For decades the ocean liner S.S. United States seemed a half-step from the scrapyard. Now the rusty but proud ship has a shot at sailing again. Is slow travel, like slow food, making a comeback?
Cruise-ship operator Crystal Cruises said it plans to refurbish the United States and return it to regular passenger service for the first time since its retirement in 1969. Working with the SS United States Conservancy, a group that has long fought to preserve the ship, the company said it intends to begin the renovation after a feasibility study that should be finished by the end of this year.
Using “slow” in any description of the S.S. United States is misleading. The nearly 1000-foot-long ship, known as the Big U, was a speed demon when launched in 1952. That year it set a new transatlantic record with an average speed 34.5 knots, or just under 40 miles per hour. By the end of the 1950s, though, reliable jet airliners traveling at 500 mph turned ocean liners into relics, many of which were scrapped.
But the United States held on, moving from one owner to the next and suffering numerous indignities — like having its interior furnishings stripped and sold off — before turning up in Philadelphia harbor in the 1990s. It has been moored there ever since, slowly rusting away. Its terrible condition makes restoring the ship an especially daunting undertaking, but its unique history could make it an attractive addition to Crystal Cruises’ aggressive fleet-expansion program.
Crystal, known for luxury ocean and river cruises, could make the famous ship itself into a destination and attract new customers intrigued by its high-speed history.
The company even said its plans include new engines and other modern features meant “to maintain her title as the fastest cruise vessel in the world.” However, cruise ships and ocean liners are completely different machines and it will be a surprise if the rebuilt ship comes close to the speeds it hit in the 1950s.
The United States was so fast because the Pentagon wanted a ship that could whisk troops to Europe if hostilities with the Soviet Union broke out. This was the Cold War era, after all, and the ship began as a top-secret project. The result was overkill: steam-turbine engines putting out 240,000 horsepower in a ship that was relatively svelte at 53,000 tons. The United States was a hot-rod among big boats. For comparison, the modern Queen Mary 2 weighs three times as much and has half the horsepower.
Many famous ships held “Blue Riband” prize for the fastest Atlantic crossing, from the paddle-wheel-powered Sirius in 1838 at 8 knots to more sophisticated steamers of the 1900s like the Lusitania, Mauritania, Bremen, Europa, Rex, Normandie and Queen Mary.