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Study: Converting SS United States to cruise ship unfeasible

The ocean liner SS United States, currently docked

The ocean liner SS United States, currently docked in Philadelphia, sits in rusty glory on Jan 21, 2014. Photo Credit: Chris Ware

A plan to save the famed ocean liner SS United States from the scrapyard by converting her into a modern cruise ship has foundered.

Crystal Cruises, which had announced its intention to buy and retrofit the 64-year-old vessel, said Friday that after a six-month technical study, the ship is structurally sound but rehabilitation to sailing condition was technically and economically unfeasible.

That means the SS United States Conservancy, which owns the 990-foot ship that has been docked in Philadelphia for two decades, will resume trying to find a location to redevelop the vessel as a museum, hotel and events space. New York has been the preferred location for that.

While not exercising its option to buy the ship, Crystal will make a $350,000 donation to help the conservancy keep the ship afloat.

In February, Crystal and the conservancy announced the unprecedented plan to convert the iconic 1950s vessel into a luxury cruise ship that meets modern safety standards. The cruise line then commenced a $1 million feasibility study headed by retired U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Tim Sullivan.

“Unfortunately, the hurdles that would face us when trying to bring a 65-year-old vessel up to modern safety, design and international regulatory compliance have proven just too great to clear in both a technically and commercially responsible manner,” Crystal president and CEO Edie Rodriguez said in a joint statement with the conservancy.

Conservancy executive director Susan Gibbs added that “the studies performed have confirmed the ship is structurally sound. America’s Flagship continues to hold enormous potential as a stationary mixed-use development and museum in New York or another urban waterfront setting.”

The feasibility study concluded that modifying the ship to meet current standards for oceangoing service would require significant changes to the hull that would pose problems for its stability. It also found that installing a state-of-the-art diesel electric propulsion plant would require the expensive alteration of the existing arrangement of four propeller shafts and one rudder to two shafts and two rudders while rebuilding about 25 percent of the hull.

During the technical study, the company paid the $60,000-a-month carrying charges to keep the ship docked in Philadelphia.

Rodriguez said the company is donating the $350,000 because “we firmly believe the SS United States is an American treasure and deserves to be preserved and redeveloped as a stationary destination for future generations to experience and enjoy.”

Gibbs, granddaughter of the ship’s designer, William Francis Gibbs, a part-time Locust Valley resident, said: “Thanks to this contribution — and to our members — the SS United States is not in immediate danger.”

The conservancy, which acquired the ship five years ago, will immediately restart its search for qualified developers and investors interested in making the ship a stationary exhibit like the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California.

When Crystal and the conservancy announced the plan, Rodriguez said rebuilding the vessel with its entirely gutted interior would cost in excess of $700 million, potentially somewhat cheaper than building a similar ship from the keel up. But many cruise line experts said they thought it was a long shot and it would be much cheaper to build a new ship.

The United States’ maiden voyage in 1952 set the still-current record for the fastest trans-Atlantic passenger ship crossing. Its role superseded by passenger jets, it was taken out of service in 1969.

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