Since summer 1893, a combined mail, passenger and cargo express steamship line connects the remote ports of northern Norway with the southern part of the country and the outside world. It quickly grew in popularity as the preferred means of transportation in the challenging environment of the arctic regions of northern Norway – not only for the local population, but also for tourists. The name Hurtigrute became a famous worldwide trademark.
The Bergenske Dampskibsselskab, internationally known as the Bergen Line, was the most important shipping company of the old hanseatic city of Bergen, the southernmost port and main hub of the Hurtigruten service, and has been involved in the Hurtigruten operation since 1894.
Bergen Line ordered ”Nordstjernen”as an urgent replacement for the company’s former flagship, also called “Nordstjernen”, built in 1937 and lost after grounding in Raftsundet in September 1954. The order for a new passenger, mail and cargo vessel was placed at the Blohm & Voss shipyard in Hamburg, which only recently recovered from the heavy war damage inflicted during the air raids in the last months of the second world war. Restrictions on shipbuilding in Germany were only lifted in 1953, and the yard was eager to gain international orders and to rebuild their reputation. They could guarantee a quick delivery in spring 1956, and this fitted Bergen Line’s requirements very well.
The contract was signed in December 1954, and construction work on hull number 787 started immediately. There were some delays due to material shortage, and the keel wasn’t laid before summer 1955. After that, good progress was made and the ship was launched on October 26th, 1955 into the river Elbe.
Fitting out posed no further problems, and on Februray 24th, 1956 – a few days earlier than scheduled – the new “Nordstjernen”was delivered to Bergen Line. She measured 2194 gross register tons, with a length of 80.77 meters, a beam of 12.6 meters and a draught of 4.5 meters. “Nordstjernen” had a capacity of 450 passengers, 195 of them could be accomodated in her first and second class cabins. In addition, up to 645 tons of cargo could be carried in the two forward cargo holds. She was powered by a single 3000 hp, 6-cylinder 2-stroke Burmeister & Wain diesel engine driving a variable-pitch propeller, which gave her a maximum speed on 15.5 knots.
The ship’s interior layout was kept simple. All public rooms were on the same deck – the first class section forward with a comfortable lounge, the entrance hall and the dining room, and the second-class section with cafeteria and another lounge aft. The decoration was of a particularly high standard, contributed by the famous Norwegian artist Paul Rene Gauguin. Almost all artwork is still in place and can be appreciated to this day.
“Nordstjernen” entered the Hurtigruten service on March 1st, 1956. Soon became a popular and successful member of the fleet.
1968 saw new challenges. In addition to the regular Hurtigrute sailings, the companies introduced a new Svalbard Express service to Spitzbergen. All companies supplied their respective flagships, and for Bergen Line, the “Nordstjernen” took over this role. This route became very attractive for tourism and was repeated every summer until 1982.
From 1976 till 1979, spring cruises to the Shetland Islands were added to “Nordstjernen” program.
January 1979 saw major changes to the traditional Hurtigruten operation. Bergen Line announced their withdrawal from the service after 85 years. Their part of the operation, including the four ships employed in it, were sold to Troms Fylkes Dampskipsselskap, a nothern Norwegian local shipping company. “Nordstjernen” received the house colours of the new company and the homeport was changed to Tromsø. But otherwise, there were few changes for “Nordstjernen” as she continued the Hurtigruten service for her new owners.
The early 1980s saw a new generation of Hurtigrute vessels entering service, much bigger ships with ro/ro loading facilities. This was the time when the classic ships from the 1950s and 60s began to look a bit outdated. Some of the earlier vessels were already retired and replaced by the newbuilts. “Nordstjernen”continued on Hurtigrutenuntil it was decided that she would receive a major upgrade to make her fit for further service.
This was performed during the winter 1982-83 at the Bergen shipyard of Mjellem & Karlsen. First of all, her ageing main engine was removed and replaced with a new 3600 hp MaK 8-cylinder 4-stroke diesel engine. At the same time, her interior was thoroughly refurbished, and the generation-old subdivision into first and second class was abolished. A huge number of former first-class cabins were completely rebuilt, and private shower/wc facilities were added. All in all, these measures reduced the cabin capacity of the ship to 179 passengers.
On March 23rd, 1983, the modernised “Nordstjernen” left on her first Hurtigruten voyage. The modifications were considered very successful, and the new, more powerful engine increased her maximum speed to almost 19 knots.
The following years she continued to be a popular ship. August 1984 saw the first wedding celebration onboard.
A memorable event was the New Year’s storm in the early hours of January 1st, 1992. “Nordstjernen” was southbound at Ålesund, and everybody was prepared for a stormy passage across the open sea section to Måløy. But the wind even increased further during the night, reaching hurricane force, and the ship had to hove to for several hours, keeping away from the shore while maneuvring under very difficult circumstances. A very exhausted crew arrived arrived at the next port, Måløy, several hours late.
Meanwhile, there was no doubt that the last remaining Hurtigrutenships of the 1950s and 60s were ageing. The Hurtigrutencompanies planned a new generation of large, cruise ship-style vessels to replace the classic mailships. The first ships of the new generation were commissioned in 1993, and one by one, the old ships were phased out. “Nordstjernen”’s replacement was the new “Nordlys” which entered service in 1994. Everybody expected that this would be the end of “Nordstjernen”’s long career as a Hurtigruten vessel.
But unexpected things happen all the time, and this was definitely the case with “Nordstjernen”. Some people at Troms Fylkes thought that it was much to early to retire “Nordstjernen” as she still had a farly new main engine, and her interior was upgraded only recently. Probably remembering the successful Svalbard Expresss sailings in the 1970s, they decided that “Nordstjernen” should be used for Spitzbergen trips from Tromsø during the summer season, and during the winter months, she could be retained as a replacement vessel on the Hurtigrute. And so she started a series of one-week Svalbard cruises during the summer of 1994 which proved extremely successful and were, with some variations, repeated every season until 2009.
During the next years, “Nordstjernen”returned to the Hurtigruten service frequently, mainly during the winter months and also as a replacement vessel for other ships that have been sold out of the fleet. She also undertook a few cruises if there was some free time between the Hurtigruten winter service and the summer trips to Svalbard. To Hamburg where she was built she returned for one trip in 2003, and again for her 50th birthday in 2006. A little bit later, she changed her funnel colours for the second time when the two last remaining Hurtigruten companies were merged to form Hurtigruten ASA and the whole fleet acquired the new corporate image.
But all good things come to an end, and by 2012, “Nordstjernen” became surplus to requirements. She finished her final Hurtigruten voyage in March 2012, and a last Spitsbergen cruise season was advertised for the summer months. The final voyage was the repositioning cruise back from Spitsbergen to Bergen in August, and she arrived in her former homeport on September 1st, 2012.
In November 2012 the vessel was delivered to new owners and is now operated by Vestland Marine who intend to use the vessel for classical voyages under the Vestland Classic brand. At the same time the vessel was protected by Norwegian Cultural Heritage.
Almost at the same time, the Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage protected “Nordstjernen”as an outstanding example of 1950s ship design, with many technical and design features reaching back as long as the 1930.
During the first half of 2013, she received a thorough refit on a shipyard in Gdańsk, Poland. Her hull was sandblasted and she got a new coat of paint, and the old Bergen Line funnel colours were applied again. Also, her homeport was changed back to Bergen. On July 29th she left Gdansk for Bergen to be presented to the public at the “Fjordsteam 2013” festival. From 2014, exciting coastal voyages all over northern Europe are planned by Vestland Classic.