Save Our Ship: Passionate Preservationists Fight for a National Treasure

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We are walking aft along the "sports deck" of SS United States when I get my first glimpse of how crippled the ship really is. Out of the water and strapped to the deck are all four members of its last set of propellers. They are the size of economy cars with precisely sculpted spirals large enough to be used as children's slides. An engraving still visible in the side of one of them helps me more fully appreciate the strength of the deck: "WGT. 60,200 (ACTUAL LBS)."

Looking down at the sole, I see lines and numbers, rectangles and squares, mangled but still discernable.

"Shuffleboard?" I ask my escorts.

"Yup."

Colin Veitch is courteous but very direct as the no-nonsense native Scotsman schools me in the business of shipping. But even he can't help the childlike enthusiasm that creeps into his voice while talking about SS United States.

"I would like to see her sail again, to deliver modern product all over the world," he tells me. And then, with a devious mirth I can feel through the phone he says, "I'd really like to see the ship able to perform at its original speed."

Veitch, CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line, has the power to make at least one of those wishes come true.

In 2003, NCL received unprecedented permission from Congress to operate foreign-built cruise ships under the American flag in the waters of Hawaii. But thanks to the vagaries of American shipping law, if he ever hoped to ply other U.S. waters, Veitch would either have to request further dispensation from Congress (which he likely wouldn't get) or find American-built hulls.

"We knew of only two that were left," he said -- the since-renamed SS Independence and SS United States. NCL snapped up both ships at auction. Engineers hired by NCL examined SS United States stem to stern and announced that the ship was in surprisingly good condition and could be rebuilt.

But as the months wore on it became clear that the business model for "NCL America" was not in the same kind of shape. The service hemorrhaged cash from the start. The line was gradually cut back from three ships, to two, to one.

SS Independence was quietly sold off to "an American firm," according to Veitch, and towed toward Dubai. The Environmental Protection Agency has since filed a formal complaint against that company, Global Shipping, for the illegal "export" of toxic material, of which Independence represents tons. (The company vehemently denies its intent is to scrap the ship) And in the process, SS United States was treated as it has gotten used to lately: forgotten.

Despite Veitch's enthusiasm, his wishes, even his personal boyhood memories of the ship bringing his "rich old aunt" from the United States, it is abundantly clear he is a businessman first.

"Ships are trading assets. … Every shipping company in the world either operates them, or sells them," he said. "If we do not see any value for our business in the ship, then we would sell it to someone else. I would hope they would have better plans for it than breaking it up."

In the meantime, Veitch says he is "holding on" to the ship until NCL America can be righted. But he admits, that looks like "later, rather than sooner."

They are my last moments in the company of SS United States. I walk alongside it on a pier defiled with totaled cars that are the ship's only neighbors. Its hull paint, last applied in 1969, is oozing off the ship like chocolate. High above on the funnels, the last remnants of its red, white and blue color scheme are defiantly refusing to chip off.

I take a picture of its stern, leaning against one of the tree limb-like lines tying it to the dock. I am shocked to feel the rope drift away under my weight, returning only to definitively, almost smugly shove me back towards the pier.

"The ship's moving -- always moving," says one of my escorts.

Always moving, indeed.

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