Thursday, December 27, 2007

A Unique Visit to a Special Ship

I still recall the early years of this passion I have for ocean liners. It began in 1977 when I was about 13 years old after our family visited the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. While other boys were fascinated with cars, sports, airplanes, at age 15 I was passionate about ocean liners and read everything I could about the trans-Atlantic era. The Queen Mary was the focal point of my obsession, but soon I discovered other ships that were equally fascinating, like the SS United States. From what I read the ss United States, at the time, was still laid-up (mothballed) in Norfolk, Virginia. I wrote a letter to Newport News Shipbuilders to inquire about the SS United States and they responded by saying the ship was recently purchased by a Seattle-based investor, Richard Hadley. So I wrote to Richard Hadley and received a letter back from a woman (Maureen) who was involved with the project to return the ship to service as a cruise ship plying the Hawaiian Islands. I began corresponding with Maureen at United States Cruises and one day received an astounding invitation. My family and me were invited to Norfolk, Virginia to be personally escorted aboard the SS United States for a grand all-day tour of this amazing superliner.

Maureen, from United States Cruises, worked directly with prospective interior designers, and it was during this special visit to the SS United States, that a small group of people from the office in Seattle and a few potential designers, as well as my family, spent nearly the entire day aboard the ship exploring every nook & cranny. It was a hot day in August of 1979 that we explored the SS United States. The ship was like a time capsule, as if the crew and passengers just abandoned ship one day in 1969. All of this grand ship’s original fixtures, furniture, décor was in-tact and it seemed like a few days of cleaning and she would be ready to sail. The giant propeller shaft was still greased, the piano in the First-Class lounge was still somewhat in-tune. There were forks, knives, and spoons in the waiter’s stations, the beds just needed some fresh linen, the indoor pool could have been filled with water, and I think if we added some eager passengers we could have a voyage. Her interiors were amazingly preserved from her fifties look and feel, but the exterior of the ship was another story. The proud super liner SS United States needed to have the flaking, peeling paint on her hull removed, and with a bit of sandblasting, some primer and a fresh paint-job, her powerful engines fired-up, the grand liner would be ready to take-on the Atlantic again.

I recall that moment when I had my first glimpse of the liner from the entrance to the shipyard…I could see those massive funnels with faded red paint and the faded blue top. It really is an amazing experience to see first-hand such a historical vessel after having read about the ship and studied many black & white photos…the reality of the ship as it loomed before me was surreal. Her funnels really were massive, and even resting still against the pier she looked super powerful. Still-camera’s loaded with film, and 8mm movie camera in-hand, we were ready to board the ship and see all the wonders the SS United States had to reveal. Since 1969 the Big U had been docked here at this lonely pier with only a few security staff to guard access to the ship. The security guard looked at us as if we were VIPs, because for 10 years very few people were allowed access to the ship, so we felt privileged and honored to walk across the gangway and board the SS United States. Even my family, my mom & dad and younger brother, who are not ocean liner enthusiasts, felt that this was a very special opportunity, and I believe they were fascinated and honored to explore the ship. At the time I was not as learned about the details of the SS United States as I was of the Queen Mary. I knew she held the Blue Ribbon for the fastest trans-Atlantic crossing of three days, ten hours and forty minutes, and that she was 990 feet long with a 105 foot beam. I knew some of the statistics about her power-plant and the fact that she was designed by William Francis Gibbs. I remembered that there was no wood aboard the ship except for the butcher’s block, pianos and the bilge keels. I guess I knew more about the ship than the average person on the street, but wasn’t very familiar with her interior layout or the lounges. At 14 years old, I was soaking it all in as we toured every lounge and even explored the crew areas.

After our visit aboard the ship our group met at a restaurant for dinner where we had a surprise guest join us…his name was Nicholas Bachko and he was the Supervisor of Construction during the time when the SS United States was built in 1950. Mr Bachko was on the design team and worked closely with Gibbs during the ships construction. Interestingly enough, Mr. Bachko spent most of his time talking with me and discussing details of the ship’s unique design features. We talked about where stabilizers would be added when the ship was restored to service as a cruise ship. I surprised Mr. Bachko with my knowledge of the ship at the ripe age of only 15 years…so much so that he stayed in-touch with me over the years and he even sent me some great collectibles from the ship. Mr Bachko was on the ship during her amazing trials before she was handed over from the shipyard to United States Lines, and he revealed to me that the Big U managed an incredible top speed pushing 48 knots.

