Ten years ago during a visit to Philadelphia, I passed a large ship docked at a pier on the Delaware River. The ship looked like an ocean liner and though I sped by in a car, I noticed the faded name "United States" on the bow. I wondered, could it be the same revolutionary passenger liner that still holds an Atlantic speed record a half a century after its speedy voyage? As it turns out, it was.
The SS United States has been moored in Philadelphia since 1994, but now it appears that its days could finally be numbered. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported today that the ship's owner, Norwegian Cruise Lines, is seeking to sell the United States for scrap. Norwegian bought the liner in 2003 with the intention of refurbishing and returning it to service in Hawaii as part of NCL America. But as the Hawaii cruise market began to lose money, NCL kept the ship in Pennsylvania.
If the United States ends up in the scrap yard, it will be a sad end to a short, but spectacular, career. When the liner was launched in 1952, it was a technological breakthrough of its time. Thanks to a sharp-edged stern, a bulbous prow, powerful engines, and unique propellers--the design of which was kept secret for many years--the United States was very fast. Its top speed was 43 knots (49.5 miles per hour), but even its typical voyage speed of 34 knots (39.1 miles per hour) was enough to win it attention.
On its maiden voyage, it completed the eastbound Atlantic crossing from New York City to the Isles of Scilly off Great Britain in three days, 10 hours, and 40 minutes. That was more than 10 hours faster than the previous record holder, the Queen Mary, which is now moored in Long Beach, Calif. Even today, the Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria, the only passenger ships to regularly cross the North Atlantic on the same route, take about seven days. Days later on the return westbound trip, the United States made the journey in three days, 12 hours, and 12 minutes. It still holds the speed record for that route and it is the last ship to claim The Blue Riband in both directions.
Though passengers appreciated a fast ship, the United States was conceived during World War II when ships like the British-flagged Queen Mary transported thousands of soldiers from Canada, the United States, and Australia to Europe. The U.S. Navy wanted a troopship of its own for future wars, and thus the United States could be converted from carrying passengers to troops in just 48 hours. To guard against torpedoes or a Titanic-style disaster, the United States also had a compartmentalized design and dual engine rooms. And as precaution against fire, the use of wood was limited to just a few places on the ship. Instead, much of the structure and furnishings were made of aluminum. The abundance of metal may have made the ship sterile to luxury-seeking passengers, but it made it safer and lighter, which contributed to its speed.
In the end, however, the United States came along too late. By the mid 1950s, airplanes were carrying passengers across the Atlantic in only a number of hours. And by 1958, the Boeing 707, the first successful jet airliner, had entered service. The United States sailed until 1969 when it was withdrawn from the North Atlantic run. It never played a role as a troopship.
But even now as its fate looks grim, individuals and organizations are raising money to save the SS United States either by buying it themselves or seeking another bidder to refurbish it. The United States Conservancy estimated it needs $3 million to buy the ship and maintain it for two years. What's unclear, however, is what the organization plans to do with it after that time. Though it is on both the National and Pennsylvania Registers of Historic Places, the federal status doesn't provide any protection against the SS United States being sold to a ship breaker.