Crystal Cruises backs out of SS United States restoration

A six-month, $1 million engineering study of the SS United States concluded it is unfeasible to convert the 1950s ocean liner for modern passenger service, leading Crystal Cruises to back out of its option to refurbish the ship.

“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,” said Edie Rodriguez, president and CEO of the Century City, Calif., based high-end cruise company.

The historic 990’x101’ liner is not in immediate danger, as it was in fall 2015 when the non-profit SS United States Conservancy mounted an urgent appeal for funding to maintain the ship in Philadelphia. Crystal Cruises is donating $350,000 cash to the conservancy, and all data and findings from the engineering surveys and analyses.

That work showed the ship’s hull and structure are sound, and could help the conservancy return to its original goal of finding backers to refurbish  the ship into a mixed-use waterfront museum and commercial destination in its old homeport of New York or another coastal city.

“These assessments included: underwater inspections of the hull by divers, examinations of her fuel and salt water ballasting tanks, three-dimensional scans of the entire vessel, preparation of a vessel tow plan, and a series of intensive engineering and technical studies,” said Susan Gibbs, executive director of the conservancy. “Crystal has generously provided many of these materials to the Conservancy, and these will be invaluable to us as we advance redevelopment alternatives.”

Early this year the surprise announcement that Crystal Cruises had negotiated a possible restoration plan with the nonprofit SS United Conservancy set off excitement – and not a little skepticism – in both the cruise industry and maritime history communities.

But an engineering team, led by retired Coast Guard Rear Adm. Tim Sullivan, emerged from their months of work aboard the liner, tied up in Philadelphia for the last 20 years, with a frank assessment.

“Regrettably, the technical feasibility study concluded that while the ship is remarkably intact and structurally sound, modifying the ship for today’s standards for oceangoing service (SOLAS) would require significant changes to the hull that would pose stability challenges,” according to a statement from Crystal Cruises. “Additionally, the installation of a modern, state-of-the-art diesel electric propulsion plant would have necessitated altering of the existing shaft lines and rebuilding about 25 percent of the hull to reconfigure the ship to a twin shaft-twin rudder arrangement.

“While it was known that the vessel would need to have been essentially rebuilt from the inside out, these specific challenges, among others, collectively posed significant risk to the success of the project.”

Early rough estimates for returning the ship to service were around $700 million, including modernization of the passenger decks and cabins and extension of new stateroom balconies that are standard on modern cruise liners. That would have been less than the cost of a newbuild,  if a diesel-electric conversion had been practical.

The ship’s original four propellers were each driven by a Westinghouse turbine, fed from eight Babcock & Wilcox boilers. They gave the SS United States its top speed of 38.32 knots at 241,785 hp during sea trial, and record Atlantic crossing cruise speeds around 35 knots.

A rendering produced by Crystal Cruises imagined the refurbished, sleeker SS United States steaming past New York still with its iconic red, white and black stacks with winglets. Gibbs said the conservancy again hopes to bring the ship back to the city.

“Crystal’s comprehensive assessments of the SS United States determined that the vessel remains in remarkably strong structural condition, as the Conservancy has long contended,” Gibbs said. “That means America’s Flagship still has enormous potential as a stationary mixed-use development and museum in New York or another urban waterfront setting.  We will immediately resume our aggressive outreach to qualified developers and investors to secure the ship’s future.”



About the author

Kirk Moore

Associate Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been a field editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for almost 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.


  1. Avatar

    Hope fully this restoration will continue. Here in Calif . we have the Queen Mary which still draws a lot of people for a variety of events, Weekly Lotto tickets are still bought in hopes of funding to some degree !

    Really sad to see the country’s flagship in such a sad state.
    This would be a good sell for President Trump – put a lot of people to work on this building project.
    ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,Thanks- Mike

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    jonathan charnes on

    Why not restore it with original engines and cabins? There might be a market for those who want to take a cruise in a historic ship.

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      Because sadly, today’s EPA and modern maritime laws would require a complete retrofit of about everything that makes the ship safe and moves it. There are even asbestos issues with the boilers. This ship is actually symbolic of the rot that has taken over the US in so many ways. I rode this ship as a boy down to the Caribbean in the winter of 1964. It was one of the more remarkable events in my life. My parents just felt I was safe and let me explore the ship entirely by myself. I soon became ‘that boy’ as I wandered the decks and even the engine room. I’m sure the splendor of the ship was only heightened by my age, but the crew was fantastic and let me see about anything that I wanted to. The crew was fiercely loyal to the ship and most could tell you her stats on demand. We were assigned a table in one of the dining rooms and had the same waiter every night-John. John would tell us the highlights of every Carribean port before we arrived. Hearing that the ship has been entirely cannibalized over the yrs, including her great props only saddens me further. I saw a video of somebody skateboarding on one of the decks with a helmet cam…nothing at all was recognizable….a ghost ship inside. Make a floating museum/hotel out of her or scrap her….quit letting her die a lingering death.

  3. Avatar

    This ship cannot return to the seas again. The lifeboats are breaking the law ( because they’re too high), the paint is toxic. And just fixing, clean, fitting, and adding engines will cost millions of dollars. If they have about enough money, they can at least turn her into a floating museum or an artificial reef.

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    As far as I am concerned the SS cruise ship is safer and more seaworthy than the new ones out there today there is too many people also I hope someone comes across rebuilds the ship I would really like to take a cruise on part of History like American Pickers says they don’t build stuff like that anymore

  5. Avatar
    Michael Kreger on

    If all the billionaires in our country would donate 50 million dollars apiece to our country’s flagship she could sail again without a doubt.
    Some things should just happen for all citizens to take a shared pride in.
    The ultra rich made their fortunes because of us all; please give some serious thought to giving back…..

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    This is a dead end project. Almost all of the interiors have long since been gutted. There is no SS United States anymore except the external shell. The ship is not economically viable as anything. The Queen Mary was still outfitted with most of her original interiors when she was converted and had not sat rotting for 50 years. Give this ship a dignified death. Raise the money to prep her for sinking as an artificial reef. Instead of the conservancy throwing another $15 million into the Delaware River as it has done the last 20 years, start a campaign that will preserve the ship on an “Eternal Cruise” on the bottom as a haven for sea life. This go nowhere series of starts and stops to preserve a ship that every major venture capitalist has said is the biggest white elephant out there is sealing its fate as a picked apart hulk on the beaches in Alang or Chittagong.

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    Donald Turner on

    Wilmington, Delaware and Newport News, Virginia would be great places to have the SS United States preserved as a hotel and museum ship, as it would create an iconic landmark for either one of those cities.

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    Diane Krakovsky Dudka on

    I would love to see this ship become a museum. I took this ship to London in 1953 with my parents and have some pictures in an album as a great memory.

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