- Christopher Willson bought an old cruise ship off Craigslist 14 years ago.
- The ship, named Aurora, was one of the first vessels Germany built post-WWII, Willson said.
- Willson plans to transform it into a bed and breakfast and a coastal cruiser.
When Christopher Willson found an old cruise ship on Craigslist in 2008, it was a happy accident.
Willson, a former tech developer, was working on virtual-tour software when he stumbled across a cruise ship named "Faithful" on Craigslist. Keen to do a virtual tour of the ship, he reached out to the owner.
"I pretended to be a potential buyer, and the owner, who was a ship salvager, let me on board. After doing the virtual tour, I went home curious about the ship's history but could not find anything about it," Willson told Insider.
Willson spent days researching the ship's history until he found a photo that looked exactly like the vessel.
"I went through over hundreds of images of vintage ocean liners, and did a lot of matching and cross-referencing of the ship's appearance before I found a match," Willson said.
Willson discovered that the ship was the Wappen von Hamburg, one of the first ships Germany officially built after WWII.
Willson decided to buy the ship, which was covered in layers of old paint, because of its historical value.
Willson told Insider the ship was listed on Craigslist for $1.2 million, but he negotiated with the seller to slash the buying price in half. Insider was not able to independently verify the price of the ship.
After Willson took ownership of the vessel, he renamed it Aurora.
German shipbuilding company Blohm+Voss, which built the ship, confirmed to Insider that Aurora and the Wappen von Hamburg are the same ship.
Willson didn't have any ship-building experience, but his past career as a disaster-recovery specialist taught him how to fix things.
Willson spent 13 years traveling to places destroyed by fires and floods to salvage mechanical and electrical equipment for insurance restoration companies.
"I have always been a fast learner and was always good at working with my hands. I've rebuilt a bunch of cars," Willson said.
The 293-foot cruise ship had three decks, 85 cabins with en-suite bathrooms, a dining room and salon, an outdoor swimming pool, and a lot of structural issues when Willson bought it.
When Willson took ownership of the cruise ship, he it was full of cardboard boxes, old chairs, and mattresses.
"Some of it was useable stuff, but just a lot of it was absolute garbage that we had to get rid of," Willson said in one of his YouTube videos.
The wood on the deck had been completely destroyed by moisture, Willson said. He had to get rid of all the rotted wood and rust before he could even begin the restoration process.
To give Aurora's hallway a new lease on life, Willson removed the concrete floors and the wood-paneled walls to address the underlying damage.
The passageway is now carpeted and has fresh coats of paint.
In 2015, Willson created a Facebook page called Aurora Project Restoration. People started sharing more information about the ship.
A comment from one Facebook user made Willson realize Aurora was the floating SPECTRE headquarters in the 1963 James Bond movie, "From Russia with Love." After scrutinizing scenes from the movie, he realized it was true.
Other Facebook users shared old travel brochures of the cruise. From 1972 to 1977, the ship was named Xanadu, and it was famous for its voyages around Alaska and North America, per East Bay Times.
"She had a real exclusive air about her; she was very yacht-like," maritime historian Peter Knego told the outlet in 2008. "It was very prestigious to sail in the ship when it was called Xanadu."
Willson said he spends 10 hours a day every day restoring Aurora.
The refurbishment process has picked up pace in recent years.
In December, he launched a YouTube channel called "Aurora Restoration Project," which has helped raise the profile of his project. The YouTube channel documents the ongoing restoration process of the cruise ship. The channel has 13 videos that have garnered a total of 2.4 million views and over 77,000 subscribers.
Willson is expecting a big surge of activity on the boat in July.
"In July, we expect 80 to 100 volunteers, mostly people from Silicon Valley as there is a tech event — Ephemerisle — a mile and a half away from here. The CEO and founder of the internet archive tool, Wayback Machine, will also be joining us," Willson added.
"I do what I can to help Aurora — a great project, and Chris is a very welcoming captain," Brewster Kahle, the CEO of Wayback Machine, told Insider.
Volunteers need not have any relevant skill sets: Willson said he welcomes help from a range of volunteers, from people with experience working on museum ships to people who can only paint.
Renovations are currently 40% completed. Willson told Insider he's already burned through an estimated $1 million fixing the ship.
Willson is also raising funds to help him restore the vessel. He told Insider his goal is to raise $3 million.
"Once you have finished one end of the ship, you have to start all over again by the time you get to the other end. Even a brand new ship requires maintenance right off the bat," Willson said.
Next on Willson's restoration agenda is to fix up the kitchen, which was destroyed by a leaking deck.
"We are just finished removing all of the old and outdated fixtures, and we're currently working on raising money to get this area back into shape," he said.
While some of the cabins on Aurora have been refurbished, Willson says most cabins onboard are still not in good condition.
Willson says he intends to restore all 85 cabins over time. He currently lives on the boat with his wife: "If I don't stay, people will come and just steal things."
The ship is currently docked in Stockton, California, but Willson plans to move it back to San Francisco.
He intends to transform Aurora into a bed and breakfast and an events center.
His end goal is to make Aurora into a coastal cruiser and sell it on a fractional ownership basis.
"I hope to be able to restore it to become a working coastal cruiser and allow it to cruise up and down the West Coast into Mexico and Canada," Willson said.