SS UNITED STATES; CRYSTAL SALVATION?

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.

 

 

 

SWINGS AND ROUNDABOUTS- SOME MARITIME MUSINGS FROM THE PAST FEW WEEKS

Happy days; the dainty little Deutschland is off to Poenix Seereisen

Happy days; the dainty little Deutschland is off to Poenix Seereisen

While I was enjoying myself swanning around the Caribbean the other week, several quiet but subtle developments were going on behind the scenes in the cruise and ocean liner industry. Here’s my take on some of them.

First up, a big, heartfelt ‘well done’ to all at the SS. United States Conservancy for managing to secure another lifeline for this valiant, fabled ship. The story of their struggle would make for a wonderful movie script, even if we know that the final chapter has yet to be written. Hopefully, it will prove to still have a happy ending.

On the Dubai front, I’ll have something to say about the latest QE2 developments in a separate, upcoming blog. Stay tuned for that one.

Truly wonderful is the news that Phoenix Seereisen will take on the troubled, unsettled Deutschland. Not only does this put this gorgeous little jewel box back under German ownership, but it will also see her welcome return to the German cruising market. And, as an added bonus, this lovely little ship will finally be refitted with the ‘Juliet’ balconies that were bruited for her back in the last days of Peter Deilmann ownership. These should help to give this lovely little ship some kind of competitive edge, and ensure she remains a viable cruise option for a good few more years.

Sadly, almost inevitably, the end has come for the former Kungsholm of 1966. I suspect that politics played a part in the ship not being able to find a permanent future berth in either Stockholm or Gothenburg, and now the venerable, 28,000 ton paragon has left on a final, one way voyage to the scrapyard.

In any event, she was a ship with a hugely storied career. Many in the UK in particular will remember her as the Sea Princess, a long standing and popular member of the UK cruising market. Even with the unsightly truncation of her original forward funnel, she was a fine, stately, beautifully crafted paragon of an ocean liner that made a successful transformation into a long serving, hugely popular cruise ship.

But, on a final optimistic note, it was heartening, indeed, to hear that Viking Ocean Cruises has ordered another pair of vessels in its hugely anticipated ocean going fleet. Lead ship. Viking Star, has thus far cut an enviable swathe through the cruise industry, and continues to garner huge praise. And, as the saying goes, if it ain’t broke- don’t fix it.

As ever, stay tuned.

SS UNITED STATES- IS THIS THE END?

The well respected website, Cruise Industry News (www.cruiseindustrynews.com) is reporting that the SS. United States could be sold for scrap by the end of the month.

Despite valiant efforts that have verged on the herculean over several years, the SS. United States Conservancy has been thus far unable to raise funds to continue keeping the former Blue Ribband holder at her Philadelphia pier beyond the end of this month.

The legendary liner- shackled to her berth since the mid nineties- costs some $60,000 per month to maintain in her current state. While externally quite dilapidated, the hull and superstructure of the liner are actually in quite sound condition.

For all that, time finally seems to be running out for the fabled ‘Yankee Flyer’. The next instalment of her monthly fee is due for payment by this October 31st.

It has always been a mystery to me that America- a country wonderfully capable of preserving it’s maritime heritage of fighting ships- has proven so unwilling to preserve the most stunningly successful and iconic merchant ship in the entire seafaring history of the nation.

This is by no means a fallen axe as of yet, but there is a pressing urgency for awareness of the true plight of this mighty, monumental engineering triumph to be raised masthead high, and kept there.

Those of us on this side of the Atlantic are watching this with heavy hearts and anxious eyes.

As ever, stay tuned.

SAVING THE BIG ‘U’- WHY IT’S IMPORTANT…..

SSUS

SS United States

If ever there was a determined band of people fighting to preserve something truly legendary against seemingly insuperable odds, then the good people of the SS. United States Conservancy must surely qualify for top marks. For years now, they have been struggling valiantly to rescue and restore one of the most totemic and important vessels ever built, in the face of a tsunami of apathy and ignorance in the land of her birth.

Firstly, a statement of fact. I am English, not American. But- that point made- a truly beautiful ship has an allure that transcends all national boundaries. And, make no bones, the SS. United States is still a beauty even now.

Ah, you might say; many beautiful ships have come and gone. Why should this one be any different?

And I would reply; yes, many beautiful ships have gone. Far too many, as it happens. The ocean liner was the supreme achievement of the twentieth century, until the arrival of the jet aircraft. Ships such as Queen Mary, Normandie and United States were nothing less than seagoing cathedrals; vast, swaggering statements of intent, built to awe, amaze and impress both rivals and the travelling public alike. They were front page news the world over in their day. Superstars whose reputations were built on style far more than hype.

Jets and cathedrals, eh? Look around, and you’ll find the petrified, preserved husks of practically every Concorde that ever flew. As for cathedrals, how many of the world’s great cities still showcase these vast, monolithic constructions from the middle ages- many of them built with wealth plundered from a string of ethnically cleansed civilisations? Yet there they stand, petrified and preserved at enormous expense, for future generations to gaze on in awe.

In the UK, we have a pitiful record of preserving our maritime heritage. In fact, a downright disgraceful one. But in America, so many of the famous battleships, carriers and cruisers of previous conflicts have been lovingly preserved. And how glad I am that they have been, too.

Yet if one ship stands head and shoulder above all of them in the pantheon of great twentieth century American icons, it is surely the United States. No other vessel ever exemplified speed, grace and style as much as the fabled Yankee Flyer. She had panache; in terms of technical and aesthetic excellence, she was-indeed, still is- a perfect ten.

The United States is every bit as iconic and instantly recognisable as the Empire State Building, or the Statue of Liberty. She is no less precious or disposable than either. And it is not as if she cannot be usefully repurposed.

The SS-US Conservancy has battled valiantly to put forward viable schemes for the restoration of this uniquely enduring piece of fifties Americana. And, knowing the ingenuity and love of history of the American people, I cannot conceive that they will just sit by and watch this gigantic, golden statement of past national glory slip quietly away to be butchered in some far off, foreign scrapyard.

The real problems seem to be lack of awareness, mixed with a kind of national apathy; a problem not confined solely to the USA by any means.

Surely she is worth saving? If people can still gaze in amazement at the petrified timbers of the proud old USS Constitution, the mighty, sixteen inch gun batteries of the Missouri, or even the gaunt, gallant remains of the Hunley, then why not also treasure and burnish that magnificent liner, with her twin, towering smokestacks that were the very apogee of American dash and style during the Fifties and Sixties?

The United States is like an emotional lightning rod; living history that reminds us of our past great achievements, and binds us to them. Such things amaze, inform and enthrall. They inspire respect, admiration and reverence; enviable qualities that any forward looking nation would surely wish to instill in the future generations to come.

The price of saving her is relatively small. The cost of losing her is incalculable. Her destruction would be an act of cultural vandalism right up there with the barely aborted demolition of the Art Deco region of South Beach back in the late eighties.

Food for thought, I hope. My sincere admiration for all concerned with this valiant effort. May the wind be at your back, and may your efforts not be in vain.