Quirky Cruise
December 20, 2018

Ted Talks: The Draw of Charming Older Ships

Charming Older Ships

By Ted Scull.

When you are young, you might think something old is not cool and worse, maybe even inferior. Today, with technology changing so fast, it is hard to keep up with what is the newest. And does new automatically mean it is better than something tried and true?

At a relatively early age, I learned what I liked about ships, and most I first encountered were not new, rather middle-aged and beyond. When traveling to and from Nantucket every summer beginning at age eight, the boats we boarded at Woods Hole on the Cape were built before the Great Depression. I loved their old-fashioned stateliness and piercing steam whistle announcing departures and arrivals.

When I went aboard my inaugural transatlantic liner as a teenager, the ship was built well before WWII. At first sight, she was ever so majestic with two tall stacks and with a graceful curve to her hull profile. Her interiors recalled lovely grand hotels I knew in New York and Philadelphia.

In our QuirkyCruise world, I have discussed some of the stately sail-powered tall ships we cover that had early lives as workaday ships rather than as pleasure craft. When their first careers ended because of more modern steamship technology, they found new work as wind-jamming cruise ships, saving them for posterity.

With a handful of engined-powered vessels chosen from our 80-plus reviews, let’s start with those that are old in age and look old. Through many eyes, their presence are distinct reminders of another era when ships like this were commonplace.

charming older ships

VIC 32 – Coal-fired Clyde Puffer takes up to 12 passengers amongst the Scottish isles. * Photo: Puffer Steamboat Holidays

Puffer Steamboat Holidays

Let’s take the tiny Clyde Puffer VIC 32 dating from 1943. She represents an authentic example of a hardworking coal-fired cargo carrier that once numbered in the hundreds, taking aboard almost everything that needed transporting between the Scottish mainland and the islands. VIC 32 and many of her fleet mates even looked old when newly built in the 1940s, as they largely drew on 19th-century design and technology.

While a half-dozen are still afloat, VIC 32 owned by the Puffer Preservation Trust, is the only one taking overnight cruise passengers (12), with additional cabin accommodations occupying space once allocated to freight. Passengers may try their hand at shoveling coal into the furnace and steering the vessel along canals and into scenic lochs.

charming older ships

VIC 32 negotiates a flight of locks en route across Scotland. * Photo: Puffer Steamboat Holidays

Gota Canal Steamship Company

In Sweden, the Gota Canal is a highly scenic 382-mile cross-country waterway constructed in the early 19th century. It connects the capital Stockholm with Gothenburg, the country’s second largest city, using connecting rivers and lakes with the undulating countryside conquered by flights of locks.

The three boats are historic treasures, full of charm and purpose-built to transit the canal, a truly memorable way to see Sweden’s countryside and small towns. The oldest, Juno, was completed in 1874, with Wilhelm Tham following in 1912 and Diana, the newest, dating from 1931.

The boats’ steam engines have long since been replaced by diesels, and the accommodations upgraded for additional comforts, while they retain their heritage look

Read QuirkyCruise co-founder Heidi’s account of her excellent Juno adventure a few summers ago.

charming older ships

Juno sailing across Sweden via the Gota Canal. * Photo: Heidi Sarna


In Alaska, AdventureSmith operates the 12-passenger Sea Wolf, first completed in 1941 as the USS Observer, a US Navy minesweeper used for protecting San Francisco Bay. When the 97-foot wooden vessel was decommissioned, she was taken on as a private yacht and ultimately joined the AdventureSmith cruise fleet in 2003.

She operates with a fiercely loyal crew of 5 to 6, and her small size and rugged build allows her to poke around almost anywhere in the Alaska Panhandle.

charming older ships

Sea Wolf cruises Alaska’s panhandle. * Photo: AdventureSmith

The next three companies operate ships that were built over 50 years ago. While they do not necessarily appear old-fashioned, they exude the distinct character of another age.

Hebridean Island Cruises

In Scotland, Hebridean Island Cruises operates a single ship, the 2,112-ton Hebridean Princess, in the manner of a Scottish country house, building on the conversion of a 1964-built car ferry with overnight accommodations.

While the handsome profile remains largely intact, the interior spaces have been remodeled for up to 49 passengers. They occupy cabins that are not numbered but charmingly named after Scottish castles, isles, lochs, and sounds, and each one is individually decorated.

The original observation lounge is fitted with a brick and timber fireplace and flanked by two small side lounges, one serving as the library and the other a cozy setting for afternoon tea or pre-dinner drinks. The Columba Restaurant operates like in a country hotel where couples dine at their own table, friends traveling together at larger ones, and singles fraternize with the officers.

charming older ships

Hebridean Princess’ conversion saved her original profile. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises


Along the Norwegian Coast, the Hurtigruten cargo and passenger service operates daily from Bergen in the south to just beyond the North Cape, calling at over three dozen ports in each direction. Of the dozen ships that hold down the route, one dates from 1965 in the manner of many ships that came before dating back to the 1890s.

The said ship is the Lofoten named for an island archipelago sited off the Norwegian Coast. She measures just 2,621 tons compared to her fleet mates that range up to 16,151 tons. While they all use ramps for loading and unloading the cargo by forklift or driving it onto a vehicle deck, the Lofoten, in the old-fashioned way, crane-loads the cargo stacked on wooden pallets from the pier into the forward hold.

Watching the action is a joyful part of traveling aboard this vessel.

Her public rooms are utterly charming with two forward lounges for reading, playing board and card games and viewing the coastal mountains and seascape ahead, and an aft lounge bar featuring a lovely collection of paintings of earlier ships. She is a true time warp from the 1960s.

charming older ships

Lofoten working cargo north of the Arctic Circle. * Photo: Ted Scull

Alaska Marine Highway

A trio of ships belonging to the Alaska Marine Highway, a vehicle, freight, and passenger carrier that links the Lower 48 states via the inside Passage to Southeast Alaska, and South-Central Alaska to the Aleutian Island chain.

While the Malaspina, Matanuska and Tustumena do not look old inside or out, they are a fine testimony to American shipbuilding, 55 years later providing necessary service to cities and towns with no road access to the outside world.

charming older ships

Malaspina, named after an Alaskan glacier, dates from 1963. * Photo: Ted Scull

Over the decades I have sailed with or at least been aboard all these ships, apart from the Sea Wolf, which I have seen in passing. It’s a lovely collection you might consider when you next want to go exploring.


To recap, here are our favorite ❤️ charming oldies!


Alaska Marine Highway

Gota Canal Steamboat Company

Hebridean Island Cruises


Puffer Steamboat Holidays


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QuirkyCruise is sharing the small-ship love. ENTER our cruise giveaway to win a free Caribbean cruise for 2 with Island Windjammers, one of our favorite quirky lines! 



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  1. George Coughlin - 2 years ago

    Great article, Ted

  2. Ted Scull - 2 years ago

    Thank you George! Maybe we could fool our visitors with the genuinely old-looking Pilgrim Belle, Colonial Explorer…et al.

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