The SS United States has just been tossed a life preserver.
In its 1950s heyday, the historic ship — the world’s fastest luxury liner — dashed across the Atlantic carrying royalty and immigrants alike to American shores. But for nearly a half-century now the “Big U,” as the ship is known, has been docked, collecting barnacles and rust after jet travel lured away all the customers.
Now, there is a chance the SS United States may sail again, after Crystal Cruises, a luxury travel company, signed a purchase option for the ship. Just months earlier, preservationists almost had to scrap the Titanic-size vessel as their funds dwindled.
For Crystal it would be the latest addition to an ambitious and sometimes unconventional collection of luxury travel offerings — including excursions by personal submarine, and plans for a “cruising in the sky” luxury jumbo jet. It could also be among the most difficult.
A makeover of the ship could cost from $700 million to $800 million, according to Crystal CEO Edie Rodriguez, potentially a little less than building something similar from scratch. Under terms of the agreement, the company will cover the approximately $60,000-a-month cost of caring for the ship for nine months while it does a feasibility study.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Rodriguez said of the project. But while one could argue against it “from an opportunity cost perspective,” she noted, “some things are iconic.”
Crystal will need to figure out how to renovate a ship built in a bygone era. A technological marvel of its age, the ship entered service in 1952 and sailed with three orchestras on board. It was also specially designed to be a fast troop carrier if needed.
The 2,000-passenger “Big U” 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.
More recently, the vessel has struggled to find a purpose. With a gift from a Philadelphia philanthropist, a conservancy bought the ship a few years ago from the cruise operator NCL, which was close to scrapping it. But fundraising has been a struggle, and late last year the preservationists themselves had to think seriously about scrapping their prize.
“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 of the SS United States Conservancy, the group that owns the vessel.
But Crystal, which is expanding its lineup of vessels, saw potential, Rodriguez said. She and the company’s chairman, Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay, decided that it would be a “crime” if the ship were melted down. Crystal is owned by Genting Hong Kong, which holds a stake in NCL, the ship’s former owner. Lim is also Genting’s chief executive, which makes this his second experience with the SS United States.
Crystal said it planned to turn the ship into an 800-passenger luxury liner that will travel the world and perhaps even resume occasional service between New York and Europe, the classic route it served along with ships like the RMS Queen Mary, the SS France and other great liners of the mid-20th century.
The Queen Mary is now a stationary hotel in Long Beach, Calif. The France was renamed the SS Norway, then was scrapped.
A concept rendering of the SS United States makeover shows a ship with its signature twin red, white and blue stacks and the same number of decks, a spokesman said, in contrast with the top-heavy silhouette of some modern cruise liners. The decks, however, are extended and expanded to accommodate rooms with balconies, something the original design never had.
Crystal’s interest in refitting the ship, while quixotic, is not entirely without business logic.
Still, there are big challenges. It is a steam engine ship — that’s the “SS” in the name — and the geriatric equipment would have to be swapped out. The last time the ship moved under its own power was more than 40 years ago. Furthermore, some engineering areas contain toxic PCBs. It is a common problem for ships of the period, but one that means the Environmental Protection Agency will take an interest.