Posted on Thursday, February 28, 2013 by Shawn Dake
S.S. UNITED STATES
The Turkish Years 1992-1996: What Might Have Been
By Shawn J. Dake
A little known chapter in the history of America’s flagship the s.s. UNITED STATES is contained within those lost years the ship spent in Turkey and the Ukraine between her final two crossings of the Atlantic ocean. A small notation found in an in-house publication from EffJohn International in 1993, got me wondering about how close the UNITED STATES may have come to seeing a return to service. It may have been closer to reality than any of us envisioned and had it come to pass the results might have been glorious, with some of the biggest names in shipping involved. While far from being a definitive report about the s.s. UNITED STATES journey to Turkey, this story may help shed a little light on events that may not be common knowledge.
Among various groups of aficionados and collectors be they coin, stamp, train buffs or the hundreds of other hobbies people have, ship enthusiasts seem to be the most prone to dreaming up scenarios and asking “what if?” This is especially true when one of their favorite ships is retired, perhaps prematurely, and might still have a few good years left in some other role or with some other line. So, what if the s.s. UNITED STATES had been returned to service on the North Atlantic, as a running mate for the QUEEN ELIZABETH 2, through a partnership with Cunard Line themselves? That plan was in fact scheduled to be completed in 1996 and was a reality at the time it was being proposed back in April of 1993. The UNITED STATES would be owned by Marmara Marine, Inc. and flying the Turkish flag but marketed as a five-star liner by Cunard Line. EffJohn International signed a technical support agreement to supervise the restoration of the UNITED STATES into a cruise ship with all-new, thoroughly modern interiors, which they planned to accomplish in Turkey. An American travel entrepreneur named Fred Mayer, along with his Turkish partners in Marmara Marine had bought the ship in February, 1992 for the sum of $2.6 million US dollars.
The connection with Cunard Line was a solid one based on EffJohn’s recent partnership agreement with them. EffJohn International, B.V. was primarily known in Europe as an operator of large ferries, notably Silja Line between Sweden and Finland. In North America, they operated the ships of Commodore Cruise Line, turning the former Greek Line trans-Atlantic liner OLYMPIA into the successful Caribbean cruise ship CARIBE 1, and later adding the ENCHANTED ISLE and ENCHANTED SEAS among others to their growing portfolio. The Commodore fleet was made up of aging second-hand liners and converted ferries and by the dawn of the 1990’s EffJohn knew they had to build new ships to remain competitive. A new division of Commodore was established that would see the construction of three new ships for the EffJohn subsidiary, Crown Cruise Line; the CROWN MONARCH in 1990, CROWN JEWEL in 1992 and CROWN DYNASTY in 1993. By the time the last new ship arrived, the Commodore brand was being wound down. The CARIBE 1 was sold to Regal Cruises to become their REGAL EMPRESS. The ENCHANTED ISLE went to St. Petersburg temporarily as the COMMODORE HOTEL leaving the ENCHANTED SEAS to operate lower-priced cruises from New Orleans. The Crown Cruise Line fleet had three brand new ships but limited world-wide marketing ability. They needed something to raise their profile. At the same time Cunard Line had a diverse fleet of rather mismatched ships led by their famous flagship QUEEN ELIZABETH 2. Cunard wanted new ships and rather than going through the time and expense of constructing brand new tonnage sought out an existing partner with whom they could do business. Crown Cruise Line had what they were looking for. As an executive with EffJohn pointed out, “We had the ships, they had the sales force.” For Cunard Line they became the instant operator of a ten ship fleet with 7,000 berths, making them the number five cruise line in the world. The newly formed division was called Cunard Crown. Cunard donated their two existing 17,500 ton sister ships CUNARD COUNTESS and CUNARD PRINCESS linking them to the three new Crown vessels. That is the background to the relationship between Cunard and EffJohn. In 1993 EffJohn announced “There are plans to market the S/S UNITED STATES through EffJohn’s partner, Cunard, using her as a running mate to the QUEEN ELIZABETH 2 on the prestigious five star Atlantic route.”
