Retrospective Shipwatch: Doulos

I was fortunate that when I returned from my first cruise on the Achille Lauro in January 1987, there was another ship in the harbour to visit before I headed off back to Johannesburg. While the Achille Lauro is no spring chicken, this oldie made her look young, built in 1914 as the SS Medina, the MV Doulos was the oldest active ocean faring passenger ship in the world until she was retired in 2009.

She was under the ownership of GBA (Good Books for All), a German Christian based charity that operates floating bookshops. Calling in Durban, the Doulos was berthed at Maiden Wharf from 11 Dec – 6 Jan, and I was fortunate enough to go on board her. However, once again I was restricted by how much film I had, so images are scarce of this oldie. But, I think the pics I took on that occasion are probably the best.

GBA Official postcard

There is no way that you could look at her and not see how old she was, inspite of the numerous alterations she endured over the years.

That beautiful old stern was a definite give away, it was the type of stern usually associated with sailing ships.  Doulos did not always look like this as she was originally built as a cargo ship. 

THE STORY OF THE DOULOS, (Article published in “The Reef Knot” of February 1990).

On August 22, 1914, Miss Frances Stuart Sommes launched a small cargo ship from the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company’s yard. The ship, christened Medina, became one of the many thousands which carried the world’s goods across the Ear th’s seas. There was no hint then of her long life, nor of her subsequent career. The Medina survived both world wars and the years of the depression. Her original owners, the Mallory Line, became part of the Atlantic Gulf and West Indies Line but that did not affect. the Medina much. For thirty-four years, she carried her cargoes wherever she was sent. But in 1948, she was laid up at last and it seemed, like many other old ships, she had survived the war only to be scrapped. Not so, in 1948, thousands of immigrants were leaving Europe to rebuild their lives in Canada, Australia, and Israel. A Panamanian concern, called Cia Naviera San . Miguel S.A. looked the old cargo ship over, liked her fine hull and well maintained engines, and saw her potential, when rebuilt, as an emigrant ship.

The reconstruction included a completely new superstructure and interior with space for 925 passengers, new bridge and even a new stack. She was given 14 lifeboats, seven on either side; and two rows of portholes were cut into her hull. A new slanted prow was welded to her old plumb stem, making her look just a little more modern. Miss Sommes would not have recognised her. The rebuilding completed she was renamed Roma, with her green painted hull, her Panamanian registery and her Italian crew, she was taken over by the Genaviter Co. of Rome. In 1950 she made three voyages under charter to the International Catholic Travel Committee between New York and Naples. Then she made a number of round voyages to Australia carrying immigrants; but by 1952, she was laid up again and offered for sale.

Giacomo Costa fu Andrea, owner of the Costa Line purchased her. She was given the Italian registry and a new name, the Franca C. and at first was assigned to Costa’s two-class service from Genoa to the West Indies. The Costa Line were well known for their ability to get the best out of elderly ships. Therefore they spent a considerable amount of money making sure the Franca C would uphold their reputation. They gave her a new Fiat two stroke diesel engine; upgraded her passenger spaces and public rooms; and cut her capacity slightly to accommodate 900 persons. The old 32 berth dormitories remained for awhile, but the bunks were in two tiers only. Costa’s brochures proudly proclaimed that the ship was fully air-conditioned. The Franca C’s new livery was white, with blue boot topping and an enlarged yellow stack emblazoned with a huge capital ‘C’. She was put into service with the Anna C and the Andrea C on the route between Italy and the River Plate, carrying. passenger’s in first, tourist and third classes. This service continued until 1959, when Costa decided to enter the Miami cruise trade. Indeed, they were a founder of this trade and the Franca C one of  the first cruise ships engaged in offering a series of Winter cruises to the West Indies. Her passenger accommodation was again upgraded, with most of  the cabins receiving private baths or showers. The upper deck aft. became a lido, with a tiny, tiled swimming pool. The Franca C Lee became a well-known and very popular cruise ship. When she was not working out of Miami, she was in the Mediterranean or cruising to Madeira.

