Roll, Pitch, Thunder, and Thump
A PRECIOUS letter comes from Reader Ed Athearn, who suggests I tell more about the liner ``United States,'' the fastest ship in the world. I've mentioned my voyage aboard her in 1953 several times here and how we were belted by Hurricane Edna all the way, and Ed thinks it would be interesting to hear how the ship responded and what was done to comfort the passengers. Ed says, ``A sea story waiting to be told.'' Maybe. After that voyage Capt. John W. Anderson told the press at Southampton it had been the liner's most turbulent crossing and he was glad it was over. Hurricane Edna, September, 1953, was one of the livelier tropical storms of the century and she burst upon our starboard quarter before we were out of sight of Ambrose Light. She continued to belt us right into Le Havre. Since the man-ropes had been rigged soon after we'd cast off in New York harbor, it was obvious our captain and crew knew what was a -comin', but to the 2,000 paying guests aboard, the tempest was a big surprise and not what we Mainers call ``a happy chance along.'' When the storm struck, the ``United States'' listed heavily to port and continued to ride with her starboard rail in the sky.
I much enjoyed the experience. Otherwise, attendance at the shipboard activities dwindled and quit. The movie theater was empty. The swimming pool was running a heavy surf. Chairs in the lounges which were not secured flailed about. The roll was soon enhanced by a pitch and the quadrupal screws would rise from the ocean and thump like redundant thunder until they submerged again. As a stout Maine lad, I was not dismayed.
I thus met Max and Dorothy Meller of Providence, R.I., who were the only other Cabin Class passengers to show. Max had a jewelry business in Attleboro, Mass., and was on a lightly construed pleasure trip which he was to buy gems for his factory and for tax purposes. They were about the only passengers I met on that uppy-downy voyage. I did have a few minutes with Captain Anderson, but since I was Cabin Class I had more opportunity to visit with the chief engineer, William Kaiser, who socialized as host in our dining room. I asked Captain (USNR) Kaiser what he did to right the vessel when we had a list such as had just put 1,900 passengers hors du combat. He winked at me and said, ``Not a thing! I have a telephone, and I grab it and say, `So, do we ride this way forever?' Then somebody else does something.'' The answer was to pump fuel and water from port side tanks over to the weather side.
The ``United States'' was not really a posh craft. She was more like a Statler Hotel than the Ritz. On the morning of arrival at Le Havre, breakfast was foregone because so many passengers had been bothered by the sea. Instead of breakfast, every passenger got a box picnic lunch to eat on the boat train, where conditions would be more stable. Somebody in commissary had efficiently foreseen the need for 2,000 pasteboard boxes.
The liner ``United States'' was built at Newport News by my friend Lud Morehead (he said) for transatlantic passenger service but with a United States Navy arrangement so she could be converted to a troop carrier if needed. She carried 2,000 passengers and had a crew of 1,000. The public was never told her attainable speed, but one brochure said ``30 knots plus.'' On her maiden round trip to Europe, setting records, she averaged better than 30 knots. It was said in an emergency she could reach any forei gn port from the United States in 48 hours.
On our trip, with Hurricane Edna pounding us, Captain Anderson, who was not one to slacken speed, took the ``United States'' off course for over 1,000 miles, trying to go around Edna for the comfort of his passengers, and we still docked at Le Havre on schedule. Figure that out - and correct that 30 knots plus. The liner's time from Ambrose Light to Bishop's Rock, eastbound, was three days, 10 hours, 40 minutes - average 35.59 knots. She was 990 feet long, better than 100 feet wide, 14 stories deep, and it was not considered prudent to get in her way.
I could have flown. Flying was better than practical by 1953. But the passenger liner was not to survive, and it was my desire to experience the voyage while I could. The liner ``United States'' is in mothballs, theoretically useful in dire need. Airplanes fly over her triumphantly. Pity.