiors to a more modern, glitzy look, e.g. by installing metallic ceilings and futuristic furniture.
The Sports Bar & Hemingway Bar in their Carnival days
She made cruise after cruise for the company, which had great succes with their "fun ships" which attracted vast number of passengers. After 18 years of loyal service, Carnival launched a new subsidiary Fiesta Marina Cruises. Carnivale was renamed Fiesta Marina and a series of cruises were planned out of San Juan, aimed at Spanish speaking passengers from South-America. Of course it was nothing more than an attempt to find further employment for an already older vessel. It did not work out, as bookings remained at a very low level. In September 1994, the last cruise took place. Fiesta Marina Cruises had lasted only 10 months....
In the mean time, Carnival had tried to form an alliance with Greek Epirotiki Cruises, but in the end this never materialized because of "differences of culture" as both companies stated. Fiesta Marina was handed over to Epirotiki who started to operate her as Olympic after a brief refit. But, although Olympic became quite succesful, Epirotiki found her too large and too old. They planned the introduction of new ships and Olympic was put on the sales list almost the moment she was introduced.
Epirotiki Cruises - Olympic Page of an Epirotiki brochure, click on picture for a larger image
At the end of 1997, she was sold to Topaz International and chartered to Thomson Cruises, a British tour operator. Again she was refitted and renamed Topaz. The Yacht Club, a 24-hour restaurant was added and her forwrad superstructure was enlarged to house 28 additional cabins. Amazingly, her cinema, although not much altered, became Le Cabaret restaurant. Between the rows of seats, tables were placed and passengers still faced the stage while eating. Topaz suffered some start-up problems because of the limited time spent on her refit. After this was rectified, she grew immensely popular with her British clientele.
But sadly, history repeated itself: she became too old and again could not compete any more with her competitors which were all modern tonnage. Besides this, new SOLAS rules ( Safety of Lives at Sea) were scheduled and she had to be upgraded extensively to comply to these rules. So, Thomson didn't renew their first five year charter period with another five year contract. Topaz was replaced bythe newer Thomson Spirit, the former Nieuw Amsterdam of Holland America Cruises.
Topaz, Thomson Cruises
Again, there was immediate interest in her, this time from the Japanese Peaceboat Organisation. This orgnisation chartrered her at once for 4 years, until 2006. They did not make many alterations to her interiors. Her largest shop became the administrative centre of the ship, aptly named the Peaceboat Centre, her casino equipment was removed and this space is now used as a library and a part of it (called "free space" on the deck-plan) is used to organise meetings with selected guests onboard who can discuss the politcal or economical situation in their country for example with the passengers who attend.
In 2003 Topaz now with the name Peaceboat and the website address painted on either side of the hull together with new blue funnel colours again with the organisation's name on it, started sailing for her new charterers. After several voyages of shorter duration of a couple of weeks, she now settled in a regular pattern of 3 world cruises each year complemented by one or two shorter voyages.
Topaz, Peaceboat Organisation
When visiting the Topaz on October 8th 2005, we found her in an immaculate condition, spotless in and out. We were told that her steam turbines still operate flawlessly after half a century of service, but because of her high fuel consumption, it was not sure if her charter would be extended after 2006.
However, she sailed for the organisation until April 2008 when the charter was finally ended. Not much later she sailed for Singapore and was laid up there, the owners obviously hoping to secure another charter.
On June 15th, Topaz, while still at anchor in Singapore, collided with the chemical tanker Champion Brali. Part of her bow was sliced off.
Afterwards, things have become quiet around the Topaz. It seems the inevitable breakers torch will be next.....