April 15, 2003
For a Historic Ship, a New Port of Call
By IVER PETERSON
PHILADELPHIA, April 14 — The United States, the fastest passenger ocean liner in the world in its heyday but now a fading hulk on the Philadelphia waterfront, has been bought by Norwegian Cruise Lines.
The Norwegian company expects to convert the ship into an immense modern cruise liner as part of plans to operate the first cruise ships registered in the United States in some 50 years.
This registry would allow the company to offer passenger service solely between United States ports. Under federal law, foreign-flagged passenger ships are required to dock at a foreign port during each voyage.
Colin Veitch, the chairman and president of Norwegian Cruise Lines, said in a statement today that the Big U, as its fans call the ship, would become one of four United States-registered vessel in the line's fleet.
"When we discovered this American icon was in jeopardy, we saw a unique opportunity and acted immediately," Mr. Veitch said.
Norwegian Cruise Lines recently won federal approval to buy the assets of the bankrupt Project America shipbuilding program, a federally subsidized plan to construct two American-registered ships in Mississippi. The line has also bought the Independence, another old ocean liner, that it intends to refit as a cruise ship before undertaking the United States.
To preservationists, the rescue of the big ship amounts to the preservation of the high point of American maritime speed and modernity. Completed in 1952, the United States is 990 feet in length — 110 feet longer than the Titanic — with 17 decks, or stories, and displacing 59,000 tons.
The announcement that the ship would be saved opens a new chapter in the history of a celebrated ocean greyhound that was put out of business by the passenger jet and had many narrow escapes from the scrapheap.
"I feel like it's my wedding day, I feel like it's my birthday, I feel just ecstatic," said Robert Hudson Westover, the chairman of the S.S. United States Foundation, which he set up in 1996, and which has worked to preserve the ship and find a buyer.
The purchase price of the ship, which was owned by the Cantor Company, a New Jersey real estate development company, was not disclosed.
The Jones Act of 1920 restricts passenger service between American ports to American-registered ships with American crews.
Mr. Veitch said the cruise line was evaluating options for using the vessel and determining the extent of renovations needed to convert it to a cruise ship.
He said most of the refitting would be done in United States shipyards and would create 1,000 maritime jobs and 5,000 jobs on land.
After its upgrade, the United States would be larger than any of Norwegian's modern cruise ships, and would be second in size only to the Norway, formerly the France, another ocean liner the company converted for cruise work that is 1,035 feet in length.
The United States sailed out of New York harbor on its maiden voyage on July 3, 1952, and set a trans-Atlantic speed record of 3 days, 10 hours and 40 minutes.
In a famous exchange of radio messages when it overtook the Queen Mary in mid-Atlantic on one voyage, the United States radioed, "Sorry, old girl." The Queen Mary radioed back, "Your girls are faster than our girls."
The ship's average speed was 35 knots, or 40 miles an hour. Its top speed was a national secret because the liner was designed to be a troop carrier during wartime. The ship was not declassified until the 1980's, Mr. Westover said.
Today the United States is far from champion of the Atlantic.
Its interior appointments were sold in 1981, and it was bought by a group that included Edward A. Cantor, a developer, who died in February.
The consortium intended to form a partnership with the Turkish government to refit the United States as a cruise ship sailing under the Turkish flag. But the ship is long and narrow, built for slicing through the North Atlantic swell, and it proved to be a difficult refit. At one point the ship was towed to Sebastapol, in Ukraine, where its lifeboats were removed and its interior was gutted.
In 1996, Mr. Cantor, uncertain of ever seeing the ship sail again, took sole possession and had it towed to Philadelphia, where it has languished ever since.
Its sharply raked funnels, complete with 1950's-era fins, are a faded red, white and blue, but engineers recently found that the hull was still sound.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company