The UNITED STATES had been completed in 1952 as the largest and fastest passenger ship ever built for her namesake country. With a length of 990 feet and a gross tonnage of 53,329 tons her powerful steam turbines could drive quadruple screws to a regular cruising speed of 33 knots and well beyond when pushed. Much of the superlatives relating to the ship were classified as top secret during her brief 17 year career. While speculation still swirls around her top speed it has been reported that she could maintain 39.38 knots and her engines produced a total output of 242,000 horsepower. It would take entire books (and has) to describe her complete career and subsequent post-sailing years. The scope of this story represents a very specific time frame when noise and hope returned to the hull and halls of the retired liner.
When the UNITED STATES was laid up in November of 1969 it was hermetically sealed and dehumidified by the United States Navy to ensure a minimum of degradation while laid up at Norfolk, Virginia. Through the long idle years it remained in remarkably good condition. Plans to revive the ship began in 1980 with the formation of United States Cruises, by developer Richard Hadley of Seattle, who had recently constructed some of the nicest hotels in Hawaii and intended to restore the ship to active cruise service under the U.S. flag. The liner could do the crossing from the West Coast to Hawaii in four days using only half of her power plant. Initial plans called for the ship to carry only 1,000 passengers and 500 crew. The intended cruise service was later modified to using the ship as a floating condominium, on a time-share basis. The idea reached a fairly advanced stage with brochures advertising the new venture being printed and distributed. This author briefly acted as a consultant regarding the best type of tenders to use to take passengers into ports without piers large enough to accommodate the UNITED STATES. When financing collapsed, the ship’s interiors, furniture and fittings were auctioned off in 1984 to pay creditors. No longer owned by the Maritime Administration and with little progress moving forward, the ship slipped into a less than pristine state.
Neglected and sinking deeper into debt, the ship was seized by U.S. Marshals in October of 1991, and a court motion was filed to sell the ship at auction. United States Cruises was forced to file for bankruptcy protection which delayed the proceedings which had been scheduled for February, 1992. The bidding began at noon on April 27, 1992 at a Newport News, Virginia courthouse where in a surprise move Fred Mayer, acting as agent for the buyers, a New York-based company calling themselves Marmara Marine Inc., won the ship with a bid of $2.6 million. Had he not stepped in at that time it may have represented the end of the line for the UNITED STATES as among the six bidders, three were from scrap yards. As the bids passed $1.5 million the only other serious bidder remaining was Nissho Iwai, representing another New York company that wanted the huge ship for scrap value. Under the terms of the auction, Marmara Marine was required to put up a cash, or cash equivalent deposit of 20 percent of the $2.6 million purchase price, or about $520,000 with the balance paid within seven days or the deposit would be forfeited. The winning group also had to prove that they had contracted to move the ship to another pier. The Finnish bank, Skopbank, held the mortgage on the ship totaling over $6 million. Their representative was delighted that they did not have to place a bid to protect the bank’s interest. They welcomed the chance to get back even a third of their investment. Their lawyer Wayverly L. Berkley III said on their behalf, “We liked the sound of $2.6 million in hard greenbacks.” Even as a lawyer for bankers, this one apparently had a heart of gold. “We hated to be the culprit that had it sold for scrap. I think everyone would like to see the old lady go to sea again.” There was some controversy about the ship being transferred to a foreign flag. But from the late 1970’s through the 1980’s virtually all of the secret information regarding the UNITED STATES had been declassified opening the doors to a foreign sale, which still had to be approved by MARAD. On the day of the auction however, the stars and stripes still flew from the mainmast. Just below, a long blue pennant representing the Blue Riband proudly flew over the long derelict ship.
