SS United States: Crystal Cruises Planning Return of Historic Transatlantic Liner

SS United States. Photo credit: SS United States Conservancy
SS United States. Photo credit: SS United States Conservancy

A major development today in the ongoing saga to save the SS United States from a trip the scrapyard.

A Man and His Ship: America's Greatest Naval Architect and His Quest to Build the S.S. United States
Related Book: A Man and His Ship: America’s Greatest Naval Architect and His Quest to Build the S.S. United States by Steven Ujifusa
Los Angeles-based Crystal Cruises says it has signed a purchase option for the historic – yet weathered – transatlantic steam ship with the plan to refurbish the vessel and return it to oceangoing service as a modern luxury cruise ship.

The announcement was made Thursday by Crystal Cruises together with the SS United States Conservancy preservation group at a press conference at the Manhattan Cruise Terminal in New York City.

Crystal says its goal is to bring the ship into compliance with the latest environmental and safety standards, returning her to full oceangoing service. In doing so, the company has agreed to cover all costs associated with preserving the ship while undertaking a technical feasibility study, which is expected to be completed by the end of 2016.

The SS United States, aka “America’s Flagship”, has faced an uncertain future over the years and especially in recent months. In October 2015, the United States Conservancy, faced with the challenge covering the vessel’s monthly expenses each month, began exploring options for the potential sale and scrapping of the ship. The news ignited an outpouring of public support, which helped the Conservancy raise an additional $600,000 in funds to continue its preservation efforts and negotiations with potential investors, ultimately saving it from the scrapyard.

The Conservancy alluded to today’s good news in late January following a story by the AP saying a deal had been struck to save the ship.

“The prospect of revitalizing the SS United States and reestablishing her as ‘America’s Flagship’ once again is a thrilling one. It will be a very challenging undertaking, but we are determined to apply the dedication and innovation that has always been the ship’s hallmark,” said Crystal President and CEO Edie Rodriguez at Thursday press conference. “We are honored to work with the SS United States Conservancy and government agencies in exploring the technical feasibility study so we can ultimately embark on the journey of transforming her into a sophisticated luxury cruise liner for the modern era.”

Rendering of the restored SS United States. Image credit: Crystal Cruises
Rendering of the restored SS United States. Image credit: Crystal Cruises

Crystal Cruises says that in order to meet modern demands and be in full regulatory compliance, the SS United States will have to be extensively re-built for the first time in over 60 years. During the process, the ship will be transformed into an 800-guest-capacity vessel, featuring 400 luxurious suites with dining, entertainment, spa and other luxury guest amenities that are true to the ship’s history. Features of the original SS United States such as the Promenade and Navajo Lounge will be retained, while new engines and sophisticated marine technology will be installed to maintain her title as the fastest cruise vessel in the world, according to Crystal Cruises.

Crystal Cruises says it will be examining exciting new itineraries for the 60,000-gross-ton cruise ship, including traditional transatlantic voyages from New York City as well as to key U.S. ports and on international voyages around the globe. 

Despite today’s announcement, critics still question the condition of the ship or whether it can be restored at all, and are awaiting the results of the feasibility study before hailing the ship’s return.

To facilitate the technical feasibility study and ensure execution of the project, Crystal has hired retired U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Tim Sullivan to build and lead a team with a wide range of cruise line technical, legal and regulatory expertise. With 36 years of active service, Admiral Sullivan has extensive experience in ship operations as a Commanding Officer of numerous Coast Guard cutters, and over the years has engaged in high level of interaction with a myriad of U.S. government agencies and international regulatory entities.

“Tim’s integrity and leadership will help ensure the feasibility study is conducted with appropriately wide consultation, and rigorous adherence to both safety and environmental awareness,” said Rodriguez.

Photo credit: SS United States Conservation Society
Photo credit: SS United States Conservation Society

The SS United States was launched in 1952 for United States Lines at Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company. The ship quickly made a name for itself, capturing the transatlantic speed record on her maiden voyage – a record that still holds to this day. Not only was the vessel designed for luxurious transatlantic service, the steam ship was built so that it could easily be re-purposed into a naval troop transport in the event of a war, with the ability to carry 15,000 troops and a 240,000 shaft horsepower propulsion plant capable of traveling 10,000 nautical miles without refueling.

The ship was taken out of service suddenly in 1969, but remained part of the U.S. Navy’s reserve fleet until 1978 when the Navy decided to sell the vessel to a private owner. Since then, the SS United States has passed from owner to owner. In 2003 the ship ended up in the hands of Norwegian Cruise Lines, which had plans refurbish the ship and return her to service with the company’s American-flagged cruise service. But the plans fell through with the 2008 financial crisis, and the vessel was again listed for sale a year later. Wen NCL failed to receive any offers, NCL began looking towards scrapyards, leading the SS United States Conservancy group to launch its “Save Our Ship” Campaign, which helped rally public support and raised the funds needed to purchase the ship.

“Crystal’s ambitious vision for the SS United States will ensure our nation’s flagship is once again a global ambassador for the highest standards of American innovation, quality and design,” said Susan Gibbs, executive director of the SS United States Conservancy and granddaughter of the ship’s designer, William Francis Gibbs. “We are thrilled that the SS United States is now poised to make a triumphant return to sea and that the ship’s historical legacy will continue to intrigue and inspire a new generation.”

“The Conservancy could never have reached this momentous milestone without the lifeline provided by our supporters from across the country and around the world. Thousands responded to our SOS last October and they refused to give up the fight for America’s Flagship,” continued Gibbs.