Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

          © ErN 89, Jeff Matthews   entry July 2003, rev. Nov 2010   
 
There are two items on this page: 1.  Odessa, the Forgotten Ship    2.  Tales of the Cold War Aboard the Odessa.

1.
Odessa, the Forgotten Ship


I had hoped that the Odessa was still afloat and back in business somewhere, but I've just read this: "Laid up at Naples in the late 1990s, she was finally released and a large refit was undertaken but not completed before her owners mysteriously gave up and sold her for scrap." I do know that in 2006, two Neapolitan film directors, Leonardo Di Costanzo and Bruno Oliviero released a documentary about the ship's plight in the port of Naples. It took three years, but they finally got backing for the film from a French company after a number of Italian ones turned it down. The one-hour documentary was called, Odessa, la Nave dell'Oblio (literally, The Ship of Oblivion).

The docked and motionless Odessa in the port of Naples had become somewhat of a landmark but had become rustier and less seaworthy with each passing month and year she sat there. The Odessa was built in 1970-74 in Newcastle, UK. She was 136 meters long, did 19 knots and carried 550 passengers and 265 crew. The Odessa was once the proud flagship of the Soviet cruise fleet, and, indeed, I remember it coming into Naples on a number of occasions in the 1980s. At the time, Soviet tourists were an oddity in Naples. One time I went down to the port to meet Viktor, a trombone-player friend of mine on tour with the then Leningrad (now, St. Petersburg) Philharmonic. He walked up smiling and wearing a watch on each wrist. He had been waylaid by a dockside vendor, but he seemed content and I'm sure the vendor was. (I heard later that both watches gave up the ghost halfway through the second movement of Shostakovitch's 5th symphony later that evening.) Anyway, Viktor had arrived on the good ship, Odessa.

Time passed, and it seemed that the Odessa was simply just there all the time in the port. She had become a fixture. Then, I ferried out of the port on my way to Sorrento one morning, looked over at the usual place and she was gone. As it turned out, the ship had stayed for seven years. I had lost track of the time.

When the Soviet Union unraveled in 1991, 200 ships were taken over by the Black Sea Shipping Company (BLASCO) operating out of the port of Odessa in the Ukraine. By the spring of 1995, Blasco owed 300 million dollars to its creditors and was so far in debt that 24 of the company's ships were seized in ports around the world. At the demand of a German creditor, the Odessa was "arrested" (the term used in Admiralty law) on a cruise at Capri. There were 360 passengers on board at the time. They disembarked in Naples, and the ship was forbidden to set sail. (In such cases, port authorities carrying out the arrest physically board the ship and place a lock and chain around the wheel and post a warrant.)

A war of attrition began between the creditors and the skeleton crew left on board, commanded by Captain Vladimir Lobanov. The Captain retained a sense of humor throughout the affair, at one point telling reporters that the crew was doing much better "now that all the rats have starved to death." Most of the crew left, but the nine crew members who stayed had a claim against the vessel and decided to tough it out in the hopes of some day not having to return home totally penniless from the ordeal. As in the cases of some of the Odessa's sister ships in ports around the world, the plight of the crew attracted the sympathy and solidarity of port workers, who took them food. During the forced sojourn in the port of Naples, two members of the crew died.

The film makers stressed that the fate of the crew seemed to parallel the fate of the Soviet Union. The break-up of the USSR left its former republics to fend for themselves, including the Ukraine and, in this case, the totally Ukrainian crew of the Odessa. They had started their careers as Soviet merchant seamen aboard a Soviet ship and were now Ukrainian sailors stuck aboard an arrested vessel in a foreign port, abandoned by all except the small Ukrainian community in Naples and, as noted, the sympathetic Neapolitan merchant marine community. The Odessa was finally auctioned off in April of 2002 for 1,250,000 euros, 500,000 euros of which was designated for the eight surviving crew members. I later read that the Odessa was again in her home port on the Black Sea undergoing refitting for another try at the cruise game. Up to the point of the release of the film a few years ago, there had been no such happy ending, and now it seems there shall be none.



