The tale of the SS United States. The Bugatti Veyron of the Oceans
Yes. More Boat Porn. But what a Machine!
In the late 19th and first half of the 20th Century, Nations and shipping lines were engaged in a sort of civilian arms race against each other, to demonstrate the engineering and technical prowess of these nations, France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom were continually building ever faster, ever larger, and ever more luxurious ocean liners to compete for the lucrative trade across the Atlantic to the USA.
It was this fierce competition that gave us Germany’s Kaiser William de Grosse, The UK’s Lusitania & Mauretania, Italy’s Rex, France’s magnificent Normandie, and the UK’s Queen Mary. These names are important, because they all took the Blue Ribband transatlantic speed records for their respective owners, shipbuilders, and nations.
The Blue Ribband
The Blue Riband is an unofficial accolade given to the passenger liner crossing the Atlantic Ocean in regular service with the record highest speed. The term was borrowed from horse racing and was not widely used until after 1910. Traditionally, the record is based on average speed rather than passage time because ships follow different routes. Also, eastbound and westbound speed records are reckoned separately, as the more difficult westbound record voyage, against the Gulf Stream and the prevailing weather systems, typically results in lower average speeds.
Of the 35 Atlantic liners to hold the Blue Riband, 25 were British, followed by five German, three American, as well as one each from Italy and France. Thirteen were Cunarders (plus Queen Mary of Cunard White Star), five by White Star, with four owned by Norddeutscher Lloyd, two by Collins, two by Inman and two by Guion, and one each by British American, Great Western, Hamburg-America, the Italian Line, Compagnie Générale Transatlantique and finally the United States Lines.
The role of the First and Second World Wars
As the first World War broke out, many of these liners were repurposed as Light Cruisers, Troop Transports and Hospital Ships to aid in the war effort. Most famously of all were the UK Cunard line’s Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth which played major roles in transporting vast numbers of US Troops into Europe whilst evading attack from the Nazis despite Hitler’s best efforts to sink them.
Another worthy tale from this era is that of the Normandie of France. Normandie was fast. And she was big. In fact, she and Queen Mary took the Blue Ribband from each other on more than one occasion. Normandie was in New York when the French surrendered to the Nazis, so she was ceased by the US Government with the intention of converting her into a troop transport as the USS Lafayette. That rushed conversion work, with normal safety protocols forgone sparked a huge fire, and despite the best efforts of all involved, Normandie became overwhelmed by the volume of water pumped into her and sank at her moorings.
RMS Queen Elizabeth
SS Normandie, later the USS Lafayette
RMS Queen Mary
The SS United States
After the second world war ended. The cold war began. The US Government quickly realised that they may need a fast ocean liner of their own that could be converted into a troop transport should the need arise, so they sponsored the construction of what would become the SS United States. Unlike the British Queens, she was designed with fast troop transport in mind, and with the option to convert to a hospital ship.
Learning lessons for the sinking of Normandie/USS Lafayette, the new ship was designed to be entirely fireproof and contained no wood at all save for butchers blocks and a grand piano made from a special type of mahogany that will not burn. Even the coat hangers in the staterooms were aluminium.
The ship was built to US Navy specifications at Newport News, Virginia from 1950 to 1952. She had a heavily compartmentalised hull and entirely sperate engine rooms to provide greater redundancy. She was fitted with the most powerful steam turbines of any merchant vessel at that time, with a total power output of 240,000 shaft horsepower delivered directly to four 5.5 metre diameter bronze propellors. She had a range of 10,000 miles at a cruising speed of 35 knots. That’s 40mph.
The SS United States shattered the Blue Ribband record on her maiden voyage on July 3rd to July 7th, 1952, taking 10 hours from the previous record held by Britain’s Queen Mary. Achieving the crossing in just 3 days, 10 hours, and 40 minutes at an average speed of 35.59 Knots or 40.96 mph. This, in a machine that is 990ft long. Displaces 47,000 tons of water and has two theatres and a swimming pool!
Because of her role as a military reserve vessel, her actual top speed was kept classified and never officially certified. However, figures of 43 and 50 Knots have been seperately claimed. That is an astonishing 50 / 57mph! Whatever the truth behind her top speed. It was so quick on that Blue Riband run that the paint was scraped from her hull at the waterline.
She served her entire career as an Ocean Liner and never saw service as a troop transport or hospital ship. By the late 1960s, air travel was starting to take over from Ocean Liners. The SS United Sates running mate, the less powerful SS America was sold in 1964. The UK’s Queen Mary was retired in 1967 and survives to this day in California as a museum and hotel. Queen Elizabeth was retired in 1968 and was intended to be converted into a floating university, but she. “Caught Fire” in Hong Kong harbour and sank.
While the SS United States was at Newport News for an overhaul in 1969, the decision was made to withdraw her from service. Her ownership has changed several times since then with various plans to make use of her for other things not coming to fruition. Efforts have been compromised by the drive to make her fireproof. In doing so, she was packed with asbestos. Work to remove that asbestos combined with being several owners being forced to sell remaining fixtures and fittings to pay her mooring fees means that the interior of the ship is almost completely bare.
The most recent attempt to save her involved Crystal Cruise lines who explored the possibility of bringing her back into service as a cruise ship. However, her engines would have need to have been completely removed and replaced with modern diesels. Removing the ship’s heart. Furthermore, to comply with the latest safety regulations, the front of the superstructure would have had to be completely replaced, made taller and extended forwards. Removing her face. As if that was not enough, the cost of the conversion was estimated at $800 million. That is more than it cost to build the much larger Queen Mary 2, which is the only Ocean Liner left in service from scratch. So, unsurprisingly. The idea was dropped.
So, while the Queen Mary lives on. The SS United States is being left to slowly rot in a dock in Philadelphia opposite an Ikea. The only remotely viable option of preserving her is as a museum, conference centre, hotel, restaurant, and casino etc. She will never sail again. Even this will take someone with very deep pockets and a great deal of affection.
These two ships are the last remains of a golden era of speed, glamour, and engineering prowess.
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed it. If you’d like to know more about the efforts to save this piece of history, please visit SS United States Conservancy (ssusc.org)