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Wildest dreams: A return for the SS United States?

SS United States, the biggest, fastest, most glamorous of the U.S.-built ocean liners, may be put back into service as early as 2018 as the crown jewel of Crystal Cruise’s burgeoning luxury fleet if she can be brought back up to snuff after 20 hard years of languishing at Pier 82 in Philadelphia.

The goal is to keep the SS United States as close to original as possible, but there will be some design and mechanical alterations.

Crystal Cruises, a Los Angeles-based luxury travel company, has signed an option agreement with the SS United States Conservancy — the ship’s owners — to buy the historic 990-foot ocean liner, popularly known as “America’s Flagship.” The deal’s consummation is contingent on the results of a feasibility study to see if the ship can be upgraded to meet today’s environmental, safety and luxury-market standards within a budget of $700 million to $800 million. The option expires in September, but Susan Gibbs, executive director of the conservancy and granddaughter of the ship’s designer, William Francis Gibbs, says the option can be extended if the study takes longer than that to complete.

Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Sea cruise ship cost a record $1.3 billion to build in 2009, but she carries more than 5,000 passengers. A refurbished SS United States would carry 800 guests on traditional trans-Atlantic voyages from New York City, as well as cruises from key U.S. ports and voyages around the globe, a signature Crystal offering. Retired Coast Guard Rear Adm. Tim Sullivan has been tapped to gather and lead a team with the technical, legal and regulatory expertise to perform the feasibility study.

Thought more than once to be destined for the scrapyard, the historic ship appears tired and rusty at its Delaware River berth, but its distinctive raked stacks and svelte girth — her beam is just 101 feet — remain hallmarks of a graceful speedster that still holds the Blue Riband trophy for fastest Atlantic crossing — 3 days, 10 hours, 42 minutes, a record set on her maiden trans-Atlantic voyage in July 1952. (The Blue Riband is an unofficial award for the fastest westbound Atlantic crossing by a passenger liner in regular service.)

“The prospect of revitalizing the SS United States and re-establishing her as America’s Flagship once again is a thrilling one,” says Crystal Cruises 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.”

Last October, the United States faced imminent sale to a scrapyard because the conservancy didn’t have the money to continue paying her $60,000-a-month maintenance and berth fee. A last-ditch campaign raised $600,000, enough to cover those fees for 10 months starting last November. Crystal Cruises has agreed to pay the fees while it evaluates the ship. “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,” says Gibbs.

Conservancy board member and National Maritime Historical Society trustee Charles B. Anderson is the son of Commodore John W. Anderson, SS United States’ longest-serving master, from 1952 to 1964 — “the best years for the ship,” he says. Anderson was aboard the ship “quite a bit” during his father’s tenure as master and has fond memories of exclusive invitations for him and sometimes a few friends to sail from New York to Newport News, Virginia, for dry dock with no other passengers aboard. “We were the only ones eating in the first-class dining room,” he says. “That was exciting. It was also very exciting to be on the bridge of that ship.”

The SS United States has been a beautiful sight on the Philadelphia waterfront for many years, even in her current condition.

Anderson says it can be difficult to explain to Americans who have never known what it was like to sail on a ship like the United States why it’s important to try to preserve it. SS United States was the pinnacle of naval architecture and maritime engineering in ocean liners, he says. “There will never be a ship built like that again,” he says.

At 45,400 tons dead weight, she was built light, with a reinforced steel hull and aluminum superstructure. Her 247,785-hp steam turbines and four propellers — two four-blade and two five-blade — pushed her to a speed of 44 mph in trials. Designed to be quickly converted from luxury liner to military transport in wartime, the SS United States could carry 15,000 troops 10,000 miles without refueling.

Government subsidies underwrote the building and operation of the ship, with the stipulation that she could be requisitioned for military purposes. SS United States was designed to Navy standards with 20 watertight compartments and dual compartmentalized engine rooms to contain flooding. Her hull shape beneath the waterline was a closely held military secret for years because she was so fast and part of her mission was to serve as a military transport when needed. Designer Gibbs insisted the ship be fireproof, so there was no wood other than the Steinway pianos and butcher blocks in the galley.

More economical diesels have generally replaced the giant steam turbines that powered SS United States to record speeds, so Anderson says an updated United States probably would be diesel-powered and not as quick as the original. “No one is building ships with steam turbines anymore,” he says. “But [Crystal’s] intention is to make it as fast as possible. She still reminds me of a racehorse, despite all the decay.”

Gibbs says the goal will be to restore her to her former status as the fastest ocean liner on the sea. “The Queen Mary [2] is the one to beat,” she says. Cunard Lines’ 1,132-foot Queen Mary has four props, each driven by a pod weighing more than a 747 jumbo jet. The pods deliver more than 150,000 hp and a speed of 30 knots.

