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Dreams Come True: From Finding Your Thing To Work That Matters (with cruise ships!)

{This is the fourth installment of my Dreams Come True series. In my previous posts you can read about living in a tropical island paradise, zombie author Max Brooks and overnight editor Jade Walker.}

In this series, I’m writing about accomplished people who forged their own unique path to a thriving career. What’s special about them is that they were able to connect their essential selves to work they love. Their stories are inspiring – if they can do it, you can do it too.

For some people, like today’s subject, their career is unusual and maybe even obscure. It doesn’t have a simple title (and it probably takes some explaining to describe what they do). But they managed to find their unique niche because they followed a childhood obsession that they never outgrew.

Dreams come true

Let me introduce you to Peter Knego.

Peter is a cruise journalist who travels around the world writing about cruises and cruise ships. He also salvages and restores artifacts and furniture from the great sailing ships of the mid-20th century before the ships are destroyed. His online business sells these items to interior designers and people who share his appreciation for the old ships.

Peter’s interest in ocean liners was kindled in the eighth grade:

“I was assigned a paper on the Lusitania, which I thought was a battleship. I did research and I found out there was this four-stack ocean liner, sank by the bow, over a thousand people were killed. I thought, well no, that’s gotta be the Titanic, they’re confusing this. I couldn’t believe there was another ship like that. The more I did research I found out there were other ships and they were similar but they each had their own sort of distinct architectural personality and imprint and I thought, this is an incredible realm. For the next year or two, I’m going to just explore this and that’s been going on for forty years. And I don’t ever see it stopping.”

His career originally had nothing to do with cruise ships. He studied theater arts at UCLA and ended up in the music promotion business. But he never stopped thinking about ships.

“I was able to disengage myself for a week or two and go to some remote part of the earth and find some forgotten liner in the Ukraine or China or backwaters of Greece. There was all these laid-up ships that people just didn’t know what to do with, there was no scrap market, there was no demand for them so they just sat. And I would go and hunt down the owners and get permission. I would go aboard and document all these ships because I knew that at some point in time they would start disappearing.”

When demand for structural steel grew, the mothballed ships became more valuable as scrap. They were sent to the giant ship-breaking yard in Alang, India. In 2001, when three ships arrived at the same time in Alang for destruction, Peter decided it wasn’t enough to simply document the ships he loved.

“I contacted the ship breaker and I had made a deal to purchase all sorts of artifacts from them. They filled a 20 foot container and sent it to me. After I cleaned the stuff up (it looked terrible when it arrived – it was really scary and I was like, what have I just gotten myself into?), I started putting it in my house and then my friends were seeing these things saying, do you have any more of these? Do you have another chair? Can I get a door? And I thought, maybe this is a good business.”

Two years later, when ten ships arrived together in Alang, Peter decided it was time to go to India.

“It was the most Orwellian, frightening but fascinating, scenario you could possibly imagine with partially broken ships that I’d sailed on sitting on the beach with piles of debris thrown down on the ground, people carrying giant steel plates, the atmosphere smoky because of all the acetylene torches that are going off to cut the steel, the sound of the crunching of the metal.”

“I went aboard the various ships that hadn’t been demolished too far and I would be able to point out etched glass panels, works of art, original furniture and I would make a list and tell my guide to help me with all this stuff – this is what I want, make an offer, let’s do it. That’s how it all started.”

“I got 3 containers shipped to my house. They emptied the containers in my front yard. I would take this big pile of stuff, all my friends would come over and we would clean it up, throw it in the backyard and I would gradually move it into storage and then figure out how I would sell things that I didn’t actually want to keep.”

He traveled regularly to Alang to salvage what he could from his favorite ships that were soon to be destroyed, and his business grew.

“Mid-century modern was becoming very popular among interior designers and there was a big market place starting for that. So when I realized that, I said let’s get 50 of these chairs and 40 of those. It all came together and I was able to find a place to sell it. A gallery could not believe that I had all these original ceramics and artworks so I consigned stuff to them and they sold them.”

Peter didn’t want to just rescue vintage cruise ship decor, he wanted to surround himself with it. When he was a child, he would look at brochures for the great sailing ships and dream about what it was like to travel across the ocean in that style. Now his home reflects his enthusiasm – it’s filled with furniture and decorative items he’s rescued and restored.

“I don’t understand why more people don’t find these things interesting. They love cars, they love planes, they like trains, they like battleships but they don’t seem to be connecting with these beautiful ocean liners. They were magnificent. They went from the Edwardian era all the way up through mid-century modern. The architecture and the engineering that goes into these things and the fact that they’re the size of a skyscraper and they move from A to B and they have these incredible interiors (at least on the older ships – beautiful woodwork and commissioned art). They had this mystery and intrigue.”

Thanks to the podcast Home: Stories from L.A. for inviting Peter Knego to share his story. Listen here.

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