 2.

This comes to me through the kindness of Howard Groos of Calamvale, Australia.


Tales of the Cold War Aboard the Odessa

Fascinated to learn the fate of the Odessa.  As a 20 year old I worked aboard her as a ship's photographer working for an English company.  Her home port was Venice and she did two week cruising around the Med.  At the time she was almost exclusively chartered by a German tour company so passengers were mostly German, a few Dutch and the odd American.  The crew were Russian and an amazing bunch.  There was only a handful of us non-Russians on board.  We were treated like passengers as we were not allowed to mix with the Russian crew at all.  I replaced a female photographer who had an affair with the navigation officer.  She was kicked off at the next port and he was transferred to a Russian fishing Trawler (spy ship!). 

The
situation on board was strictly political, both funny and strange. I had a normal passenger cabin but right next to the reception desk (so they could watch all comings and goings).  Yes, my room was bugged as was the darkroom we used where we processed and printed our photos.  The bars were also bugged, even the medical centre.  I worked with another photographer and we had a lot of freedom so long as we watched what we said and kept away from the crew.  The Russian waitresses and bar girls were stunning but completely untouchable.  It was their fate not mine that was the concern.  Every crewman had family back home in Russia to dissuade jumping ship.  As non-Russian we ate in the dining room with the passengers, drank in the bars, used the swimming pool and made friends with any young lady passengers.  It was a great experience and the Odessa at that time was so much better and newer than any of the other ships sailing the Med.

Fellow photographers working on the old Greek ships doing weekly cruises were so jealous when they came aboard.  This was the tradition back then and permitted by the ships that when we met a ship in port with fellow photographers we would go aboard each others ships and hit their bar tab in turn.  Sadly it wouldn’t happen now with security much tighter. We would not be allowed to board.  It was a different age and in many ways more relaxed and fun at least for us if not the Russians although I learned it was an honour and a privilege as far as they were concerned to work aboard the Odessa.

She was the best ship in the fleet.  Most of the other Black Sea ships were designed more like English Cross Channel ferries that could swiftly be converted to troop/vehicle carriers with strengthened deck panels for gun placements.  The Odessa was a super little ship and I was sad to learn of her fate from a Russian waiter working on a PO cruise ship I was holidaying on in 2017.  He said she was sold to a Russian oligarch who began refitting her.  He was shot dead (over debts?) and the project stopped.  Odessa was scrapped.

I have many great memories from my time on board and my first experience of meeting Russian people.  I found them to have a similar dry wit as the English and understand sarcasm as humour, something the German passengers certainly didn’t understand.  An unending supply of glass bottles of genuine Baluga Caviar at dinner was something I grew to appreciate later in life and just how special this was.  I generally dislike seafood but even then I knew better than to turn down as much free Caviar as I could eat and developed a taste for it that I can certainly not afford now.


I will never forget my first sight of her tied up at the quay in Venice.  I have this enduring memory of her long sweeping bow with her bright white paint shining in the Sun.  Compared to modern cruise ships she looks simple but back then she was something special.  Sadly I lost the thousands of photos I had from that time.  Of the ship, the ports of call such as the Pyramids in Egypt, the many Greek Islands, Yugoslavia where you could buy truly awful genuine fake Levi jeans for one pound.  I certainly remember but no longer have a copy of the timed exposure shot I did of the light show at the pyramids which became a favourite with passengers and continued to sell long after I left the ship.  For those interested we used Nikon FM2 cameras with a Titanium shutter and 3m colour film.  I see the modern ships photographers with their digital cameras and wonder what they would think about us, rushing back on board after a shore excursion to have photos developed in chemicals, hand colour printing using a Durst mini printer and displayed outside the restaurant that same evening.  No labour saving devices, it was all black bags, developing film in total darkness and the pungent smell of chemicals.  Great fun.
 
