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“Galeb”: The History of Tito’s Diplomatic Superyacht

Former leader of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito, has many objects that are inextricably attached to his enduring (albeit sometimes controversial) legacy. For instance, his famous Blue Train, his “Air Force One” style planes, his many homes, his secret bunkers, etc… but it could be argued that none are more iconic than his personal yacht, “Galeb” or “Seagull” in English. Upon this vessel, Tito sailed around the world, traversing 86,062 nautical miles (159,387 km) across the seas and open oceans during his time as leader of Yugoslavia. Bedecked with an interior of splendor and elegant modern design, the ship stood as a symbol for Tito’s diplomatic excursions through which he worked to cultivate ties with nations around the world within the framework of the Non-Aligned Movement project. By its final years of use, over 100 statesmen and world leaders had made stays and met with Tito upon the Galeb. In this article, we will investigate the history of the Galeb, following its history from its construction in 1938, its WWII exploits, its time as Tito’s maritime flagship, its post-Yugoslav deterioration and, finally, its recent resurrection as a showpiece museum.


A 1970s photo of Tito's grand yacht "Galeb" at port in Split

The boat that would come to be known as “Galeb” was constructed in 1938 in the Italian town of Genoa at the Ansaldo shipyard by state-owned Royal Banana Monopoly “Regia Azienda Monopolio Banane (RAMB)” for the purposes of transporting bananas between Africa and Italy. Four of these ships were constructed at the same time, with the particular boat of our focus here being designated the RAMB III. The boat had a length of 117m and width of 15m, all powered by two Fiat diesel engines that gave it a combined 5,000hp with the ability to teach 17 knots or 31 km/hr. During its time as a commercial transport vessel, it would haul upwards of 50,000 tons of bananas a year to Italy, mostly from Somaliland. However, just a few years after the ship was constructed, it was commissioned into the Italian Navy, whereupon it operated as an escort ship for supply convoys and was armed with an array of artillery and anti-aircraft guns. During its wartime use by the Italians, it operated through the Adriatic and Mediterranean, where it faced off several times against British destroyers and air attacks. However, on May 10th, 1941, the RAMB III was struck in the bow by a torpedo from the British submarine HMS Triumph while anchored at the Libyan port of Benghazi, where it was disabled and left dead in the water. It was subsequently towed to the San Marco shipyard in Trieste by the Italian Navy.


A late 1930s photo of the RAMB III ship in the Adriatic Sea.

However, the RAMB III was later commandeered at Trieste by the German Navy (Kriegsmarine) in September of 1943, at which point it was repaired and converted into a minelayer boat, given the new name “Kiebitz”. The exterior of the ship was painted with charismatic “Dazzle” camouflage, which were frenetic geometric designs meant to confuse those attempting to establish the boat’s speed and heading. During its time with the German Navy, it laid over 5,000 mines across the Adriatic. However, in July of 1944, while in the process of laying mines near the Italian port town of Ancona, the Kiebtiz loses power and crashes into one of its own mines, again disabling the vessel. From Ancona, it was again towed, this time to Pula in Istria, where it was repaired and then transferred up to the nearby port city of Rijeka. While anchored here at Rijeka, it suffered its final wartime fate when it was struck by an air attack on November 5th, 1944 by a squadron of British RAF Baltimore bombers. From here, the bombed out ship sank 22m down to the bottom of the Rijeka harbor.


The Kiebitz minelayer ship with its distinctive Dazzle camoflauge
The Kiebitz ship after being struck by bombs while moored inthe Rijeka harbor

The Kiebtiz sat there within the depth of the muddy Rijeka harbor for three years until efforts from the Yugoslav Split-based ship company “Brodospas” undertook efforts to raise and salvage the ship starting in November of 1947. After a one year worth of work, employing the innovative solution of attaching pressurized air canisters to the sunken ship’s hull, the Kiebitz was finally raised to the surface in March of 1948. This was the first time such a method was used to raise a sunken ship in the Adriatic. From Rijeka, the ship was then sent back to Pula, where it was completely refurbished and reconstructed at the “Uljanik” shipyard for the purposes of the Yugoslav Navy, being given a plush and extravagant new interior. When its restoration was completed, it was utilized by the Navy as a training and school ship for young sailors and was officially given what would become its final name “Galeb”. 


A photo of the Galeb after its extensive restoration into a Yugoslav Naval school ship

Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito would first step upon the Galeb in 1952 at the Dalmatian coastal town of Podgora during his personal inspection of the ship, at which point he instantly fell in love with the ship and began to employ it as his exclusive yacht for seafaring transport (which made it, at the time, one of the longest yachts in the world at 117m long). Tito took his first international voyage on the Galeb in March of 1953, taking off from the Montenegrin port of Zelenika to London via the Thames River (departing just days after the death of Stalin). When he disembarked the Galeb in London, the Yugoslav leader was met by the Duke of Edinburgh and Winston Churchill, marking the importance of his visit there, as Tito was the first communist head of state to make an official visit to the United Kingdom. A detailed account of this UK visit can be read about at THIS link. This momentous visit served as a symbolic event heralding Yugoslavia’s more open attitude towards dealing with the Western NATO nations and its move away from being exclusively under the yoke of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc.


