Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Ship of the week/month

Ship of the week/month


Kevin Scott Bolinger

   Hello all, and welcome to the first installment of my look at famous ships. These ships can range from the great ocean liners of the past, to modern cruise ships, warships, or even wooden vessels from days long ago. This comes out of my personal love of ships and the sea. The romantic notion of sailing a ship towards the horizon intrigues me.

    You may be asking where my love of ships came from. It is simple, it all began when I was eight years old and first heard the name of one of the most famous vessels to ever sail, TITANIC. Back then, and we are talking the late seventies, I could not really get much information on the ship. It wasn’t till I was twelve going on thirteen that Doctor Robert Ballard and his team of American and French researchers located her wreck that information became more readily available. As I grew, I began to wonder about other ships of her era, famous liners like her sister, the OLYMPIC, rivals, MAURETANIA and LUSITANIA (herself a famous ship for her untimely demise,).

    With the release of James Cameron’s film TITANIC, even more research flooded to my hands. I learned about the beginnings of the ocean liners, why they were important, and why they should never be forgotten. I will recommend to you all, if you want a few good reads on the history of ocean liners, find copies of the following:
The Sway of the Grand Saloon  by John Malcolm Brinnin.

The Only Way to Cross  by John Maxtone-Graham.

The Age of Cunard  by  Daniel Allen Butler

Falling Star  by John P. Eaton  & Charles A. Haas

Those are but a few of the wonderful books I have read in my life on the subject of the old liners.  I highly recommend them to anyone with an interest in maritime history.

   Now, on to the subject of this first ship blog.  For my first ship, you would think I would choose the RMS TITANIC, however, a ship of her fame must be saved. I plan on doing a write up on her, but I would like to wait to next April, the 100th anniversary of her sinking. No, my first ship will be one that is much closer to me, and I mean geographically. This particular ship is still afloat, though barely. She rests tied up to a pier right up the road from me in Philadelphia. I am of course talking about the fastest ocean liner ever built, the SS UNITED STATES.
Cutaway of the Big U.

    She was born from the mind of William Francis Gibbs,  born in 1886. Gibbs was a naval architect. One of his first jobs was to oversee the conversion and reconstruction of the former German liner VATERLAND into the SS LEVIATHAN. The original builders, Blom and Voss in Germany, demanded one million for the plans. Gibbs, being the genius he was, spent a few weeks crawling through every nook and cranny of the ship, and simply drew his own.  He would later go on to design the SS AMERICA, a mid-sized vessel, with similar lines to her later sister, the Big U. 

    During World War Two, he was helping to oversee the conversion of the great French liner NORMANDY into a troop ship, as had been done with the Cunard lines QUEEN MARY and QUEEN ELIZABETH. Unfortunately, a fire broke out on board, and the NORMANDY capsized at the pier. Her superstructure had to be cut away so she could be raised, and by then, it was decided she would be worth more as scrap. The fire had an effect of Gibbs, one that would become manifest in the design and construction of the UNITED STATES.

   The UNITED STATES was designed as a dual purpose ship. She was a liner first, but could quickly be converted to a troop ship if the need arose. Because of this, her hull was designed to Navy specifications, which also meant that photographs of her under water hull were not allowed until the ship was declassified  in 1968.  Her lower hull had more in common with a battleship then an ocean liner.
Under Construction early 1952.

    Her keel was laid in 1950 at the Newport News shipyard in Virginia.. Construction of her hull and super structure would last till 1952. Though it was not announced until many years later, when her true stats were known, during her sea trials, which lasted two days, she reached the unheard of speed for a vessel her size, of 43 knots. That is almost the equivalent of 50 mph. Mind you this was a ship 990 ft long,  and 101 ft wide. Also during her trials, she managed to reach the speed of 20 knots…in reverse!  Her nearest rivals, the Cunard QUEENS, could only do about 32 knots on a good day. She truly was in a class all her own.

   When she made her maiden arrival in New York, she was greeted by a flotilla of tugs, fire boats, ferries, and even two Liberty ships from World War Two. She made her first crossing to Europe in a record shattering 3 days and 10 hours, shaving a full ten hours of the QUEEN MARY’s best time.  She was greeted warmly in Southampton, with Winston Churchill himself sending a congratulatory telegram.

   Some of her figures were reported falsely in her early life. When publications about her began, it was said she had 150,000 shaft horsepower, driving four screws. The truth, her steam turbines were far more powerful, with a true horsepower rating of 248,000. However, with a all that power to spare, she was never driven at full speed, except in her trials.
20 knots...BACKWARDS!

   Back in the mid nineteenth century,  the ship that completed the fastest crossings was awarded the blue ribband, though an actual award never existed, it did give bragging rights to the line that owned a particular ship. To this day, no other passenger ship has ever crossed the Atlantic in either direction. The UNITED STATES still holds the blue ribband, the longest ship in history to be so honored. Though her speed record was broken, it was not by a passenger ship, and it was only in one direction. The Big U held the record for both eastbound and westbound crossings.