The United States’ decay, much of it cosmetic, isn’t as bad as one might think after two decades at the dock. The conservancy says the ship remains “structurally sound,” and according to a 2009 story in Sea History — the magazine of the NMHS — a survey around that time found the hull strength remained at 92 percent of what it was originally.

Divers recently inspected the hull to see if it’s in good enough shape to be pressed back into service. “Thankfully, so far so good,” Gibbs says. “We’re encouraged by that.”

In its heyday, the passenger manifest of the SS United States was a Who’s Who of Hollywood, high-society and political luminaries: Marlon Brando, Coco Chanel, Sean Connery, Gary Cooper, Walter Cronkite, Salvador Dali, Walt Disney, Duke Ellington, Judy Garland, Cary Grant, Charlton Heston, Bob Hope, Marilyn Monroe, Prince Rainier, Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, John Wayne, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy and a young Bill Clinton, who sailed on her on his way to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.

Anderson says his father was circumspect about discussing celebrity passengers with his family, but the commodore became fast friends with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who were regulars on the SS United States. According to reports at the time, gossip columnist Elsa Maxwell threw a party on board for the duchess to heal a rift between the socialite and Maxwell, the chronicler of high society.

One year, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa crossed the Atlantic in a stateroom on the ship for a museum tour in the United States. The masterpiece was booked in a first-class cabin with a 24-hour security detail. “The security guard was over 6 feet tall,” Anderson says. “He put his shoes outside the cabin door every night for a shoe shine so it would look like the cabin was occupied.”

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The ship also carried a “huge number” of immigrants from Europe to the United States in the 1950s and ’60s and today has a devoted following among Americans whose parents and grandparents sailed here on the ocean liner and passed on memories of that life-changing voyage to their families, he says.

SS United States retired from service in November 1969, a casualty of the rising cost of operating an ocean liner; faster, more economical air travel; and disputes with the longshoremen and harbor workers unions. “I remember on several occasions my father had to dock the ship without tugs because of strikes,” he says.

In 1978, the Navy scratched the United States from its Ready Reserve Force, precipitating a series of ownership changes involving plans to refurbish the ship, plans that never bore fruit. In 2009, Norwegian Cruise Line began taking bids to scrap her, and the following July philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest and the SS United States Conservancy bought the ship from the cruise line, saving it from the scrapyard.

Crystal Cruises — which was purchased last year by Genting Hong Kong, owner of Star Cruises, Asia’s largest cruise line — has been winning awards for luxury cruising for 25 years. It is undergoing a massive expansion under Genting, adding to its two cruise ships three 1,000-passenger luxury liners that offer time-share condominium suites in addition to cabins; a 270-foot superyacht for up to 62 passengers; and five river cruisers.

Genting purchased the Lloyd Werft yard in Bremerhaven, Germany, to build its growing fleet. Anderson says Lloyd Werft likely would undertake the renovation and upgrade of the U.S.-documented, U.S.-built SS United States but only if Crystal can get a congressional exemption under the Jones Act to do the work on her overseas. “They’ll need special legislation to take the boat to Germany [for the work],” he says.

The toxic asbestos once used in ship construction already has been removed from the liner, Anderson says, but she will have to be substantially rebuilt to bring her up to SOLAS (International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea) standards. She also will need to be adapted to contemporary market tastes — for instance, adding balconies to upper-deck cabins. “We all want the ship to be restored, but the conservancy wants it to be done as close as possible to the original ship,” Anderson says. “There will be some changes. It will look similar to the original, but it’s not going to be the same ship.”

Crystal Cruises CEO Rodriguez says the company’s vision for the United States is an 800-guest vessel with 400 suites measuring about 350 square feet, as well as dining, entertainment, spa and other amenities. Features of the original SS United States, such as the promenade deck, the Navajo lounge, the grand ballroom and main dining room, would be retained, and new engines and other technology will be installed, Gibbs says.

The SS United States in her heyday was a source of national pride and a glamorous host to countless celebrities and dignitaries.

She says the conservancy is acquiring SS United States artifacts and memorabilia — furniture, artwork and archives — for a public exhibit in New York, which almost certainly will be a frequent port of call if the ship goes back into service. “This is an iconic national and international treasure that we can’t allow to go under,” Gibbs says.

In 1999, SS United States was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Anderson has a personal recollection of some of the storied history that earned her that distinction. Were she to sail again, Anderson says he — along with others from the conservancy — would hope to be aboard for her second maiden voyage.

This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue.