My first ocean liner

I vividly remember when I was captured by the romance of the seas and the beauty of ships. I was nearly 4 years old and it was 1951.



My dad – in fact, most of my male relatives – worked at Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock and at that time, all the workers and their families were invited when there were important christenings of ships that were built at the Yard. One of the most important, and the first ship christening ever to be televised, was on June 23, 1951, when Mrs. Tom Connally, wife of the Senator from Texas, christened the SS United States. I remember thinking it was the most beautiful ship I had ever seen.

As workers were allowed to bring home scrap materials, pretty much everyone in our neighborhood – where most of the dads worked at the Yard – had something in their homes that was also on the United States. In our house and also my aunt and uncle’s next door, it was the flooring – the same rubber tiles were in our kitchens that were in the galley of the United States. A beautiful architect’s drawing of the ship hung in our dining room throughout my childhood – I don’t know what happened to it, though – another treasure lost in the sands of time and moves between houses.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that my love of cruising started then and there, but it might well have done.  I wish I could say I had been among those privileged to sail on the Big U during her heyday, when she set the record – still unbroken – for the fastest Atlantic Crossing on her maiden voyage from New York to Le Havre and Southampton, but alas, I didn’t start cruising until long after the United States was retired.  I did take an interest, however, in the various efforts to save her from the ship breakers, purchased a couple of the calendars the SS United States Conservancy folks put out, watched the documentary SS United States, Lady in Waiting, joined the Conservancy and made some small donations  in memory of my dad, and hoped that the old girl would eventually get repurposed and I might get to visit her once again as a museum ship, as had been proposed.

But it seems like now, I may even get to sail on her, at long last.  Crystal Cruises just announced that they are in the process of buying the ship from the Conservancy and that they plan to rehabilitate her and put her back in service! This time, I’m planning to be a passenger.

Here’s an article from The Avid Cruiser by Aaron Saunders with all the details:

Crystal Cruises Signs Purchase Option For S.S. United States: Plans To Launch United States By Crystal Cruises
February 5, 2016 By Aaron Saunders 

After decades spent languishing at her berth in Philadelphia, the historic ocean liner S.S. United States has been given an unexpected reprieve by Crystal Cruises. The luxury line, which has recently embarked on an aggressive expansion of its all-inclusive cruise brand that includes new cruise ships, expedition vessels, river cruise ships and a small fleet of Boeing 777 and 787 Dreamliner aircraft, has announced will save the S.S. United States from the breakers, signing a purchase option agreement and undertaking a feasibility study to restore the iconic ship to service.

The S.S. United States is closer than ever to returning to service, thanks to Crystal Cruises. Illustration courtesy of Crystal Cruises

In order to meet modern demands and be in full regulatory compliance, the SS United States will have to be extensively rebuilt to meet more than 60 years of new maritime rules and shipbuilding practices. The modern United States by Crystal Cruises will be transformed into an 800-guest-capacity vessel, featuring 400 luxurious suites measuring about 350 square feet with dining, entertainment, spa and other luxury guest amenities that are true to the ship’s storied history.

Features of the original SS United States such as the Promenade and Navajo Lounge will be retained, while new engines and sophisticated marine technology will be installed to maintain her title as the fastest cruise vessel in the world.

Crystal’s ambitions for the ship are helped in part by the fact that the historic ocean liner had been stripped of her original fittings, interiors, and toxic asbestos insulation between 1985 and 1994. She has been moored in Philadelphia since 1996, and has managed to avoid being sent to maritime scrapyards like those in Alang, India, ever since.

Norwegian Cruise Line, which had expressed an interest in the United States as far back as 1979, purchased the vessel in 2003, spending five years completing feasibility studies that concluded the ship could be put back into active service. Her birthplace in the United States also gives her the right to be flagged in the U.S.; something most modern cruise ships cannot claim. It’s a desirable designation for cruise lines. Those that lack it are forced to call on “distant foreign ports of call” when departing from U.S. ports in order to meet cabotage requirements set out in the 1800’s. Norwegian Cruise Line decided not to proceed with its plans, and the ship was sold to the SS United States Conservancy in 2010.

The S.S. United States was launched in 1952, and set the transatlantic speed record for fastest crossing on her maiden voyage. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia / Creative Commons

Now, Crystal cruises wants to bring the 1952-built ship – which still holds the record for fastest transatlantic crossing, garnered during her maiden voyage – back to life. The luxury line will be examining exciting new itineraries for the 60,000-gross-ton United States by Crystal Cruises including not only the resumption of her traditional transatlantic voyages from New York City, but cruises from key U.S. ports as well as international voyages around the globe, which are a signature offering of Crystal and part of the line’s “World Cruise.”

“The prospect of revitalizing the SS United States and re-establishing her as ‘America’s Flagship’ once again is a thrilling one. It will be a very challenging undertaking, but we are determined to apply the dedication and innovation that has always been the ship’s hallmark,” said Crystal President and CEO Edie Rodriguez. “We are honored to work with the SS United States Conservancy and government agencies in exploring the technical feasibility study so we can ultimately embark on the journey of transforming her into a sophisticated luxury cruise liner for the modern era.”

“Crystal’s ambitious vision for the SS United States will ensure our nation’s flagship is once again a global ambassador for the highest standards of American innovation, quality and design,” said Susan Gibbs, executive director of the SS United States Conservancy and granddaughter of the ship’s designer, William Francis Gibbs. “We are thrilled that the SS United States is now poised to make a triumphant return to sea and that the ship’s historical legacy will continue to intrigue and inspire a new generation.”

Crystal Serenity is the newest member of the Crystal Cruises fleet. Photo courtesy of Crystal Cruises

No stranger to the luxury market, Crystal Cruises has embarked on a number of exciting and varied ventures over the past year, including new ships, the line’s first entry into river cruising, and a fleet of luxury Boeing widebody aircraft. Photo courtesy of Crystal Cruises
Crystal’s announcement is a huge deal: The SS United States is the largest passenger ship ever designed and built in America. Before her retirement in 1969, the SS United States was one of the most glamorous and elegant ships in the world, designed to go head-to-head with Cunard Line’s famous Queens, like Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. She was designed as part of a top-secret Pentagon program during the Cold War, which stipulated it could be quickly converted from a luxury liner into a naval troopship in the event of a war, carrying 15,000 troops with a 240,000 shaft horsepower propulsion plant capable of traveling 10,000 nautical miles – almost half way around the globe – without refueling. Her exact top speed remains shrouded in mystery to this day, with a number of varying figures that range from 35 to 43 knots. The average modern-day cruise ship does between 18 knots and 22 knots flat-out.

Whether Crystal’s plans come to fruition remain to be seen, but one thing is for certain: the future of the SS United States has never looked so bright.

One thought on “My first ocean liner”

Comments are closed.