All those ships; and all those seas

Note: At about 6:30 a.m., British time, on July 7, 66 years ago, a brand new ocean liner set a speed record by steaming across the North Atlantic in just three days, 10 hours and about 40 minutes. It was the maiden voyage of the SS United States. The return voyage to New York Harbor set another record. It was a feat never to be duplicated. 

My love affair with ships and with the sea began a long time ago. It continues. 100_9713 (2)

Ships old and new, large and small; sailing ships and historic steamers; lobster boats and shrimp trawlers; pirate ships and submarines, military ships and cruise ships; private yachts and fast powerboats all find treasured places in my mind and memory. And, by extension, so do airships and spaceships, classic automobiles, muscle cars, locomotives, freight trains, and the Orient Express.

If you note the recurring theme in this blog, it’s not by chance.

On May 8, my husband and I had a unique and wonderful experience. We joined a group of ship enthusiasts on a cruise to Bermuda. This group, however, was not just any old band of ship-lovers. Termed the SS United States Legacy Cruise, it was conceived and planned by the SS United States Conservancy in cooperation with the Pollin Group (travel planners) of Chevy Chase, MD. The 70 or so individuals who participated all have a connection — in one way or another — to the last of America’s flagships, the former ocean liner that now sits forlornly at a Philadelphia pier awaiting an unknown fate.

The ship that set the Atlantic speed record sailed the seas for only 17 years. The record-setting Atlantic crossing commenced in New York City on July 3, 1952. The SS United States arrived in England only three days, 10 hours and 40 minutes later, breaking the Eastbound speed record formerly held by Cunard’s Queen Mary and capturing the Blue Riband Trophy. It was an achievement never thought possible by a ship of that size, and it is still unsurpassed today.

Read about that crossing, and watch a video about that historic voyage.

What became her last Atlantic crossing, in November 1969, was an unexpected event.  Indeed, a 16-day cruise of more than 8,000 miles was on the schedule for the 1969-70 holiday season. Passengers would have enjoyed an exotic itinerary including Madeira, Tenerife and Dakar, as well as a New Year’s visit to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands on the Atlantic round trip.  Since then, a series of owners has alternately explored plans to put the ship back in service or threatened the scrap heap.

The Conservancy, led by Susan Gibbs, granddaughter of the ship’s designer, is the current owner, with a mission to see her restored and rejuvenated — not to carry passengers — but rather to assure that succeeding  generations of ship-lovers will be able to explore her cavernous interior and learn her unique story.

It is quite a story

For six days on board the Celebrity Summit, a modern cruise ship, our group heard stories of the SS United States. The ship was built in Norfolk, Va., as a luxury liner in the heady days of mid-Century Modern style. She was aluminum, fast, sleek and lightweight, powered by state-of-the-art propulsion, and said to be unsinkable.

She was, however, a heavyweight in terms of performance, function and appearance. The ship was fully capable of serving as a troop carrier, built during the height of the Cold War era. The illustrious British-flagged “Queens,” Cunard’s luxury ocean liners, ferried troops admirably during World War II. Had the need arisen, the vessel could also have been converted to a hospital ship.

The SS United States was built in Newport News, Va., funded by both the U.S. Navy and the privately-owned United States Lines. She sailed under the American flag and performed exceedingly well as a passenger ship, carrying presidents and dignitaries, film stars and “common folk.” She brought immigrants to the United States and also  carried her share of military families, along with their household goods and vehicles, to and from European duty stations. She had speed and agility, numerous luxury features, a fully-equipped operating room and a modern pet kennel with a resident veterinarian.

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Today she sits with peeling paint at a pier in Philadelphia, her interiors stripped and her props missing, awaiting her fate. One of her caretakers, Mike Wolfe, who says he is familiar with “every inch” of the old ship, notes that she still has a grandeur and mystique about her. He is protective of her because, as he says, she is still beautiful. “This ship has a soul,” he insists.

Heading to Bermuda

We watched the Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline recede from view as we made our way out of Port Liberty in Bayonne, N.J., finding it impossible not to think of those long-ago embarkations and arrivals. It is said that William Francis Gibbs never missed the chance to see the SS United States as she departed and returned to pier, watching silently from shore. With two massive stacks and a distinctive color scheme, she must have dominated the view.

The ship was in many ways the designer’s obsession, although he only sailed on her once, on that record-setting maiden voyage. It had been Gibbs’ long-standing dream to design a ship that was 1,000 feet long. The SS United States measured 990 feet in length; from keel to the top of the forward funnel, she rose to a height of 175 feet.

By the end of the week, those of us on this first Legacy cruise had become “old friends.” Steeped in the lore of the ship, we shared our individual reasons for wanting to save her, and those who had sailed on the ship enthralled us all with their memories. Among our group were former passengers and crew members, friends and family, movie-makers and ship designers, scuba divers and armchair travelers, young and old.

In addition to the formal presentations that kept us all busy, we dined together and met informally, bound by joint commitment to this iconic ship. We spoke as well of other ships and other seas, and found we shared other common interests. Once we arrived in Bermuda, our group enjoyed a special tour of the National Museum of Bermuda and its park-like grounds. We enjoyed a lunch at the well-known Frog and Onion Pub at Royal Naval Dockyard. We had ample time for private exploration and time to enjoy welcome sun and warmth after rainy days at sea. Bermuda’s beaches are stunningly beautiful, its island ambience delightful, and its people welcoming!

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Serious Efforts to Save a Ship

Current work to assure a bright future for the SS United States continues in earnest. According to Susan Gibbs, it is bearing fruit. Even though she declined to discuss specifics, she noted that solid opportunities exist.

