HISTORIC SHIP FEATURE:
SS UNITED STATES
Richard H. Wagner
Almost A Cunarder
In April 1992, the United States was put up for auction at a Virginia courthouse. Most of the bidders were looking to turn her into scrap. However, Fred Mayer, representing Marmara Marine Inc., had a different plan and made a successful bid of $2.6 million.
The Marmara plan called for the United States to be given an all new interior thus making her competitive with contemporary cruise ships. Once the ship was revitalized, it would be operated and marketed by Cunard Line as a running mate for Queen Elizabeth 2.
This plan made sense. The United States' last year in service was also QE2's first year in service. During that year, the two ships had acted as informal running mates. The ships would alternate, one would do the westbound route across the Atlantic while the other would do the eastbound. When the two ships would meet and pass mid-Atlantic, they would salute each other with radio messages. One ship preceding its message with the Star Spangled Banner while the other would precede its message with God Save the Queen.
Besides this history, Cunard had years of recent experience operating an ocean liner. Who better to operate the revitalized SS United States?
In addition, the company that Marmara had selected to supervise the restoration of the United States, Effjohn International, had business ties to Cunard. Its subsidiary Crown Cruises owned three ships that were managed by Cunard as part of Cunard Crown Cruises.
I recall one of QE2's senior officers telling me during this period that a group of Cunard officers had gone over to look at the United States and were very pleased with the condition of the ship, particularly, the engine plant. The prospect of operating two legendary liners, the QE2 and the United States, recalled Cunard's glory days and it clearly caused a wave of excitement to spread through the line. The future looked good for the United States.
There was a cloud on the horizon, however. When the ship was built, a top priority had been that she be as fireproof as possible. In the early 1950s, the terms fireproofing and asbestos were almost interchangeable. The health hazards of asbestos were not realized. Therefore, asbestos had been liberally used throughout the ship. Indeed, the interior walls were made of a composite known as marinite, which was largely made of asbestos.
The marnite did not pose a significant hazard if left undisturbed. However, if disturbed, it could let off microscopic carcinogenic asbestos particles. Inasmuch as renovating the interior of the United States would involve disturbing these walls, the contemplated modernization of the ship would not be an easy task.
Arrangements were made to do the restoration work in Turkey where one of the Marmara owners had business connections. The United States left Newport News under tow on June 4, 1992 arriving off Istanbul 36 days later. Preliminary work began on the restoration.
Greenpeace and other environmental groups, however, strongly protested the plan to remove the hazardous material from the SS United States. As a result of their protests, work halted on the ship.
After sitting idle for several months, the United States was towed to Sevastopol in the newly-independent Ukraine arriving November 1, 1993. As she entered the harbor, this former component of America's Cold War defense strategy was escorted by two former Soviet warships.
A local shipyard agreed to remove the asbestos for $1 million, much less than it would have cost in the United States. Greenpeace once again protested but the shipyard asserted that it had the experience and facilities to handle the toxic materials safely. The work was completed in 1994.
The removal of the asbestos had required stripping the interior of the United States down to her metal bulkheads. Nothing was left of the interior decoration. All that remains is the metal framework and machinery.
By this point, the owners had spent millions on this project and were having financial difficulties. The shipyard had not been paid and parts of the ship were being sold off including the lifeboats. One of the owners of Marmara, Edward Cantor, stepped in and negotiated a settlement.
Mr. Cantor and Mr. Mayer then arranged to have the ship towed back to the United States. This time the destination was Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where it was hoped that the restoration work could be completed. The SS United States arrived July 24, 1997.
But Marmara had no money to continue restoration. In fact, it did not have the money to pay the ship's existing debts. As a result, U.S. Marshalls again seized the ship and put her up for auction.
Although the dream of returning the SS United States to the transatlantic service was now over, Mr. Cantor was unwilling to see the ship go to the breakers. Therefore, he purchased the SS United States in his own right for $6 million.
He then began to look for a less ambitious future for the SS United States. Options such as converting her into a floating casino were considered. However, these efforts came to an end when Mr. Cantor suddenly passed away.
Historic ship article - SS United States - The SS United States Story - page four