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Stirring Up a New Company for Sea Vacations

We came here to witness the birth of a cruise line, an operation that went into business so quickly it appeared to be little more than “add sea water and stir” when it showed up suddenly on sailing schedules a couple of months ago.

Most cruise lines begin when an order is placed at a shipyard, and during the three years or more it takes for a vessel to be constructed, the ship line begins its sail plans.

When construction is completed, it is staffed, stocked and sent out to sea.

But Miami-based Anastasios (Taki) Kyriakides already had a cruise line. What he needed was a ship.

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Kyriakides, a self-made millionaire who in 1974 developed the Lexicon, a hand-held language translator, introduced his Seawind Cruise Line in late 1990 with a series of ads in travel trade and consumer papers. But a planned charter of the Greek-owned, 550-passenger Aegean Dolphin, which would have been his flagship Seawind Crown, fell through when he discovered that the ship was tied up with legal problems. Thus, the January, 1991, debut of Seawind Cruise Line never happened.

Five months later, however, in May, another ship of similar size became available--the 654-passenger Vasco da Gama, built in Belgium in 1961 as the Infante Dom Henrique and extensively renovated in 1988. So Kyriakides flew to Greece to look at the ship and negotiated a five-year charter to begin sailing this month.

In June in Miami, Seawind Cruise Line cranked up operations again just 60 days ahead of its first cruise, a risky move in a business based on smooth service and hospitality.

The Vasco da Gama arrived in Aruba Aug. 3 at the conclusion of a series of Brazilian charters, with only 32 hours to turn from a European-style ship to an American cruise ship.

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As soon as the passengers were disembarked, a crew of 380 swung into operation, unloading supplies from dockside containers and rearranging them on the ship.

Cruise director David Armour arrived on Saturday afternoon and found himself and his staff moving pianos, potted palms and furniture into less formal patterns.

Most passengers, who said they were attracted to the cruise by the low introductory prices, did not seem to mind the occasional flubs, as when the same music tape played over and over again for five days with the theme from “Gone With the Wind” coming up every two hours. And a young magician in the show lounge drew a sympathetic laugh when he welcomed passengers to “the beautiful SeaBreeze Crown,” inadvertently substituting the name of a rival ship.

A container holding everything from table linens to ice buckets to waiter uniforms for theme dinners was mislaid, according to the ship’s hotel manager, Lloyd Stockdale, so paper napkins were substituted for linen ones on many meals.

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Costumes for the entertainers were lost on the flight to Aruba. When they finally were located by the airline and sent to the ship, they were locked up in Aruba customs on Saturday night. Kyriakides had to plead with the police to release them before the ship sailed on Sunday.

Before the Sunday afternoon christening, there was barely time to paint the name Seawind Crown on the bow just under Vasco da Gama, which was also left on the ship because of legal technicalities. And the only name on the stern throughout the first cruise was Vasco da Gama, registered in Panama.

In order to make use of the silverware, china and crystal, which were also engraved with the former name of the ship, Seawind executives dubbed the dining room the Vasco da Gama Restaurant.

No sooner was that settled than Seawind President Bernard Chabot was startled to see that each dining table had been set with packets of artificial sweetener carrying the logo of a competitor, Premier Cruise Line. (Both operations are catered by the same Miami-based company.)

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But the seven-day cruise was remarkably calm for a shakedown sailing. A turbine steamer with graceful, classic lines, the Seawind Crown rides quietly and smoothly, and the clean, comfortable cabins and public rooms are appealingly subtle in comparison to today’s glitzy superships. Both cruise traditionalists and first-time cruisers looking for a congenial, low-key experience should enjoy the vessel.

The service staff is European, the officers Portuguese and Greek.

As the Infante Dom Henrique, the ship carried 168 first-class passengers from Lisbon to Portugal’s former colonies in Africa. Many of those upper-deck cabins remain, but with a new decor. The first-class chapel, its entryway covered with murals from the original ship, is also still used.

The ship’s lower decks, which once housed as many as 1,100 tourist-class passengers, some in dormitories without private baths, were gutted and filled with pastel-colored modular bedrooms with tiled baths. Two cabins are designed for disabled passengers with wide doors and easy access.

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All cabins contain hair dryers, color TVs, terry-cloth robes, telephones, mini-refrigerators and plenty of closet and storage space, and there are generous deck and public areas.

What may be the only squash court at sea has been installed on a lower deck, along with a gym, spa, sauna and massage rooms. There are two large outdoor swimming pools and plentiful deck-sunning space. Three promenade decks offer good walking tracks and shaded lounging areas.

There are both cinema and in-room TV screenings of films during day and evening.

The Seawind Crown offers an interesting southern Caribbean itinerary, with more shore time and less cruising than other vessels in the area. Besides La Guaira/Caracas, ports of call include Curacao, Grenada, Barbados and St. Lucia.

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Shore excursions, sometimes clumsily organized during the first cruise, are moderately priced, from $20 for a 3 1/2-hour snorkeling tour, including equipment, to $65 for a helicopter tour over Barbados.

Since Seawind Cruise Line is still unknown, the ship is not full this month and next. The company recently announced discounts ranging from $250 to $785 per person, double occupancy, on all September cruises. Prices begin at $745 per person, double occupancy, after discount, including round-trip air fare to Aruba from Miami or Atlanta. There is a $150 air add-on from Los Angeles. An additional $70 per person is added for port taxes. This rate is for an inside cabin with upper and lower berths.

Four deluxe two-room apartments of 500 square feet each, two with big private verandas, are the top accommodations at $1,610 per person, double occupancy. Outside cabins for the September cruises are from $1,010 per person, double occupancy.

The specially priced cruises depart Aruba Sept. 1, 8, 15, 22 and 29. For more information, call Seawind Cruise Line at (800) 258-8006.

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