Built in 1939, MS Achille Lauro
was a cruise ship based in Naples, Italy. In 1947 changed to MS
Willem Ruys, a passenger liner for the Rotterdamsche Lloyd, it was
hijacked by members of the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985.
In 1994, the ship caught fire and sank in the Indian Ocean off
Concept and construction
Ordered in 1938 to replace the aging ships on the Dutch East Indies
route, her keel was laid in 1939 at De Schelde shipyard in
Vlissingen, Netherlands, for Rotterdamsche Lloyd (now Nedlloyd).
Interrupted by World War II and two bombing raids, the ship was
finally launched in July 1946, as the Willem Ruys. The ship was
named after the grandson of the founder of the Rotterdamsche Lloyd
who was taken hostage and shot during the war.
Willem Ruys was completed in late 1947. At that time, the
Rotterdamsche Lloyd had been granted a royal prefix in honor of its
services during the war. Willem Ruys was 192 metres (630 ft) in
length, 25 metres (82 ft) in beam, had a draught of 8.9 metres (29.2
ft), and measured 21,119 gross register tons. Eight Sulzer engines
drove two propellers. She could accommodate 900 passengers. She
featured a superstructure very different from other liners of that
era; Willem Ruys pioneered low-slung aluminium lifeboats, within the
upper-works' flanks. The next ship to adopt this unique arrangement
was the SS Canberra in 1961. Today, all cruise ships follow this
As the Willem Ruys
As Willem Ruys, the ship began her maiden voyage on December 5,
1947. Together with her main competitor and running mate, the MS
Oranje of the Netherlands Line, she became a popular fixture on the
Dutch East Indies route. However, when the East Indies gained
independence from The Netherlands in 1949, passengers numbers
The former Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew had traveled
aboard the Willem Ruys as a fresh graduate upon completing his
studies in the United Kingdom.
Collision with the Oranje
On January 6, 1953, Willem Ruys collided in the Red Sea with running
mate MS Oranje, heading in the opposite direction. At that time, it
was common for passenger ships to pass each other at close range to
entertain their passengers. During the (later heavily criticized)
abrupt and fast approach of Oranje, Willem Ruys made an unexpected
swing to the left, resulting in a collision. It was a near-miss
disaster. Oranje badly damaged her bows. Due to the possibility that
she would be impounded for safety reasons, she was unable to call at
Colombo as scheduled, and went directly to Jakarta. Willem Ruys
suffered less damage. There was no loss of life involved. Later, it
was determined that miscommunication on both ships had caused the
Journey to Java
During 1957, the English diplomat, author and diarist Harold
Nicholson, together with his wife, the author and poet, Vita
Sackville-West toured the Far East for two months aboard the Willem
Ruys. The voyage is fully documented in his published journal of the
trip "Journey to Java" which provides a detailed account of First
class travel on the vessel in the 1950s.
After repairs, Royal Rotterdam Lloyd decided to release the Willem
Ruys on the North Atlantic run. First, she was placed on the New
York service, and later Canada was included.
In 1958, the Royal Rotterdamsche Lloyd and the Netherlands Line
signed a co-operative agreement to create a round-the-world
passenger service. The joint fleet would sail under the banner of
"The Royal Dutch Mail Ships". Together with the Oranje and the Johan
van Oldenbarneveldt, the Willem Ruys underwent an extensive refit to
prepare her for this new service. She made two charter trips to
Montreal for the Europa-Canada service. Then, from September 20,
1958, until February 25, 1959, she underwent a major facelift at the
Wilton-Fijenoord shipyard in Amsterdam, turning her from a passenger
liner into a cruise ship. Her original four class distinctions
became First and Tourist Class. A hundred new cabins were installed
and air-conditioning was extended throughout all accommodations. The
Javanese crew members were replaced by Europeans, who required
upgraded crew accommodation. Externally, she was fitted with a new
glazed in Tourist Class Wintergarden, her forward funnel was
heightened and stabilizers were fitted. Willem Ruys was now able to
accommodate 275 first class, and 770 tourist class passengers,
although there were many interchangeable cabins which had additional
berths fitted, which could increase the maximum passenger number to
1167. Her new specifications would see her tonnage increase from
21,119 to 23,114 gross register ton.
On March 7, 1959, Willem Ruys went off on her new world service to
Australia and New Zealand. She departed from Rotterdam, sailing via
Southampton, the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal, Fremantle,
Melbourne, Sydney, New Zealand, returning via the Panama Canal. The
Royal Dutch Mail Ships (Willem Ruys, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt and
Oranje) became a popular alternative to the British liners.
At the end of 1964, due to a strong drop in passenger numbers,
Willem Ruys was laid up in Rotterdam and put up for sale.
As the Achille Lauro
In 1965, she was sold to the Flotta Lauro Line, or Star Lauro, (now
MSC Cruises) and renamed the Achille Lauro (after the company
owner). Extensively rebuilt and modernized after an August 1965
onboard explosion, the Achille Lauro entered service in 1966
carrying passengers to Sydney, Australia. The ship played a role in
evacuating the families of British servicemen caught up in the
unrest in Aden, and then made one of the last northbound transits
through the Suez Canal prior to its closure during the Six Day War.
The Achille Lauro was converted to a cruise ship in early 1972,
during which time she suffered a disastrous fire. A 1975 collision
with the cargo ship Youseff resulted in the sinking of the latter,
and another onboard fire in 1981 took her out of service for a time.
She was laid up in Tenerife when Lauro Lines went bankrupt in 1982.
The Chandris Line took possession of her under a charter arrangement
in 1985, shortly before the hijacking.
On October 7, 1985, four members of the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF)
took control of the liner off Egypt as she was sailing from
Alexandria to Port Said. Holding the passengers and crew hostage,
they directed the vessel to sail to Tartus, Syria, and demanded the
release of 50 Palestinians then in Israeli prisons. After being
refused permission to dock at Tartus, the hijackers killed disabled
Jewish-American passenger Leon Klinghoffer and then threw his body
The ship then headed back towards Port Said, and after two days of
negotiations, the hijackers agreed to abandon the liner in exchange
for safe conduct and were flown towards Tunisia aboard an Egyptian
commercial airliner. This plane, however, was intercepted by US
fighter aircraft and directed to land in Sicily, where the hijackers
were arrested and later tried for murder.
Later years, fire, and sinking
The ship continued in service; she was reflagged in 1987 when the
Lauro Line was taken over by the Mediterranean Shipping Company to
become StarLauro. On November 30, 1994, she caught fire off the
coast of Somalia while en route to South Africa. At that time, the
cause of the fire was suggested by Italian officials to be a
discarded cigarette. In reality, the fire started in the engine room
with the explosion of one of the engines; due to the lack of
supervision, the fire burned out of control before discovery. The
crew attempted to battle the fire for several hours but were
unsuccessful. Abandoned, the vessel sank on December 2, 1994.