Return of a ghost ship

The sadly derelict N.S. Savannah, now an almost forgotten landmark in maritime history, is being rescued from the government’s Ghost Fleet and being turned over to a Virginia shipyard for restoration. Indeed, the pioneering ship is worth preserving.

The Savannah, optimistically named for the first steam-powered vessel to cross the Atlantic, was conceived as part of President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program, which now sounds as quaint as it does improbable.

The Savannah was to demonstrate the feasibility of nuclear-powered merchant ships, and it was duly launched in Camden, N.J., in 1962.

The finished product was a graceful, white painted vessel often compared to a yacht. But her looks were about the best thing about the Savannah. The hybrid cargo/passenger ship carried 9,400 tons of cargo and 60 passengers, not enough of either to be profitable.

And the maritime industry was already heading in a different direction from what was really a glorified tramp steamer. At 596 feet, the Savannah would indeed look like a yacht compared to today’s hulking container ships and huge cruise liners.

Although the nuclear power plant required special personnel and shore facilities, it was clean, extremely powerful and could circle the globe 14 times at 20 knots without refueling. Some nuclear sentimentalist calculated that with today’s soaring prices of fuel oil the Savannah could now be profitable despite its limitations, which seems doubtful but shows that the dream is still alive.

When nuclear power fell out of favor, Congress tired of subsidizing the Savannah and it was decommissioned in 1972 and towed to the James River to join the Ghost Fleet, the dumping ground for U.S. government vessels awaiting the breaker’s yard.

Congress finally relented and last year approved a $5 million down payment on its rehabilitation.

Eventually, around 2010 or 2011,the Savannah will find a second life as a maritime museum. With oil prices soaring, supplies being dicey and government and industry taking a hard second look at nuclear power, the Savannah may start looking less like a historical and technological curiosity and more like a ship that was simply ahead of its time.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at) Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,