Can this ship be saved?

  • The SS United States sits indefinitely at a pier in Philadelphia, but she was designed to move fast: her knifelike prow could cut through the ocean at 44 knots. Image credit: Steven B. Ujifusa/
  • The luxury liner crossing the Atlantic in the 1960s.
  • The First Class ballroom, whose fittings were auctioned with the rest of the ship"â„¢s interior in 1984.
  • Image credit: Ian Shiffman
Date:30 June 2008 Tags:, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

After 40 years, the world's fastest superliner awaits rebirth – or maybe the breakers.

When I remember the great ocean liner, we’re steaming into the wind, east across the Atlantic. I’m at the bow. I let go of a balloon and run aft, trying to keep pace with the floating object. But it rises too high long before I reach the ship’s end. As it vanishes into the clouds, my attention is drawn downward to the perfectly symmetrical wake trailing behind us.

Though I didn’t know it then, at age 4, that wake, sharp and narrow, was a clue to what made the SS United States one of the greatest – if not the greatest – ocean liners of the 20th century. To cut such a trail in the water a ship has to be fast, and there was no ocean liner faster than the one known to enthusiasts as the “Big U”.

Although four city blocks long and 17 storeys high, the United States could slice through water at 44 knots, or more than 80 km/h – 14 knots faster than today’s largest cruise ship, the Queen Mary 2. During her maiden voyage in 1952, the ship set records on both the east and westbound crossings; the latter, three days, 12 hours and 12 minutes at an average speed of 34,5 knots, has never been broken.

For my entire adult life, I’ve carried a photo of my father, my mother, my younger brother and me on the deck of the vessel as we sailed off to Europe for the start of my father’s military service. We’re wearing lifejackets; the shot was taken during one of the emergency drills routinely conducted onboard. That picture – the only one I have of us as a family – has stayed with me for reasons that stretch beyond nostalgia. So has the memory of the ship.

When we returned home in 1969, it was aboard a Boeing jet; that same year, after 17 years of flawless service, the United States was retired. It marked the beginning of the twilight of transatlantic ocean travel and was a death knell for the era of the great superliners. The United States’ running mate, the SS America, now sits torn in half near the Canary Islands; the Swedish MS Kungsholm sails as an educational vessel, nearly unrecognisable after a retrofit hacked off her distinctive forward smokestack. Dozens more of the ships are simply gone, cut to pieces at “breaker” ports like Chittagong in Bangladesh or Alang, India.

Although she has not sailed under her own power for nearly four decades, the United States has survived. Her last trip across the Atlantic, in 1996, was an ignominious one, pulled by tugs from Turkey after asbestos removal, but the vessel is still afloat. The largest passenger ship ever built in America is hiding in plain sight at Pier 82, on a bend in the Delaware River, just north of downtown Philadelphia. She’s tattered, for sure. But she’s alive.

Sleek giantess
When I slip past a chain-link fence one crisp winter’s day and find the ship intact, it’s like recovering a piece of childhood that I thought was lost forever. Suddenly, the distances of time and space are obliterated, and I’m pulled into the reality of the vessel. Her once crimson funnels – now faded to salmon – still tower unmistakably above the massive, peeling hull.

I walk the full length of her port side, 300 metres, with Dan McSweeney, whose father worked as a steward on the ship for 17 years. Joe Rota – a former Big U crew member himself – is standing near the lowest row of portholes; he tells me that this is where the passenger gangplank was secured to the docks. It is the spot where my grandparents disembarked after seeing us off at the piers in New York City. I remember watching them wave goodbye – the scene was very cinematic – as we steamed out of the harbour.

Both McSweeney and Rota belong to the SS United States Conservancy, a group with 1 600 members that is dedicated to restoring the ship. They were instrumental in getting her named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999. McSweeney is also associate producer of a PBS documentary on the vessel that was due to air in May.

We end our stroll at the bow, and it is this view that leaves me truly breathless: the ship is a blade. She’s narrow, from under the waterline to the top of the hull, made to carve through rough water. You can sense instantly that she’s built for speed.

