Dockside Classic: SS United States – Will The World’s Fastest Ocean Liner Be Saved?

SS United States bw

On its maiden voyage on July 3, 1952, the 990′ long and sleek United States broke the transatlantic speed record long held by the Queen Mary, taking just 3 days, 10 hours, 40 minutes from NYC to Cornwall, UK. That’s an average speed of 35.59 knots (65.91 km/h; 40.96 mph). The return trip took just over an hour longer. That is seriously fast, and it’s a record that has never been broken since for a conventionally-hulled transport ship.

The SS United States was largely financed by the US Navy, so that it could be converted to a rapid war-time troop transport. Its steam turbines generated 240,000 hp, driving four 18′ bronze-manganese propellers. Its superstructure was largely built out of aluminum to save weight, the result being the best power-to-weight ratio of any commercial passenger liner ever. Today, its future is cloudy.

SS United States 2009

The United States went out of revenue service in 1969. It went through a number of owners, and now sits tied up at this pier in Philadelphia, gutted of her interior. In 2003, she was bought by Norwegian Cruise Lines, with the intention of refitting her and putting her into operation as a cruise ship. The plans eventually fell apart, and the United States is currently owned by a preservation organization, which hopes to find a use for her as a static development project in New York.


SS United States rqMP

The steel she was built from is of such high quality, that it still retains 90% of its strength. And the whole aluminum superstructure would be highly valuable as scrap. According to this NYT article, the efforts to secure investors for the project continues, but in the meantime it costs $60,000 per month to berth the sleek ship.


As a kid, I was well aware of the United States‘ records and reputation. When we were to move to the US in 1960, initially it was presumed that we would take a liner, and I held great hope it would be this one. But flying turned out to be more practical, and fares were dropping, thanks to the new jets (we took a DC-8). Hopes were lifted a few years back when it looked like the United States would return to the seas, but even a static use beats the scrapyard. Yes, giant ships were once sleek, fast and sexy. Now…not so much so.