The Big U’s Sad Saga
by John Delach
The SS United States, affectionately called, the Big U, by her fans – once a proud greyhound of the North Atlantic – has been reduced to a semi-homeless derelict since her retirement. This supreme queen of the American merchant marine, the Big U still holds the Blue Riband as the fastest liner ever to cross the North Atlantic.
But that was over sixty-years ago. In 1969, the ship arrived at Newport News shipyard for her annual overhaul, but United States Lines, her operator, chose instead to face reality that the Big U was no longer profitable, could not compete with modern jets and removed her from service. The first move was to neighboring Norfolk where stewardship passed to several companies who removed various artifacts and equipment from the ship.
In 1977, the first manifestation of what would become an endless fascination of “what if” ideas for the Big U began with an ill-fated proposal to convert her into a hotel and casino to operate at Atlantic City, NJ. Similar schemes began to appear the following year when the actual owner, the United States Navy declared the ship surplus, unfit for further service and returned the Big U to the Maritime Administration (MARAD) for disposal.
A group led by a chap, Richard Hadley, bought the ship for $5 million hoping to re-vitalize her as a time share cruise ship. MARAD insured the loan but Hadley’s group fell on hard times. In a desperate attempt to raise money they auctioned off the remaining fittings and furniture including her four 60,000-pound propellers. (By good fortune, all four have been preserved.) Despite such deplorable actions, the group’s financing still failed. In 1992, MARAD seized the vessel and put her up for auction. During this period, the Big U wore out her welcome in Norfolk and was towed to Pier 84 in South Philadelphia.
Next up, Fred Mayer and Edward Cantor of Marmara Marine Inc. (a subsidiary of a Turkish shipping family,) purchased the Big U for $2.6 million. This group had the vessel towed first to Turkey and then to the Ukraine once the Turks found a sea of asbestos lining her innards. Even the Turks wouldn’t remove that stuff but the Ukrainians did also removing the steam turbine engines at the Sevastopol Shipyard in 1993-94.
After the Big U returned under tow to Pier 84, Mr. Cantor became sole owner for the grand sum of $6 million. His dream of returning the Big U to Trans-Atlantic service died with his passing in 2003, but Norwegian Cruise Lines then a subsidiary of the Malaysian gambling conglomerate, Genting Group, purchased the ship with plans to operate her in cruise service between the West Coast and Hawaii. The clock kept ticking, technical reviews and surveys were made and nothing happened although ownership was transferred to Star Cruises, another Genting subsidiary in 2009. In March 2010 reports surfaced that they were seeking bids to have the Big U scrapped.
Standing in their way was the SS United States Conservancy, a nonprofit organization, led by a granddaughter of the Big U’s creator, William Francis Gibbs. The Conservancy, that had struggled to preserve the ship for many years, temporarily stopped this action and, in 2010, managed to purchase the hulk thanks to a local philanthropist, H.F. Lenfest. New grand plans were made to create a “multi-purpose waterfront complex” on the Delaware River with the Big U as the centerpiece, but this too failed to materialize and by late last year, the Conservatory seemed to finally exhaust their ability to keep up the $60,000 monthly charge needed to keep the Big U at her Philadelphia berth.
Enter Crystal Cruises (another Genting subsidiary) in January, 2016 with a proposal to transform the Big U from a mid-20th Century liner that once accommodated 2,000 passengers in three classes into an 800-guest, 400-suite, single class luxury palace. Crystal proposed a total reconstruction that would transform the Big U into the finest 64-year old liner afloat. Crystal commissioned another feasibility study during which Crystal committed to paying the monthly nut.
Genting’s endless fascination with this ship is beyond rational explanation. Olivind Mathisen, a cruise ship expert commented: “Many people have tried this before…They talk about a price of $750 million. For that money they could build a brand new SS United States and not have to deal with all the old stuff. I don’t think it’s very viable from a business point of view.”
Truer words cannot be spoken. An ending for this sad saga is way over-do. It is time to take off the rose-colored glasses and once and for all put down the Big U, a good and loyal friend who has been abused far too long and should be put her out of her misery.