In 1965, Costa announced the Franca C would cruise out of Port Everglades, Florida. In the summer, twice-weekly cruises were offered; in winter, she sought the sun on longer trips. But in May 1966, the US Coastguard refused her a permit to sail on a Memorial Day cruise, citing she no longer met US safety standards. It took 90 days to sort out the difficulties but finally the Franca C was allowed to sail on cruises from Florida. Because of a technicality in the 1960 Safety At Sea Convention rules, stating that if she passed an Italian safety inspection; the US Coastguard had to accept her despite her failure to pass their stringent tests. In 1970, Costa again refurbished the ship, giving her another new engine. She continued to be popular, but as Miami welcomed the big, new purpose built cruise ships, she was shifted back to the Mediterranean, where she celebrated her sixtieth year in service. Everyone expected her to take her last voyage to the breakers yard when, in 1976, Costa finally laid her up.

Nobody expected her to take on a new career. She was 62, and for a ship, exceptionally long lived. In 1977, she was sold, not to scrappers but to Operation Mobilisation, a non profit making German Christian project. They already had a ship, the Logos, (ex Umanak), and they were looking for another. They wanted a passenger ship with large public spaces that could be used for conferences; a hold to carry the thousands of educational and Christian books they sold in the Third World countries; and space to display them in part of the ship easily accessible to the public. The ship had to be able to be converted to Operation Mobilisation use, and most of all, since they relied on donations for their funds, she had to be affordable, both to purchase in the first place, and to maintain in service.

They had been looking and praying for a suitable ship for some time; now here she was. She was renamed Doulos, meaning “Servant of God”, given an overhaul and an international crew and sent out as an evangelical ship.

In the eleven years since, the OM ships have been welcomed in 87 countries, visiting more than 200 ports. Several million people have purchased books and pamphlets from the bookshops on board. Many thousands have attended Christian seminars hosted by the crew, who -have also visited hundreds of churches in these countries, bringing fellowship and comfort to the local Christians. She visited Durban in December of 1986 where she was visited by many thousands of people. The Doulos will be 75 on August 22 1989, a venerable old lady indeed, and still a good and faithful servant.

Once on board you could see her age, her lifeboat davits definitely being from a previous era. It was also said that in parts her plates were very thin and you could literally put your finger through them, but somehow I doubt it. American built ships were built very strongly, and she was very well maintained even though there was a limited budget available. I know I bought books on board her that day, and when I left I had a feeling that just maybe one day our paths would cross again.

My next encounter I cannot date positively, although I do recall the trip. My trusty ship book gives the date as 11 November 1993, but she was only in Durban from 24 November till 13 December, which means we probably saw her on 2 December when we were there for Marco Polo. It was an important year for Doulos too as she was in Cape Town from 28 April to 15 November where she had major electrical work done, converting her from DC to AC as well as a much welcomed drydocking. The work was probably done by volunteers too, and she was often waived port duties by port authorities. In total she spent 9 months of the year in South African waters.

The images I have of her are not as good as those I took before, in fact the difference may be related to the weather.

It was hard to say whether anything changed on board. I do know that the South African courtesy flag that she was flying would soon be on its way out.

She came to South Africa three more times before she was withdrawn from service in 2009, and her statistics are very impressive for the time that she was in service with GBA. Sadly though she would be doomed by SOLAS 2010, and faced with a large repair bill it was decided that the venerable ex freighter had reached the end of the line.

Or had she?

On March 18, 2010, she became the property of BizNaz Resources International Pte Ltd in Singapore who planned to preserve the ship under the name Doulos Phos, (Servant Light), In September 2013, she was towed from Singapore to Batam, Indonesia to be refurbished before being moving to the Island of Bintan to be part of a hotel resort.  The ship was converted into a hotel, albeit not afloat, but the conversion was outstanding. Unfortunately due to the Covd Pandemic it closed in March 2020 until further notice. (Hotel website)

The Doulos may surprise us all, after all, she has been around over 100 years!

DRW © 2010-2022. Moved and recreated images 11/03/2016, moved to Musings 02/03/2021, tagged 12/12/2008. Added in Reef Knot article 20/02/2022. 

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