Originally built as a British Royal Navy explorer, the Aqua Blu has come a long way to become a world-class luxury cruise yacht. This is her unusual story
When you see the gleaming, streamlined hull of the Aqua Blu cruising on the seas of East Indonesia later this year, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is a spanking new superyacht.
In fact, the Aqua Blu’s sleek form and aesthetic has far more depth and story than her modern appearance would first suggest.
Part of the intrigue of the Aqua Blu, and indeed why we fell in love with this unique cruise ship enough to make it part of our Aqua Expeditions family, is her remarkable heritage as the former British Royal Navy Explorer HMS Beagle.
In the 1960s, the British Royal Navy sanctioned the construction of a fleet of four ocean survey vessels. Among them was HMS Beagle, named in honor of the original ship that carried Charles Darwin as he circumnavigated the globe. Built by Brooke Marine and designed with a merchant hull, the 198-foot (60.4m) long vessel was officially commissioned in 1968 — the year Richard Nixon won the White House — along with three other survey ships in the Bulldog-class.
Purpose-built for Hydrographic Surveying, HMS Beagle was initially designed to carry a SWB Land Rover on the focsle (the deck of the ship near the hull), to be lifted on and off with the forward crane which also plumbed the forward survey hold. Instead it was decided the focsle should carry launch boats; the HMS Beagle was extensively modernized during her life with the original 28 ft survey launch being replaced with a 31 ft survey launch “FitzRoy” and the original 18 ft survey launch replaced with a Sea Rider RIB and associated davit.
Fast forward 61 years later and the HMS Beagle, which happened to be the last of wooden deck ships to be built by the British Navy, is still proudly showing off its naval pedigree and seafaring prowess as a truly unique cruise ship.
Just how did a naval survey vessel evolve into a world-class expedition cruise yacht?
A VERSATILE ASSET
Carrying a crew of 45, the HMS Beagle of the British Royal Navy began life in impressive fashion, traversing the globe from the Indian Ocean to the West Indies and Scotland to South Africa while gathering valuable underwater data.
Originally designed to work in pairs, the HMS Beagle began operating alone sometime in the 1980s. A half-life refit in 1990 equipped the vessel with the modern Surveying Information Processing System (SIPS), as she was redeployed to navigate around UK shores, surveying areas not covered by side-scan sonars.
Used for collecting vital data on hydrographic and oceanographic surveys for planning and operational purposes, the SIPS at the time revolutionized how sheets were drawn and underwater surveys were conducted.
Even as a military vessel, HMS Beagle had a reputation of being an extremely comfortable environment for the Royal Naval personnel on board. For entertainment, the Wardroom, just to starboard, the Senior Rates Mess just aft and the Junior Ratings mess forward, are all easily accessed.
All accommodation, except the Captain’s, was on 3 deck, which is now known as the Forecastle Deck. The Junior Ratings had a 28-berth mess deck forward, the Senior Rates lived in double cabins and the Officers had a mixture of two double-berth and two single-berth cabins. All accommodation spaces were air conditioned and, coupled with good sea-keeping qualities, the occupants had nothing but praise for the comfort levels on the HMS Beagle, compared to other naval battleships.
The crew on board the HMS Beagle were also, by most accounts, very well-fed and nourished on their missions. The well-equipped galley, situated on 2 deck amidships (now the Main Deck), fed the whole ship’s company to a very high standard.
For nearly 34 years, the HMS Beagle assumed the role of a versatile asset for the British Royal Navy, continuing to undergo frequent refits and upgrades as military and naval technology progressed.
Finally, after more than three decades of dedicated service, the Royal Navy decommissioned the HMS Beagle on 7 February 2002 and sold the vessel in March that year. A veteran of the seas was poised for a rebirth… as a luxury charter yacht.
TITAN: A TRULY UNIQUE CRUISE SHIP CONVERSION TAKES PLACE
Just as the HMS Beagle was about to call time on her naval tour of duty, an English couple had learned of the availability of the soon-to-be-decommissioned vessel. Peter and Pauline Bull had eight years of experience in running the 173-foot Benetti charter yacht Galu when they chanced upon the HMS Beagle.
The duo became savvy to the ship’s potential almost immediately. Unlike many military vessels, the HMS Beagle was broad-beamed (or ‘beamy’ in maritime slang). This was because as a survey ship, she did not have to move or turn as fast as a battleship. With ample deck room coupled with the ship’s obvious seafaring pedigree and stellar maintenance over the years, the Bulls pictured the HMS Beagle as a five-star charter yacht.
To achieve their vision, Peter and Pauline set about converting HMS Beagle after buying her from the Royal Navy for 750,000 British pounds in March 2002. Over three years and stationed in a facility in Poole in Southern England, a dramatic transformation took place without the ship being handed to a shipyard, as was normally the case for a undertaking as big as this.
