||The SS United States was the brainchild of one of the world's foremost marine architects, William Francis Gibbs. His dream was to build a passenger ship that was faster, safer and more technologically advanced than anything else afloat. It was truly a construction project that challenged conventional thinking. In 1952, his dream became a reality when the SS United States crossed the North Atlantic in 3 days, 10 hours and 42 minutes averaging 35.59 knots (65.48 km/hr or 40.96 mph). The design characteristics encompassing the United States read straight out of a James Bond novel, many remaining classified by the Navy well into the late 70's:
- Her 241,000 horsepower engines allowed her to reach a top speed of 43 knots (79.12 km/hr or 49.48 mph)* at 990'6" in length, she is the largest passenger vessel ever built in the United States.
- Materials in construction included over 2,000 tons of aluminum; she has a power-to-weight ratio that has never been equaled
- She could steam 10,000 miles without stopping for fuel or supplies.
- The ship was totally fireproof, being constructed completely of non-flammable materials (publicists were so fond of pointing out that the only wood on board were in her pianos and the chopping blocks).
The SS United States' $79 million construction cost was heavily underwritten by the federal government. After the wartime success of Britain's Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, as troop transports, the Navy wanted a superliner of their own that could be easily converted to troopship duty. Such was the case when the British government called on the liner Queen Elizabeth 2 to transport British troops to the Falkland Islands in 1982. The United States was constructed so that in just one day, she could be converted into a troop transport capable of carrying over 15,000 men. She could outrun anything afloat and steam non-stop anywhere in the world in less than 10 days. Although she was briefly on stand-by during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, she was never called to troop-ship duty.
Throughout her brief 17-year career, the United States held a near perfect schedule and never experienced an engineering failure. By comparison, the Queen Elizabeth 2 experienced recurring engine troubles that dated as far back as her builder's sea trials in 1969. It was so plagued with turbine troubles that after being adrift at sea without power on more than two occasions, her troublesome steam turbines were finally replaced with diesel units in 1986.
Toward the end of the sixties, the jumbo jet invasion finally took its toll on the famous trans-Atlantic superliners. On frequent sailings, the ship's 1000-plus crew often outnumbered paying passengers. In November 1969, faced with on-going union troubles and declining profits, the United States was sent to the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company in Newport News, Virginia for her annual overhaul. As fate would have it, her boilers were never fired again. As the years passed, she remained docked in Norfolk, Virginia with little hope of revival.
The Pentagon, which was largely responsible for her construction, was, ironically, largely responsible for her demise. Because of the ship's highly secret design specifications, one of the stipulations that was incurred by the government was that the ship could never be sold to foreign interests. In the late 1970's Norwegian Caribbean Cruise Lines was looking for a large vessel that it could convert to cruise service. After being turned down by the Maritime Administration to purchase the SS United States, the company purchased the idled superliner France from the French government, rechristened her Norway, and returned her to service as the world's longest cruise ship.
In 1973 the Maritime Administration installed an extensive dehumidification system throughout the United States, leaving it virtually airtight. The system proved remarkably well when an unfaded copy of the New York Times from November 1969 was found in a lounge, ten years later. It was evident at this point that the government had no future plans for the United States. Once the proud flagship of a nation, the Maritime Administration now saw the SS United States as a liability on their balance sheet. In 1978, the Maritime Administration accepted a bid of $5 million from Seattle-based United States Cruises Inc. who planned to return the ship to service as the world's first condominium-style cruise ship. The ship's new owner, Richard H. Hadley, planned to finance the $150 million refit by selling cabins on a time-share basis. Brochures were printed, press releases issued and even contracts with shipyards signed, but nothing ever came to pass. Unable to pay the mounting dockage fees, in February 1992, United States Cruises Inc. was forced into bankruptcy. U.S Mar-shoals seized the ship and filed a court motion to sell the ship at auction.
The ship's fate was sealed. After a failed attempt at returning her to service, the ss United States, it seemed, would wind up at the ship breakers somewhere in the far east. A stay of execution was granted when Fred Mayer of Marmara Marine Inc., purchased the ship at auction for $2.6 million. Mayer, chairman of Commodore Cruise Lines, emigrated to the United States in the mid-60's aboard the ss United States. He and his partners, one of which was a wealthy shipyard owner in Istanbul, Turkey, negotiated a plan with Cunard who would operate her as a running mate to the Queen Elizabeth 2. The ship would sail between New York and Southampton in the summer months while the winter months would be spent cruising the tropics. In June 1992, the ship departed U.S. waters in tow, for Istanbul, Turkey, where once financing was secured workers would restore the ship to her former glory.
Originally designed as a fireproof ship, asbestos was used extensively in the ship's interior construction. An asbestos compound called Marinite was used in favor of plywood. The ship was loaded with it and if she were to sail in the 90's, the compound would have to be removed. Workmen began the arduous process of stripping the ship's interior right down to her metal bulkheads. As was the case ten years earlier, attempts to secure government assistance in the project proved unsuccessful. Furthermore, faced with corporate restructuring, Cunard was no longer interested in operating another ship, especially one the size of the United States. It was thought that she would never see U.S. waters again, but in July 1996 the SS United States returned to her homeland, but this time to Philadelphia, where the dormant Navy yard would reopen with the task of restoring the superliner to it's long lost former glory. As before, financing for the enormous project failed to materialize. The ship remains idle, awaiting the final chapter of her story.
* It is now known that the SS United States achieved speeds exceeding 44
knots, or 50mph (footnote by the SS United States Foundation).
View more photos of the ship here.