(This piece originally appeared as the forward to Bill Miller's excellent book, A Picture History of American Passenger Ships (2001). When Bill, my "maritime mentor" asked me to write a preface to this book, I was greatly honored. -- David Perry)
I met Bill Miller, appropriately enough, on the deck of a ship.
It was love at first sight : the meeting of two "ship people."
For me, it was like reconnecting with a childhood teacher whom I hadn't seen in years; a mentor whose books had taught me of the French line, the Canberra , the "old" Rotterdam . We had never met, but we knew each other well. I, the shipboard editor of the daily newspaper aboard M/S Crystal Symphony; Bill, a "Crystal Favorite" lecturer, on board -- as he often was -- to spin a yarn (or two or three) about those luxury liners of the past. Often during that cruise, and others, we would find each other on deck -- both having raced up separately to look at the facade of a passing liner.
"That used to be the old....." and we would laugh and begin that favorite game of ship lovers: guess the ship. Bill was never wrong, and could recite the provenance of passing vessels on the horizon or tied up in Piraeus (does anyone buy more old ships than the Greeks?) like a Master Sommelier holding forth about a rare vintage.
I had always known that some day, somehow, I would "go to sea." As a boy growing up in land-locked Richmond, Virginia, I would gaze longingly from our pool, where in usual precision I was guiding a flotilla of plastic models, at the cinder-blocked hull of our 25-foot cabin cruiser "docked" next to the patio. Any day now, the tarpaulins of plastic would give way to the sticky preparation of hull varnish. Soon, my pop would back up the trailer and pull this "Gilligan's Island"-like boat to its rightful home: the Chesapeake Bay a short two hours drive away. My mother would make sandwiches, cover my blond nose with sun block, and warn (unsuccessfully) to "clean the fish" before we came home.
I hated fishing, and still do. But, on the way to my father's favorite spot - above the wreck of an old freighter (a thought which always terrified and excited me) - Pop and I would pass by the Newport News Navy Yard. Here was a catch for me, like a huge whale in its tank -- confined but still crowd-pleasing -- the S.S. United States : the greatest (and last) liner ever built by America.
What a beauty.
This was in the days (not so long ago) before guests had to swipe magnetic strips through computers or submit to the indelicate necessities of metal detectors. In those "good old days" of the late 60s and early 70s, the only thing of which the United States ' keepers were afraid was someone jumping onboard to make off with a memento! Of course, when the United States was built, so secret was the design of her hull (her speed of 45 + knots made her a potentially formidable troop ship during those Cold War climes) that the Revel model I played with in my pool was flat below the waterline!
Once - a memory preserved in fading Polaroids - we actually pulled alongside and I reached my ten-year-old hand to touch the peeling red paint along her port side. That same day, the carrier John F. Kennedy was tied up alongside as well, and I remember waving and shouting to the sailors onboard. For a kid into ships, it was a pilgrimage like Lourdes. I did the best I could to peer at her gracefully-curving physique hiding beneath the salty waters of her quay. What was the secret of her speed!
I remember telling that story to Bill Miller, and his eyes lit up. Of course, as the world's greatest authority on the William Francis Gibbs'-designed behemoth, Bill was always in search of new story, a fresh perspective on this last holder of the Blue Riband. Right then and there, he asked me to write the forward for his next book: one on a subject about which too little has been written -- the American passenger vessels.
Now, finally, such a book is here. Undoubtedly, Bill Miller has given us yet another "must have" in the reference library of ships.
As I write this, at port in Honolulu harbor -- a stop-off on Crystal Symphony's annual world cruise -- the very last American-flagged liner, Independence , is tied up across from us. Even with the designer-gone-mad color scheme she has been subjected to, she is still, every inch a lady.
For those of us who long for such sights, who rush to the rail as the wreck of the America is sighted off the Canaries, who talk their way onboard the old (and still so-named) Monterey while docked in Kusadasi, and who love nothing better than curling up with a book whose ballast is photos and personal anecdotes about liners, this is a treasure for you. As with all of his past ones, here in your hands is the definitive book on American passenger vessels.
To check on the status of The S.S. United States - currently awaiting restoration ( one hopes) in Philadelphia, click here . And, to