Thursday, February 4, 2016

S.S. United States Revisited

If you've been following the fate of the S.S. United States, the "big ship down by IKEA," you probably already know that it's been given a stay of execution. Forgive me if I'm not as optimistic as the internet, by Crystal Cruise's interest in returning the ship to service is far from a done deal. 

Personally, I think returning the historic ocean liner to service is the option most befitting her history. Permanently docking her on the Delaware in Philadelphia a la Long Beach's Queen Mary would be a boon for the city and tourism, but that's kind of like embalming a race horse and putting its shellacked corpse in the Kentucky Derby parking lot. 

For the S.S. United States to set sail again would be a true testament to her greatness, but also an unprecedented one. Today, Cunard's RMS Queen Mary 2 is the only true ocean liner in service. "But wait," you say, "there are hundreds of cruise ships floating around the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. What makes Queen Mary - and the S.S. United States - so special?" 

Christened in 2004, the Queen Mary 2 was built for transatlantic crossings. Launched in 1952, the S.S. United States was designed for European and American tourists who had not yet fully embraced air travel. When planes took over the travel industry, true ocean liners all by died. The ships we have today, magnificent and massive as they are, are not designed for choppy, intercontinental travel, at least not with thousands of passengers on board. 

Despite the S.S. United State's transatlantic record, there simply isn't a huge market for tourists who want to spend two days in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. And there is next to no market for round-trip intercontinental travel. The Queen Mary 2 spends the year traversing the globe. Its passengers either fly to a port and sail home, or endure a plane ride home from their destination. Very few have the means, time, or desire to spend a year on the ship. 

None of this means that Crystal Cruise's interest in the S.S. United States is a lost cause, and returning her to transatlantic travel is probably only a quizzical curiosity in the company's business plan. Throughout maritime history, a number of ocean liners have been refitted, renovated, or gutted to serve as cruise ships that slowly bobble throughout the islands, and that's likely what Crystal Cruise has in mind for the S.S. United States. 

What is more worrisome is what will become of her once Crystal Cruise signs the deal, purchases the ship, and carts her off. The S.S. United States became a local cause exclusively because she was so visible. IKEA placed its cafeteria in direct sight of the behemoth complete with a massive picture window solely so customers could take a look and snap pictures. If she had been rusting away in Norfolk, dwarfed by Naval vessels and visible only from the highway, she likely would have been melted down for scrap years ago. 

Her visible position is what piqued the interest of Philadelphians, and it's Philadelphians that have staved off her execution. Once the S.S. United States leaves Pier 82 for Crystal Cruise's headquarters in Hong Kong her fate will be in the hands of a new set of local aficionados, maritime enthusiast, and a company interested in making her profitable. Will our historical attention spans endure the entirety of our planet, or will most of us Philadelphians simply forget about the S.S. United States if and when she leaves our port? 

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