Storied Ship Seeks a Finale

Times Staff Writer

For decades it remained an elegant beauty, well-kept and world-traveled, the star of several men's dreams.

Today, it is a 2,600-ton rusting eyesore called the Faithful, anchored in Long Beach Harbor, unable to move unless towed.

The length of a football field, the ship has been stuck in port so long -- perhaps 18 years -- that, among the thousands who work and play in the nation's busiest shipping basin, tall tales abound and mystique surrounds it: Two homeless men and a garden hose keep it afloat. The shah of Iran once owned it. It has the engines of a World War II German submarine.

"I hear," said a security guard, gazing offshore at the gouged hulk, "that the cops think it's a crack den." His partner said: "We were told some missionaries own it but ... they went broke."

At least one of these legends is true. But then, the actual past of this vessel is as vivid as its lore.

"She has seen the world, and she has a certain ... oh, ambience to her," said a former owner, Tom Keegan of Florida, who was a merchant marine captain before a car crash left him in a wheelchair. Like a disquieted suitor, Keegan obsesses about the ship he lost a dozen years ago, and is well-versed in much of the history.

In 1955, the ship was built to ferry passengers around the Greek Islands, according to Keegan and ship references. It was built in Hamburg, Germany, by Blohm and Voss, makers of tall ships and warships, including submarines. Christened the Wappen von Hamburg, it had diesel engines.

And yes, Keegan said, those engines had been recycled from German U-boats, made about 1933.

In 1961, it became a luxury cruise ship called Delos. Over the years, it carried different names in different waters: Xanadu in the Mediterranean, Polar Star along the Alaskan coast and Oceanic and Faithful off California. It was never, Keegan said, the shah of Iran's yacht.

Long after the posh cruising days, he said, hints of opulence lingered: beveled-glass mirrors, murals and trees of brass that appeared to grow up its spiral staircases between decks.

After years of cruising the Alaskan coast, the ship was sold in 1981 for $6.5 million, according to a Times article, suggesting the vessel still had some miles to go.

The Seattle buyer renamed it Expex and brought it to Los Angeles. His plan was to transform it into a seafaring convention center that would visit 50 Third World ports to sell American goods.

On its way from Seattle, the ship had an encounter in Oregon with the Coast Guard that perhaps foreshadowed the trouble to come. According to the Coos Bay newspaper the World, the Coast Guard prevented it from leaving port under its own power without engine and safety improvements.

And so the ship arrived in Southern California waters as it has traveled ever since: under tow.

By the late 1980s, the Expex had been foreclosed upon, Keegan said.

He and others had created a charity and were searching for a vessel to create a hospital ship. They bought Expex, renamed it Oceanic and planned to bring medical care to the poor. Documents show that Keegan amassed a significant amount of donated medical equipment and a list of doctors and surgeons wanting to help; the U.S. Army offered its berth in the Port of Los Angeles for free.

But Keegan's cash dried up like the ship's sun-bleached paint.

Here the story becomes murky. Almost every aspect of the ship is in dispute.

Keegan said he gave the ship to the head of a nonprofit group called Friend Ships on condition it be used as a charity hospital.

According to its Web site, Friend Ships operates out of Galveston, Texas, and is registered as a nonprofit group in Honduras to ship disaster supplies duty-free aboard a fleet of vessels it calls "God's navy" and a helicopter.

Friend Ships' founder, Donald Tipton, said the ship came into his organization's possession after he and other Friend Ships leaders took control of the board of directors of Keegan's charity group.

Tipton maintains that his group gave the ship, renamed Faithful, to yet another charity, Relief Ships, based in Los Angeles. Tipton said his group has been trying to help out Relief Ships by spending thousands of dollars on repairs.

Port officials say, however, that the Faithful's registration lists Friend Ships' Wilmington address and that Tipton has been their contact for years. Also, an advertisement for the Faithful in a shipping publication -- asking price $100,000 -- lists Friend Ships' phone number.

"We feed old ladies, children and orphanages, and we don't get paid," Tipton said. "And now we have the head of port security calling us, harassing us, saying the ship is a threat to homeland security as a possible terrorist staging area."

Bill Ellis, the Port of Long Beach's security director, who has called Tipton and his wife, Sondra, at their Galveston and Los Angeles locations, said terrorist scenarios never came up.

"I simply called them and told them they are in violation of the port tariff," he said of rules regulating the port. "We have had commercial vessels, tugs and barges, complain they can't navigate around the ship."

In November, Tipton's group arrived in Long Beach aboard its 180-foot vessel the Hope, a 60-year-old former Coast Guard ship, seeking to tow the Faithful to Mexico to be scrapped. But the Coast Guard forbade it, citing safety concerns, one of which was that the Hope had not been designed to tow ships.

And so the Faithful, portholes a foot above water, remains moored inside the breakwater, 600 yards from the former naval station. Despite its bruised look, the ship has been more an irritation than a risk, officials said.

Yet there was a scare a few weeks ago when a marine surveyor, Tom Bell, inspected the ship for a prospective buyer and told the Coast Guard he feared it might sink.

Federal and state officials inspected the Faithful on Feb. 13 but found no immediate risk of sinking or pollution.

"Is this thing an eyesore? Yes," Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Rob Coller said. "Do we wish it would go away? Yes."

Port security has repeatedly called the owners but "lately they've gotten the equivalent of hang-ups," said a Port of Long Beach spokesman, Fausto Capobianco. "If we move it, by law, it becomes our burden if anything happens, and that could be expensive. It's not as simple to get rid of as driving your car to the junkyard."

Tipton said he has four possible buyers, including a diving magazine that would like to sink the ship, and someone who wants to turn it into a bed-and-breakfast.

"It has a swimming pool, beveled glass, a dining room, 100 staterooms," he said. "It would cost them $30 million to rebuild something like this."

For now, it is occupied by two Friend Ships volunteers who take a small motorboat ashore every week to get food from the charity warehouse. They are doing the Lord's work by maintaining the ship, said one of them, a man who identified himself as Frank. He has lived aboard the vessel for four years, when it was docked, and at anchor, through several storms that swung the ship around.

The ship has no power but they run their refrigerator, TV, microwave and VCR off a small generator.

They use a sump pump -- not to keep the ship afloat, Frank said, but to drain whatever water the rain brings aboard. "All the luxuries of home," Frank said with a grin, sweeping his arms open wide.

Can the ship ever move?

"The Bible says God can move mountains," he replied. "So maybe he can move this ship. And somewhere besides round and round in circles."

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