The initial excitement over the successful purchase was apparent in the things that Fred Mayer said in a variety of interviews. In one, when asked what it felt like to own a piece of history, he replied “I can’t sleep at night.” As CEO of Marmara Marine, for tax purposes a Delaware Corporation specially formed to purchase and refurbish the ship, he stated that the group planned to tow the ship to Istanbul, and place it in the nearby shipyard at Tuzla Golu, spending between $150 and $170 million on its rehabilitation. That would still be substantially less than the $300 million it would cost to build a brand new ship at that time. “How can you go wrong if you convert it for half the price,” he said. “We’re going to fix it” adding that his group intended to restore the ship to its past glory. “The s.s. UNITED STATES has another 30 years… The vessel itself is a magnificent piece of engineering. It would be a shame to see it go to waste… The lines of this ship are so classical it will never be out of style. They will never build a ship like this again.”
Fred Mayer had emigrated to the United States aboard the s.s. UNITED STATES. He was a travel agent and tour operator and also held a seat on the board of Regency Cruises. The Marmara Marine consortium was owned by he and his partners, Edward Cantor a wealthy entrepreneur and developer from New Jersey, with additional funds coming from the main stockholders of Marmara, the Turkish shipping family led by shipyard owner Kahraman Sadikoglu and his wife Julide. Mr. Sadikoglu was popularly known in Turkey for having restored the 1931-built luxury yacht SAVARONA once owned by the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. As an aside Kahraman would later be kidnapped during the Iraq war and freed after his wife paid a large ransom. Having rebuilt and re-engined the SAVARONA in 1989, he held a charter on the 4,701 gross ton vessel, formerly the world’s largest yacht, for 49 years, however following a prostitution scandal in September, 2010 the Turkish government reclaimed the ship. It is now classed as a State Yacht and unavailable to private passengers. But beginning in 1992, the UNITED STATES would be his next big project.
On June 4, 1992, the once proud flagship of United States Lines left Newport News at the end of a tow line, headed into the Atlantic once again. In preparation, her portholes had been sealed, water ballast added, watertight doors manually closed and on her stern her homeport of New York replaced Seattle which had appeared during the United States Cruises years under Richard Hadley. After 36 days at sea, the ship arrived off Istanbul, Turkey on July 9th where workers were set to restore the ship. Without power, even something as simple as dropping the anchor was a major chore. With no suitable pier available the big ship remained for months chained to her anchor approximately two miles from shore near the Bay of Tuzla.
Due to its extreme fireproofing properties, large quantities of asbestos were incorporated extensively throughout the s.s. UNITED STATES. In fact, it was estimated that there was more asbestos on board the UNITED STATES than on any other merchant ship in the world. Environmental activists, including the Greenpeace organization quickly got wind of the plans to rid the ship of toxic waste in Turkey. The involvement of Greenpeace coincided with a meeting held in Italy of technical experts from all of the Mediterranean nations to discuss a draft protocol which could result in the banning of hazardous waste transfers from developed countries to developing countries in the region. On April 23, 1993 the crew of the Greenpeace 38-foot sailing ketch VEGA boarded the UNITED STATES to protest plans to strip her of over 15,000 square meters of asbestos. Five climbers hung a 120 meter banner on her port side which read, “Toxic Waste Return To Sender” in both English and Turkish. The protests were enough to stop progress on the limited work that had been done in Turkey and cause the owner’s to look elsewhere for a yard where the hazardous work could be performed relatively cheaply.
The s.s. UNITED STATES was towed away from Istanbul, Turkey on October 22, 1993. On the morning of November 1st an unusual ship appeared on the horizon approaching the anchorage to Sevastopol, Ukraine. Escorted by the tug PODVODNIK MARINESKO (ex CC-21) and the small antisubmarine vessel MPK-116 the mighty UNITED STATES, once a symbol of America’s Cold War might, found herself in the midst of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and the headquarters of the Ukrainian Naval Forces. While it was no surprise to see the ship arrive in Sevastopol the liner was prohibited from docking due to ongoing protests from Greenpeace and the concerns of city officials. It remained at anchor for a week before being inspected by local authorities and allowed to tie up to shore. The Greenpeace flagship RAINBOW WARRIOR arrived on November 10, 1993 to protest that toxic waste was being brought into the country. The Marinite wall paneling used aboard the UNITED STATES was an excellent alternative to wood veneers for fire safety, but when disturbed during removal would release microscopic airborne particles of carcinogenic asbestos which when breathed in causes long-term decay of the respiratory system and frequently results in a form of cancer known as mesothelioma. What was once designed for safety would ironically prove to be very unsafe for anyone inhaling it.
