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How the Waves Destroyed the SS American Star

Jason Ponic works in the exciting world of Hollywood film and television by day and writes by night.

The SS American Star wrecked on the beach. This is how she looked in 2004.

The SS American Star wrecked on the beach. This is how she looked in 2004.

An Unlucky History

When you think of a sinking ship, your first thought is probably the RMS Titanic. The world's most famous ship sank in less than three hours; 1,500 souls perish, you know the story. Some ships sank faster, like the RMS Lusitania, which sank in less than twenty minutes and drew the US into World War I. Some sank slower, like the SS Andrea Doria at eleven hours, the first sea disaster to ever be broadcast live on international television. But imagine a ship that takes more than a decade to sink. Yes, ten years and nobody knew about it.

Meet the SS American Star, a transatlantic liner turned cruise ship that would spend the last ten years of her existence beached on the banks of Fuerteventura. Persistently and violently, the waves would rip the ship apart. Deck by deck, it's transformed into an unrecognizable pile of twisted metal, shrinking more and more until now nothing but a few shards of rusting keel remain. There was no tragedy or loss of life. There was no fanfare or headline news, except for the locals of the island. It was the biggest story in decades.

Renamed nine times in her fifty years, the SS American Star's journey from a United States ocean liner to a Canary Island derelict is quite remarkable yet sadly quiet. Sold over and over again, plans of restoration, scrapping, and conversion failing time and time again. The most exciting years for this ship only happened after she beached. This ship might have been forgotten if it weren't for the internet.

1939 – 1941: SS America

Our journey begins in 1938 with the keel laying of a brand new transatlantic liner. The new ship, sponsored by Eleanor Roosevelt, would become the new flagship of the United States Lines. The ship was perfectly suited for comfortable travel with cabins in Cabin, Tourist, and Third Class. But the outbreak of US involvement in World War II paused her civilian service as the US Navy was eager for a troop ship.

The SS America in the early days of WW2. Since the US was neutral until 12/7/41, large flags and letters were painted on the side of all US civilian vessels as a deterrent for german U-boats.

The SS America in the early days of WW2. Since the US was neutral until 12/7/41, large flags and letters were painted on the side of all US civilian vessels as a deterrent for german U-boats.

1941 – 1946: USS West Point

Under the command of the US Navy, the America receives her first name change, the USS West Point. Stripped of all luxuries and furnishings, her windows sealed shut, the vessel's capacity jumped from 1,200 passengers to over 7,000 troops. During the war years, this ship would transport nearly 350,000 troops, more than any other US navy troopship. At one point, they were about to stuff over 9,000 people into the ship for a single voyage.

USS West Point during the war.

USS West Point during the war.

1946 – 1964: SS America's Glory Years

Restoring the ship and her name for civilian travel in 1946 kicked off the glory years. 1952 christened the SS United States as the new flagship of the United States Line. Together the two served as running mates making crossing after crossing. Yet their days as queens of the sea were limited as the rise of air travel made great ocean liners endangered. It would only be a matter of time now.

The SS United States with the SS America in the 1950s.

The SS United States with the SS America in the 1950s.

1964 – 1987: SS Australis

While the glory days of American transatlantic travel were long behind her, a new market in Australia loomed just over the horizon. Ever since the war, immigration from Europe to Australia exploded. In 1964, the Chandris Cruise Line purchased the twenty-year-old SS America to close this market gap. Renamed SS Australis and refitted to hold 2,200+ passengers, the ship made her first voyage in 1965 from Piraeus to New Zealand. She would sail the entire eastern hemisphere for the next fourteen years as an immigrant carrier and cruise ship. Ultimately her age would force her retirement in 1987.

The SS Australis repainted from its original red, white and black.

The SS Australis repainted from its original red, white and black.

June – August 1978: SS America

After spending two years laid up in New Zealand, Ventures Cruises purchased the Australis in 1978. Renamed back to America to market her heritage, the line was eager to get a return on investment. A slapped-together refit, unfinished by the time of her first cruise in June 1978, proved disastrous. Filthy and plagued with mechanical problems, the passengers mutinied, and the cruise was canceled twice in one day before the ship even left New York Harbor.

In July, a five-day cruise to Nova Scotia also failed. Over $2 million in claims from passengers and a pitiful 6/100 rating from the US Health Dept. ended her life in Ventures Cruises. The ship was impounded later that month for defaulting on debts and ordered sold at auction.

The SS America in 1978. She was painted blue and red during her so called 'refit'.

The SS America in 1978. She was painted blue and red during her so called 'refit'.

1978 – 1980: SS Italis

Chandris Cruise Line repurchased this troubled vessel in 1978, renaming her SS Italis. Initiating an ambitious plan to modernize the appearance ship, the forward funnel was lopped off at the base, and some streamlining attachments were installed over the bridge.

Chandris operated the ship as a floating hotel for a year until she was chartered for several events. She cruised across the southern Mediterranean Sea for several months before getting laid up in 1980. Never again would she sail the seas with passengers on board.

SS Italis as a hotel ship.

SS Italis as a hotel ship.

1980 – 1984: SS Noga

1980 brought a new name and new owner. Swiss-based Intercommerce Inc. purchased the ship to convert it into something. They just didn't know what. Plans from luxury hotels to prison ships were debated, but nothing ever developed passed the early planning stages. While her new name was painted on her stern, the ship remained unchanged from her second Chandris career. For the next four years, the ship would sit in lay-up and slowly rot as her owners debated its fate. Finally, they decided the best action would just be to sell it.