Designed by renowned naval architect William Francis Gibbs and constructed in secrecy at Newport News, Virginia, the United States had several features revolutionary for her day. An aluminium superstructure meant the ship was light. And two engine rooms, with a total of four steam turbines, gave her unprecedented power. In normal service, the United States could generate 180 000 shaft kW – 60 000 more than the previous speed-record holder, RMS Queen Mary – while weighing almost 30 000 tons less. Her five-blade screws were also unheard of at the time.

Because the ship was heavily compartmentalised, she could remain afloat even if half of the hull filled with water. With the exception of a grand piano and some butcher’s blocks, not a single item aboard was made of wood. Nearly unsinkable and virtually fireproof, the United States became the must-travel ship of its day. My dad, who won a junior officers’ lottery that allowed us passage normally reserved for generals, recalls striking up a conversation with the Duke of Windsor in the pool. But the ship wasn’t engineered simply to hoist higher the brows of the elite. With Navy funding, the United States was built for the Cold War. If Europe were set ablaze, the liner could be converted into a troop transport able to deliver 14 000 soldiers to the conflict in only five days.

Ticking clock
With the exception of the engine rooms, the interior of the ship has been gutted since 1984, so I thought getting inside her would be easy. I contacted the current owner, Norwegian Cruise Lines, with my request. The company bought the United States and the smaller SS Independence for around R200 million in 2003, after a long line of visionaries failed with their plans for refurbishment.

At first, I found it hard to understand why I couldn’t get anything more than a boilerplate rejection. After all, Norwegian had made clear its plan to restore the ships and put them into service between Hawaii and the US mainland – a route restricted by maritime regulations to the dwindling fleet of American-flagged ships. Plus, a study completed by the company in 2007 found that, despite the ship’s haggard appearance, she is structurally sound.

Then I realised: The unspeakable slide may have begun for the Big U.

When McSweeney told me that Norwegian must be maintaining the ship, at the cost of $1 000 (R7 500) a day, as an investment, I wanted to believe him. When Rota said that Americans would soon recognise “that the United States is just as important as the first Apollo spacecraft,” I wanted to believe him, too.

But then came a sobering e-mail from maritime historian John Maxtone-Graham, author of a recent book on the Normandie. I could tell by his tone that he was trying to be gentle: “How important is saving the SS United States?” he wrote. “Emotionally, very. But saving her as what? A museum or a working vessel? Either choice would be prohibitively expensive, I fear.” He went on to outline the difficulties: swapping the ship’s steam turbines for diesel engines; the defacement involved in turning her into a modern cruise ship. “One of these days, my guess is that she will be towed from her Philadelphia slip and delivered overseas to a scrapyard, possibly on the beach at Alang, where Norway – a Norwegian-owned vessel that once sailed as France, the pride of another nation – “is currently in the throes of being cut up.”

This February, the Independence was unexpectedly towed from her slip in San Francisco. As the vessel headed into the Pacific, rumours spread that she would be joining the Norway at the breakers. Norwegian also withdrew two of its three US-flagged ships from Hawaii. “The SS United States has a great maritime heritage,” the company told PM in a statement, “and we believe that she could have a great maritime future as well.”

However, the clock is ticking. Not just for the United States, but for an era when ships were considered to be beautiful things – when they were important enough to be loved, dreamed of and preserved. We’re nostalgic about flight. Every year, 6 million people visit the National Air and Space Museum to see the Space Shuttle Enterprise and the Wright Brothers’ 1903 Flyer. And visitors to the Henry Ford museum complex number over a million a year. But the Queen Mary, launched in 1934 and now moored in Long Beach, California, has been operated variously as a museum, hotel and haunted house. A series of leaseholders have struggled to turn a profit.

Usually, when you revisit scenes from your childhood, everything seems smaller than it did at the time. But at Pier 82, that isn’t really true. The ship seemed huge then, and she seems even bigger now, perhaps because she’s so silent.

The wind has picked up. Wavelets flood the slip, then flow back out again. With each pulse, the ship moves – first slowly, then a bit more quickly. Half a metre. A metre. Two metres. Three. The ropes groan. Joe Rota is enraptured. “Look at that,” he whispers. A swell moves out, and the ship rocks backward. “She’s moving! I’ve been visiting her for years, and that’s the first time I’ve seen her move.”