Fred Mayer remained very involved with the project. Commenting on the actions of Greenpeace and plans for the ship’s stay in the Ukraine he was quoted as saying “It affected us terribly. They stirred up a whole big mess in Turkey.” He stated that he expected the asbestos removal in Sevastopol to take less than four months to complete. “We’re not going to touch anything in the engine room [at the Sevastopol yard]. We’re going to drydock it, we’re going to check the propellers, we’re going to sandblast, we’re going to come out of the shipyard with a ship that has dignity.” Kahraman Sadikoglu, the Turkish partner in Marmara Marine, made a surprise appearance at a Greenpeace press conference where he told those assembled that he had been attracted to Sevastopol for the cheap labor and good facilities. He stated that he had already spent $15 million on the ship and would not cancel the refit despite all the protests. The Ordzhonikidze Shipyard had agreed to begin refitting the liner for $10 million. The first phase of the project was the asbestos removal which was estimated to cost $1 million. Greenpeace estimated that this phase alone would have cost $125 million in the United States. They dubbed the ship “a floating grave” while other activists used the endearing terms of “death ship” and “floating coffin.” The shipyard administrators refuted Greenpeace’s protests stating that their facilities were adequate for handling the dangerous asbestos. By November 12th work was already underway assembling a team of 200 men to work on the project. The ship’s interiors were gutted down to their metal bulkheads to remove the material. Hundreds of tons of the UNITED STATES’ once glamorous interiors were offloaded onto the docks and scrapped. The asbestos removal continued into 1994.
Had all continued according to plan the full refurbishment of the UNITED STATES was expected to take two and a half years. Not all of it would necessarily be done in the Ukraine. Fred Mayer admitted that Marmara Marine had not secured the entire $120 million in financing that he estimated would be needed to complete the full refurbishment properly. As with nearly every huge project involving restoring a passenger ship he made a vast understatement conceding “it is not easy, but a lot of people are interested” in the project. Unfortunately, Cunard Line was rapidly losing interest in managing another steamship like the UNITED STATES. Trafalgar House, the parent company of Cunard was openly trying to sell the company. In 1994, the QUEEN ELIZABETH 2 embarrassed herself with a series of highly publicized defects resulting from a too quick return to service following a massive, but incomplete renovation. Cunard and their fleet of disparate ships was in real trouble and suffered a $25 million loss in 1995. The Cunard Crown partnership was falling apart with all five ships being chartered or sold, each to a different company. In 1996, the Norwegian conglomerate of Kvaener acquired Trafalgar House but had no intention of keeping Cunard in it’s portfolio and attempted to sell it. For quite some time, no buyers came forward as the fortunes of the once prestigious company slipped further. Eventually on April 4, 1998 the announcement came that Carnival Corporation had purchased Cunard Line for a mere $500 million U.S. dollars. One of Carnival’s first priorities for Cunard was to design and build a brand new Atlantic liner. This would eventually result in the QUEEN MARY 2, a ship nearly three times the size of the UNITED STATES in terms of gross tonnage . Despite their own beginnings in the cruise industry, Carnival Corporation does not like to run old ships. Although interest had already waned after years of delays, setbacks and internal problems any thoughts of still turning the UNITED STATES into a running mate for the venerable QUEEN ELIZABETH 2 had completely evaporated.
It is not entirely clear what was, or was not happening back in Sevastopol in late 1994 and throughout 1995. The relationships between nearly all parties were badly deteriorating. The Turkish arm of Marmara Marine, Inc. defaulted. Shipyard authorities seized the ship for non-payment of services related to the hazardous materials removal. Possibly in an effort to recoup some of the money the Boat Deck was purged of the lifeboats and their davits. The aluminum from the boats no doubt brought in a great deal of cash for their scrap value but another integral part of the UNITED STATES had been lost. Most of the plumbing and piping was also removed. Hearing of this wanton destruction of course alarmed the two American partners who had the most to lose by this piecemeal scrapping of the ship. Edward Cantor stepped in and brokered a deal to resolve the ship’s outstanding debt.