One of the most intriguing facts about the SS United States was her secret engines which were the most powerful ever installed on a passenger vessel. While the Big U was in service her engines were a military secret and civilians were never allowed to see the secret engine room much less take pictures of her engineering machinery. There were few photos of her engines and boilers, and photos of her in dry dock were also kept away from the public. Her designer was very secretive about what made the SS United States so fast. It was only recently after the ship had been laid-up in mothballs that her secrets were revealed. Some of her secrets that were finally revealed include the high-pressure her boilers were able to reach, her horse power of 240,000shp was never before and never again seen on a passenger vessel, her top recorded speed on trials was over 42 knots and she sported two five-bladed propellers and two four-bladed propellers. The SS United States basically had the same powerful engines as on military vessels and non-nuclear aircraft carriers. Additionally, she could remain afloat and even powered if one of her engine rooms were breached and flooded. These are a few of the secrets that came out after the ship was retired in 1969. During our visit to the ship, I was very surprised when our guides took us to see the engine room, and even more surprised to learn we were among the first civilians to photograph the powerplant aboard the SS United States.

Seven years later I made another journey to Newport News to visit the SS United States, but this time I explored the ship alone, and much of her interior fittings had already been removed. I don’t recall how I was able to arrange this visit, other than I got permission from the current owner to purchase items onboard. On this visit, there were piles of aluminum cabinets, drawers and stateroom fittings stacked-up along the pier. She still looked magnificent! On this visit to the ship in 1986, much of her furniture was gone, but the lounges and much of her décor was still in-place. Sold at auction, most of her furniture and some of her fittings were gone, there were piles of lifejackets, chairs and aluminum vases throughout the ship and in some places there were papers and debris scattered all over the floors. The messes around the ship were the result of scavengers seeking for anything of value, memorabilia, items that could be sold or saved. For me, that day, I had the ship nearly to myself, except for the security guard at the entrance to the ship. Once again I explored everywhere onboard and even went places I only wished I could have explored during my first visit in 1979. The bridge was a sad place to see, because all of her engine telegraphs, navigation equipment and wheel were removed, leaving only stumps on the flooring where they were once bolted to the deck. I managed to get up into the mast, I even walked around the top of the massive forward funnel and took some great photos! The item I wish I brought with me was a flashlight, which would have allowed me to explore some areas that had no lights. I did find some wonderful items to purchase that I treasure to this day. I have a lifejacket that says SS United States on it, a log book found on the bridge, one of those aluminum vases, and something really unique…a wooden oven scrapper. The significance of the wooden oven-scrapper comes from the fact that wood was extremely rare on this ship. Gibbs, the ships designer, was eccentric about not having ANY wood onboard his ship. One time the band leader had his wooden directing baton taken away and replaced with an aluminum version. The original coat hangers in the staterooms were made of wood to the dismay of Gibbs who angrily had them removed and replaced with aluminum ones. After Gibb’s death, some of the anti-wood requirements must have been loosened a bit. For hours I wandered around the ghost ship, peering into staterooms, crew areas, storage compartments, boiler rooms and lounges.