Not surprisingly, many South Africans travelled aboard the SS United States, some of them as impressionable teenagers.

Here’s a sampling of their memories, which remain vivid after more than four decades…

A wildly swinging wedding dress
I travelled on the SS United States after spending a year working in the USA for a family in 1967/68. I chose the ship because I’d had a lovely time and thought this would be a good way to end the year. I remember I was coming home to get married, and had bought my wedding dress in the US.

We left New York on 31 May 1968 and docked in Germany before going on to France, but there was some ongoing dispute there, so we went straight to Southampton. We had two or three very rough days on the crossing, and I recall my wedding dress swinging wildly from side to side as the ship rocked. In fact, I had to see the ship’s doctor, as I became a little ill.

I remember there was a very cosmopolitan atmosphere aboard, and we made friends with two German people in the dining room, among others. We had a wonderful crossing. I remember the dancing, the shops, having my hair done… it all seemed very luxurious at the time.

We arrived in Southampton on 5 June – I think it was the day Bobby Kennedy was assassinated; that was all everyone was talking about as we disembarked. I shall be very sad if the ship is scrapped, as it was a very happy time for me. – Janet Smith

In sickness and in health
In the summer of 1965-66, at age 13, I travelled with my parents and five siblings to the US for a year’s stay in the Midwest. We sailed to the UK on the Pendennis Castle, and from Southampton to New York aboard the United States. The big feature of the time was the ship’s stabilisers. However, we experienced terrible weather for the whole voyage, and whatever the stabilisers did, they did not prevent the whole lot of us (aged between 5 and 15) being frightfully seasick. She was indeed very elegant in black with white trim, although I remember regretting that we were not aboard the France.

I recall that our cabins gave the impression of being “steerage” class, and were nothing like the standard of the Pendennis; they were deep down in the bowels of the ship, some eight decks below fresh air. I also remember throwing up into ashtrays on successive floors as I fled for my bunk – and I was one of the less affected of my family. The swimming pool was indoors, and this did little to relieve the overall claustrophobic atmosphere we experienced.

Sailing into New York left me with an understanding of what immigrants must have experienced over the preceding century; the skullduggery in the customs shed was no different from what we experience at South African airports today. One of our suitcases disappeared and was later discovered hidden under an old tarpaulin.

My father (a philosopher heading for an American university on a leadership exchange programme) was devastated to find his prized bottle of 10-year-old KWV brandy had broken in transit, and his notebooks were well soaked. I guess he had a year of lectures enhanced by the aroma. – Dirk Versfeld

Of table manners and old-school celebs
My parents arranged my passage to Le Havre on the United States in June 1956. I was a boy of 15 and my parents were informed by the United States Lines that I would be the youngest person to sail unattended on the ship.

My sister was married to a US Army officer based in Schwäbisch Hall, Germany, and had invited me to spend the summer with them. To say I was eager would be an understatement; I couldn’t wait! My parents and I flew from Atlanta to New York (also a mind-boggling experience for a 15-year-old), where I boarded the ship. We flew on a Super Constellation.

Having completed the boarding procedures, my parents said goodbye with many admonitions to the effect that I should not get into trouble, and do whatever I was told. I was in Cabin Class, another term for a small cabin with four bunks. My bunk mates were three newly graduated Harvard guys only a few years older than me, but vastly wiser in dress and dining etiquette.

The ship offered an endless number of places to be explored, many of them off limits to the likes of passengers from Cabin Class. The dinner table was also an adventure, and there was an abundance of food – enough to satisfy even my ravenous appetite. Although my table manners were dodgy, it didn’t take long to learn which fork to use first.

I was in good company, too. I distinctly remember that Hollywood actors Rhonda Fleming and Victor Mature were fellow passengers. Well, they were on the same ship, anyway (travelling in First Class).

I’ve wondered many times over the years what had become of this fine ship, and it’s sad to think that she may be destined for the breaker’s yard. – Ken Sheppard


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