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‘America’s Flagship’ May Sail Again

Monday, February 15, 2016

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Renowned for having captured the trans-Atlantic speed record on its maiden voyage, the SS United States, although out of commission for the past 46 years, may set sail once again thanks to a partnership between its conservancy and a luxury cruise line.

Renovation of the ocean liner, built by Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company in 1952, will be a massive undertaking in order to bring the ship into compliance with the latest standards and returning it to service, partners SS United States Conservancy and Crystal Cruises announced Feb. 4.

SS United States Conservancy
SS United States Conservancy

The SS United States, seen across from its Philadelphia pier, will undergo renovation by Crystal Cruises to bring the ship into compliance with the latest standards in order to return it to service as a passenger liner once again.

“The prospect of revitalizing the SS United States and reestablishing her as ‘America’s Flagship’ once again is a thrilling one,” said Crystal President and CEO Edie Rodriguez. “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.”

Crystal has agreed to cover all costs related to the preservation activities. It will also order a technical feasibility study to assist in the transformation into a modern luxury cruise liner. The study is expected to be finalized by the end of 2016, the company said.

Record Holder

At 900 feet long—100 feet longer than the Titanic, the Conservancy notes—and 101 feet wide, the ship used aluminum as a primary construction material in order to keep weight down. Designer William Francis Gibbs wanted no wood to be used in the construction or fittings in order to keep his ship to be fireproof as well.

Built at a cost of $79.4 million, subsidized by the U.S. government in case a conversion to naval troop ship was required, the United States was in service as a passenger liner until 1969.

Over its course of active duty, it set a lot of records.

It is the largest ocean liner constructed entirely in the U.S. and the fastest ocean liner to cross the Atlantic in both directions. In fact, it was the first American ship in 100 years to capture the Blue Riband, awarded to the fastest trans-Atlantic passenger liner in regular service.

Sixty years later, the ship still holds that coveted award and record.

Photo courtesy of Bill DiBenedetto and the SS United States Conservancy
Photo courtesy of Charles Anderson and the SS United States Conservancy

SS United States on its sea trials, June 10, 1952. Here it reached its highest recorded speed ever—38.32 knots (44.1 mph). This is the greatest speed ever achieved by an ocean liner before or since.

Since its retirement from service, the United States has been docked in Philadelphia.

New Life

Despite its faded appearance, the SS United States remains structurally sound to this day, the Conservancy says—a testament to the design, materials and workmanship that contributed to its flagship status.

However, both companies acknowledged that an extensive rebuild is in order to meet modern demands and bring it into full regulatory compliance to meet more than 60 years of new maritime rules and shipbuilding practices. 

Crystal Cruises intends to modernize the liner by converting it into an 800-guest-capacity vessel, with 400 luxury suites at 350-square-feet in size and dining, entertainment, spa and other guest amenities that live up to the ship’s history.

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

Rodriguez said the firm is honored “to be entrusted with the opportunity of restoring a ship that served as a symbol of patriotism and maritime supremacy and bring her into the modern day, while also giving guests a taste of a bygone era of luxury travel.”

“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.

SS United States Conservancy
SS United States Conservancy

Retired U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Tim Sullivan has been appointed to facilitate the complex technical feasibility study and to help ensure a smooth execution of the project.

“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,” she added.

Technical, Historical Accuracy

Crystal has appointed retired U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Tim Sullivan to facilitate the complex technical feasibility study and to help ensure a smooth execution of the project. He will build and lead a team with a wide range of cruise line technical, legal and regulatory expertise.

“Tim’s integrity and leadership will help ensure the feasibility study is conducted with appropriately wide consultation, and rigorous adherence to both safety and environmental awareness,” said Rodriguez.

With 36 years of active service, Admiral Sullivan has extensive experience in ship operations as a Commanding Officer of numerous Coast Guard cutters, and over the years has engaged in high level of interaction with a myriad of U.S. government agencies and international regulatory entities.

The Conservancy will continue to expand its curatorial and archival collections as it advances its mission of educating the public about the SS United States’ history. The organization will work with Crystal to establish shipboard displays and other educational programs.

Planning is also underway for a land-based museum dedicated to preserving the legacy of America’s Flagship along with broader design, innovation and discovery themes. The museum will feature a wide range of original artifacts and historic components from the ship’s heyday.

About SS United States Conservancy

A national nonprofit organization, the SS United States Conservancy leads the global effort to save and repurpose America’s Flagship, the SS United States. The Conservancy raises public awareness and financial resources for the maintenance, restoration and ultimate reuse of this iconic vessel and works to ensure that the fastest ocean liner ever to cross the Atlantic remains an inspiration for generations to come.


Tagged categories: Historic Preservation; Historic Structures; North America; Preservation; Program/Project Management; Renovation; Restoration; Shipyards

Comment from Alfredo Claussen, (2/15/2016, 3:39 PM)

This article brought me memories of my late father, who also was a retired Navy Admiral, and who worked after retirement for many more years conducting marine salvage operations, repairs and refurbishments for the several Insurance companies here in Mexico. From my recollections, a task like this is certainly feasible, at least technically. Sucess will depend on economics more than repair dificulties. But the opportunity is there. I wish the people conducting this effort my sincerest congratulations and best wishes. Really hope they succeed. Amclaussen, Mexico City.

Comment from trevor neale, (3/4/2016, 9:18 AM)

If the original drawings are still available why not rebuild to current preservation standards to produce another 1/4 century of income earning service.

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