The Fascinating History of the Celestial Crystal (ex-Sally Albatross, Leeward, Silja Opera)

Viking Saga in July 1983 as originally built (via commons.wikimedia.org)

This unique, one-of-a-kind ship can trace its origin back to 1978 when it was ordered, along with a sistership from the Finnish shipyard Wartsila in Perno. Named Viking Saga, and operated by Viking Lines, she had quite a different appearance than as she operated as a ro/ro cruise-ferry. This means she had a traditional bow and stern doors for loading cars and trucks directly from the pier. She was in fact owned by another company called Rederi Ab Sally who chartered her to Viking Lines. In 1986 she was sent back to Sally and renamed Sally Albatross. The owner at that time decided to invest money into converting her into a ‘cruise ship’ by overhauling the public areas but kept the car decks intact. During two drydocks in 1986 and 1988, she underwent further changes to her superstructure to rid herself of the blocky, sharp lines of a ferry and into a more streamlined appearance like that of a modern cruise ship. Two years later in 1990, she entered drydock for routine maintenance when a massive fire swept through the vessel. It took three days to finally extinguish.

Subsequently, everything above the car deck was removed and had to be rebuilt. While she was cut down to the machinery deck, the owner took this opportunity to lengthen the hull by 13 meters and finish her out as a pure cruise ferry, opting not to build a car deck. Due to the significant changes, her classification society considered her to be a newbuild.

Extent of the fire damage (via commons.wikimedia.org)

In 1991 she was relaunched and after sea-trials in the Baltic, she was handed back over in March 1992. She sailed the Baltic for several years until April of 1994. While en route one afternoon she was following an icebreaker that was making a path for her in the frozen Baltic Sea. Due to a couple of miscalculations on the bridge, she impacted some ice and started taking on water. The ship was evacuated and began to appear down in the water on her stern. After swift actions of her crew, she was stabilized, and salvage crews were able to get onboard and stabilized her even more. Several days later, she was towed to Helsinki for immediate repairs to save the ship. She had to be towed to Italy where she entered a yard in La Spezia for permanent repairs.

While in the yard, the ship was time chartered to Norwegian Cruise Line where she was renamed Leeward and would be deployed in the Caribbean.

While at NCL, she sailed on 3 & 4-night cruises to the Bahamas and Mexico starting in 1995. In 2000, she was then handed over to Star Cruises (the new owner of Norwegian Cruise Line at that time) where the Leeward was renamed to SuperStar Taurus. The vessel sailed on short cruises around far east Asia in order to finish up her charter. Towards the end of 2001, she was handed back to her owners in Europe and set sail for her new life for Silja Line. The SuperStar Taurus was then renamed Silja Opera in June of 2002 and sailed on short cruises throughout the Baltic, calling in Sweden, Finland, Estonia, and Russia. The next year, 2003, two incidents occurred while she was maneuvering out of St. Petersburg, Russia. The first was midway through the year when she lost steering and veered too close to an already moored ship. This damaged some lifeboats on her port side. In November of that year, an almost identical thing occurred when she damaged several lifeboats on the same side in the same way.

Silja Opera sailed for several more uneventful years until Silja Line decided to not continue the cruises and focus solely on their ferry business. Now renamed to Opera, the vessel sailed to Tilbury, England in 2006 where she was laid up for roughly a year. Her owners then sold her to Greek interests in 2007 who renamed the vessel to Cristal. This Greek owner was looking for a replacement vessel for the Sea Diamond which has sunk in the Greek Islands in 2007. The Cristal sailed for Louis Cruise Lines through the Greek Islands on short cruises. In 2013 she was charted to a travel company that deployed her on Cuban cruises from Havana.

Louis Cristal Cuba
Louis Cristal in her Cuban livery (via unknown)

Keep in mind this was arranged before the US-Cuban deal to open up travel between the two countries. The idea was to cater to international (mostly European) guests who would be able to fly direct to the Island. She was quite a success down there and sailed for several seasons out of Cuba. Due to the rebranding of Louis Cruise Lines to Celestial Cruises, she then changed her name to Louis Cristal and then finally to the Celestial Crystal. 

Celestial Crystal as she appears today with additional balconies added