Since my last visit to the ship in 1986, the SS United States was towed across the Atlantic to the Baltic Sea where all of her interiors were completely gutted. The ship has also changed owners a couple of times and was finally returned again to North America where she is currently tied-up at a lonely pier in Philadelphia. The current owner is Norwegian Cruise Lines, with great aspirations of one day restoring the SS United States as an American-flagged cruise ship. Her future is still uncertain, and many liner enthusiasts are convinced she will end up as scrap, as horrible as that would be. Why would that be horrible? The SS United States is a part of our maritime history. There was a time when she was the pride of all Americans. American ingenuity, talents, and creativity went into constructing a vessel that was the epitome of strength, speed, efficiency and pride. The SS United States carried famous actors, politicians, presidents, and dignitaries from around the world, as well as the common traveler. Scrap the Big U and a piece of history will be lost, but restore the vessel either as a museum or active cruise ship and further generations will be able to appreciate the heritage this vessel carries with her. Unfortunately in business, people don’t care for heritage, only profit. The ss United States doesn’t have nearly the efficiency or capacity of a modern cruise ship, and it would cost an astronomical amount of money to restore her to active service. She would have to be re-engined, because her fuel-oil guzzling engines are massively inefficient compared to today’s modern ships, and today’s cruise passengers demand balconies, which are on every new cruise ship. The fate of the SS United States is a conundrum and her future is looking bleak. Regardless of this magnificent liner’s ultimate fate, I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to explore and photograph every nook & cranny on two occasions. Seeing this great ship first-hand has also deepened my passion and appreciation for ocean liner history.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

1977 was a pivital year for me

Think back throughout your life and see if you can recall a pivotal moment or experience that may have set the course for your future. It's a challenge, but everyone must have that one special moment in time that earmarks the beginning of a journey. For me it was in 1977 when I traveled with my family to California for a vacation. I distinctly recall that my father had planned to have us stay at a hotel right near Universal Studios, but the hotel was full, so he suggested we stay at the Queen Mary in Long Beach. I know my brother and I were in the back seat of the car and we both thought that would be fun to stay on a ship. I'm trying to remember what I knew about the Queen Mary, before I ever saw the ship for the first time in 1977, but cannot recall exactly, other than I knew it was a big ship. Our family stayed on the Queen Mary Hotel for two nights, and I have faint memories of exploring the ship with my brother Paul. I remember seeing the Jacques Cousteau Museum on the Queen Mary, where there was a large tank with real sharks swimming in it, and visitors could touch an iceberg. There was a tour where visitors went from section to section for various presentations, and one of those presentations was by what seemed to be a robot that would answer questions from the audience. During our particular visit to the Queen Mary there was a film crew shooting scenes for a TV show about Nancy Drew, and my brother and I got to meet the actress, Pamela Sue Martin, who was in the original Poseidon Adventure, and on Dynasty.

I don't remember much else from that first visit to the Queen Mary in 1977, but what happened after we returned home from our California vacation changed the course of my life. It was a slow process, but I began reading some of the booklets my Dad purchased while on the Queen Mary and I built a model of the ship from a plastic kit. Reading about the Queen Mary and her illustrious history fascinated me, however, I think I was mostly intrigued by the size of the ship and the size of the machinery that propelled her through the ocean during her regular trans-Atlantic schedule. My fascination for the Queen Mary snowballed into an obsession for more information about the ship. I visited the library and checked out books about the Queen Mary and other ocean liners, and at age 13 I became a student of the history of ocean liners. It was a strange obsession for a land-locked 13 year-old to have, living in Minnesota, but it was an obsession that would eventually cause me to seek some sort of career related to liners or cruise ships. That was 30 years ago!

I think I'm very fortunate to say that I followed my dream and set out to fully embrace this passion for liners and ships by moving to California to attend a college near the Queen Mary in Long Beach. I made numerous trips to Miami to visit the cruise ships. I had an amazing opportunity in 1979 to visit the mothballed SS United States in Norfolk, Virginia, while the ship was still in it's original condition. I made special trips to Miami just to visit the SS Norway, which was originally the France. My father brought me to New York to see the QE2, and of course I made a number of trips to California to see the Queen Mary, before attending college in 1985.

Another venue that would feed my quest to fully understand the history of ocean liners was a book called "The Only Way To Cross" by John Maxtone-Graham. I read the book numerous times and recall daydreaming about someday crossing the Atlantic ocean on a liner. At this time in my life there was only one ocean liner making regular trans-Atlantic crossings and this liner was the QE2. I wanted to experience first-hand what ot was like to cross the Atlantic on the QE2, and after reading the many books about liners, I could almost feel what it was like, and I was drawn into the lifestyle of being at sea on a liner. I collected brochures & posters of the QE2 and other cruise ships. Although our family had the means to perhaps make a crossing on the QE2 or go on a cruise, my parents didn't share the same passion I had for experiencing life at sea, so as a young man living with my parents, I never was able to cruise or cross. If I was to ever make my way on a cruise or a crossing I was just going to have to do it myself. My very first experience with being on a cruise at sea wasn't until 1984 when I orchestrated a plan to be a stow-away aboard the Caribe....but that's another story.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Cruise Beginnings

