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.

 

SOS — Saving a Grand Old Ship

By Frederic Logghe [GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

A long-ago time, and in faraway places, the S.S. United States was a bright and shining example of American ingenuity, achievement and spirit. She is still grand and imposing, but her shine has given way to age; her paint is peeling, her interiors are empty; she has suffered greatly from years of sitting still.

There are those of us who would dearly love to see her live on, to enjoy another incarnation so that present and future generations could be awed by the sight, the size and the story of her.

But, I fear that is not to be.

Three news networks this week have told her story. Those who are desperately trying to save her say that the deadline is near – maybe less than two weeks away – when they will be forced to give up the fight. Rent alone at her dock costs $60,000 a month, and before Christmas this year, the money will have run out.

Susan Gibbs, executive director of the conservancy that is seeking a benefactor, says the end of October marks the deadline. After that, she notes, negotiations with a “responsible recycler” will begin. This is not a new development, but it is no less disturbing. The ship has faced the wrecking ball before. But she has, in the past, been granted a “stay.”

For Ms. Gibbs, it’s personal. She is the granddaughter of the ship’s designer, naval architect William Francis Gibbs.

It’s personal for me too.

In a very real sense, the U.S. United States was a matchmaker; she was the reason I met my future husband almost 50 years ago.

At that time, she had been called into service to help move American servicemen and their families out of Europe, and specifically to move them home from France. She was still carrying paying passengers as well, but in some cases, American military families made a five-day passage to New York aboard this swift liner. They ate in the elegant dining rooms, were served by impeccably uniformed staff, and experienced a lifestyle that only a few tourists of the time shared. Luxury ocean liner travel then was the domain, for the most part, of the rich and famous.

But when General DeGaulle of France decreed on March 10, 1966, that foreign military in his country must withdraw or submit to French control, a massive logistical effort began almost immediately to relocate military families. The one-year deadline loomed large; time was of the essence. Even though air travel could accommodate the humans, shipment of household goods and automobiles had to be by sea. At the time, utilizing available staterooms and the cavernous below-deck holds of this great ship made a lot of sense.

So it was that the paths of one young U.S. Army lieutenant and one young working journalist converged one day on a dock in Le Havre, France. He was newly-assigned to help meet the deadline, charged with the responsibility of scheduling military travel and moving belongings. I had a story to write about the huge effort.

No, it wasn’t romantic; we were not her passengers. But she loomed large on the docks in Le Havre as we looked along her more than three-football-fields length and up at her 12-stories above-the-water countenance.

Just a little more than one year later, when there were no military personnel left in France, it was largely due to the S.S. United States and the numbers of people and tons of belongings that she transported back to American shores.

Yes, she was impressive then.

She is still impressive now. Her peeling paint and her empty decks do not detract from her presence and her lines. She still looms larger than life, even though she has sat silent far longer than she ever plied the seas. She was in service only from 1952 through 1969, silenced when she was only 17.

My personal story continues with her. In another tale of endings, my parents considered themselves fortunate to be among her passengers on a scheduled North Atlantic crossing in November 1969. They enjoyed the experience immensely, and they disembarked in New York. The ship was bound for Newport News and a refurbishing “furlough,” but she never returned to service. My father thought it ironic, in his later years, that he had sailed on one of the last troop-carrying voyages of Cunard’s Queen Mary, as it ferried American servicemen home after World War II, as well as on the final crossing of the S.S. United States.

S.S. United States, Philadelphia, 2005

The rebirth of cruising vacations came too late.

Today, the irony is that more people than ever before take to the sea for vacations. Cruising ships have grown larger, accommodations more deluxe, and onboard amenities overwhelming. The S.S. United States was the last American-flagged passenger vessel afloat. She was also the largest ship ever to be built in the United States. She is substantial even by today’s standards, although her passenger load was not quite 2,000 in 692 staterooms, with a crew of just over 1,000. But, she had a distinctive look about her, with two stacks towering almost 65 feet above her decks. And she was fast. She remains the Blue Riband-Hales Trophy winner. She set the speed record for crossing the North Atlantic on her maiden voyage in 1952, snatching it away from the Queen Mary. It has not since been broken!

Both Cunard’s Queen Mary and the S.S. United States were known for elegance and speed. Both were designed for passenger comfort, but built to carry troops in case of need. Both served well. Both today are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

View a slideshow of the S.S. United States.

There the similarities, unfortunately, end. The Queen Mary is now a popular hotel and tourist attraction in Long Beach, Calif. The S.S. United States rots at the dock in Philadelphia.

Surely she too has value as a destination resort, a museum, an office building, a shopping center, or a funky condominium development. Or, am I just out of touch with reality?

As Susan Gibbs and others have stated in recent news interviews, “We have never been so close to saving her; and we have never been so close to losing her.” Save Our Ship (SOS) efforts are ongoing. But, hopes are beginning to fade.

I will continue to hope. Yes, it’s very personal.