   Now let us get into some of the design elements that make her unique. As I mentioned before, William Gibbs had a great fear of fire onboard ship after the destruction of the NORMANDY. To combat this, he designed the UNITED STATES with no wooden decking, no wooden paneling, an aluminum super structure, and fabrics treated with fire retardant.  The only two wooden objects onboard, so it was said, were the butchers block in the kitchen, and the baby grand piano, and Gibbs tried to persuade Steinway to build him an aluminum piano, but they refused.
Her maiden New York arrival.

    Though she was the fastest, and most popular ship in the 1950’s, even she could not beat the newcomers to the trans-atlantic trade. The age of the passenger jet had begun. Why would a person spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to cross the ocean in days, when it can be done in hour aboard a jet air liner. This was what ultimately  what killed the ocean liner trade. Today, there  is only one true ocean liner afloat and in service, Cunard’s ,massive QEEN MARY 2, though she herself is mainly a cruise ship with a reinforced bow designed to survive North Atlantic crossings.  Of the great liners of the past, only a handful remain, though most are either in back waters, rotting away, or, like the first QUEEN MARY, they are finding new life as floating hotels and convention centers.  The Big U sits up the road from me, rusting at a pier side, her mighty funnels dominating the riverfront. Her lines are still beautiful, but her glory has faded.
The UNITED STATES (top) passes her older sister, the AMERICA (bottom)

    How she got to her current berth is a short tale filled with long pauses. She was laid up in the late 1960’s, no longer profitable, no longer needed. She spent a long time in her birthplace of Newport News, and even some time tied to a pier in Norfolk. Eventually, overseas interests tried to purchase her, and in 1994, she was sent to Turkey. They removed almost all of the asbestos, and the lifeboats, and well as other fittings. However, she just sat at anchor for two years. Nothing was done with her. It almost seemed as if she would be scrapped. Yet somehow, she was towed back across the Atlantic to the country of her birth. Many speculated on where she was headed, some thought New York, others Miami, yet in the end, on July 27th, 1996, she was tied up to the dockside of Philadelphia, at the foot of the Walt Whitman bridge. It is odd that it was this date, for on that same date, I was in upstate New York saying my wedding vows. Odd how now I live down the road from her.
Her current state, tied to a pier in Philadelphia, rusting.

     All  is not lost for the UNITED STATES. Late last year, the organization trying to save her, the SS UNITED STATES Conservancy, was given enough cash from Philadelphia philanthropist H. F. “Gerry” Lenfest, to buy her from her then owners, Norwegian Cruise Line. Plans are now afoot to find a permanent home for this great ship. Rumors abound, will she stay in Philadelphia? Or maybe New York? No one yet knows, as deals are still being made, as of this writing. What I do know, is she was saved from the cutting torches of the scrapers, due to protection from the U.S. Congress. That protection bought enough time for the Conservancy to purchase her.  What will the future hold for this fantastic vessel? I do not know, but I am glad she at least has a chance at a future. She was the last great liner built by our country, and she deserves better then what she has got.

     I hope you all enjoyed this look at a great ship. I am not sure which ship I will do next.  If you have one you would like to hear about, with the exception of the TITANIC, for reasons I discussed above, feel free to leave me a comment here or on my Facebook page. In today’s society, we take for granted the great liners of the past, and it is a shame, for they were once the headliners for many newspaper. We do not make film reels of jets, unless one crashes, yet many film reels were made of the great liners. Learn about them, appreciate them, because, for nearly  100 years, they were the only way to cross. Farewell!
New York's Luxury Liner row in the 60's. Ships shown, The RMS QUEEN ELIZABETH ( just arriving) , from top down, SYLVANIA, MAURITANIA (II) , the USS INTREPID, the OLYMPIA, the UNITED STATES, the AMERICA, and the INDEPENDENCE.


  1. I've never had an interest in ships myself but I read this blog and can appreciate your fascination for them. I myself am not interested in the specifications of ships but rather the history that surrounds them. For instance the Titanic, the Bounty, the Achili Lauro (not sure if I spelled that right). I'd be interested in some of those stories. Maybe it's because the ships themselves become the setting for disastrous events or even adventurous ones and the names of the ships then bring a flood of memory back to you just at their mere mention. I hope you write some more. This particular story reminds me of a great athlete who never gets the multimillion dollar endorsements but could probably win championships by skill alone. Too bad things this great become obsolete or cast to the wayside.

  2. "Just because something's old, doesn't mean you throw it away." --Geordi LaForge (Star Trek:TNG)

    I remember you telling me about the United States being in Philly last year. I know the feeling about watching it be old and rusty. That's how I feel about the few remaining turn of the century buildings in downtown Norfolk, one of which has lost all its window glass and has scaffolding all around it (but the bricks and stone are still very solid, if someone would just buy it and renovate).

    I can't find any references to the United States in Norfolk's press, other than a brief newspaper mention of her that didn't even have a photograph. Apparently when she was tied up in Norfolk, no one cared.

    That's one of the things I hate about Norfolk: as important as Norfolk is in the history of the Navy and shipping, no one in the city really cares. At all. Save for the Wisconsin, we have NO museum ships (and our only Navy museum on land is pathetically small).

    I think one obstacle the United States will also face is the fact that it doesn't have as dramatic a history as the other earlier liners. People would be more inclined to save/care about one of those. Speaking of which, I'm looking forward to your blogs about them.