Feature: The Story of O
To those who met him in the early 1990s, Alexander Blastos was a wealthy and successful international businessman. The owner of Trans Global Shipping, an international shipping company in Athens, Blastos also owned real estate in New England and Florida, a plump Goldman Sachs account, interest in two family restaurants, and 1,000 acres of farmland and fruit and olive orchards in Argos, Greece. And he was about to become the owner of Christina, the 325-foot multimillion-dollar yacht once owned by Aristotle Onassis.
In truth, Blastos possessed no property, no vehicles, no jewelry, no stocks, and no bonds. As for owning an orchard? With the 26 cents he had to his name, Blastos could not have purchased a jar of olives. Blastos, who had bid $2.1 million to buy Christina from the Greek government in 1993, was a scam artist who was convicted of wire fraud in 2000 and given a three-year prison sentence in a South Carolina federal facility. He was, as a U.S. District Court document states, “the ultimate con man.”
Christina, meanwhile, was purchased by a group of boating professionals, renamed Christina O, and given a $50 million face-lift. She is now available for charter through Tauck World Discovery, a Connecticut-based travel company that specializes in upscale destinations.
The Blastos affair was only one of a score of dramatic, intriguing, or tragic episodes that plagued the yacht and splashed Onassis across newspapers and television sets during the 1960s and 1970s. “I remember seeing pictures of the boat when I was a kid,” says Peter Tauck, president of Tauck World Discovery. “There’s so much history to the boat. Our market is the 50-plus market. Most of the people lived through that era, and they remember all the stuff that surrounded this boat.”
During World War II, as German U-boats shadowed commercial vessels crossing the English Channel, the Allies sent antisubmarine escorts to and from Normandy to protect their convoys. One of those escorts was the HMCS Stormont, a Canadian Navy River Class frigate armed with four 20mm Oerlikon machine guns, twin 102mm forward guns, and 145 depth charges, to rattle German U-boats. Stormont, launched on July 14, 1943, saw most of its action the next year, and was decommissioned on November 9, 1945.
Five years later, an up-and-coming Greek shipping magnate named Aristotle Onassis came across Stormont. Onassis saw the guns, cannons, and turrets, and he imagined replacing them with a pool, a seaplane, and a Fiat 500. He purchased Stormont for $34,000 and set about transforming the yacht into a floating palace for entertaining guests. In October 1954, after footing a $4 million conversion bill, Onassis took delivery of the yacht and renamed it Christina, after his daughter.
The conversion, which would have cost more than $25 million in today’s dollars, filled the onetime war frigate with over-the-top opulence. Onassis’ suite, on the pilothouse deck, included an office, a dressing room, and a bathroom that featured marble floors and gold-plated fittings. The office contained a Louis XIV desk, a priceless jade Buddha statue, and an El Greco painting.
The oak-paneled library, located on the promenade deck, contained the complete works of Winston Churchill, with signed personal notes from the statesman to Onassis. The most notorious room of Christina was the bar, where Onassis ordered whale foreskins to cover the bar stools and whale teeth to serve as footrests. During one cruise, it is said, Onassis approached Greta Garbo, who was perched on a bar stool, and asked, “Madam, do you realize you are sitting on the largest penis in the world?”
Abovedecks, five tenders, a Fiat 500, a glass-bottom boat, and a Piaggio seaplane (which would be involved in perhaps the greatest tragedy of Onassis’ life) wowed Onassis’ celebrity guests and the paparazzi who stalked them. At night, a crew member drained the mosaic-lined pool, pushed a button, and the bottom rose to the deck and became a dance floor.
Onassis did not consider Christina a lavish personal plaything. Instead, he viewed his yacht as a business tool that could expand his shipping empire. From her home port of Monte Carlo, Christina cruised every fetching locale in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, her suites filled with the most glamorous celebrities and the most influential statesmen of the era.
