A spectre is haunting Eleusis – the spectre of shipwrecks. Many agencies and individuals have expressed their determination to exorcise this spectre but to no avail. The sea of Eleusis remains a graveyard for old ships and the coast is pockmarked with rusting hulks. Not perhaps since that fateful evening of September 480 BCE, when the Persian fleet met its untimely end in the narrow waters of Salamis, has the sea of Eleusis seen so many shipwrecks. Back then, they represented the ultimate triumph of freedom; today they stand as a grim symbol of indifference and environmental degradation.
In theory, there is a method behind this shipwreck madness. There are three official lay-up areas in the middle of the bay of Eleusis with a total capacity for 250 ships; vessels are tied together in blocks with alternate bow and stern to ensure that their anchors face opposite directions. The lay-up areas are controlled by the Ministry of Shipping, the coastguard of Eleusis, and the Eleusis Port Authority.
The bay of Eleusis became very popular in the 1980s, during a wave of ship retirements that resulted in the laying up of more than 670 ships in bays and inlets throughout Greece. In the summer of 1983 there were 426 ships laid up in Eleusis and according to testimonies at the time it was possible to “walk from ship to ship from Skaramangas to Corinth without getting your feet wet.”
Nothing is more permanent than the temporary
Laying up is supposed to be a temporary solution to the problem of disposing of an unprofitable vessel. Eventually, the ship will return to active service or she will be sold or she will be demolished. In the case of Eleusis, though, there are numerous vessels that never left. Numbers vary depending on the source, but it seems there are almost thirty shipwrecks (many of which are considered dangerous and harmful) and as many laid up vessels that slowly corrode and release a potent mixture of noxious chemicals in the surrounding waters. The sea of Eleusis has become a cemetery for famous and infamous vessels whose owners have either run afoul of the law or have gone bankrupt. Among the countless ships to have marred the bay, though, there is one whose story really stands out.
Raise the Titanic … in Eleusis
Santa Rosa was built in the early 1930s and sailed between New York and Seattle, before being transferred to service to the Caribbean. During the Second World War, she served as a troop carrier and returned to the Caribbean in 1947. In 1961 she was sold to Haralambos Typaldos, a Greek shipowner who renamed her Athinai and used her for voyages in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Typaldos Lines was famous for purchasing retired ships and refitting them for passenger service, but the 1966 sinking of the SS Heraklion with the loss of more than 200 passengers and crew members proved disastrous. Government inspectors revealed that most of the company’s fifteen ships were unsuitable for passenger use, so they were confiscated. The SS Athinai was one of three that remained in the ownership of Typaldos but she was soon put up for sale. When she failed to attract any buyers, she was laid up.
It was in this state of abandonment that it caught the eye of Hollywood producers in search of a vessel to double as the Titanic in the 1980 movie Raise the Titanic, based on Clive Cussler’s third novel. Many years of neglect made the Athinai perfectly suitable for scenes involving a passenger liner lost in the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean for seven decades. The fact that her fittings resembled those on an Edwardian-era transatlantic liner was an added bonus. The producers went to the Greek courts and won custody of the vessel for the duration of the filming.
The producers spent $250,000 to turn the Athinai into the Titanic. They added a wooden staging at the stern and built a huge water tank behind the funnel to flood the passenger saloon in one of the scenes. Then they spent another few thousands of dollars to hire four tugs to move the Athinai to a pier in Piraeus that was made to look like New York Harbour (complete with New York police department cars and Greek military personnel dressed to look like New Yorkers); the name Titanic was painted on her bows and actors were filmed walking around the rusting interior of the ship. Eventually, the Athinai returned to the bay of Eleusis where she remained rusting away until 1989 when she was moved to the shipbreaking facilities of Aliağa in Turkey.