The big rumor at the cruise water cooler this week is that the legendary SS United States might be making a comeback. On Wednesday, the Associated Press reported that Norwegian Cruise Line CEO Colin Veitch has "not given up" on the mothballed 55-year-old ocean liner now owned by the line's NCL America subdivision.
But despite the AP's optimistic headline -- "Owner says SS United States to sail again" -- the ship's future is far from certain. Here's a little background:
The SS United States was built in 1952 as the fastest ocean liner in the world, beating the speed record across the Atlantic then held by the original Queen Mary. The pride of the American Merchant Marine, and arguably the only "superliner" ever to fly the U.S. flag, still holds the record for the fastest passenger ship ever built. (Cunard's Queen Elizabeth 2 is the fastest currently in service.) But high operating costs and labor disputes yanked the American flagship out of service in 1969, and for the past 38 years it has been sitting in various ports on the East Coast -- first in Virginia, now in Philadelphia -- awaiting its future.
The ship has passed through several owners, each with different plans to return the ship to service. None have been successful, though in the 1980's most of the interior furnishings were auctioned off in preparation for a refit that never happened, and in the 1990's the ship was sent to Turkey to have all the asbestos onboard removed before returning to the U.S. (there was a lot, as the ship was built entirely of non-combustible materials -- now a requirement but very unusual in the 1950's). But when its most recent owner, Philadelphia businessman Edward Cantor, died in 2003, the ship was offered for scrap. It was then that NCL, just embarking on its U.S.-flagged venture, swooped in and bought the iconic ship.
NCL America's original plans called for three ships, which became Pride of Aloha, Pride of America and Pride of Hawaii. The plan was that if NCLA were successful, United States would become its fourth ship. NCL drew up plans to convert the aging, gutted ocean liner into a first-rate cruise vessel -- a conversion that would cost as much as building a new ship -- but always maintained that it would not be until the other NCLA ships were established and successful that an actual decision would be made on United States' fate.
Unfortunately, the United States suffered another setback: The cruise line announced last month that in the face of increased competition from foreign-flagged ships, NCLA's largest ship Pride of Hawaii would temporarily return to NCL's international fleet as Norwegian Jade; only if NCLA becomes profitable enough to sustain not only the return of Pride of Hawaii but also a fourth ship will the United States get its new lease on life. Nevertheless, as the AP reports, the company continues to pay substantial sums of money to keep the ship's condition from deteriorating further. And in a few years, if the time is right, NCL is prepared to return the ship to service for the first time in what will be more than four decades.
In the meantime, United States' dedicated fans eagerly watch NCL America's performance, hoping that someday soon, conditions will be right for America's historic flagship to once again welcome passengers aboard.
Feeling nostalgic for the SS United States? Have something to say? E-mail us at email@example.com; put SS United States in the subject line.
--by Doug Newman, Cruise Critic Contributor
SS United States to Sail Again ... for NCL?
May 11, 2007