“It was the stage he created for impressing the powerful and famous, which in turn got him publicity, which in turn got him a lot of attention from banks and shipbuilding companies,” says Nicholas Gage, author of Greek Fire (Knopf, 2000), an account of the relationship between Onassis and opera star Maria Callas, his longtime mistress, whom he courted aboard Christina. “Nobody who read about Onassis would question giving him a loan. He could entertain elements of society that he would otherwise have difficulty winning over.” Callas, Garbo, Churchill, Elizabeth Taylor, Rudolf Nureyev, Frank Sinatra, Richard Burton, and other celebrities were regulars aboard Christina. If a lady did not have a partner, she had no need to worry; according to Gage, Onassis demanded that his crew members, aside from being able to speak at least one other language besides Greek, be proficient dancers to prevent any guest from being embarrassed. To that same end, writes Gage, Onassis also insisted that every morning his chambermaids quickly whisk away the sheets from the bed of Churchill, an incontinent sleeper. (On each of his eight cruises aboard Christina, Churchill had a demand of his own: that Toby, his green parakeet, always be at his side.)
Onassis, who had two children with his wife Tina (25 years his junior), profited professionally from the publicity and his high-profile friendships, but it took a toll on his personal life, especially his marriage.
Callas, one of many women to pique Onassis’ interest, boarded Christina on July 22, 1959, for a three-week cruise to the Greek islands. By August 13, when the boat docked in Monte Carlo, Onassis and Callas—who was also married at the time—had fallen in love. Callas became pregnant during the cruise, and Gage writes that the singer gave birth to a boy on March 30, 1960, but that the child died later that day, contrary to the widespread rumor that Callas had an abortion.
While Onassis engaged in an on-and-off relationship with Callas, he set his eyes on another prize: the world’s most famous widow. The Kennedys had been guests on the Onassis yacht in 1957, and in 1963, Jackie visited Christina while her husband stayed home. During the cruise, Onassis gave Jackie a $50,000 necklace.
Following President Kennedy’s assassination, Onassis showered Jackie with sympathy. Eventually he began courting her, and ultimately proposed to her. On October 20, 1968, the two were married at Onassis’ estate on the Greek island of Skorpios, and the reception was held aboard Christina, where he had first wooed the then-First Lady.
Onassis barred Jackie, that era’s embodiment of style and taste, from redecorating Christina. It was a minor disagreement, but it also foreshadowed the more fractious friction that was to follow. Several years later, Onassis, already worn by his loveless marriage, was devastated on January 22, 1973, when Alexander Onassis, his 24-year-old son, crashed in Christina’s Piaggio seaplane and suffered head injuries that led to his death.
Onassis died two years later, on March 15, 1975, but Christina continued to plague his family. Christina, his daughter, and Jackie became involved in a dispute over Onassis’ estate, and in a protracted legal battle, Christina paid a $26 million settlement to Jackie. The agreement allowed her to keep her namesake yacht until 1978, when she gave it to the Greek government as a gift.
Greece’s political leaders cruised aboard Christina until the mid-1980s, when she was transported to a navy shipyard, where the once-proud vessel was forgotten by everybody except one unlikely character, whose interest in Christina now seems fitting, given the boat’s checkered history.
In 1987, a 22-year-old New Hampshire resident named Alexander Blastos learned that the Greek government was offering Christina for sale. Blastos, unemployed at the time, began planning a scheme in which he would present himself as a wealthy businessman, purchase Christina, and offer the boat for charter as the flagship of a fleet of luxury cruise yachts. But first he needed some unsuspecting accomplices.
Blastos contacted his uncle Michael, a restaurant owner, and told him that he had a legitimate business plan to purchase and operate Christina for charter. One of Michael’s acquaintances was New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Christos Spirou, who had contributed earlier to the successful reelection campaign of Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou. Michael told Spirou of his nephew’s interest in Christina and asked if Spirou could lend any assistance.
Spirou was glad to help. He arranged meetings for Alexander with Greek government officials. Blastos introduced himself as the owner of Trans Global Shipping and told officials that he had bank holdings in Greece and a $500,000 annual income from a Goldman Sachs account. In November 1992, the Greek government invited Blastos to bid on the boat, and he submitted an offer of $1 million. He was turned down, but in 1993 he increased his bid to $2.1 million for Christina, and his proposal was accepted.
