Vintage Travel: How America's Greatest Ocean Liner Became This Wreck

Over the weekend an engine room fire aboard the Carnival Triumph shut down the massive cruise ship's motors, leaving it adrift in the Gulf of Mexico. The incident was neither particularly singular nor particularly dangerous, but it illustrates the fact that no matter how luxurious boat travel becomes, it still has its attendant risks. The fire also served as a reminder that cruise ships, which can seem like invisible behemoths, have stories of their own.

The most elaborate story of a ship loose at sea is the story of the S.S. America, which is the sprawling stuff of a Doctorow novel or a Ken Burns' documentary.

When the America was launched by Newport News Shipbuilding on August 31, 1939, it was christened by Eleanor Roosevelt and seemed likely to become a symbol of burgeoning U.S. industry and sophistication. The flagship of United States Lines, the pre-eminent cruise company in the world at the time, the boat was equipped to carry more than 1,200 passengers and 600 crew. The insides of the boat glinted with steel fixtures.

Unfortunately, August 31, 1939 was both a launch date and the eve of chaos. That evening a group of Nazi operatives in Polish uniforms took control of the Gleiwitz station in Germany in order to broadcast the anti-German propaganda Hitler used as a pretext for the next day’s invasion. As Europe fell into war, transatlantic cruising was no longer a practicable leisure activity. The S.S. America briefly ferried tony types between U.S. ports before being conscripted into the Navy in the first of what would be many transformations.

The S.S. America became the U.S.S. West Point, a prominent troop carrier rather less luxurious than a cruiser: A proliferation of bunks now allowed the boat to squeeze aboard some 7,000 servicemen. The ship ferried a load of German and Italian citizens back to Europe and picked up a group of Americans and Chinese before undertaking its first voyage as a trip transport.

As the war ground forward, the ship became increasingly involved in the Pacific Theater and made numerous trips around the Indian Ocean. By the end of the war, an estimated 350,000 troops had sailed aboard the cruise liner.

Rechristened America, the boat became the cruise ship it was always intended to be and began making regular trips between New York and Ireland. It remained the largest cruise ship in the merchant marine until the United States was launched in 1952.

Like other cruise ships, the America gradually faded at sea. Though it remained renowned for its beauty, its design ceased to be cutting edge and its name stopped being synonymous with luxury. Modern ships like Queen Elizabeth II began fundamentally changing transatlantic cruising.

So the America morphed again, becoming the Australis. As the Australis, the ship became something a maritime mercenary, making round-the-world-cruises for years before briefly becoming a floating hotel off Liberia and then being purchased by the Intercommerce Corporation, which intended for the ship to be a floating prison off of Beirut, rather a departure from its initial purpose.

Though the ship was eventually sold to a group planning on making it a floating near the resort of Phuket, Thailand, it never made it back to the East after a refitting trip. The tugboats towing it across the Atlantic were caught in a thunderstorm in 1993. Lines broke and the ship, now dubbed the American Star was –- in the style of the Carnival Triumph -– adrift.

The boat would eventually come to rest at Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands, where it gradually keeled over into the shallow water as her body fell to pieces. Today local tourism officials tempt tourists with day trips to Garcey Beach, where the America’s bow still lies. Though the boat is close to shore, currents make it dangerous to swim out to the rusted hull.

The America surely has a singular story, but its fate is also not horribly uncommon. Ships live and die at sea. This is not to say that the Triumph is mortally wounded by any means, but that every boat eventually succumbs to waves, salt and wind. The mileage put on these boats is remarkable and, though they are all –- modern ships especially –- amazing feats of engineering, the ocean is relentless. Even grand cruise ships have Achille's heels, which is both reason to educate oneself and to fully appreciate the glory of a ship in its prime.

The S.S. America's Tragic Tale

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