Row over Tito’s former yacht

The fascinating full story behind the article in our July issue

Here is the fascinating full story behind our article in Med News this month about Tito’s former yacht Galeb:

The sale of a luxury yacht that former Yugoslav dictator Tito used to entertain international politicians and celebrities such as Winston Churchill and Elizabeth Taylor has been postponed following legal action by its last owner.

The Galeb, or Seagull, was once a famous flagship of the Yugoslav navy and one of the world’s largest yachts. It came to international attention in 1953 when it carried former dictator Marshal Josip Tito up the Thames to meet Winston Churchill – the first visit to Britain by a Communist head of state.

The ship was to have been auctioned off on May 9 for less than the price of scrap metal after being seized by authorities in the Croatian port of Rijeka after its last owner, Greek shipping magnate John Paul Papanicolaou, failed to cover berthing costs reportedly amounting to £330,000.

It was to have been sold for a starting price of £85,000 to cover some of the debts to the local Viktor Lenac shipyard. But local experts said that, if it were sold as scrap iron, the yacht could easily fetch over £155,000.

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Croatian authorities had bestowed cultural heritage status on the Galeb, which required it to stay in one piece, but Papanicolaou went to the country’s Supreme Court objecting to the decision.

“The reason for cancellation is the complaint lodged at the Supreme Court by John Paul Papanicoulau,” said Miljenko Kurobasa, the president of the Trading Court in Rijeka.

He added a new date could not be set for an auction until the Supreme Court had dealt with the matter.

The purchase of the yacht has become a top priority for the city of Rijeka.

Rijeka Mayor Vojko Obersnel said: “I will do everything to make sure that the Galeb remains in Rijeka. This ship is of huge historical and cultural importance, which is why we want to buy it.”

Head of Rijeka Municipality Zlatko Komadina said the mayor had his backing. “We are also in favour of buying the ship because history was made on it. We need to show that we are not ashamed of our recent past.”

City authorities are n considering whether to turn the ship into a luxury commercial cruiser, at an estimated cost of 40 million dollars, or to turn it into a museum at the more moderate cost of six million dollars.

The 384-foot motor yacht gained international fame after Marshal Josip Tito, leader of Yugoslavia from the end of WWII until his death in 1980, used it to travel to the UK in 1953 in what was the first ever visit to Britain by a Communist head of state. The ship was given a Royal Navy escort up the Thames to an embankment where Tito met Winston Churchill and the Duke of Edinburgh.

Tito also used the Galeb to entertain over 100 other world leaders, including Nikita Khrushchev of the former USSR, Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi and India’s Mohandas Gandhi, as well as the most prominent celebrities of the time, such as Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Sophia Loren.

The enormous white yacht was built by the Italians in the port of Genoa in 1938 to transport fruit. During WWII, it was used by the Nazi fleet to lay mines until it was sunk by British bombers off Rijeka in 1945.

When the new Yugoslav socialist state emerged victorious from the war, it salvaged the Galeb and assumed ownership, adding the ship to its emerging fleet until it eventually became Tito’s private yacht.

Yugoslav filmmakers have made a string of documentaries about the legendary travels of the Galeb, making it one of the most recognizable symbols of Yugoslav iconography. For many from the former Yugoslavia, the recent focus on the ship has churned up old memories of what the local press has called “the high hopes and prosperity of a bygone era”.

A former military musician aboard the Galeb, accordion player Zoran Joksimovic, 48, says he never forgot the “glory days”.

He said: “The Galeb was truly a dream ship. It emanated beauty. Persian carpets, precious wooden furniture, golden dishes and cutlery. Back then, I could barely believe my eyes.”

After Tito’s death in 1980, the Galeb was docked in Croatia until the outbreak of the civil war that shattered socialist Yugoslavia in 1991, when it was moved to neighbouring Montenegrin waters with the rest of the Yugoslav military fleet.

It remained there until 2000, when it was bought by Greek tycoon Papanicolaou, who also owns Aristotle Onassis’s former yacht Christina O. He planned to turn the former flagship into a luxury rental cruiser and contracted Croatia’s leading shipyard Viktor Lenac to do the refitting.

But after Papanicolaou failed to meet his financial obligations, the shipyard took legal action and a local court scheduled an auction for May 9.

The emotional influence that the ship still commands was made clear with the announcement. A number of groups, including the Rijeka Union of Anti-Fascist Fighters, whose WWII veterans fought under Tito’s command, appealed to city authorities to save the ship which they consider “part of our cultural and historic heritage”.

A spokesman for the Anti-Fascist Fighters said: “Then we can remember the times we are proud of.”

And Nenad Car, director of the Viktor Lenac shipyard, claims that despite its current run-down appearance, the ship, which still boasts its original Fiat 2500 HP twin diesel engines, is in fairly good shape.

He said: “It is in much better condition than Onassis’s Christina O was before we reconstructed it a few years ago.”

Zeljko Matejcic, the captain currently guarding the Galeb in the run up to the auction, agreed and said: “The steel frame has not corroded, and the main engines are in great shape.

“I am no Communist, nor do I approve of everything Tito did, but I love the Galeb, and I think it would be a shame to let it perish.”


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