Yesterday’s hydrogen bomb of an announcement concerning Crystal’s acquisition of the SS. United States left me with my jaw scraping the tops of my shoes. Stunned, incredulous disbelief does not even begin to cover it.
And the idea that she will be returned to service, subject to a full maritime evaluation, topped even that. Shock and amazement gave way to a tidal wave of euphoria.
Of course, it’s not one that is shared by everyone.
Sure enough, within minutes of the formal press announcement at New York’s historic Pier 88 on Thursday, a whole tidal wave of dissent, derision and- in some cases- sheer, surly denial- began breaking over the whole project.
But first and foremost, let’s look at the bare bones of what is proposed.
The former transatlantic speed queen, built to carry 2.000 passengers in three classes on a 53,000 ton hull, will be completely re-engined, with a new service speed of roughly twenty five knots.
All accommodation will be rebuilt to feature just four hundred suites, averaging some three hundred and fifty square feet, on a hull that will have the superstructure extended aft, with extra upper decks built fore and aft to accommodate balcony cabins. Capacity will fall to just eight hundred passengers, served by a crew of six hundred, on a hull whose GRT will increase to an estimated 60,000 tons.
This would give the restructured SS. United States a passenger/space ratio roughly comparable to most current six star ships. Add in Crystal’s unique level of style, hospitality and cuisine, and the potential for such a project is incalculable.
On the aesthetic front, the original colour scheme will be retained, and the two great, red, white and blue funnels- surely among the most iconic in maritime history- will remain. That gracefully tapered prow will stay as well.
This is only right. Messing with any of these would be the artistic equivalent of painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa; an abject capitulation to hype over style. Thankfully, we now know that such will not be the case.
Inside, such perennial locations as the famous Navajo Lounge and the long, interior promenades will be restored to their original lustre.
Restored and enhanced beyond anyone’s most optimistic dreams, the SS. United States will be uniquely able to offer her passengers two voyages for the price of one.
The first, of course, is on a modern, state of the art luxury vessel that can take her guests all over the world cocooned in sybaritic standards of flair and finesse. And one whose dimensions also allow her to transit the Panama Canal as well.
The second is a trip back into the past, aboard an ocean liner so legendary in history that even the mention of her name makes the adrenaline flow faster. Imagine sailing up the Hudson River, inbound for New York, on the United States. The idea is spine tingling and delicious. For many, that seems too good to be true.
And that’s where the naysayers come in.
After all these years of stop-start, false promises, and coming within weeks of the executioner’s axe, many simply cannot absorb that this long suffering, much adored legend has been not only reprieved, but actually looks like returning to sea. Their incredulity is not to be underestimated. Or, indeed, disrespected. Actions, as they say, speak louder than words.
The ship needs a complete, stem to stern survey to determine exactly what will be required to return her to a seagoing state. But anyone who thinks that either Crystal, or indeed, parent company Genting Hong Kong, have not already done their homework is deluding themselves on this front.
This complete survey will, apparently, be undertaken very soon. But in the meantime, there are more cosmetic aspects that could surely be embarked upon without either moving the ship or, indeed, breaking the bank.
An obvious sign of intent would be to remove the acres of superficial rust that currently shroud the ship, giving her a kind of forlorn, Miss Havisham sort of appearance. The hull and funnels could surely be repainted in situ.
And illuminating those huge funnels at night would be a far bigger statement of intent; a potent message to every naysayer out there that revival is not only imminent, but actually already incubating within the dark recesses of that fabulous hull. It would represent a kind of spiritual unshackling of the ship from the ties that have bound her for these long, lonely years. The psychological effect- and, of course, the press it would generate- are quite incalculable, but totally positive.
Genting, of course, now also owns the great Lloyd Werft shipyard in Germany. And, while no formal announcement has been made as to where the projected restoration of the ship would be carried out, few would bet against Lloyd Werft. With it’s reputation for delivering timely, consistently excellent quality work, Crystal’s own in-house shipyard has to be the clear front runner by a country mile.
Will it be easy? Of course not. A very conservative preliminary survey estimates the conversion price at around $700 million.
But the job is not impossible, and the return is truly priceless.
This is Field of Dreams stuff, with a maritime twist. And, once rebuilt, I for one have no doubt that the people will, indeed, come.
They will come to sample an authentic American legend, restored and enhanced, and put back on the one stage that she once so dominated.
They will come to experience a ship that has survived against incredible odds, thanks to the unimaginable tenacity of Susan Gibbs and her ‘Band of Brothers’ at the SS. United States Conservancy. The story of their ‘never say die’ fight to keep the ship afloat, when all others had given up, is surely worthy of a film script in itself.
They will come to experience a unique vessel, one suffused with the courteous, effortlessly elegant sense of warmth, beauty and style that the Crystal brand personifies.
The SS. United States, the fabled ‘Yankee Flyer’, looks set to find a whole new audience. Once again, the truly savvy among the travelling public will get the chance to fall in love with a ship that has heart, style and soul in spades. A ship where space meets grace; one where the benign shades of Duke Ellington and his band can almost be heard once more in the ballroom, just as on her historic maiden voyage in July. 1952.
I have the feeling that the United States may very well be leaving Philadelphia under tow before too much longer has passed, thence to begin her dramatic renaissance; a rebirth that is without parallel in maritime history.
And when she comes back, it will be under her own power. That famous bow will once more furl the steel grey Atlantic rollers back along her glistening black flanks, to where her wake surges back to Europe. Row upon row of her deck lights will dance like hundreds of skittish fireflies on the Atlantic. Naturally, the soundtrack will be sassy, ebullient swing and jazz.
Many will refuse to believe it until they see it, of course. But the idea of this maritime Sleeping Beauty emerging from her slumber is one so powerful, so utterly compelling, as to be the real stuff of dreams.
This great, long neglected, nearly forgotten cathedral of the sea is coming back, sailing straight at you at twenty five knots. I, for one, cannot wait to meet her.