The S.S. United States May Beat the Odds and Sail Again

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Crystal Cruises' rendering of the rehabbed S.S. United States.

It’s way too early to say that the fastest ocean liner ever built will soon be zipping across the ocean again. But suddenly, this crazy possibility has become a lot less crazy. Crystal Cruises announced Thursday that it’s signed a deal with the S.S. United States Conservancy — the preservationist group that kept its namesake superliner, the S.S. United States, away from the scrapyard for the last part of its life — to rehab the giant ocean liner and send it back out to sea, possibly as soon as 2018.

It has been a long, twisty road for the S.S. United States: built in 1952, retired in 1969, sold off in the ‘80s, stripped of its interiors in the ‘90s. Its 53,000-gross-ton hull has been an expensive white elephant for years, costing tens of thousands of dollars per month in dockage fees. Plan after plan has been laid out to bring it various places and use it as a hotel, an office building, a conference center, a museum, a casino. Last fall, the conservancy ran out of money yet again and began to consider scrapping the ship. That’s when Crystal stepped up; its CEO, Edie Rodriguez, has taken a keen interest in the S.S. U.S. and now has signed a nine-month option to take it over. If it pans out, Crystal will rehab it (ballpark cost: $700 million) and market its voyages as retro-glam travel experiences like no other.

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In the glory years.Photo: null/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

There are, of course, big obstacles to the plan. The engines were last run in 1969, and in fact the ship was retired in part because it was a horrible gas-guzzler. (Being the fastest ship in the world also made it among the thirstiest.) Almost surely, its once-cutting-edge steam plant will have to be replaced with diesels, converting the S.S.(steamship) to M.S.(motor ship). EPA regulations may be a significant obstacle, too, in part because the engine rooms are full of PCBs. And the upper levels of the ship will have to be reworked some, owing to both new regulations and new economics: Today’s travelers have a much greater appetite than their predecessors for cabins with private balconies, and a hundred or so will have to be worked into the superstructure. All of that is expensive, and Crystal is spending the next few months on a big feasibility study to cost the thing out. One nasty finding, and the ship could end up in limbo once again. However it ends up, it won’t be as fast as it was: There’s no imperative to get across the ocean in four days instead of five, the way there was in 1952, and it certainly wouldn’t justify the fuel costs.

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As it sits today, in Philadelphia. Photo: JEWEL SAMAD

But there are upsides to the whole scheme, too. The United States would carry a certain marketable cool that no other ship can hope to match. (It’s the only mid-century liner still afloat, apart from the retired, essentially immobilized Queen Mary.) People who do not necessarily go on cruises would, I suspect, be interested in a trip on the S.S. U.S. Crystal seems like a good outfit to manage it: It is a midsize, upscale cruise line, one that seems to have a knack for selling a slightly unusual luxury product like that. And although the S.S. U.S. looks rough now, with peeling paint and rust everywhere, it is structurally sound: It was built with a Cold War subsidy that stipulated it be toughened like a military vessel, and that in turn means it has held up despite everything. Because it is (unlike most ships today) still registered under the U.S. flag — and has to be, by law — it can straightforwardly avoid some odd American port regulations that limit access to foreign ships. And when I asked Rodriguez, “Are you going to try to make it fast again?” she hedged on the specifics, and then flatly said “yes.” And smiled.

Most of all, though, this 990-foot-long rescue greyhound is suddenly a lot less likely to get chopped up on a dirty beach in India, and that is not to be taken lightly. The United States is the fastest big ship ever built, and it was made in America. It was designed to cut through the ocean at 40 miles an hour for days on end, making literal waves, and turning it into a bunch of doorknob parts would be like cutting down a 900-year-old redwood to make toothpicks. It just shouldn’t happen — and if Crystal and the conservancy get this right, it won’t.

The announcement of all this was made Thursday at Pier 88, on the West Side — which is about 500 feet from Pier 86, now occupied by the Intrepid and formerly the United States’ home berth. While I was there, looking over a poster-size rendering of the rehabbed ship, an older guy walked up next to me. He seemed uncommonly knowledgeable: "They’re going to have to re-engine it, absolutely," he said to me, adding, "The efficiency of steam versus diesel for big ships — it doesn’t compare." Nicholas Starace II is his name, and in 1957 and 1958, his first job was aboard the United States, as a member of the ship’s engineering staff. He has spent the past 60 years on, in, and around ships, and he was clear-eyed about the prospects for this one. "They have to make it work economically," Starace said, as he asked questions about the old engines and the new balconies. "But this looks good." It does indeed.