Liner United States set record for trans-Atlantic voyage

Sixty years ago this week, the world's attention was riveted on one man's dream as the liner United States, designed by William Francis Gibbs, steamed eastward across the Atlantic on its maiden voyage.

Known as "The Big U," the liner sailed from New York's Ambrose Light to Bishop's Rock, off the English coast, the official Blue Riband course, in three days, 10 hours and 40 minutes, establishing a record that remains unbroken for a trans-Atlantic crossing.

Gibbs, who was known during his lifetime as America's greatest naval designer, was consumed with the design and building of the United States, the fastest, most powerful and luxurious superliner ever built, which became his enduring legacy.

He is the subject of Steven Ujifusa's recently published biography, "A Man and His Ship: America's Greatest Naval Architect and His Quest to Build the SS United States."

Gibbs, a Harvard University and Columbia Law School graduate, was the son of a wealthy Philadelphia entrepreneur. He and his brother, Frederic H. Gibbs, had been fascinated by ships since boyhood. They would spread out drawings of ships they had designed on the floor of their father's Rittenhouse Square mansion, and by 1922 had established the firm of Gibbs Brothers Inc. in New York, which later became Gibbs & Cox.

William Gibbs was profoundly influenced by the loss of the Titanic in 1912 and the burning of the Morro Castle off Asbury Park, N.J., in 1934, with the loss of a 134 passengers and crew.

"For Gibbs, a ship's safety at sea would become a complete and lifelong obsession, one that would trump the quest for size, beauty or luxury," Ujifusa wrote.

The great post-World War I English, German, French and Italian liners also influenced Gibbs' thinking.

He "greatly admired Normandie mainly because she was so revolutionary, blending advanced engineering with glamour, grace, and charisma," Ujifusa wrote.

With the end of World War II, and armed with lessons he gained studying the great pre-war liners, he turned his attention to designing his superliner, which became the United States. An impressive concept arose: a vessel 990 feet long with 12 decks. It could accommodate 1,928 passengers and 990 crew.

Because of the ship's innovative design and power plant, Ujifusa wrote, reporters and photographers were kept away from the shipyard because "she was a military secret."

It took two years for the ship, known as "The Big U," to be completed at Virginia's Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Co., entering the North Atlantic trade in 1952.

No combustible materials were used in the ship's construction; the only wood to be found on the vessel was the chopping block in its galley and pianos in its public rooms.

Its four Westinghouse turbines were capable of generating 241,000 shaft horsepower and could drive the ship at more than 40 miles per hour.

When the United States claimed the Blue Riband, the ship's average speed was 35.39 knots, or 41 mph in land speed, and was accomplished under less than full power.

A curmudgeon, Gibbs told The New York Times, "I am not a pleasant personality. Under this dour exterior beats a heart of stone."

He made it his business to always meet his creation upon arrival in New York and quiz its captain and officers as to its performance.

He died in 1967. Two years later, after completing its 400th voyage, the ship was laid up in Newport News.

Since 1996, the rusting vessel, with its distinctive hull line and winged red, white and blue funnels, has been tied up at Philadelphia's Pier 82 on Delaware Avenue, a place of veneration for those who mourn the loss of the great liners of old.

The SS United States Conservancy fought to raise money to save the ship and was finally able to buy it from Norwegian Cruise Line for $5.8 million. The conservancy wants to restore it and either keep it in Philadelphia or move it to New York.

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