It was the Cold war that actually made it such a great experience.  On the Greek ships, photographers had awful 4 bunk bed cabins down in the bilges.  The darkroom was literally in the curve of the stern next to the prop shaft, where it was dirty, wet and smelly.  They were not allowed to drink in the bars or use the pool etc. and it was the Greek Captain's privilege to chat up the young girls.  I had it so lucky on the Odessa.  I remember being told that a previous photographer was passing a cabin when the door opened.  Inside were men with tape recorders and headphones. They were KGB.  A crewman told me they were only allowed shore leave in Venice and Yugoslavia.  They had to be in a group of three not of their choosing and one of the group would be a party member.  They would secretly ask me to buy things for them, such as the awful Levi jeans which were especially popular with the Russian crew.  They received tips and this was the only way they could spend it.  I remember one morning seeing the 2nd Navigation officer on gangway duty checking off the passengers as they went ashore.  He looked miserable and this was a job well below his normal duties.  He told me he was caught having a late night party in the Sauna with some of the female crew.  His punishment was two weeks on gangway duty and he had to study this huge book on Navigation.  He was a great guy whose favourite music was the Beatles. Obviously navigation officers were prone to such behaviour!

On my first day onboard in Venice I was in my cabin that I was to share with the second photographer.  He had heard the ship was not full so we discussed asking for a second cabin so we didn’t have to share. A few hours later I was walking back to my cabin when one of the Russian reception girls called me over and handed me a key explaining this was to a second cabin.  My mate was in the cabin and I said well done to him for arranging another cabin.  His reply was that he hadn’t had a chance to ask yet!  I had already been warned by my boss of the photography company based in Colchester England that the darkroom was bugged and to use code words when discussing certain things, such as how much money we had taken each cruise.  Another incident occurred when I got something in my eye from the air conditioner vent in my cabin.  I went to see  the doctor.  It was weird.  There was this brand new fully equipped medical centre yet the syringes were the old glass type and huge.  He gave me some pills and they came in a little cardboard box wrapped in tissue paper.  It was like 1920’s England.  The Doctor then put his finger to his lips and motioned me to follow him.  He went out the central stairway and handed me one of those small plastic film canisters that new film came in.  He said it was an undeveloped slide film and could I develop it for him.  Luckily I was able to explain that we only had chemicals to develop negative film.  In reality it was probably pictures of naked female crew members, but back then, who knows?  This was just one of many times the crew demonstrated they knew exactly where the secret listening devices were located.

A barman, one morning up by the pool after the passengers had gone ashore, had his head in his hands staring with a look of complete longing at the centre pages of a German magazine showing an advert for the latest BMW sports car.  I tried talking to him but again he put his finger to his lips and pointed at the ceiling.  I spoke to him later and he explained the crew did 9 months on board then it was back to Odessa (the town) for “College training” or re-indoctrination.  The crew were told that all the passengers were the wealthy few and normal working people couldn’t afford holidays like this.  They knew this was a lie.  One old American I met was a retired garbage collector having that once in a lifetime holiday.  The barman also explained that every crew member had to have a partner or family back in Russia.  Their family received better accommodation and extras as it was considered very prestigious to work on the Odessa.  The flip side was this could all be taken away if they did anything wrong, such as try to jump ship.

It is only in the last few years I have taken to cruising for fun but it becomes obvious that cruise ships do have a hard life and that 20 years in service, even with refits, takes its toll.  The Odessa would have been one old girl if she was still sailing.  It's sad to think she had such an end when possibly, had she hung on for a just a few more years and seen the explosion in cruise ship holidays, a small ship like the Odessa would have made the perfect specialty cruiser so popular now.  For me its bittersweet to finally learn of her fate.  Looking at the exterior photos I can even see which was my cabin, Starboard side midship.  Did I mention the time she nearly capsized in a storm or that Santorini was the one port I couldn’t go ashore otherwise I risked a beating by the Donkey men who took their own photos of the passengers as they rode up the hill into the village?



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