What is it about stepping across the threshold from solid land onto the teak deck of a large floating structure that seems to cool the senses, churn-up feelings of adventure and romance, and magnify the urge to kick-back on a deckchair with a good book? Those were the days, in the late seventies and early eighties, when I set aside reality, and made numerous journey's to Miami for short visits aboard these lovely white cruise ships. At an early age, I developed a unique passion for cruise ships, but unfortunately, as a young man, living in my parent's house, I could not afford on my own to go on a cruise and my folks, although well traveled, were not about to take a cruise as a family vacation. I would, however, make my way to Miami on an occasional weekend trip to visit the cruise ships, but this only teased and fueled my desire to one day go to sea on one of these ships. To me it was like stepping into a fantasy world even as a visitor on these early cruise ships, and it was so hard to leave the ship, knowing all these passengers were going to live-out what I only dreamed of doing. The idea of "the voyage" and cruising to exotic destinations, and being on a ship at sea was so intriguing to me. I still recall the many times I would fly into Miami, rent a car, and immediately make my way to where the cruise ships docked. I loved the humidity in the air, and driving over that bridge seeing cruise ship row with several ships docked. I remember the haze in the air with the cruise ships in the distance, and I could hardly wait to park my car and get on the ship. My home was Minnesota, so seeing these big cruise ships lined-up was so exciting for me. The ships were bigger-than-life from my point of view, and I would just be giddy as I made my way into the cruise terminal to register as a visitor and go aboard to look around. In these days it was rather easy to obtain a visitor's pass and go aboard the ships for a look around. Of course I always enjoyed the free lunch usually served onboard for the passengers that were boarding the ship that day to begin their week-long vacation. The atmosphere was always festive, and all these lucky passengers were also giddy with anticipation as they familiarized themselves with their ship and home for the next seven days or more.

It seemed I was always a visitor and never an actual passenger. Sometimes I would explore one ship then move on down the line to the next ship, and the next...I would often visit three ships in one day. What I found interesting was even though I would go from one cruise ship and one cruise line to another, there was always that same festive feeling of anticipation onboard. Now back then in the late 70's and early 80's most of the ships were around the same size, about 20 - 30 thousand tons. I think what really made my ship visits special was the fact that some of these cruise ships were real ships, older ships or liners converted for cruising. The moment I stepped aboard I felt I was on a ship. I can still recall that familiar smell mixed in with the humidity and the airconditioning onboard the ship, with hints of fresh paint, sea air and fresh luggage stacked in the corridors, I knew I was in my element and those smells were invigorating for me. It was ships like the Mardi Gras or the Festivale, the Emerald Seas, and even the newer Nordic Prince that were really fun to explore and those ships had such an interesting charm. My interest in ships started with ocean liners which is why the older ships were so appealing to me...but that's another story.

I would spend hours on a ship exploring the public rooms, hanging out by the pool and the lido area where the food was, I took many pictures and sometimes I met with friends in Miami and brought them aboard with me for a tour. I really couldn't get enough of these ships and wished that someday I could be a passenger. After a full day of hanging out on the ships, I would usually jump in my rental car and head out across the channel and towards the beach where I would watch the ships leave the port of Miami and cruise out into the sunset off on another voyage full of eager passengers. You can't help but wave at the ships as they pass by. There truly was something romantic and exciting about seeing these ships that were bigger-than-life cruise by and out to sea. The longing inside me to one day stand on the deck of one of those ships as a passenger was tremendous and I brought that feeling all the way home with me back to Minneapolis and back to reality.

I have so many adventures on cruise ships to share so I thought that I would start this blog and share the passion and re-live the journey which lead me from an observer to a member of the crew, to running my own cruise business. Join me on this journey. I may even dig out my old journals and share personal stories, photos and events that happened in my life aboard the ships.