The amazing story of the SS American Star: more than just a hunk of rusted metal.

american star by wollex 2004

This started out as an Earth post, but it’s just too interesting not to do a full article on it. Above is a photograph of a ship, the SS American Star, which was wrecked in a storm off the coast of Fuerteventura, one of the Canary Islands, in January 1994. When I started investigating the history of this ship, I uncovered an absolutely amazing story.

The American Star had a nearly 60-year career. She was launched on August 31, 1939, the very last day of peace before World War II broke out (and possibly the exact day on which this video was taken). First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt christened her the SS America. The ship, built as a passenger liner, was an interesting experiment in what you might call feminist design–her interior design scheme, always crucial for passenger liners, was done almost totally by women. That was a first in 1939 and has probably not been duplicated since.

Anyway, as you might guess from the date on which she was launched, the America‘s career as a passenger liner was cut short by World War II. Even before the US joined the conflict in 1941, she was called up by the Navy to be used as a troop transport. While in that service, a ring of Nazi spies set up shop aboard her. The spy ring was eventually broken up by the FBI.

America turned in a successful service as a troop transport during the war–a very common use for passenger ships during both world wars. When peace came in 1945, she was returned to civilian service, and crossed the Atlantic many times between 1946 and 1964.

By 1964 she was aging, and, again common in the life cycle of passenger liners, she was sold to another line and outfitted as a cruise liner, renamed the Australis. In this guise she cruised around the world many times, with this service finally ending in 1977.

The next year the ship was sold again, renamed back to America, and brought back out on the cruise circuit. However, this new incarnation didn’t go well. Here’s what happened, according to Wikipedia:

America set sail on her first cruise on June 30, 1978. Her refit, however, had not been completed by the time of the sailing. The ship was filthy, with piles of soiled linens and worn mattresses, scattered piles of trash, and a scent of kitchen odors, engine oil, and plumbing backups. In addition, water in overhead pipes leaked. Along with maintenance issues, attempts to spruce the ship up led to other problems, with too many layers of paint visible on the outer bulkheads, as well as the lifeboat davits and lifeboat gear. Additionally, the public rooms were carelessly repainted, with the America’s stainless steel trims now scarred with brush strokes.

Due to overbooking and her state of incompletion, a number of passengers “mutinied”, forcing the captain to return to New York, having only barely passed the Statue of Liberty. 960 passengers were offloaded upon the ship’s arrival. On a second sailing that day, an additional 200 passengers left via tender at Staten Island.

This incident began poor America’s long, slow decline. She was sold again numerous times in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Eventually she was doomed to the final stage in the sad life cycle of a passenger ship: she was sold for scrap metal. However, miraculously the ship managed to escape this fate. At the last minute a new plan was floated (no pun intended) to turn her into a luxury hotel to be permanently moored off the coast of Thailand. For this she was renamed American Star.

Her engines, however, were already disconnected, so she couldn’t sail to Thailand under her own power. The idea was to tow the ship from where it had been sitting in Greece for a long time–a voyage that would take 100 days. Pulled by a Ukrainian tug, the American Star barely made it out of European waters. During a violent thunderstorm off the Canary Islands on January 17, 1994, the tow line broke and the ship was set adrift. She crashed on the rocks the next day. Abandoned and too economically valueless even to justify the cost of removing the wreckage, the poor American Star has been there ever since.

The wreck has been continually decaying over the past 19 years. The photo at the top of this blog (by “Wollex” at German-language Wikipedia) was taken in July 2004. Now there’s little left of it, and it’s visible only at low tide.

The epic life story of the SS America/American Star is every bit the equal of the story of the passenger liner I told in my 2005 novel Romantic, Memoirs of a Great Liner. If this rusted hulk of metal could talk, imagine the stories it could tell us.

Read more about the ship here (Wikipedia). The coordinates of the wreck site are  28°20’45.88″N,  14°10’49.59″W.

The photo of the American Star is by Wollex and is used under the GNU Free Documentation License and Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license.
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