One of the highlights of this Legacy cruise was the presentation of a sizable check to the Conservancy. Dockage at the current pier in Philadelphia is expensive and there are ongoing preservation efforts. If you’re interested in learning more about the SS United States, or about ways to help assure the ship’s preservation and redevelopment, visit the Conservancy website or follow SSUSC on Facebook and get involved.

There are many ways to help: I would love to hear from anyone who has any sort of personal connection or recollection to share. In future posts, I’ll write more about the  people I met during this cruise to Bermuda and tell more stories about the SS United States, interspersed with more stories about the faraway places that the ships, planes, trains and automobiles that so spark my imagination can tell us all.

Meanwhile, if you’re traveling to New York between now and August 3, don’t miss the exhibit currently at the National Lighthouse Museum, Staten Island.

 

Independence . . . a few thoughts

Fireworks over the water are a traditional part of July 4th celebrations in many parts of the country. Fire risk seems lessened, and exploding colors and sounds seem magnified by rippling water below and starry skies above. We have enjoyed such displays many times, watching with as much awe as any child.101_3074

A bit of background

Several years ago, as we made our way by boat across Chesapeake Bay and into Baltimore Harbor, we noticed an unusual buoy — not the normal red or green of navigational markers, not a warning orange — but rather red, white and blue.  At the same time, we couldn’t help but see the flag fluttering in the breeze at historic Fort McHenry, situated on a peninsula that intrudes into the Patapsco River not far away.

We later learned that the U.S. Coast Guard sets a ceremonial marker annually to mark the approximate spot where the words to the Star Spangled Banner were first written.

Gypsy-new camera-NJNYMDDC 517 (2)The unique buoy and an oversize flagpole brought home to us that year the reality of the battle that shaped the destiny of a young nation. History is like that — it sometimes takes being there to make it real.

The War of 1812, which began because of trade disputes and issues surrounding westward expansion, escalated when ongoing battles between Britain and France waned. It was a devastating time for a young country, and there were serious doubts about the ability to survive as an independent nation.

Much of New England never joined the fight. And, by the time it was over, the “second War of Independence,” as it is sometimes known, resulted in the deaths of 15,000 Americans, nearly as many as perished during the Revolutionary War. The War of 1812 actually lasted for two years and eight months.

Putting it in perspective

The fighting at Fort McHenry took place September 13, 1814. By the time the battle was brought to Baltimore, the war was all but lost. Washington, D.C., including the White House, the Capitol and other government buildings, had already been burned. Gypsy-new camera-NJNYMDDC 519 (2)

This past May, on a trip to Bermuda, those events of 1814 became even more real. It was from this Atlantic island some 600 miles offshore that a fleet of British warships was launched on August 1, 104 years ago, carrying 5,000 British Army and Royal Marines troops. Even though the colonies had declared independence nearly 40 years earlier, the British had not yet given up.

It was at Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor that the tide of war changed; defenders fought off the British during more than 25 hours of intense bombardment.

During the fighting, a young attorney was detained on a British ship in the harbor, along with a physician whose release had been promised. Francis Scott Key, sometime poet as well as a lawyer, had negotiated a prisoner exchange with the British, set to occur after the battle. As the fighting ensued, he was inspired to write the words to a poem which was set to music, with the title Defence of Fort McHenry. Later Francis Scott Key added three more stanzas, all but forgotten today.

The Star-Spangled Banner, although popular, was not used ceremoniously for another 75 years. In 1890, it was adopted by the U.S. military for play during the raising and lowering of the colors.

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Touring the Royal Naval Dockyards this spring on the island known to its residents as “the Rock” or “Gibraltar of the West,” we actually thought little about Baltimore or the War of 1812. Instead we were focused on British history and maritime supremacy, until a chance remark brought back the memory of Fort McHenry, the flagpole and the buoy.  We toured the grounds of the British naval compound, walked the ramparts, and imagined those ships sailing towards Baltimore to quash yet another rebellion. With that clarity of perspective, we realized once again that we are still a very young country!

And so we celebrate . . .

It surprised me to learn that Independence Day was not even a holiday to celebrate until 1870, nearly 100 years after the Declaration of Independence was drafted, and long after its authors had passed on.

It surprised me equally as much to learn that the song written by Francis Scott Key  National Anthem was adopted by presidential order in 1916, barely 100 years ago. Congress made it official only in 1931. The anthem made its official debut at a sporting event, a baseball game played in Chicago in 1918, during the turmoil of World War I.

And the fireworks? Well, that part of the celebration was added only after the poem was written and the song was performed.

None of that, however, diminishes the fun — or the spectacle. No matter what else occurs on the 4th of July, whether there are parades or solemn ceremonies, barbecues or backyard picnics, swim parties, bicycle runs or Days at Six Flags, it’s the fireworks that encompass the spirit of the celebration.

But, lest we forget, independence had a cost. It still has. So, as we celebrate, perhaps we should also consider just what independence means, and what price each of us is willing to pay to preserve it.

Stay safe, everyone, on this 4th of July, and enjoy your celebration, no matter what it is!

 

If you’d like to learn more, here are some resources:

http://www.sacredclassics.com/keys.htm

https://www.history.com/topics/the-star-spangled-banner

https://www.constitutionfacts.com/us-declaration-of-independence/fourth-of-july/

https://www.bermuda-attractions.com/bermuda_0002c2.htm

https://www.bayjournal.com/article/us_anthem_flag_arent_the_only_stars_at_fort_mchenry