Friends of Big U rally around historic ship put up for sale

The SS United States may be in trouble again.

The dinner menu for SS United States from Oct. 29, 1964. The ship, which represented American aspiration and achievement, was taken out of service in 1969.

In 2003 the historic ocean liner, known fondly as Big U, was purchased by Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL), which hoped to put it back into service as part of its fleet of the NCL America service. However, those plans have been terminated, and the ship is currently listed for sale, a move that fans of the ship fear may lead to her sale for scrap abroad.

SS United States, built in 1952, remains the largest ocean liner ever built entirely in the United States. She still holds the record for the fastest westbound trans-Atlantic crossing, and on her maiden voyage she captured the Blue Riband for the fastest eastbound and westbound trans-Atlantic crossings. During her time, the ship was a symbol of American pride and achievement.

NCL announced in March 2009 that the ship would be listed for sale with a private broker. NCL said, “After exploring alternate opportunities for the ship with the SS United States Conservancy, the vessel has been listed with a ship broker who will focus on a sale to a U.S. entity.”

The SS United States Conservancy is a nonprofit organization devoted to protecting and restoring the ship.

Dan McSweeney, vice president of the conservancy, said his organization is doing all it can to save the ship. “We are looking forward to continuing to communicate with the owners to develop a plan for a win-win situation for the ship,” he said. “We think it’s feasible for the ship to be conserved. We think the ship is irreplaceable and that it cannot be lost.”

The conservancy has kicked off a national outreach and fund-raising program. In August, the conservancy hosted a fund-raising event in Philadelphia, and announced that $300,000 had been donated to the organization in matching grant funds.

To spread the word on the ship’s national importance, the group has put on lectures across the country, published articles, and worked with several maritime museums. The conservancy has also started the S.O.S (Save Our Ship) blog, in addition to co-sponsoring a documentary that has played on TV nationally.

What concerns many of the ship’s supporters is the possibility that she could ultimately be sent to India or China to be dismantled and sold for scrap should NCL be unable to sell the ship to a U.S. buyer. It has been estimated that her scrap value is about $5 million, an amount that could seem like a good offer should sale to a U.S. entity fail.

NCL did not respond to questions on whether or not there was a time frame in which the ship must be sold before it could be sold to an international buyer.

SS United States wouldn’t be the first ocean liner from its time to be taken to Asia for scrap. SS Constitution, an ocean liner built the year before United States, sank while being towed to be scrapped in 1997. SS Independence, Constitution’s sister ship, met a similar fate; she is currently laid up in Dubai after being sold by NCL in 2007.

The New York City Economic Development Corp. (NYCEDC) has been offering guidance on potential sites and partners in the conservancy’s effort to repurpose the ship in New York City. The NYCEDC has offered a letter of support, as well as helping connect the conservancy with local stakeholders in the public and private sectors.

It has been estimated that the ship’s restoration could range from $150 to as much as $500 million. McSweeney acknowledged, “This is going to take a long time, and it has to be a national effort.”

The conservancy is also reaching out to the U.S. Maritime Administration to see what role it might be able to play in saving the U.S.-flagged vessel.

Friends of the ship hope that converting it into a historical landmark could have economic benefits as well as historical ones. The restoration project could generate new jobs as well as bring in revenue.

The fate of the ship will likely hinge on public interest in the restoration project — in other words, on the public’s willingness to contribute to efforts to save it. The group continues to plan events to spread the word on the ship and remains engaged with the ship’s private broker, working together to save her from the scrap yards and to develop a plan for the ship’s future.

Kristiane Schmitt

By Professional Mariner Staff