For Torstein Hagen, returning to Bergen, Norway, was about much more than christening his new and much-lauded ocean-going vessel, the 930-passenger Viking Star. The event marked a “coming home” for Hagen as well as the crowning achievement of a Lazarus-like return from two potentially catastrophic events in his life.
The first was his being ousted from Royal Viking Line. Hagen had been CEO of the company since 1980. When in 1984 the owners decided to sell Royal Viking Line, Hagen scrambled to raise funding to purchase it with a group of employees and investors. He succeeded in raising capital, but Royal Viking Line’s owners sold the company right out from under him. It must have felt as though someone had pulled the rug out from under his feet. The loss of his beloved cruise line sent Hagen tumbling.
He left Bergen empty handed and somewhat shamed by what had happened in what was then a relatively small town on the Norwegian coast. He stayed away from Bergen until last year, when he began scouting locations for Viking Star’s christening events. The homecoming was bittersweet. Hagen had lost many years in a place that he said he “fell in love with” and where he said he had spent “the best years of my life.”
Understandably, Hagen’s anticipation of coming home and last Sunday’s christening would mean a lot to him. “When I go back to Bergen on May 17, I’ll have made a full circle in my life,” Hagen told reporters on Viking Star in early May, a couple of weeks before the naming ceremony. “That may not be a big deal to you [the reporters], but it means a lot to me.”
In fact, it meant a lot to me too. As a reporter who began my career in cruising in the early 1990s, I watched as Norwegian Cruise Line, then part of the Kloster cruise group, mismanaged the venerable Royal Viking Line and finally dissolved it in 1994. Along with many others, I was angry with Kloster for ruining a company that had set the standard for luxury cruising. I often wonder where Royal Viking Line would be today if Hagen had succeeded in buying out the company back in 1984.
The line’s legacy lives on, however — not only through Hagen’s new Viking Star but also in nearly every luxury cruise line operating today. Christian Sauleau, who runs fleet operations for Silversea and before that Regent Seven Seas Cruises, worked as a hotel manager for Royal Viking Line. Erling Frydenberg, Hagen’s right-hand man from the Royal Viking days, went on to run hotel operations for SeaDream Yacht Club, Crystal Cruises, Silversea and now for Viking Ocean Cruises. Dietmar Wertanzl, hotel director at Royal Viking Line from 1983 to 1989, went on to Crystal Cruises, Celebrity and Tauck and now runs DRW Hospitality Group, a new company that provides hotel services to cruise lines. There were many more men and women who worked for Royal Viking Line who are still serving the industry today.
The second catastrophic event was when Hagen himself went broke in the 1990s. It must have been disheartening. He had lost Royal Viking Line and here he was a decade later “penniless,” as he once told me and other reporters. Then something happened that would change his life forever. Hagen had taken a river cruise on the Volga and had asked himself if river cruising in Russia could not be developed into a successful tourism-based business. He had discovered his own salvation. In 1997, with four Russian river cruisers, he launched Viking River Cruises.
It was a sunny Saturday morning when Hagen sailed into Bergen last weekend. As the ship entered the harbor, Hagen stood with his family at the bow of the vessel he had built. He was returning home like a victor on a white horse but on a Norwegian-flagged ship, which Hagen made sure was also registered in Bergen, a tribute of sorts to the place he loved.
Viking Star was christened on Norwegian Day. “Was it important for you to make the full circle on Norwegian Day,” I asked Hagen in early May. He became pensive. “That’s a hard one,” he said. “I don’t know. It is what it is.” He repeated the last phrase, “It is what it is.”
In launching Viking Star just steps away from where he had been ousted more than three decades ago, Hagen proved himself to be the comeback kid. His is remarkable success story, steeped in a mix of pride (tempered by a bit of Nordic Jante Law) and can-do spirit. “Not everybody gave us a big chance that we should pull this off,” Hagen told reporters in his Norwegian way of speaking. “There have been many people who said, ‘Ah, just wait and see, they can’t build this ship. Let’s wait and see when it comes. They can’t operate the ship, and let’s see how many they’ll have.’ ”
Today, Viking River Cruises is on track to operate a fleet of 100 vessels by the year 2020, along with 10 vessels for the Viking Ocean Cruises fleet. It is an ambitious undertaking but with his Norse resolve, Hagen may well accomplish it. “I’m an old man in a hurry,” Hagen told reporters.
Indeed, he may be “an old man in a hurry,” but at 72 years old, Hagen appears to be having the time of his life. He has proven wrong the naysayers, convinced financiers to fund fantastic fleets and returned full circle to his beloved Bergen as well as realized his dream of what Royal Viking Line could have been. It may have been pure coincidence or it may have been the works of mighty Norse gods that a former Royal Viking Line vessel just happened to be in port on the day of Viking Star’s naming — Fred Olsen’s Black Watch, formerly the Royal Viking Star. Certainly, the irony was not lost on Hagen.
Ahead for Hagen? An expedition fleet to such remote regions as Antarctica perhaps? “There are plans for that too,” Hagen told reporters. What about him? Can he relax a bit? Which cruise would he choose given the breadth of regions covered by his growing fleet? “The most fascinating cruise I can do is Moscow to St. Petersburg,” Hagen told reporters. “That is where I started it [Viking River Cruises]; that’s probably where I’ll end it.”
Then, laughing, he added with a sense of irony: in a “funeral pyre, Viking style.”
I, for one, hope the spark that lights that fire doesn’t come anytime soon.
Another Guinness World Record
Torstein Hagen accepting an award in 2014 for a record he established only a year earlier — the most ships christened in a single day by a single line. © 2014 Ralph Grizzle
Torstein Hagen's Little Red Book
"I like to scribble," Hagen said, chuckling as he pulled out a little red notebook. Concepts for Viking's ocean vessels and more have been scribbled in his notebooks over the years. © 2014 Ralph Grizzle
Ralph Grizzle with Torstein Hagen.
A Shared Past
Torstein Hagen's wife reminisces with a Viking River Cruises' employee who had also worked with Royal Viking Line, where Hagen was CEO between 1980 and 1984. © 2014 Ralph Grizzle