PETER KNEGO. The Man who Watches the History of Cruise Ships Being Made
13 minutes read May 11th, 2018
The cruise industry is not just about a way of traveling or type of vacation. It’s about the fascinating story of ups and downs, triumphs and defeats, discoveries and losses.
Probably, there’s no person in the world who knows
the history of cruise ships
better than Peter Knego, a maritime historian, cruise journalist, blogger, and owner of midshipcentury.com.
We have long followed his adventures, and today we’re going to get acquainted with Peter Knego and his fascinating story.
Knego is a well-known cruise historian and journalist. He’s often among the first to discover modern newbuilds and the last to see legendary liners that die at ship breaking yards. He loves everything about cruise ships and knows the history of almost each of them. Besides, Knego tries to salvage valuable artifacts from the vessels sent for scrapping. He sells the ships’ treasures leaving memories about once-legendary vessels in peoples’ hearts (you can find some of them at www.midshipcentury.com).
You can read numerous stories written by Knego on MaritimeMatters. Besides, our blogger loves to share his cruise pictures on Instagram (@knego).
Knego kindly agreed to answer several questions, and here’s what we found out…
How did you become passionate about ships and cruises?
I think I’ve always been interested in ships to some extent. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of poring over The World Book encyclopedia and staring in awe at images of the UNITED STATES, QUEEN MARY, QUEEN ELIZABETH and, of course, the TITANIC. I never missed the Titanic movie (the one with Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb) whenever it came on TV. But in my teens, there was a series of events that really got me hooked on ocean liners...
Like most kids of my age, I loved “The Poseidon Adventure” when it came out. Must have gone to see it at least ten times when it was in its first run. Around that time, I was assigned to do a paper on the LUSITANIA for my American History class and became fascinated with the fact that a four-funneled liner sank by the bow with the loss of so many lives only three years after the TITANIC. The more I studied the event and the ship, the more I learned about other magnificent liners like the MAURETANIA and AQUITANIA. An entire realm of floating palaces had entered my psyche. And then, what cinched it all was reading "The Only Way To Cross" by the brilliant John Maxtone-Graham. There was no turning back.
Fortunately, being based in Los Angeles, I had the QUEEN MARY in my proverbial backyard and on the way home from a visit to her, we passed a ship called the SPIRIT OF LONDON. I begged my mom to make a detour to the terminal, where the ship was just about to sail. We couldn’t get aboard, but the security guard gave me a schedule and told me to come back to see another ship, which ended up being P&O’s beautiful ARCADIA. The date — January 20, 1974 — is signed into my psyche. It was almost surreal to walk the decks of an active ocean liner/cruise ship.
After that, I made it a point to visit every ship I could. I started collecting brochures from travel agents and writing all the cruise lines for photos and postcards. The more I learned and collected, the more I fell in love with ocean liners and cruise ships.
How many times have you been in Alang? What do you feel watching the ships being scrapped?
I went nine times in a span of ten or so years. I have had very mixed feelings there. In one respect, it is quite a mesmerizing and privileged sight to see one of the great liners that has just beached. You see their entire form, from stem to stern, in a natural setting (one that has been abused and polluted, yes) but nonetheless, the ship is still in contact with the sea and shore, not a shipyard surrounded by cranes and concrete. There is a very sad beauty to this process. Once demolition begins, it is, of course, a terrible sight. The labor and pollution issues, which are better now than they used to be, are dreadful and highly sensitive and could fill several volumes of books but the blame falls mainly on the Western ship owners who choose to send their ships there for a price versus paying to have their ships demolished in shipyards with American or EU standards. What many don’t realize about India is that the ship breaking yards, as terrible as they seem, are just a fraction of the labor and pollution debacles of a developing nation.
My focus is on documenting and preserving what I can, which can be a very sensitive and complex task as photography by Westerners is absolutely forbidden. I do my best to capture the ships and try to keep my friends (who risk much to get me there) out of trouble, so when they tell me to not take images of something, I have to obey.
Aside from the risk of getting caught there, there are other issues like malaria, the searing heat and humidity, climbing 40-foot rope ladders, strong currents and staying clear of unsanitary and/or toxic elements. I hate going there but cherish the experiences of having been there and also feel a sense of honor to many of the beautiful ships I have been the last Westerner to walk the decks of.
Peter Knego on MV AUGUSTUS in Alang by Kaushal Trivedi
Dismantling of what ship impressed you most of all? Why?
Probably the supertanker HELLESPONT GRAND, as it was the largest ship ever to be scrapped at that time. It was just so massive! We actually climbed up to its bridge for a view of the other ships around us. It was terrifying but an experience I would never trade. We were at the height of a 20 story building overlooking the beach in both directions when no less than ten ocean liners and cruise ships were gathered amongst the hundreds of vessels there. I never got to actually see the process of her demolition but when we were visiting other yards during that time, it felt like an earthquake when a portion of the ship was cut and sent thudding onto the beach. The sound would echo all around us, even when we were a half mile away.
