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.

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