The Galeb itself, as mentioned before, was festooned with a resplendent design and furnishing of mid-century decoration and adornment that fittingly made it a testament to Yugoslav aesthetics of the 1950s era. The outfitting and furnishing of the boat was undertaken by Croatian design engineer Zorko Lah of construction firm Brodoprojekt. For the interior, the walls of each stately room were covered with warm wood veneer and paneling, filled in with gray wall-to-wall carpeting throughout. Modernist matchstick-leg furniture laden with blue pinstripe fabric populates the rooms, conveying an atmosphere of sophisticated luxury. In addition, many of the stately rooms were decorated with large wood inlay murals, similar to those found on Tito’s Blue Train. The many bedrooms of the Galeb, with one set aside specifically for Tito, all accommodated fine wooden beds accented with Chesterfield headboards. Across the top deck of the ship, durable (yet expensive) teak wood is laid out for guests to stroll and admire the ocean views. However, as “luxurious” as these quarters may sound in this description (and perhaps were for the time period), they were altogether quite modest and restrained in their design and adornment when compared to superyachts or mega cruise liners of the contemporary era.


A 1960s view of Tito and guests in the Galeb's main meeting room
A vintage 1960s view of Tito's modest bedroom aboard the Galeb
A vintage 1960s photo of one of the salons on the Galeb yacht

All in all, this was an environment fit to host not only the leader of Yugoslavia, but also world leaders, ambassadors, celebrities and the like. The boat also contained a private cinema for Tito’s enjoyment while out on the open ocean. One source relates that during a 6 week voyage Tito made to Africa in 1961, he watched no less than 52 films in his theater on Galeb. In addition, on his voyages, he would also tote along small jazz groups, brass bands, dancers and other live entertainment to pass the time at sea. For transportation once arriving to foreign ports, Tito would also bring along a small fleet of his personal vehicles, which would often include his Rolls Royce Phantom V, his 1953 Cadillac Eldorado convertible and his 1937 Packard (gifted to him by Stalin).


A 1950s photo of Tito and his wife Jovanka aboard the Galeb yacht

Through its decades of service between 1952 and 1979 which Tito sailed aboard the Galeb, he travelled to nearly 20 nations across Europe, Asia and Africa, stopping along the way at roughly 30 different ports, crossing tens of thousands of kilometers of seas and ocean. One of the furthest ventures on the Galeb that Tito took was to Indonesia in 1958, which took 23 days of constant sailing to reach via the Suez Canal. It is thought that in total combined days, Tito spent nearly a year just aboard the Galeb. The majority of these visits were part of Tito’s cultivation of the anti-colonialist Non-Aligned Movement, where he worked to build relationships with all of the countries around the world who wished to remain separated and independent from both the Eastern and Western power structures of the Cold War era. As one source describes, Tito used these trips to “advertise Yugoslavia, the Yugoslav political system, and the Yugoslav economy, but also used them to discuss global politics with the leaders of the visited countries because he was attempting to secure the Yugoslav position within this nascent group of non-committed countries”. Aboard the Galeb, Tito hosted such world leaders as Ethiopia's Haile Selassie, India’s Jawaharlal Nehru & Indira Gandhi, Burma’s U Nu, the USSR’s Nikita Khrushchev, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Romania’s Nicolae Ceauşescu, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, among many others. With this impressive record of diplomacy, international outreach, and preludes towards decolonization, the ship was given the nickname, the “Peace Ship” Galeb. As one source explains: “The ship Galeb was an official symbol of such policies and goals. It was a mobile embodiment of the state policies that Tito sought to propagate and popularise with the masses, both at home and abroad.”


Tito aboard the Galeb with Tito with Ghana president Kwame Nkrumah in 1961
A 1955 photo of Tito aboard the Galeb yacht in deep thought
A 1970s photo of Tito and his wife Jovanka on the Galeb with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton

In addition, Tito also entertained many of his Hollywood and celebrity friends on the yacht with lavish parties, hosting such notable icons as Kirk Douglas, Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren. These pleasure cruises were often taken around Tito’s private retreat on the Brijuni Islands, located off the coast of Istria. However, one of Tito’s most treasured guests aboard the Galeb was the famous Hollywood actor Richard Burton, who played Tito himself in the 1973 Yugoslav-produced film “Battle of Sutjeska”.


Through 27 years of use by Tito, the Galeb served as an integral part of his efforts towards overseas diplomacy, international relations and fortifying Yugoslavia as a global political player. In turn, the boat was embraced by Yugoslav citizens as a symbol of their nation's influence and prestige around the world. It is important also to note that during the time which Tito employed the ship for his various uses (which some sources assert was up to 500 days in total), it continued to be used as a naval training vessel and school ship, both for cadets and youth groups. The last major international voyage Tito took aboard the Galeb was in August of 1976 to the city of Colombo, Sri Lanka in order to attend the 5th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). During the summit, Tito hosted a ceremonial reception aboard the Galeb that was attended by 67 heads of state from NAM member nations.


