Bid a sad 'adieu' to the SS France - Sparkling career on the rocks
by Justin Huggler, The Independent (London)
20 May 2006 –
Somewhere in the Indian Ocean, a vast ship is slowly heading west. It is not just another rusting hulk of a cargo ship. Even now, in its forlorn state, the long sleek lines distinguish it as a ship of an altogether different class.
And to a ship enthusiast, the distinctive winged funnels are instantly recognizable.
This is the SS France. Its decks, once the haunt of Cary Grant and Salvador Dali, lie empty. The restaurant that gourmet Craig Claibourne described as "the best French restaurant in the world" holds nothing but echoes. This is the final voyage of the ship that was once the epitome of glamour and prestige.
Her destination is very different from the gala receptions that once greeted the France in New York. She is heading for the great shipbreaking yards of Alang in India, a place of Victorian squalor, where hundreds of Indian workers will swarm over her, breaking her up piece by piece, tearing out the grand sweeping staircase that led down to the restaurant, ripping up the longest bar ever on a ship, and finally cutting through her hull with oxyacetelene burners.
And all for just a couple of dollars a day, because on her final voyage, France is sailing into the middle of controversy over the dangers of shipbreaking in developing countries.
The environmental organization Greenpeace is demanding the ship be turned away from Alang because she is full of poisonous asbestos and the shipyards at Alang do not have the facilities to handle asbestos safely.
According to Greenpeace, handling the asbestos and other toxic waste on the France could be lethal for the workers at Alang, most of whom don't even have shoes, let alone protective gear.
It was all very different back in the early '60s, when the France was the pinnacle of chic. On her maiden voyage to New York in 1962, the smart set of Paris relocated to her decks. Everyone who was anyone was on board.
When she sailed into New York, the France was surrounded by fireboats, tugboats and tenders, all spraying water in the air in salute while helicopters and small aircraft circled overhead.
When the France arrived, there were already four other liners docked in the Hudson river. It was a glamourous age.
Actor Cary Grant used to lounge on the France's sundecks between movies. Surrealist artist Salvador Dali brought his pet ocelot on board. The most famous and valuable passenger to sail on the France was the Mona Lisa, going to the States for an exhibition on loan from the Louvre.
Although Dali's ocelot was probably the most exotic pet to come on board, it was not the only one. The France was famous for the facilities it offered its four-legged passengers.
The on-board dog kennels were carpeted. There was an exercise run and a New York fire hydrant for them to cock their legs against. The ship offered a gourmet menu for dogs, including vegetarian options.
But this was hardly surprising, given the France's legendary reputation for its culinary delights.
No wood was allowed on the France because of fire regulations. So the designers dreamed up an extraordinary modernist interior made of aluminum, formica and plastic.
This was not some meandering cruise ship, but a liner built to cross the Atlantic in the fastest time possible. In her heyday, she could cruise at 31 knots, all 66,348 tons of her.
Today the France, or the SS Blue Lady as she has been renamed, is heading into a very different world. The beach at Alang stretches for 10 kilometres, a great expanse of desolate oil-stained sand littered with the skeletons of ships that are slowly being dismembered, picked over by thousands of Indians.
There are 40,000 workers at Alang and few safety regulations. Most work barefoot, despite the constant risk from the heavy steel plates being cut.
Many have lost limbs, many have been killed. One in 20 workers at Alang has AIDS. But workers come from across India for the money -- a pittance of $2 a day.
It was the cheap labour and lax safety regulations that allowed India and other developing countries to take over the world's shipbreaking industry. Today, they completely dominate it -- shipbreaking is worth about $600 million a year to India.
But now the industry is increasingly at risk from environmentalists who are demanding that it adopt better safety regulations.
In a major victory for the eco-lobby earlier this year, the French government was forced to recall the Clemenceau, a decommissioned aircraft carrier that was heading for Alang, because she was carrying asbestos.
Now Greenpeace is demanding that the France be turned back, because it, too, contains asbestos.
The France was a product of the age before mass commercial air travel, born out of French pride. At the time, liners were the preferred way of crossing the Atlantic between the United States and Europe. The Americans had the fastest, the United States.
The British had the largest, the Queen Elizabeth. France's two liners were nearing the end of the service, and the French shipping line needed something to compete. And so it built the 1,035-foot France, which, until the recent arrival of the Queen Mary 2, was the longest passenger ship ever built.