Although the transaction with the Greek government was far from complete, Blastos, using stolen credit card numbers, traveled to Europe several times, meeting with yacht brokers and designers who pitched their ideas for refurbishing Christina. Using Christina as collateral, even though he did not own the boat yet, Blastos hired consultants and designers to begin preliminary planning.
Meanwhile, Greek officials were becoming wary because no payments were arriving. Blastos proposed a deal to the German government to have Christina restored there. Germany would pay a fee to Blastos, who in turn would use the money to pay the Greek government for Christina. The German government, however, would not give Blastos the money until Christina was docked in the country, and Greece refused to release the yacht until Blastos paid up. For several months, Blastos continued to assure the Greek government that he would transfer the necessary funds.
U.S. government officials had by now been alerted to the suspicious behavior and were investigating Blastos, who from July through September of 1994 was living with his mother in Keene, N.H. Blastos was arrested in 1995 and eventually convicted on wire fraud charges related to his swindling of several boating companies. Court documents reveal that from 1991 through 1995, Blastos’ total income was $2,600. Meanwhile, in Greece, Christina continued to deteriorate.
At 8 pm one evening in August 2001, Peter Tauck stood on the end of a pier in Brindisi, Italy, wiping away tears and swallowing the lump in his throat as he watched Onassis’ yacht cruise toward him. Now renamed Christina O, the yacht was arriving from Croatia, where it had just undergone the $50 million renovation. It was time for Christina O to begin her shakedown cruise.
The gleaming 325-foot yacht, equipped with a pair of new MAN engines and mahogany Hacker-Craft tenders, bore no resemblance to the expanse of rust and decay that Tauck had seen three years earlier. In 1998, Tauck heard that the Greek navy was auctioning Christina, so he flew to Greece and visited the shipyard where it was docked. “I saw a rusting, old Christina,” Tauck recalls. “It was in very bad shape. It was sitting there in neglect. But walking through the vessel, an incredible feeling came over me.”
At the auction, Tauck offered the highest bid. He struck a deal with John Paul Papanicolau, a Greek shipping professional and family friend of Christina Onassis, to refurbish the yacht. To pay for the renovation, Tauck sold the majority interest of the boat to Papanicolau and other European investors while retaining part ownership.
Greek naval architect Costas Carabelas led the restoration effort, and Papanicolau’s team in Croatia replaced 600 tons of steel. Steam engines were replaced with new diesels, the cabins were reconfigured to accommodate as many as 36 guests (18 passengers could cruise aboard Christina in Onassis’ time), and every suite was modernized. Papanicolau also added a beauty salon, a gym, a massage room, and a movie theater.
By July 2001, Christina O was sold out for her September 2001 maiden voyage, but the yacht failed to pass the American Bureau of Shipping’s (ABS) certification standards. The design team wanted to add modern amenities and engineering elements to the boat without ruining its lines, but in doing so, Christina O was not stable enough for inspectors. “A month before the first embarkation date, they turned us down at sea trials,” Tauck says. “There were a lot of sleepless nights then.”
The crew worked through August, tweaking the design and construction of the boat, making Christina O stable enough to pass inspection. Papanicolau invited boating professionals on the shakedown trip, and for 10 days Christina O cruised the Mediterranean while industry insiders critiqued every inch of the yacht. “The boat was a great sea boat,” says Jim Mattingly, a Florida yachtsman who was on the shakedown cruise. “We ran into some heavy weather, and it was very comfortable. The accommodations were superb. I walked through the boat, deck by deck, and I couldn’t fault anything with the layout. The whole yacht flows well. It’s not chopped up. There’s a rhyme and reason to it.”
In Onassis’ time, Christina had her flaws. The boat, made top-heavy by the Piaggio and a third deck, shook at her 20-mph maximum speed, and with her full capacity of guests, could manage only a 16-mph clip. While Christina O has shed the structural imperfections that plagued the original vessel, it will always possess the Onassis legacy, which, for better or worse, is as alluring as any of the yacht’s streamlined luxuries.
Tauck World Discovery, 203.221.6891 or 800.788.7885, www.tauck.com