Peter Knego with the former RMS WINDSOR Castle in Alang by Kaushal Trivedi
Source: Midship Century
You collect treasures from the scrapped ships. What item is the most precious for you? Why?
I can’t narrow it down to one item but probably the most precious things for me are the Italian artworks I have saved from ships like STELLA SOLARIS, STELLA OCEANIS, STELLA MARIS II, AUGUSTUS and AUSONIA. There is such beauty in these works, which include paintings, hammered metal reliefs and ceramics by artists like Emanuele Luzzati, Enrico Paulucci and Tranquilio Marangoni. I have in retrospect learned so much about the Italian ships, their designers and the artists. My home is filled with many of these treasures and while it took every bit of my resources (and then some) to save them, they give me joy every day.
What is your favorite liner of all time? Why?
That varies but today, I might tell you it is Holland America’s NIEUW AMSTERDAM of 1938. She was just so perfect! The biggest regret of my life is having missed her visit to Los Angeles in early February of 1974 (just a couple weeks after my first visit to ARCADIA) on her way to the breakers in Taiwan. I was just devastated when I learned that she went for scrap and tenfold that when I was told she came to my hometown to take on bunkers. She spent two days in Los Angeles and I understand people were allowed to go on board and even take off souvenirs. And what was I doing? Sitting in a classroom, doing homework or maybe hiking in the hills by my home? Had I just known she was there! That said, I probably would have been dragged off kicking and screaming when it was time to go.
How often do you sail on cruise ships as a traveler? What can you say about modern vessels?
As a cruise journalist, I travel up to ten times a year on ships, ranging from river vessels and the smallest expedition ships to the giant Megaships. I’ve lost track but I’ve been on over 200 cruises. Maybe close to 300 by now. If the assignment fits my schedule and I have markets to write about it for, I’m open for almost every ship there is. But I personally prefer the smaller ships, especially ones with a bit of history, like Hurtigruten’s LOFOTEN and NORDSTJERNEN or Cruise and Maritime's ASTORIA (ex STOCKHOLM) and MARCO POLO. The massive new builds are impressive in a technological way and their many amenities can be jaw-dropping. But sometimes, they can seem a bit superficial, too. Do people really need all these diversions (rock climbing walls, ice rinks, wave runners, etc.) when they are on a ship? It distracts from the whole point, which is being at sea.
What are your favorite destinations? What destination is on your bucket list?
The Mediterranean — Greece, Italy, Turkey, France, Spain. I can never get enough of these countries, their culture, history and cuisine. And the weather is pretty good, too. Just like at home in California. I also love Norway, the U.K., Holland and Canada, all a bit colder but so full of scenic beauty and history. Northern Europe is a sensible place where they seem to be on the right track with dealing with healthcare, education and issues like Climate Change, so I feel very at home there. I’ve been to all seven continents and yet I’ve missed some key places. I’ll finally be visiting Paris this summer while on a Scenic river cruise, so I can check it off my list despite having been to other parts of France dozens of times. I’d love to cruise to Iceland, Greenland, South Africa and do cruise around Japan that gets up the coast of China.
What are your plans for the future?
Looks like I might finally be able to sail in the SEA CLOUD, the famous former yacht built in 1931, later this year. Keeping fingers crossed on that. In addition to traveling on ships, I hope to get enough visibility for my collection of shipboard treasures to be put on exhibit, much like the current Ocean Liners exhibit at the V&A in London (which does have some of my light fixtures). I have a wall of etched glass (from EMPRESS OF CANADA), many large art panels, furniture, doors, decking, railing, lights, etc.) from ships great and small, in styles ranging from Art Deco to Disco, basically, that would make a wonderful exhibit. At the same time, my images and video of Alang could be infused into the exhibit along with archival images and histories of various ships to tell the story of their creation, heyday and ultimate demise.
In addition to that potential project, I have probably 2,000 hours of video footage and hundreds of thousands of photographs taken over three decades that need to be digitized. I figure as long as I am on this earth, the work of preservation and archiving will never stop. I just hope by the time I’m out of here, there will be a proper place for all of it and an audience of people that enjoys and appreciates it.
What cruise-related advice do you have for our readers and us?
Seek out and embrace the unfamiliar, both in ships and destinations. And if there is an older ship you want to sail in, do it NOW. You never know if it will be around next year. I cannot tell you how many times I hear, “If only I sailed aboard this or that ship when I had the chance.” Just do it! Regrets are usually about what one does not do versus what one has done.