Classic liners: Some old ships get new lease on life (06/20/2006)

By Johanna Jainchill


New safety rules sink old ships

Ocean liners and cruise ships of the past generate a fond nostalgia that quickly translates into outrage when a beloved vessel is sent to the scrap yard.

Yet a confluence of events in the past few years has led to a increased level of historic ship-breaking that is only likely to accelerate: The deadline to comply with amendments to the fire safety standards outlined in the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (Solas) is less than five years away, prices for scrap metal are at a 20-year high and with an influx of innovative new ships being built, much of the commercial appeal in the old vessels has subsided. 

But however dated or decrepit, they serve as reminders of a golden age when majestic ocean liners crisscrossed the globe, actually transporting people.

The liners were all business, said John Maxtone-Graham, a maritime historian whose book about the Normandie is due out next year. They were designed to make a long voyage as fast and as comfortable as possible. They have workmanlike hulls and are tried-and-true thoroughbreds.

Associations dedicated to saving certain ships generally lack the money and constituency to wield much influence. And from a business standpoint, restorations -- especially those that try to keep the historical integrity of a ship intact -- are a hard sell. At a time of record oil prices, older vessels cannot be weaned from their enormous appetites for fuel.

Still in mothballs

The United States, one of the most famous of the classic ocean liners, is fitted with steam turbines that would have to be replaced with a modern propulsion system to sail today.

Its like taking a Ferrari and dumping a Jetta engine in it, said Robert Westover, chairman of the SS United States Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving the ship.

The stuff of legend, the United States still holds the Blue Riband prize for the fastest westbound transatlantic crossing. She was the most immaculate and impeccable ship of her time, said maritime historian Bill Miller. She was the Blue Riband ship. People wanted to be on her.

Unfortunately, Miller admitted, Big U, as fans call the vessel, has had a rough time. The ship, which even in its heyday never made a profit, has not sailed since 1969.

Preservationists found reason for optimism in April 2003, when Norwegian Cruise Line bought the vessel along with the Independence, another historical liner. But the two U.S.-flagged ships, built in 1951 and 1952, respectively, have not moved far from their anchorage, nor have they undergone any renovations since the purchase.

At the recent Pride of Hawaii inaugural, Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay, chairman of Star Cruises (which owns NCL) said that the company's next project is the restoration of the ... United States.

NCL Corp. CEO Colin Veitch said that while the vessels were bought with the ambition of having ships four and five for the NCL America line, restoration will depend on the condition of the ships.

We've surveyed the hull of the United States, Veitch said. It's a more solid ship [than the Independence] ... We're conducting an engineering study ... The rules have changed a lot, and in the last year more rules have been promulgated.

It looks promising. But I wouldn't look for it tomorrow.

Evolving regulations are only part of the story. The industry has moved on to designs and technologies that tend to defy restoration. On older vessels, the cabins were on the lower decks, with porthole windows. Changes in basic ship architecture have tended to add cabins to the upper decks to accommodate passenger expectations of private balconies.

Shifts in routes and itineraries have altered the ships' profiles. Since they no longer sail the rough North Atlantic, most vessels don't need a reinforced hull.

Squared-off sterns have replaced the graceful curves of yore. 

Moreover, the older ships lack the room for diversions that modern cruisers prize: Multiple restaurants, lounges and pools, surfing machines and miniature golf courses.

Peter Knego, a maritime historian and documentary filmmaker, said that as late as 2000, passenger fleets still included about 50 significant vessels built before 1970.

Today, even the most luxurious trophies of that era have vanished. The Independence's sister ship, the Constitution, sank en route to a scrap yard in 1997. Holland America Line's Statendam, built in 1957, was the Rhapsody and Regent Star before being sold for scrap in 2004. The Stella Solaris was scrapped in 2003.

Worth more as scrap

Most have been sold for scrap because of their fuel consumption, or they don't have balconies and the amenities new ships have, Knego said. Combined with the price of steel and China and India being hungry for any scrap they can get, anything with a pedigree or insignia was sent to China or Bangladesh to be broken up. 

Recently, prices for processed ferrous scrap have been high. The bellwether product, No. 1 heavy melt steel, currently sells at an average composite price of around $238 per gross ton, according to Iron Age magazine. Three years ago, the price was $108. Expanding world economies have produced unprecedented metal demand that is not likely to subside.

With metal prices tracking where they are currently, the scrap value of these ships would be higher than this time last year, said Chuck Carr, vice president of services and marketing for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.

But, he said, One must still take into account labor and environmental issues. Ship-breaking is not a simple or inexpensive task.

Environmental groups have found reasons to protest certain aspects of ship-breaking.

Consider the fate of the 46-year-old ship originally christened the France but now known as Norwegian Cruise Line's Norway, one of the last surviving examples of the classic ocean liners. An explosion in the boiler room killed seven crew members and took the ship out of service in 2003. It is waiting to be scrapped in India.

However, Greenpeace blocked the ship as it was being towed to a scrap yard, then filed a lawsuit alleging that it contained more than 1,200 tons of asbestos and toxic chemicals that would be harmful to workers and the environment. The India Supreme Court will decide the ship's fate in July. 

Knego visits the ship-breaking beaches of India to sort through and purchase treasures of the ships, which he sells on his Web site,

He said about 10 to 15 historically significant ocean liners and cruise ships remain, but that by 2010 almost all of them will have been scrapped or converted to another use, such as a museum or a hotel.

The Queen Mary, one of the classic Cunard ships, is an example: The ship is permanently docked in Long Beach, Calif., where it has been converted to a convention hotel.

My dream would be to see these ships saved, but it's not realistic, Knego said.

The Rotterdam V is another ship that might be around to remind future generations of what the historic ocean liners were like.

She has hope, said Miller. The Rotterdam has the greatest potential right now because she's going back to her home country as a museum. They are very gung-ho to see it happen.

The ship sailed for Holland America Line from 1959 to 1997. The largest passenger ship built by the Dutch, it is being refurbished in Poland and will become a museum and dining, drinking and sleeping vessel with performance and meetings spaces, according to the restoration project's Web site, The ship's original look will be preserved so that visitors can enjoy the ˜60s again.

She's phenomenal, said Knego, a mid-century, modern dream come true.

Yet a few ships refuse to act their age. The Saga Rose, built in 1965 as the Saga-fjord, still sails for Saga Cruises in the U.K., for a 50-plus-only crowd.

The Queen Elizabeth 2 will celebrate its 35th birthday this year, about five years beyond the average vessel's life expectancy. And thanks to some major modifications -- diesel engines replacing its original gas turbines and remodeled interiors -- the QE2 continues to sail the globe for Cunard.

She's been around, and she has lots of friends, said Maxtone-Graham, who has sailed on the QE2 once a year for 30 years. You get to know the ship, the people, the mood and the life onboard. It's very nice that it doesn't change.



Where are they now?