SS UNITED STATES: SOUL OF A NATION, PT. 3

By: Peter Paul

Courtesy of the SS United States Conservancy Archives.

Courtesy of the SS United States Conservancy Archives.

She had gone to one final auction and had caught the attention of a major cruise line, which won the bid and intended to refit the ship to its former glory if at all possible. Years after the auction, we find ourselves back at square one, the cost of retrofitting-to-cruising condition having fallen victim to costs. Such a vessel would have to command premium prices from its customers, a huge gamble.

The great debate over her fate: cruise ship, stationary museum, powered floating restaurant, gambling haven, what to do with her? Her lines were built for speed, her engines hugely expensive to replace and operate. Would it even be worthwhile to pretend that all this time had not passed, or would it make better sense to let her rest in peace somehow?

None of the passenger configurations were up to date: no balconies, no wide promenades, no cliff-walking attractions, no aquariums, nothing which the modern “cruise passenger” demanded. Certainly, her clean up, the toxic material aboard, POL abatement, all the rest of the modern standards that would come to bear, spelled enormous expenditures, which, for a vessel that was not designed to have the carrying capacity of our highly touted “barge-ships”, would mean sky high ticket prices. Where was the public demand for that kind of cruise?

To this date, some 57 years after her launch, this fine lady of the seas is kept in limbo, her future uncertain. She is the only ocean liner in US maritime history that has had such a tortuous, almost living, death. To say that there is a crime here, a crime against a ship, our history and our heritage, against art and all things right, well, it may be overstated. But it feels that way.

That sorrowful ending, scrap, would hurt anyone with a love of the sea and ships, but there is an end to her that we all, I think, could live with, should all else fail. It wouldn’t cost much money, it would end her life with grace and dignity and it would, quite appropriately, keep her alive in the same sense that others before her have had: reefing.

Anyone who has followed a similar story in the disposition of the James River Ghost Fleet, a fleet of retired WW2 vessels at anchor in Virginia’s James River, knows what I mean. Those ships have mostly been sold due to the rise of scrap metal prices and despite the efforts made to use them as a National Maritime Reef. Money won out, the environment lost. Hardly news.

We were once balanced between scuttling her and allowing new life to grow from her sunken hull, or trying a smaller scale retrofit as a floating something-or-other. Rebuilding her to her former glory is largely, sadly, a dead issue. I’m not sure which is better, honestly. The notion of using her hull for a national marine sanctuary, provides a lot of us who are getting up in years, with a sad, yet still satisfying feeling that she will be with us for a long, long, time to come.

As a SCUBA diver, I can say his without reservation: I have mixed feelings here. Either a reef or a museum, anything, would be better than sale for scrap. If she does go down to the depths to her final glory for lack of funds to keep her above water, I will  be onboard her one last time, if God grants me strength and a few more years. I’ll make it a point to find my old guardrail, stand tall, look over the edge and remember. It would give me peace of mind – the SS United States and I, together again, after all these years.