The world’s fastest ocean liner, S.S. United States, won’t be sailing the seas again.
The Titanic-size vessel, which in its 1950s prime boasted one of the most stylish ways to travel between New York and Europe, has been mothballed for decades, ever since jet travel ended the era of the trans-Atlantic superliner. It is docked forlornly in Philadelphia, across the street from an Ikea parking lot, and as recently as last year, scrapping it seemed imminent.
But in February, the Crystal Cruises luxury travel company commissioned a feasibility study to return the S.S. United States to oceangoing service — an idea that astonished even the vessel’s most optimistic supporters.
After an outlay of about USD 1 million on the study, Crystal Cruises decided the obstacles are too great.
There was “a lot of really sincere disappointment, we really tried to make a go of it,” said Tim Sullivan, a retired USCG rear admiral and a consultant to Crystal who led the assessment. There were “no huge showstoppers,” he said, but a combination of engineering and regulatory obstacles ultimately put commercial success out of reach.
The “Big U,” as the ship is known, is a 20th-century engineering marvel. Built as a luxury ocean liner. it was also a Cold War secret weapon: It could rapidly be converted into a fast troop ship.
On its maiden voyage in 1952, the liner made the fastest Transatlantic crossing ever, a record that still stands. Its engineering details, including the hull and propeller designs, remained state secrets for decades.
Earlier this year, Crystal signed an exclusive purchase option for the ship with the SS United States Conservancy, a preservationist group that has owned the vessel since 2010, when it mounted an 11th-hour effort to save the ship from a date with the scrap yard. Until Crystal emerged, the conservancy had been seeking partners to make the ship part of a waterfront real estate development. The idea was to fill the vessel with restaurants, hotels, museums or office space. It will now resume that strategy.
Crystal’s top-to-bottom vessel examination concluded that the 65-year-old liner (out of service since 1969) remains sound. Any future partners won't have to spend money on similar studies.
As part of the study, divers inspected the hull. Engineers inspected the ship’s numerous ballast water and fuel tanks and assessed the structural condition. A 3D scan of the interior was performed. However, replacing the steam engines would have required rebuilding about 25% of the hull.
Another obstacle for Crystal Cruises was the Jones Act, that regulates maritime activities. Crystal wanted to operate the ship as US-flagged, to permit it to cruise directly between US ports - huge competitive advantage. Typically, cruise vessels don't have that right, because they are usually built ouside USA and operate under foreign flag states.
Crystal (owned, by Genting Hong Kong) went to Washington DC, met with US regulators and lawmakers, and concluded that "it is going to be hard". In the meantime, the company donated USD 350,000 to the conservancy. It costs about USD 60,000 a month to dock and maintain the old ocean liner.