In July of 1996, Mayer and Cantor arranged to have the ship towed back to its home waters in the U.S.A. Towed by the Dutch ocean-going tug SMIT NEW YORK with a crew of 15 aboard, the ship made its last westbound Atlantic crossing at a speed of four knots. On July 24, 1996 the ship returned to American shores and docked at the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal in Philadelphia. In December she would move to Pier 96 at Ogden Avenue. A final move would take place in the fall of 1997 when she relocated to Pier 82 in Philadelphia where she has remained ever since. With the trans-Atlantic journey to Turkey and the Ukraine behind her, the seagoing days of the greatest ship ever produced in America were over. Another period of lengthy lay up was ahead.
Although the story of this phase UNITED STATES history should be complete, events that were still coming in the future have largely been shaped by those that took place on this last trip away from American shores. Money may not necessarily be the root of all evil, but most of life’s problems do seem to stem from it. Various debts and liens piled up against the ship, some going back as far as the 1992 purchase. United States Marshals once again seized the ship and it was again put up for auction. Edward Cantor once again stepped up and purchased the ship for $6 million in November of 1997. Troubles and controversy continued to plague the idle vessel. During 1998, the ship appeared to be running afoul of U.S. Customs over the issue of the work performed overseas. Their document summarized what had happened with two important questions left to be resolved: “The S.S. UNITED STATES is a U.S.-flag vessel owned by Mamara Marine, Inc. Subsequent to the completion of work at Sevastopol Marine Plant, Sevastopol, Ukraine, the vessel arrived from the Ukraine via Tuzla, Turkey, unmanned and under tow, at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 23, 1996 [sic]. A vessel repair entry was timely filed. Issues: 1. Whether the foreign cost of asbestos removal from the subject vessel is dutiable” and “2. Whether the foreign cost of ‘towing-related work’ for the subject vessel is dutiable under 19 U.S.C. ? 1466.” On both issues the work was found to be “not dutiable.”
Many individuals without a financial interest, but a with a love for the historic ship began to form groups including the SS United States Foundation and the SS United States Conservancy (then known as the SS United States Preservation Society, Inc.). Largely through their efforts the UNITED STATES was added to the National Register of Historic Places on June 14, 1999. This was highly unusual for a landmark that was less than 50 years of age and reflected her “compelling National significance.” Federal recognition does little to enhance preservation and does nothing to help the financial state of affairs. With the once grand scheme to return the ship to trans-Atlantic passenger service a distant memory, the owner’s were casting about for almost any possible use. Proposed possibilities included use as a floating hospital; a hotel in New York harbor; conversion to a static floating casino gambling ship and family entertainment center; use as a rebuilt cruise ship; or being converted to a luxury gambling ship that sails the seas on junkets. By most estimates at the time it would take $300 – $400 million to restore her. Mr. Mayer and Mr. Cantor had already spent $40 – $50 million to have her towed to and from Europe including the costs they absorbed toward having her interior gutted. William Fugazy of Fugazy International served as an advisor to the Mayer-Cantor combine. This was the same agency that handled the travel arrangements for the final voyage of the QUEEN MARY from Southampton to Long Beach, California back in 1967. Mr. Fugazy stated that “It is our hope to restore the UNITED STATES to the grandeur that it once had, and to convert her into a floating casino gambling ship and family entertainment center.” He added “She’s a beautiful ship and we as Americans should be very proud of her.”
On February 19, 2002, Edward Cantor passed away and title to the ship was passed on to his son Michael. The value of his estate was worth $90 million. There were rumors the UNITED STATES would be sold quickly, possibly to a foreign scrapping firm because Michael Cantor did not share the same enthusiasm for the ship as his father. The latter portion of that statement may have been true but in any event Michael expressed no desire to send this part of his father’s legacy to the breakers. If it weren’t for the Cantors, the SS UNITED STATES would very likely have been scrapped in the mid-1990s. Edward Cantor repeatedly rescued the ship, time and again, and up to the end of his life was rumored to be paying $1,000 per day to dock the ship at the pier in Philadelphia over a period of six years. His death left the future of the ship in uncertain straits.
