February 17, 2014
The Death Of A Ship
Some ships just seem to have soul, a special character all of their own. Some cruise liners especially have, down the years become firm favorites with those who sailed on them. But, like people, they age and wear – some better than others. Rust is like an old person’s wrinkles, you can paint over it but the cracks are still there, signs, to my mind of changing beauty. Very few ships sink. Most of them end up being sold for scrap and broken up. But some have a more dramatic ending. Writing about the MV Lyubov recently, I remembered the fate of a once proud ship, the SS America, and how, like the Lyubov, she ended up drifting out at sea. SS America’s story came to a very sad ending but her beginnings could not have been more illustrious.
She began life as the ultimate cruise liner, entering service in August 1939 as the flagship of the American shipping company United States Line. Often considered to be the most beautiful ship to sail under an American flag, she had been built with opulence in mind. Her interior had an elegance that came courtesy of a female design team from New York. “Sophisticated charm” was the watchword. But it was SS America’s misfortune to begin operation just before World War Two and in May 1941 she was commandeered by the US military, re-named USS West Point (affectionately known as the Grey Ghost, and began a new and dangerous life carrying troops around the world as part of the war effort. Instead of the original intended 1,200 passengers, she was refitted to carry nearly 8,000 men. The ship made it through the war safely but not without incident, most notably in January 1942 when she narrowly escaped Japanese dive-bombers while berthed in Singapore harbour. During the course of her war service she carried more personnel than any other navy vessel – some 350,000 in total including many civilians, children, UN officials, prisoners of war, and entertainers.
After the war she resumed her role as luxury liner on the lucrative transatlantic runs as well as more exotic itineraries. By 1964, over 20 years old, she had been overtaken in both luxury and speed by modern liners, particularly those in the Cunard fleet. She was sold to the Greek line Chandris and so began her sad decline. They gave her another refit to cram in more passengers and she made many world cruises but also carried thousands of British people on “assisted “passage” to Australia. These were the “Ten Pound Poms” – they only had to find £10 for the journey and Australia, desperate for immigrants, paid the rest of the cost of the journey. I was lucky enough to sail on that ship from Australia to England in 1977. By that time her initial opulence was still visible inside the public areas but outside I watched with alarm as, over the 6-week voyage, the crew constantly painted over obviously serious rust including the machinery for lowering the lifeboats. That didn’t prevent me falling in love with SS Australis as she was then known.
The ship continued its steady decline, moving more and more down market. In June 1978 things came to a head when, under the new owners Venture Cruises and given her old name SS America, passengers mutinied forcing the captain to return to dock as they were disgusted at the dirty linen and beds, general dilapidation, leaks, foul smells and failing plumbing. She had become a floating health hazard. Later the passengers sued for around $2.5 million dollars, US Public Health Officials gave her 6 points out 100, and the ship was impounded for non-payment of debts.
She went through several more incarnations as a ferry, hotel ship, and was even at one time destined to be a prison ship off Beirut though this never materialised. Then in 1993, when she was being towed from Greece to Thailand to become a 5 star hotel ship, her towlines broke and she ran aground on a beach on the island of Fuertaventura in the Canaries and there she remains. Over the years I have watched with sadness as pictures of the ship (which can easily be found online) have progressively shown her slowly falling apart in the waves. She is now only visible at low tide, a poignant reminder of greater days.
Image Credit: US Navy