Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Lady’s Looming Death

As someone who’s spent the last half-decade pondering whether ships have a soul, the news of her looming demise caught my attention. She was, for a time, the most magnificent passenger vessel to grace the seas, larger than the Queen Elizabeth 2 and with a refined elegance that has never been recreated. And, for now, she lies anchored in the murky waters of the Bay of Khambhat in northwestern India.

The former SS France riding at anchor off Alang
Photo by Amit Dave, Reuters


I speak of the famed passenger liner SS France, later known as the SS Norway, now re-christened the Blue Lady. Thirty-six years after being launched, it appears the ship’s days are numbered as she idles within sight of the vast shipbreaking yards of Alang, India, though not without stirring some controversy about her impending death.

The liner was originally conceived in the waning years of the era when ocean-going passenger liners plied the Atlantic between Europe and America. In the mid-1950’s, the French government was seeking a new symbol of maritime prestige, something to replace the soon-to-be retired SS Ile de France and SS Liberté and counter the dominance of the British liners RMS Queen Mary and RMS Queen Elizabeth, as well as the SS United States. So it was that exactly fifty years ago today, on July 26, 1956, the new vessel was officially ordered.

The keel for what was known as Hull G19 was laid on September 7, 1957 at the Chantiers de l'Atlantique shipyard in Saint-Nazaire. Less than three years later, the wife of president Charles de Gaulle cracked a bottle of champagne upon the hull after christening her the SS France, and the thousand-foot long vessel slid down the ways to her natural home.

The France was the longest passenger vessel in the world when she departed Le Havre on February 3, 1962 for her maiden voyage to New York. For the next twelve years she plied the trans-Atlantic route and also did winter cruises, carrying movie stars, famous musicians, politicians and even the da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. In 1967 she berthed in Montréal for two weeks, acting as a temporary second French pavilion at Expo 67. With the distinctive wings on her two funnels, she was the last word in sea-going elegance, the finest way one could cross the Atlantic. But the SS France had arrived at the end of an era, at a time when air travel was replacing sea voyages.

First class lounge

First class patio

By 1974, the French government could no longer afford to subsidize the liner and she was withdrawn from service. A French maritime union protested the decision by effectively hijacking the ship and refusing to dock her, but she eventually was berthed in Le Havre and decommissioned.

Five years after being mothballed by the French, the liner was sold to Norwegian Cruise Lines who towed the SS France to Bremerhaven, West Germany, for re-fitting. On April 14, 1980 the liner was re-christened the SS Norway and began a second life as a luxury cruise ship. The Norway helped to revolutionize the cruise industry as other firms ordered new and large vessels to compete with her.

By 2001, though, even the vessel’s cruising days were numbered and when the SS Norway departed Manhattan on September 9, few expect her to return. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks two days later, the SS Norway managed to survive as a cruise ship for a short time more. On May 25, 2003, the Norway had just docked in Miami when there was a boiler explosion near the crew quarters. Seven crewmembers died and seventeen were injured. The Norway’s owners took her out of service, towed her to Bremerhaven and mothballed the ship for a second time.

Bremerhaven, Germany, February 2004

Last year the SS Norway left Europe for the last time, being towed halfway around the world to Malaysia. She sat in Port Klang for some time until being sold to shipbreakers who renamed her the Blue Lady. She was unceremoniously dragged around from port to port, first to Bangladesh, then to the United Arab Emirates until finally reaching Indian waters in June of this year. Environmentalists and labour activists are concerned about the variety of toxic pollutants encased within her, including asbestos used when she was built in France fifty years ago. Some are still hoping she’ll not be beached at Alang and cut apart for scrap, with one idea being to use her as a floating hotel in Dubai.

But, for the time being, the Grand Dame is quiet, her cabins home to a skeleton crew whose only job is to prepare her for death. Whether she will receive a last minute reprieve is doubtful, but perhaps there is still some life in the Lady.

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