Monday, January 30, 2006
In her heyday she was the most glamorous ship on the seas, plying the transatlantic route and celebrated as the pride of France and one of the last of the classic ocean liners. But the SS Norway - launched in 1960 as the SS France - now cuts a forlorn figure as she sits in open waters off Malaysia's coast with her name crudely painted over, quietly rusting and likely headed for the scrapyard. The fate of the historic vessel, once the longest in the world, has been the subject of intense speculation among its many fans since May when it was towed from a German port where it was consigned after a 2003 boiler explosion.
SS NorwayIts owner, Norwegian Cruise Line, said in April last year it intended to "utilise the ship in a new venture" and that it would be taken to Malaysia's Port Klang just west of the capital Kuala Lumpur. It did not release further details, except to say the Norway "did not fit into the company's well-advanced fleet modernisation programme". Rumours have been circulating for months in shipping and marine circles that the Norway is to be sold to an Asian ship-breaking company. Greenpeace has included the Norway on a watchlist of 50 vessels which it fears will not be decontaminated before being scrapped, saying the French workers who built the ship claim it contains 1,250 tons of asbestos-containing material. "The workers don't want to expose the workers on Asian shipbreaking yard to the risks that they were exposed to when building the ship," it said on its website, adding that they were now developing asbestos-related illnesses. Norwegian's Malaysian parent company, Star Cruises, has refused to elaborate on its plans or even confirm the Norway's presence in Malaysian waters. But Malaysia's Marine Department confirmed to AFP that the Bahamas-flagged vessel was anchored in open waters in the Malacca Strait, one nautical mile from Malaysia's busy Port Klang, which lies west of the capital Kuala Lumpur. "This ship is in Malaysian territorial waters," a marine department official told AFP, adding that department officers had examined the vessel. Approaching by speedboat about a half-hour's journey from Port Klang, the Norway's graceful lines and distinctive winged funnels are clearly recognisable as she looms on the horizon. A tour of the ship's exterior speaks of an uncertain road ahead for the stately vessel once feted as the apex of luxury cruising. The giant liner's name, spelled out in raised metal letters, has been painted over in a slapdash manner but remains clearly visible. Stenciled above is the new name "Blue Lady". Windows which used to provide scenic vistas for well-heeled passengers have some of their shutters and blue curtains partially drawn, while interior furnishings are piled up against some panes. A disused basketball hoop and a sign reading "The Great Outdoor Restaurant" on an open upper deck where passengers once sunned themselves recall better times. Rust flakes through the paintwork along the deck's once-pristine bannisters and ceilings. While no crew can be seen, smoke rises from one of the Norway's two funnels, which along with its original avant-garde interior and artwork were acclaimed as breaking ground in their day. Jacky Tan Keng Joo, a local Port Klang boat operator, said he first noticed the Norway during his rounds in the area in late August. He said he had been to the ship three times since - twice to have a look with some friends and once in late October, when he ferried officials from the Genting group, which owns Star Cruises, to the Norway. "It was three people. One Malaysian and two white foreigners," he said. "They didn't go on the boat. They took pictures." Tan also said ferries regularly took supplies and drinking water to the Norway, although he had not spotted any of its crew. When the France was launched by the wife of then-president Charles De Gaulle on May 11 1960, it was, at 313 metres, the longest liner in the world at the time. The Queen Mary 2 currently holds the record at 345 metres long. The vessel was sold in 1979 to Norwegian Cruise Line and renamed. It was kept at the German port of Bremerhaven at a cost of around US$500,000 a month after the 2003 explosion in Miami, Florida which killed eight crew. But the Norway's beauty and its service over decades has earned a legion of loyal followers, who are anxiously tracking its location, swapping theories over its fate and calling for its preservation.