The ship was sold, but to a most unlikely bidder. In April, 2003, Norwegian Cruise Line bought the UNITED STATES from the estate of Edward Cantor. Their stated intent was to fully restore the ship to a in-service role in their new American-flagged NCL America division for service in Hawaii. One of the only other available U.S.-built hulls was that of the s.s. INDEPENDENCE, idle on the West Coast, which was purchased for the same purpose. While planning to build their own fleet flying the American flag, this effectively tied up the only ships that a competitor might be tempted to bring into the domestic USA market, specifically in Hawaii. NCL America was successful in getting an exemption to re-flag the foreign-built NORWEGIAN SKY renaming it PRIDE OF ALOHA. They followed this up with the partially U.S. built PRIDE OF AMERICA and the completely German-built PRIDE OF HAWAII which at 93,558 gross tons was the largest passenger ship to ever fly the U.S. flag. All of these exemptions were courtesy of Senator Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii. To partially reward him for his efforts he was granted the privilege of christening the last big American ship on May 20, 2006 along with six female NCL employees. This event and the subsequent press conference held in a room adjoining the s.s. United States Library onboard the PRIDE OF HAWAII that day, created yet another “what if?” moment and a last chance dream for the fate of the UNITED STATES. Star Cruises chairman Tam Sri Lim Kok Thay stated unequivocally that the UNITED STATES would be the next project for NCL America. It would be their fourth ship. NCL president Colin Veitch was slightly more measured in his statement indicating that plans were going forward to study returning the former flagship of United States Lines to U.S. flag cruising. He said that the UNITED STATES had been very well laid up and cared for during her long years of idleness and that the ship was a good candidate for refurbishment. He added that “the INDEPENDENCE has deteriorated badly during her [four and a half] years of being laid up and it does not look like she will ever see a return to commercial service.” It sounded like good news for one ship and bad news for another. With the benefit of hindsight we now know that the three-ship NCL America fleet was a financial disaster. The operation got off to a terrible start and got worse to the point that there would never be the need of a fourth ship let alone all of the three they had. Two of the “American“ ships were quickly reflagged and put back into the regular Norwegian Cruise Lines fleet leaving only the 921 foot long, 80,439 gross ton PRIDE OF AMERICA to sail alone in Hawaii. It would be the last time there was any serious discussion of returning the s.s. UNITED STATES to ocean-going service.
Star Cruises and NCL began to search for a buyer for the ship in 2009. It was reportedly costing them $800,000 a year to keep a ship around they would never use. Not wishing to repeat the harsh publicity they had received for their handling of the demise of the INDEPENDENCE, the companies rejected a $5.9 million dollar bid from scrappers, and agreed to sell the ship to the SS United States Conservancy for $3 million. Largely due to the immense generosity of Philadelphia-based philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, the Conservancy was able to take possession of the ship on February 1, 2011. Through his donation and those of countless others, the group not only was able to buy the ship but also buy some time to find a developer and hopefully a permanent home for the ship.
The journey to Turkey and the Ukraine and the final two Atlantic crossings are but one chapter in the ongoing saga of the s.s. UNITED STATES. A story that has been revealing itself for more than 60 years. There have been many angels that have come forward over the years to prolong the life of this remarkable ship and others that have added their share of drama to the mix. Although this story is over, the story of the UNITED STATES is not finished yet. The ship remains at her Philadelphia pier; for now, as dependable a fixture as the tides in the Delaware River as they rise and fall beneath her keel.
Thanks to Martin Cox, Andy Kilk, Peter Knego, Robert Lenzer, Mark Perry and Greg Shutters.
Copyright 2013 by Shawn J. Dake.
SS United States Conservancy http://www.ssusc.org/
For your chance to be part of the story and make a difference, donate to Save The United States.org https://www.savetheunitedstates.org/