I am not a great lover of things nautical; after all I tend to get seasick when having a bath if the water is too deep. However, the recent announcement of a new ferry service from Las Palmas in Gran Canaria to Huelva in Peninsular Spain, with a journey time of just over one day, as compared to nearly three days on the alternative service, set me thinking about a once-beautiful ship now lying off a beach on our neighbouring island of Fuerteventura.
This is the story of SS America, a luxury liner that was launched the day before Hitler invaded Poland and brought the world to war in 1939. It was not an auspicious start for a cruise liner that had to be immediately converted into a troop carrier that would not carry the planned 1200 passengers on a luxury cruise, but was destined to become a troop-carrying vessel that would carry up to 8000 troops to war.
The ship was renamed, West Point, and she carried troops around the world. Later, she was confined to the North Atlantic route where her speed and manoeuvrability were ideal to outwit German U boats, gale force winds and the treacherous sea. Troops were carried from the USA to Europe and wounded soldiers, as well as prisoners of war, shipped back to America.
After wartime duties, the SS America resumed life as a cruise ship and was seen as one of the most beautiful of the American fleet. After 24 years of service, the ship’s career ended abruptly due to labour disputes and the growing popularity of air travel. The SS America was sold to a Greek shipping company, renamed Australis, and began a new life transporting British passengers who were emigrating to a new life in Australia, as part of a campaign to increase its population. Later, the assisted passage scheme was gradually phased out and long haul flights made air travel more attractive than a long voyage at sea, and in 1977 the Australis made her last voyage to Australia.
There were attempts to reinstate the ship for cruises once again. The SS America was given her original name and intended to resume life as a floating casino. The first voyage in 1978 was a disaster and angry passengers forced the ship to return to port. The shipping company was sued for $2.5 million and the SS America was held as a surety against debt; the ship’s fate was sealed, and the SS America was to be auctioned.
The vessel was then repurchased by her previous Greek owners and was intended to be used as a Mediterranean cruise ship. Italis, as she was renamed, never put to sea. She was sold again in 1980 and renamed Noga, and this time destined to be a floating hotel in Beruit. This plan did not materialise and so this once proud ship was due to be returned to the USA to become a prison ship, but that fell through too. She was sold again and renamed Alferdoss, which means ‘Paradise’ in Arabic. Sadly, it was nothing like paradise and for ten years the ship rotted until damage to her bilge pipe meant that she had to be beached to prevent sinking.
Finally, a consortium bought her and gave her yet another new name, the America Star. A star she was no longer and, as she was being towed to Thailand to be converted into a floating hotel, the towrope broke in stormy weather off Fuerteventura. She broke into two pieces and what little remains has been slowly disappearing into the sea, leaving part of the bow remaining above the water. This once proud vessel is waiting to be finally claimed by the sea.
© Barrie Mahoney
From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney
Living in Spain and the Canary Islands : ISBN 978-0995602724