With Reuben Goossens

Maritime Historian


“Chic ship too toxic for scrapping

By Justin Huggler


Save a Classic Liner Campaign”

For details and the latest news regarding project “Save the SS France – SS Norway - visit News Updates



This interesting article is by independent journalist, Justin Huggler and it was printed in the New Zealand Herald on May 20, 2006

Somewhere in the Indian Ocean, a large ship is slowly heading west. It is not sailing under its own power as her engines have long fallen silent. She is being slowly tugged across the waves on its way toward a lonely Indian beach.

But this is not just another sad rusting hulk of a cargo ship. Even in its forlorn state, her long sleek lines mark it out as a ship of an altogether different class.

And, to a shipping enthusiast, the distinctive winged funnels are instantly recognisable. This is the SS France, one of the last of the great ocean-going liners.

The decks that were once the haunt of Cary Grant and Salvador Dali lie empty. The restaurant that was described as the best French restaurant in the world has been left to the echoes and the memories. This is the final voyage of the ship that was once the epitome of glamour and nautical prestige.

Its destination is very different from the gala receptions that once greeted it in New York.

The ship is heading for the great ship-breaking yards of Alang in India, a place of Victorian squalor, where hundreds of Indian workers will swarm over it, breaking it up piece by piece, tearing out the grand sweeping staircase that led down to the restaurant, ripping up the longest bar built on a ship, and finally cutting through its hull with oxyacetylene burners. All for just US$1.89 a day.

On its final voyage, SS France is sailing into the middle of controversy over the dangers of ship-breaking in developing countries.

Greenpeace is demanding the ship be turned away from Alang because it is full of poisonous asbestos and the shipyards there do not have the facilities to handle asbestos safely.

It says handling the asbestos and other toxic waste on the France could be lethal for workers, most of whom don't even have shoes, let alone protective gear.

It was very different back in the early 60s, when the France was the acme of chic. On its maiden voyage in 1962, the smart set of Paris relocated to its decks. When it sailed into New York Harbour it was surrounded by fireboats, tugboats and tenders, spraying water in the air in salute.

Cary Grant used to lounge on the France's sundecks between movies. Salvador Dali notoriously brought his pet ocelot on board. Perhaps the most famous passenger to travel on the France was the Mona Lisa.

When the Louvre lent Leonardo da Vinci's painting to an exhibition in the US, it was the France that was chosen to transport it.

Although Dali's ocelot was probably the most recherché pet to come on board, it was not the only one. The France was famous for the extraordinary facilities it offered for its passengers' dogs.

The on-board kennels were carpeted. There was a walkway for exercising the animals, and a choice of a Parisian milestone or a New York fire hydrant for them to cock their legs against.

The restaurant was famously described by a well-known gourmet of the times, Craig Claibourne, as "the greatest French restaurant in the world". Passengers could order any dish they wanted, and the chefs would immediately rustle it up - or so the story goes.

No wood was allowed on the France because of fire regulations. So the designers dreamed up an extraordinary modernist interior made of aluminium, formica and plastic. There was a 660-seat theatre and two swimming pools. And this was not some meandering cruise ship, but a liner built for speed, to cross the Atlantic in the fastest time possible.

In its heyday it could cruise at 31 knots, all 66,348 tonnes of it.

Today the France, or the SS Blue Lady as it has been renamed, is heading into a very different world. The beach at Alang stretches for 9.6km, a great expanse of desolate oil-stained sand littered with the vast skeletons of ships that are being dismembered, picked over by thousands of Indians.

Alang has been compared to the notorious ship-building yards of Victorian England, where workers toiled in grisly conditions.

It has 40,000 workers 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.

Cheap labour and lax safety regulations have allowed India and other developing countries to take over the world's ship-breaking industry. Today, they dominate it - ship-breaking is worth £270 million a year to India.

But now the industry is increasingly at risk from environmentalists who are demanding that it adopts better safety regulations. In a major victory for the eco-lobby this year, the French Government was forced to recall the Clemenceau, a decommissioned aircraft carrier that was heading for Alang, because it was carrying asbestos. Now Greenpeace is demanding that France's most famous liner also be turned back.

The France was a product of the age before mass commercial air travel, born out of French pride. The Americans had the fastest liner, 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 315m (1035ft) France, which until the recent arrival of the Queen Mary 2 was the longest passenger ship built.

The France's tragedy was that it arrived just too late. Even at that amazing reception in New York for its maiden voyage, there were aircraft wheeling 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 it was one of only four transatlantic liners still in service. Built for the cold winds of the north, it quickly found itself on winter cruises for which it was not designed, with one swimming pool indoors and the other covered up.

It went on a world cruise - and had to sail around South America because it was too big for the Panama Canal. In the end, it was another project of national pride that finished the ship off. In 1974 the French Government ended the subsidy that had kept it afloat and diverted the money to Concorde.

In September that year, French trade unionists seized control of the France as it came into dock after crossing the Atlantic to demand that it was kept in service. The 1266 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, it was bought by a Saudi millionaire who wanted to turn it into a floating museum for French furniture, but the plan never got off the drawing board. Finally, in 1979, it 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 that spawned it, renamed SS Norway. The cruise company tore out the second engine room that gave the France its speed, and turned it 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.

It continued to sail through the 80s and 90s but, by the beginning of this decade, maintenance cuts 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.

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. It was renamed the Blue Lady, and for months lay forlornly at harbour off the Malaysian coast. Fans of the France campaigned to keep it afloat. "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 a scrap yard, although the owners are still offering it for sale on the internet for US$24 million.

But the ship's story is far from over. It was supposed to be going to the ship-breaking yards at Chittagong, until the Bangladeshi Government ruled it would not be allowed in because of the asbestos. Now environmentalists demand it is turned away from India as well.

Greenpeace campaigned vociferously this year against the Clemenceau being allowed in. Eventually India's Supreme Court ordered the ship to wait outside Indian territorial waters while it examined the case, but the French Government caved in and ordered it back to France before the court reached a decision.

But even as environmentalists campaign to keep it out, they are facing a backlash from the ship-breaking yards, who say a ban risks destroying their business and 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 ship-breakers of Europe, their counterparts fear owners will find it more economical to have the whole job done there.

There are growing calls in India for the ship-breaking yards of Alang to be modernised 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 may hinge on its being turned away from an Indian ship breaking yard because it is full of toxic waste. Or someone may come up with US$24 million and buy it.


Page One                      SS France

Page Two                      SS Norway

Page Three                    SS Norway – Blue Lady

Page Four                      Norway Deck Plan

Photo                            QE2 passes the Norway

Photo                            Photographer Don Tremain presents his experience and four photographs

Photo                            Norway in BremerhavenPage Two

Photo                            Norway Departs Bremerhaven 23 May 2005

Photo                           A series of photographs of SS Blue Lady in Alang

Article                           “Surreal times on the SS France” by Patrick Jackson

Article                            Chic ship too toxic for scrapping” by Justin Huggler

Project Dubai                 Save the “SS France, Norway, Blue Lady Campaign” page                               

PLEASE NOTE: There are many other newsworthy links on the “Project Dubai” page


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Photographs on ssMaritime are 1. By the author. 2. From the author’s private collection. 3. As provided by Shipping Companies, museums, private photographers/owners etc.. Credit is given to all contributors. However, there are some photographs sent to me without details of the actual hotographer/owners concerned. I would therefore appreciate if owners of these images would make themselves known to me, that due credit may be given.



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