The SS Italis with her crudely lopped off forward funnel.

The SS Italis with her crudely lopped off forward funnel.

1984 – 1993: SS Alferdoss

Ten years of uncertainty would begin with the sale of the SS Noga to Silver Moon Ferries. Renamed Alferdoss, her new owners envisioned a floating luxury hotel in Tripoli, Lebanon. Civil War quickly shattered that dream.

Decay accelerated with cracks and leaks. Her interior, which remained largely unchanged since the 1930s, began to show signs of mold. Humidity caused many fittings to discolor, warp and collapse. In 1988, a burst bilge pipe nearly sank the ship, and the subsequent damage left little hope for the ship's hotel conversion. Silver Moon Ferries began seeking bids for scrapping. She was, in fact, sold for scrap in 1989, but the scrappers defaulted on sale payments after just a few months, so the ship was never torn apart. The Alferdoss remained in this sad condition until 1993.

The SS Aflerdoss in her sad shape in the 1980s.

The SS Aflerdoss in her sad shape in the 1980s.

1993 – 1995: SS American Star

A rather determined Thailand company made a surprise offer on the SS Alferdoss for $2 million. Their mission was to return a vessel to its original 1940s glory and use her as a permanent luxury hotel in Thailand. As the ship's interior still remained unaltered from those days, it was the perfect choice for this project. Renamed SS American Star, she was prepped for towing to Thailand.

Disaster struck during the journey. Storms and heavy seas kept snapping the SS American Star's tow lines. The first time, the towers were able to recapture the ship, but the second time was terminal. The vessel ran aground on the rocky shore of Fuerteventura Island. The angle and conditions of the beaching rendered salvage impossible, and the ship was declared a total loss by the insurance company.

The SS American Star shortly after running aground.

The SS American Star shortly after running aground.

1995 – 2006: Ten-Year Wreck

It was the biggest news story on Fuerteventura Island, the beaching of the SS American Star, a former luxury ocean liner and cruise ship. Within 48 hours of the grounding, the relentless pounding of the waves had already snapped the ship clean in two. The waves weren't the only enemy to the once mighty liner now, the locals pillaged the wreck for anything and everything they could grab. Her once magnificent and untouched interiors were stripped to the bare metal and then some.

The stern section was the first to fall victim. The sea ripped the stern apart in less than a year until it was just a pile of twisted steel. The bow section, however, would endure for ten long years. During that time, it gathered quite the cult following on the internet. Avid fans would visit the ship annually to take pictures and document the slow destruction and deterioration of the ship.



Peggy on August 28, 2019:

As a young girl, I emigrated to the USA from Holland. I sailed on the SS America from France to the port of NYC in 1961.

Nick on April 27, 2019:

I read somewhere that some nations navy had used the forward half for target practice. In fact, there was a posting showing the bridge and parts of the port side drooping down as if hit by shell fire!

Michelle Ann on July 24, 2018:

My Father a Holocaust Survivor sailed for the USA on the SS America in 1946.

Armybrat on April 08, 2018:

My parents and I sailed on the S.S. America in 1955, during its glory days, and it was truly magnificent. My father was a U.S. Army officer serving in Germany, where we had lived for about four years. We returned home to the U.S., sailing from Bremerhaven, Germany, to New York. I was 13 years old, and that voyage, which took about a week, remains one of the highlights of my entire life. Everyone went out on deck to see the Statue of Liberty as we sailed into New York harbor. So sad to see what has happened to the ship.

Graham Rattledge. on April 03, 2018:

I also emigrated from England to Australia in 1974 with my wife & young son. We sailed out of Southampton on the Australis to a new world & unknown future. The ship was plagued with troubles then. Breaking down twice in the middle of the ocean the pumps stopped working & we returned to our cabin just in time to rescue our suitcases from under the lower bunk from the effluent flowing out of the toilet bowl. It was not a happy voyage but I feel sad to see the demise of the ship which brought us to our new life.

Loring on March 29, 2018:

Thanks, I enjoyed reading your account of the SS America and its sad fate. I Was fascinated with the story of the SS United States which is having its own trouble surviving right now, but had not really been away of her older and less fabled sister.

Richard Hughes on January 28, 2018:

Hi Jason, my family emigrated from England to Australia in 1974, sailing on the Australis from Southampton to Sydney. An amazing adventure for me and my brothers as young boys. Your history of the ship is fascinating and it's sad to see her final demise. Thanks for your work.

Jason Ponic (author) from Albuquerque on October 10, 2017:

Shipwreck forums!

Laura McNulty on July 27, 2017:

Fantastic story of a great ship. You did a great job getting so much information together. Thank you. Never thought I'd feel so sad watching the birth, life and death of a ship. Very touching story.

Jenn P on July 24, 2017:

I loved reading this since her sister ship the United States, is currently docked and unfortunately rotting in my hometown Philadelphia.

I had no idea this ship the SS American Star existed or was connected to the ship that had always caught my interest along with a respect for its history.

Bernard Sholly on July 04, 2017:

As a 6 month old baby me and my mother sailed to New York on this ship to be with my father, my mother being a GI Bride. the year was 1945.