Instead, the Bulls hired and oversaw 50 individual craftsmen, designers and naval architects as the HMS Beagle was chiseled, refitted and remodeled into a four-deck vessel. Given a new look and a new life as a luxury charter yacht, the former naval vessel was rechristened Titan and unveiled in 2005.
Put into service on the European charter routes, the Titan wasted no time in gaining a solid reputation with the remarkable extent of its refit and crew service. The SOLAS-classed vessel accommodated 22 charter guests at the time, compared to the usual 12 that was commonly the maximum allowed on board most charter yachts (of any size).
A PRIVATE AFFAIR
As a 11-cabin luxury charter yacht, the former HMS Beagle consistently saw high demand. Soon, however, Peter Bull, was diagnosed with cancer and eventually lost the battle, leaving Pauline Bull solely in charge of the charter business.
According to Yachtworld, Pauline “did not want to run Titan herself” after his husband’s passing, and so decided to sell the yacht. The next owner was an Italian aristocratic family, who had purchased the Titan for their private enjoyment.
Under their care, the Titan saw its standards of luxury elevated even further. Upon purchase in 2008, the first thing the new owners did was to take the ship to Italy’s renowned Benetti shipyard, where she underwent several refits that included new stairs, a new sundeck, a new Jacuzzi, a new galley, better crew quarters and the installation of exquisite hardwood flooring in the upper salon.
At the same time, significant technical improvements were also made to the vessel, including the installation of Quantum Zero Speed Stabilizers that afforded guests and owners of the boat maximum comfort while navigating or at rest, no matter the sea state. The major refurbishment was completed in 2009, and the ship was once again ready to set sail.
Over the next decade, the owners spared no expense in keeping the Titan in top form as it sailed both the Mediterranean and the Caribbean seas. Titan was made available for charter again from 2014, hosting repeat clients from Spain, Sweden, as well as royalty from the Middle East.
PRESENTING THE AQUA BLU
In 2018, after more than a decade of operating successfully the small-ship river cruise line Aqua Expeditions, Founder and CEO Francesco Galli Zugaro sought the next step in the company’s global expansion, with a particular focus in offering coastal cruising to discerning affluent travellers with an appetite for adventure.
It was then Francesco came across the former HMS Beagle. “I came across her at a yacht show and I immediately fell in love with her,” he fondly recalls.
“I saw the opportunity to buy her from the owners and after tremendous negotiation managed to come to a deal in the October of 2018,” Francesco elaborates. “We’re naming her the Aqua Blu, and she’ll be sailing three beautiful destinations in Indonesia’s Coral Triangle come end of 2019.”
To take the ship to an even higher level of refinement and sophistication, Francesco has roped in renowned yacht designer Cor D. Rover to oversee a refurbishment process currently underway in Singapore. Meanwhile, certain elements such as the ship’s teak interiors will be lovingly given a new shine and blend seamlessly and stylishly with a modern brass-and-ivory themed interior.
And just like Aqua Expeditions’ other vessels, decorations and artwork will be personally handpicked by Francesco’s own team: his wife Birgit Galli Zugaro and David Cole. When complete, the Aqua Blu will feature 15 individually-designed cabins complemented with a near 1:1 crew-to-guest ratio, experienced guides and five-star dining characteristic of the Aqua Expeditions experience.
A UNIQUE CRUISE SHIP POISED FOR ADVENTURE
More significantly, Aqua Blu will offer guests unprecendented access to the heart of the Coral Triangle in East Indonesia. Not only is the vessel the first ship of its class to operate primarily in the region, it is also the first to sell individual cabins instead of solely charters. The Aqua Blu will cruise Komodo National Park, Ambon & Spice Islands as well as Raja Ampat on mostly 7-night itineraries, with the occasional 12-night limited cross-destination voyage.
Replete with two 16-seater Alson launch boats for shore excursions and a suite of non-motorized watersport equipment, the RINA-classed Aqua Blu is set to usher an exciting new chapter in the life of a storied vessel, taking guests on a once-in-a-lifetime expeditions in the world’s most pristine and wildlife-rich destinations.
Compared to the traditional wooden phinisi vessels that operate in the East Indonesia region, Aqua Blu’s superior speed (up to 16 knots) and range of 6,000 nautical miles — proudly inherited from its naval origins and its beautifully maintained Lister Blackstone engines — will enable avid explorers to see, do and discover more in the spectacular Coral Triangle that any other itinerary.
For us, the privilege of being a custodian of a treasured piece of maritime heritage fills us with pride and joy. To the many before who’ve had the pleasure of sailing with her, this is more than just a unique cruise ship; Aqua Blu is arguably the quintessential icon of modern yachting and seafaring evolution, and we’d love to know what she’ll mean to our guests in time to come.
Sign up to our monthly e-newsletter to receive more stories like this.