The terminal decline of the United States?

The Big U

No, not the country (battered though it has been of late by the idiotic decisions of bankers and, indeed, by the politicians who encouraged them to lend to people who couldn't pay back their loans) as that seemed perfectly OK when Agent Triple P was there earlier in the month.

No, as we were being driven in to Philadelphia from the airport we saw, between the piers on the river, two vast funnels and the superstructure of a huge ship. Surely it couldn't be? It must have been scrapped years ago? But no, it was the SS United States. The last proper holder of the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic by a passenger ship.

SS Baltic

The SS United States was built in 1952 with the express aim of re-capturing the Blue Riband (from the Queen Mary) and becoming the first American ship to hold the title since the paddleship SS Baltic took the title in 1851. In addition the intention was to create a fast troop ship for times of war (US troops were always amazed, so it is said, when being shipped on the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth to discover that these mighty liners weren't American). As a result the US Navy contributed $50million of the $78 million cost. If used as a troopship (it never was) it could have carried, 15,000 troops at a time. As a liner she had capacity for a rather more comfortable 1,928 passengers.

She was designed by, ironically, Philadelphia-born naval architect William Francis Gibbs (1886-1967) who also designed the United States Lines SS America, as well as supervisiing the mass construction of merchant ships during WW2. In order to make her as fast as possible large amounts of aluminium were used in her construction. In fact, the construction of her superstructure used the most aluminium in any one project to date. She is 990 feet long, has a beam of 101 feet and draws 31 feet. Her gross tonnage is 53,330, nearly 30,000 tons less than the larger Queen Mary.

On her maiden voyage in July 1952 she demolished the eastbound trans-Atlantic speed record averaging 35.6 knots or 41 miles per hour and covering the 2, 906 nautical mile course in 3 days, 12 hours and 12 minutes! The Queen Mary's 1938 record had been 30.99 knots. Returning to the US she broke the Queen Mary's westbound record of 31.69 knots with a speed of 34.51 knots. Despite faster passages by catamaran ferries recently these have all been without passengers and so, whilst she may not still hold the fastest time she is still considered to hold the Blue Riband which was always for ships in regular service. The United States still holds the outright record for the westbound passage. For years her top speed was classified because of her naval role. However, in 1977 her top speed was revealed to be 38.3 knots (44.1mph) but, in reality, she was nevr run flat out so could have been even faster.

The Unites States in Philadelphia today

After 400 trans-Atlantic voyages she was retired in 1969, the era of the liners being brought to an end by inter-continental jet travel. She has had a variety of owners over the last thirty years but unlike, say, the SS France never had another life as a cruise liner. Currently she is owned by Norwegian Cruise Lines and is up for sale ($30 million should buy her, if you are interested). The worry is that the new owner will buy her for scrap value only and she will end up on a beach in India like the France. Sadly, she is deteriorating quite badly on pier 81 in Philadelphia. her interior has been completely stripped out and her protective coats of paint are peeling. There are a number of groups fighting to save her and given the much better record at protecting their maritime heritage that the Americans have we can only hope that they will be successful.

Triple P has been lucky enough to see some of the great liners of past: the France, the Canberra, The Queen Mary, the Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Elizabeth 2 and now, the United States. We have been on the QE2, the Queen Mary and the smaller P&O liners the Orsova and Chusan. Sadly there are very few liners left these days. New purpose built cruise ships which look more like floating apartment blocks sail the seas like so many floating Las Vegas hotels. Only the Queen Mary 2, which we see regularly as it leaves Southampton, really still carries the aura of the old liners. Cruise ships will get bigger but it is highly doubtful if any will ever be as fast as the ultimate greyhound of the seas, the SS United States.

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