Two images of Tito while taking photos aboard ths Galeb yacht

Much of the final years of Tito’s use of the Galeb yacht after his last international voyage were centered around Herceg Novi, Montenegro, where the Yugoslav leader was seeking long term medical care from the renowned Medical Institute of "Dr. Simo Milošević" at the nearby town of Igalo. In fact, for his comfort during long stays there at Igalo, Tito oversaw the construction of a residence for himself there in 1976 named “Vila Galeb”, no doubt named after the famous ship itself. Finally, records indicate that the last voyage that Tito took aboard the Galeb was from his Brijuni Island residence to the Croatian city of Zadar and then back to Brijuni during the 15th and 16th of August, 1979. He passed away 8 months later on May 4th, 1980 at a hospital in Ljubljana, Slovenia.


From Tito’s death in 1980 until 1990, the Galeb ship continued to be used as a school and training ship, mostly sailing to Yugoslav ports across the Adriatic, with some visits to Greece, Turkey and Africa. After the dismantling of Yugoslavia began in the early 1990s, the Galeb was transferred to a port at Tivat, Montenegro in the Bay of Kotor, where it eventually became property of the Government of Montenegro. Then, from 1995 to 2000, the ship was moved across the Bay of Kotor to the nearby shipyard at the port of Bijela. Here, it suffered extreme neglect and fell into a state of disrepair, having much of its adornments, equipment and furnishings stolen by vandals and thieves. During this time, Montenegro’s government attempted numerous times to sell the ship for a high price tag, but to no avail.


A photo of the condition of the Galeb's interior before recent efforts towards restoration
A photo of the condition of the Galeb's interior before recent efforts towards restoration
A photo of the condition of the Galeb's exterior deck before recent efforts towards restoration

It was not until 2000 that the ship was finally sold to Greek shipping magnate John Paul Papanicolaou for the paltry sum of 750,000 euros, who had the intention of converting the Galeb into a luxury pleasure yacht. The ship was then subsequently towed to the Viktor Lenac shipyard in Rijeka, Croatia for repairs and refurbishing. However, due to Papanikolaou soon encountering financial difficulties, this project was abandoned. Papanikolaou then left the ship in an abandoned state through the early 2000s at the Rijeka shipyard and neglected to pay any of his required berthing costs to store the boat (which at that point had amounted to hundreds of thousands of euros). As such, in 2006, the shipyard expropriated the Galeb and put it up for auction. Also during this episode, the boat was declared a monument of national importance by Croatia’s Ministry of Culture, who hoped to keep Galeb within Croatia. After several years of trying to sell the boat, the Viktor Lenac shipyard was finally able to secure a sale of the ship to the City of Rijeka in 2009 for 150,000 euros, with the Galeb then being relocated from the shipyard to Rijeka's main city harbor to be put on public display.


A view of the Galeb ship as it sat docked in the harbor of Rijeka during the 2010s.

From 2009, the City of Rijeka put forward efforts to restore and refurbish the Galeb for the purposes of turning it into a museum and tourist attraction. However, the sheer cost of the endeavor was such that progress towards this goal was extremely slow. As a result, the Galeb sat for many years in Rijeka’s harbor looking more like a rusty abandoned husk than a monument of national importance. However, when Rijeka was nominated as the European Capital of Culture for 2020, renewed efforts to restore the Galeb began, this time with funds granted by the European Union. As such, in 2019, the Galeb was towed to the nearby shipyard at Kraljevica for this overhaul project to begin (with work being carried out by the Dalmont company). Though, it must be noted that Galeb’s refurbishment has not been without controversy. As one source explains: “The renovation of the Galeb was embedded in wider political debates between Croatian (far-right) nationalists wanting to wipe out the socialist memory of Tito [and] multinational-liberal political voices finding in the Yugoslav past a model for the anti-Fascist and multinational urban society they envisioned for Rijeka”.


A recent 2023 photo of the Galeb which shows the ongoing restoration efforts taking shape

Overseen and administered by the Museum of Rijeka, the project has moved along slowly and its opening has been continually postponed. Tentative plans reported in the news originally slated for the Galeb museum to be open to the public during the summer of 2024, however, media reports indicate that this deadline too has been pushed back. With the cost of the project running upwards of +10 million euros, citizens of Rijeka are becoming frustrated with the Galeb’s slow progress and expensive price tag. In addition to the museum component of the Galeb, there are also plans for a restaurant, retail space and overnight lodgings. As of early 2024, the ship continues to undergo work and renovation at the Kraljevica shipyard.


The official website for the planned Galeb Museum exhibition can be found at THIS link, which is operated by the City Museum of Rijeka. In 2020, a documentary about the ship, titled “Galeb”, by Croatian filmmaker and journalist Ivan Živković premiered in Rijeka as part of the European Capital of Culture festival. A trailer for the film can be seen at THIS link.


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