Crystal Cruises Signs Purchase Option for S.S. United States
A rendering of the proposed redesign of the S.S. United States (photo, Crystal Cruises)
Crystal Cruises Signs Purchase Option for S.S. United States. Will “Big U” Sail Again?
Back in the 1950s, when great ocean liners bearing international flags sailed the oceans, America’s own S.S. United States was the world’s fastest, carrying passengers across the Atlantic in luxury and comfort.
The 2,000-passenger Big U, which is about as long as the Chrysler Building is tall, still holds the record for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic, which it set on its 1952 inaugural round trip between New York and Europe. Its top speed remained a secret for decades during the Cold War.
Jet travel ended the era of the great liners and “Big U” has languished in obscurity. A few years ago, with a gift from a Philadelphia philanthropist, a conservancy bought the ship from NCL. However it has been a financial struggle to raise funds to maintain the ship, and the S.S. United States Conservancy, the group that owns the vessel, had reluctantly had to consider scrapping the vessel.
Recently, in a bold move that might prove to be the ultimate in historic recycling, Crystal Cruises signed a purchase option for the ship, raising hopes that she might sail again.
Crystal’s chief executive Edie Rodriguez has said that the redesign of the ship could cost between $700 million and $800 million, acknowledging that “It’s not going to be easy.” And while the cost might argue against the project, she and the company’s chairman, Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay, decided that it would be a “crime” if the ship were melted down.
While Crystal undertakes a feasibility study, the company must cover the approximately $60,000-a-month-cost of caring for the ship for nine months. And while “Big U” may be a precious historic icon, it will not be simple to turn a vintage vessel into an 800-passenger luxury liner that will travel the world and perhaps even resume occasional service between New York and Europe, the route it served along with other great liners of the mid-20th century.
The challenges are considerable. “Big U” is operated with a steam engine, and that would have to be replaced. Some areas contain toxic PCBs, which would raise red flags for the Environmental Protection Agency and lead to costs that could scuttle the project.
However, if the ship proves to be sound, it has the head start of a hull in place. And as it was built and flagged in the U.S., it could be easier to service some American routes where foreign-flagged vessels can face limitations.
If Crystal succeeds in this venture, the re-born S.S. United States would be a jewel in the company’s ambitious and unusual portfolio of luxury travel offerings. There will be many who are rooting for this to happen, including the members of the S.S. United States Conservancy. “The prospect of the ship’s return to seagoing service was a dream we’d basically given up on because of the technological challenges,” said Susan L. Gibbs, executive director.