In a bold move, Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) has acquired the 59,000-ton, 1,700-passenger United States. The 1951-built ship has been laid up since 1969.

NCL said it was evaluating the options for use of the ship under U.S. flag and determining the extent of the work required to convert her into a state-of-the-art cruise ship. The ship is expected to offer mainland U.S. itineraries where cruises are currently not offered.

The refurbishment of the hull and superstructure will be done at a U.S. yard while the outfitting will be completed overseas, according to NCL President Colin Veitch.

Built at Newport News, the United States was awarded the Blue Riband in 1952 for crossing the Atlantic in three days, 10 hours and 40 minutes, averaging 35 knots, a record that still stands among passenger vessels today.

The ship, which was originally built at a cost of $78 million, had a service speed of 32 to 33 knots, and was reported to have reached 43 knots during sea trials.

"The condition of the hull and superstructure is very good," said Veitch. "She was only in service 17 years and was built to very robust standards. The steel in the hull is thicker than most ships being built today." He explained that the United States was built to do double duty as a troop ship, carrying 15,000 soldiers, and was built with "all kinds of safety features at the time." These included such modern redundancies as two separate engine rooms, according to William Miller, author of the book the S.S. United States.

Miller wrote that the downfall of the ship was due to diminishing passenger revenues while costs soared and the American maritime unions kept demanding more. Miller wrote that the ship had gone into the red already in the early 60s, only eight years after entering service.

Since 1969, several efforts to put the United States back in service have foundered, usually for lack of funds.

That comparison is no longer valid, according to Veitch, who said the previous attempts were typically entrepreneurs and start-up ventures.

Veitch said NCL will build upon its three-ship U.S.-flag fleet in Hawaii and in time, introduce the United States and also the Independence, which NCL also has acquired.

Previously operated by American Hawaii Cruises, the 20,251-ton, 817-passenger Independence was built in the United States in 1950, and has been laid up since fall of 2001, when American Hawaii's parent company, American Classic Voyages, declared bankruptcy.

Veitch said that the Independence would eventually be gutted and fully rebuilt.

"Once we have three ships running in Hawaii, our ambition is to expand our U.S.-flag operations," he said. 'We had to buy these two ships now or else we might have lost them. It looked as if the Independence was going to the scrap yard, and the estate for the United States was also looking to sell her. We could not wait."

He said that legislation allowed NCL three US.­ flag ships and if the company wanted more it would have to ask for more exemptions or find a way to work with U.S. shipyards. But building a ship in the U.S. would to be too much of a challenge at this point, according to Veitch.

He said that the two ships are good projects to gradually introduce American shipyards to cruise-ship building by first doing work on the hull, machinery and superstructure, while the outfitting is done in Europe. He indicated that once this work is done successfully, newbuilding contracts for U.S.-flag ships may follow.

Veitch said that NCL has set up a U.S. corporation in Hawaii with U.S. management, but that the company will only start hiring closer to the introduction of the first U.S. flag ship (2004), and that back-office functions would be shared with NCL in Miami.

"Once we have three ships in Hawaii, we will have 3,000 people working on those ships," Veitch said. 'That will give us a good start-up base to introduce additional ships in coastal trading here."

The first U.S. flag vessel is presently under construction at Lloyd Werft in Bremerhaven, where the second vessel will be built out of the parts that NCL acquired that were originally ordered for a sister ship. The third ship will be reflagged from the existing NCL fleet; the fourth will be the United States; and the fifth, the Independence.

NCL would not reveal how much it paid for the two ships nor how much it is prepared to spend on rebuilding them.

"If we operate carefully, this seems like the most practical and pragmatic way to expand a U.S.-flag fleet," Veitch added.