The France's tragedy was that she arrived just too late. Even at that amazing reception in New York for her maiden voyage, there were aircraft soaring overhead. And within a few years, air travel would turn the great liners into a thing of the past.
The France's decline was long and slow. By 1972 she was one of only four transatlantic liners still in service. Built for the cold winds of the north, she quickly found herself on winter cruises for which she was not designed, with one swimming pool indoors and the other covered up.
She went on a world cruise -- and had to sail around South America because she was too big for the Panama Canal. In the end, it was another project of national pride that finished her off. In 1974, the French government ended the subsidy that had kept her afloat and diverted the money to the Concorde aircraft.
In September that year, as the France came into dock after crossing the Atlantic, French trade unionists seized control of her to demand that she be kept in service. The 1,266 passengers on board had to flee to shore on a small ferry. The hijacking failed, and the France's days as a liner were over.
For three years, the ship lay idle in harbour. In 1977, she was bought by a Saudi millionaire who wanted to turn her into a floating museum for French furniture, but the plan never got off the drawing board. Finally, in 1979, she was bought by Norwegian Caribbean Lines, one of the biggest companies tapping into the huge new market for a different kind of luxury shipping: cruises.
The France was converted into a cruise ship, and in a cruel blow to the French national pride, renamed SS Norway. The cruise company tore out the second engine room that gave the France her speed, and turned her into a plodding cruise ship. Over the years, the Tourist Class smoking room was replaced with a casino, and the First Class library with shops.
She continued to sail through the eighties and nineties, but, by the beginning of this decade, cutbacks in maintenance meant the Norway was suffering frequent mechanical breakdowns and fires. There were incidents of illegal dumping of waste at sea, and at one point the ship was detained at port for safety violations. It was a sad senescence.
Worse was to come. In May 2003, while the Norway was docked in Miami, there was an explosion in the engine room. Several crew members were killed.
The ship was towed to Germany for repairs. But, in March 2004, the chief executive of the cruise company made the inevitable announcement: "France will never sail again."
The ship was sent to Malaysia and sold to an American dealer for scrap. She was renamed once again, the Blue Lady, and for months lay forlornly at harbour off the Malaysian coast.
Fans of the France campaigned to keep her afloat, but now even they are beginning to give up.
"Sadly, there are so many things stacked against her at the moment that there is little hope for a future where she can be at sea where she belongs," says Devon Scott, the ship's former historian, and head of the Norway Preservation Foundation.
Now the France is heading for the scrapyards, although, in the hope of a last-minute buyer, the owners are still offering her for sale on the Internet -- a snag at $24 million.
But the ship's story is far from over. She was supposed to be going to the shipbreaking yards at Chittagong in Bangladesh, some of Alang's main competitors, until the Bangladeshi government ruled she would not be allowed in because of the threat from the asbestos on board. Now environmentalists are demanding she be turned away from India as well.
A single fibre of asbestos can cause cancer if it becomes lodged in a worker's lungs -- and Alang has no equipment or procedures to handle it safely.
Earlier this year, Greenpeace campaigned vociferously against the Clemenceau being allowed in. Eventually India's Supreme Court ordered her to wait outside Indian territorial waters while it examined the case, but the French government caved in and ordered her back to France before the court reached a decision.
Now Greenpeace says the France contains even more asbestos than the Clemenceau, as well as other toxic substances Alang is not equipped to deal with.
"We have a general concern that there are toxic substances on board and that workers would be exposed to these substances," said Eco Matser, a representative of Greenpeace.
"The ship should be decontaminated before it is sent to Asia."
But even as environmentalists campaign to keep her out, they are facing a backlash from the shipbreaking yards, who say a ban risks destroying their business -- and with it, thousands of jobs.
There is a growing movement in Europe to prevent ships laden with toxic substances from going to the developing world to be broken up until they have first been safely decontaminated. But with the decontamination creating renewed business for the shipbreakers of Europe, their counterparts in India and other developing countries fear they may lose to Europe the business they once took from Europe.
Once the ships are being decontaminated in Europe, they fear owners will find it more economical to have the whole job done there.
There are growing calls in India for the shipbreaking yards of Alang to be modernized and fitted out with proper safety procedures, and the equipment to handle substances such as asbestos.
And so the last hope to preserve the SS France, once an icon of French glamour, may ironically hinge on its being turned away from an Indian shipbreaking yard because it is full of toxic waste. Or, then again, someone may come up with $24 million to buy her.
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