October 27, 2014

A new life for SS United States


David Ellis

A LONG-RUNNING maritime saga in the USA is expected to come to an end in just weeks – possibly even in only days – but in so doing, delivering to the victor no jewelled prize, instead simply the rusting hulk of a once-proud ocean liner that's not seen a guest aboard in a near half-century.

And which at the most-conservative of estimates, will then cost them upwards of US$300,000,000 to put to any feasible commercial use.

That corroding, largely-stripped, and now bedraggled-looking ghost of a ship is the SS United States, a 1950's ocean-going greyhound that set trans-Atlantic speed records that have not been beaten to this day, and which has lain forlornly empty alongside a pier in Philadelphia for 18 years.

Fighting for its future are the SS United States Conservancy that owns the 302m liner (990ft,) but which is fast running out of money to keep her tied-up in Philadelphia let alone restore her, and two other groups who each claim to be on the cusp of getting their hands on millions to snatch her up if the Conservancy goes under – The SS United States Redevelopment Project, and business advisory company The Binnacle Group.

The SS United States was the revolutionary brainchild in the late 1940s of American naval architect William Francis Gibbs who, to reduce weight and so gain the most speed from her massive 240,000 shaft-HP engines, used lightweight aluminium wherever possible to replace conventional heavy steel.

And for safety against fire, no timber to the point that even furnishings were made from aluminium, glass and fire-resistant fibre-glass, and with fabrics from carpets to tablecloths equally fire-resistant. (The only major timber items aboard were, in fact, the several Steinway grand pianos… and a half-tonne butcher's chopping block in the galley.)

And so impressed was the Pentagon (for this was the time of the Cold War) with the promised speed of the new ship – and how quickly she could be converted from 1,900-passenger luxury liner to troopship that could carry 15,000 personnel 16,000kms without refuelling – that it put up two-thirds of the whopping US$78m construction cost.

Then on her maiden voyage in July 1952, the United States with 1,600 guests and 900 crew aboard did the seemingly impossible: she sped across the Atlantic from New York to Southampton in 3 days, 10 hours and 40 minutes, at an average 32 knots (59kph.) In doing so she slashed 10 hours off the best time ever by rival liner Queen Mary, and established that still-standing trans-Atlantic record.

Over the next seventeen years the United States made more than 400 return-Crossings from New York to Southampton or Europe, and scores of holiday-cruise voyages as well, listing amongst her repeat guests American Presidents and European heads of State, England's Duke and Duchess of Windsor, giants of industry and commerce, and countless film stars from both sides of the Atlantic.

Guests, who after dining on the finest First Class cuisine in her silver-service dining rooms, would dance bejewelled and in tuxedos and ball gowns in the vast ballroom to the music of maestros like Duke Ellington...

But the advent of jet aircraft that could cross the Atlantic in hours rather than days spelled her doom, and rapidly losing money she was ingloriously pulled from service in 1969. The SS United States Conservancy bought her in 2011 from Norwegian Cruise Line for US$3m in the hope of converting her for use as a floating hotel, convention centre, museum and shopping complex in New York City – much like the successful Queen Mary in Long Beach, California.

But all it's managed has been to pay $60,000 a month in mooring, insurance and government fees in Philadelphia…

The Conservancy says it now has to decide within weeks whether to fight on, or to sell the hulk (that's been stripped of furnishings, lighting, precious metals and even some walls and asbestos insulation) – with the other two contenders, who envisage converting her for similar future use as the Conservancy's, watching ready-to-pounce from the sidelines.

One of them, like the Conservancy, has New York in mind as United States' new home, but the other is looking at moving her downstream to nearby Chester on the Delaware River in Pennsylvania to boost tourism and generate 2000 new jobs there

Watch this space….



[] MARITIME greyhound: the SS United States set a speed record across the Atlantic in 1952 that stands to this day. (Norwegian Cruise Line)

[] TODAY, United States is a forlorn sight laid-up pier-side in Philadelphia. (Philadelphia Tourism)

[] THIS was considered the epitome of cruise ship dining ambience in the 1950s. (Norwegian Cruise Line)

[] THE one-time First Class Dining Hall is a sadder sight today. (Chandra Lampreicht)

[] ORIGINAL photo of a United States cabin in the 1950s. (Philadelphia Tourism)

[] REGULAR guests in her hey-day, England's Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
(Norwegian Cruise Line)

[] MONACO'S Prince Rainier and his American actress wife, Grace Kelly were other regular royals aboard United States. (Norwegian Cruise Line)

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