It’s just after 3:00 a.m. on July 2, 1978, and passengers on board the S.S. America are angry. The people are so incensed, in fact, that they’re shouting, “We want to get off!” And, unsurprisingly, the chanting will soon be followed by violence. Yet this isn’t a naval insurgence; instead, it’s a mutiny. What’s more, the revolt is rather bizarrely happening on a cruise ship.
Earlier that day, however, the passengers who’d arrived at the pier on New York’s West 54th Street probably couldn’t believe their luck. You see, they’d each paid as little as $99 for a two-night cruise from Manhattan. In addition, the advertisements for the Venture Cruise Lines trip had promised the people opulence beyond their wildest dreams. But the reality would turn out to be far from luxurious.
The journey would be aboard the S.S America – a vessel that had once been the pride of the cruising industry. Christened by the then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, at the time she had been the biggest, quickest and most extravagant passenger liner around. That, however, was in 1939, and by 1978 things had seemingly gone downhill for the ship.
Even before the cruise liner was due to set sail on the late June 1978 trip, it appears that cracks had begun to show. Some paying passengers’ tickets never arrived, for example, while other people’s names were missing from the list entirely. And according to History.com, on the day of departure a voice could be heard shouting “Get on board, tickets or no tickets” in an effort to speed up the boarding process.
But the bargain price of the tickets soon began to make sense given the state of the ship. Indeed, so disgusting was the SS America’s interior, History.com has reported, that one passenger even described the liner as “a floating garbage can.” The disappointments didn’t end there, either. Nothing about the vessel could be described as opulent; there were cockroaches and flooded cabins as well as a swimming pool full of trash.
And cruising had long been associated with luxury. From the pursuit’s very beginnings in 1844, when the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company announced what is believed to be the first passenger liner, only the richest could afford to cruise. Indeed, the first ships intended for the purpose were so expensive to travel on that only celebrities, royalty and other wealthy individuals were able to make use of them.
Back then, though, even the most luxurious liners had their limits in terms of what they could offer their passengers. Bathrooms were shared and located in the hallways for the use of all travelers – even those in first class. Rooms were about 50 percent smaller than their modern equivalents, too, with each boasting hardly enough space to fit a pair of chairs.
Entertainment-wise, things were also minimal, to say the least. In the early days, a library, cards, shuffleboard and dancing made up the entire list of activities available to passengers. Also, 24-hour dining simply didn’t exist. If you were hungry, then, you waited until mealtime – a formal sit-down event complete with a strict dress code.
As for destinations, back then most ships sailed from Southampton on Britain’s south coast to European ports such as Malta and Athens or across the Atlantic to New York City. This lack of choice was mainly owing to the size of cruise liners, as they needed deeper harbors in which to dock. These days, by contrast, cruising can pretty much take you all around the world.
But while ships were even larger and more extravagant come the 1960s, the industry needed a boost after having suffered a lull during the post-war years. Thankfully, that shot in the arm came in the unlikely form of a TV show that aired during the 1970s and ’80s: The Love Boat. After all, the ABC series depicted cruise life as glamorous and sexy to the millions that tuned in.
Now, many modern cruise ships are huge floating holiday resorts with more amenities than ever before: from casinos to nightclubs and water parks to Broadway shows. These developments seem to be making cruises more appealing, too. Apparently, as of 2011 more than 19 million of us had spent a vacation on the high seas.
But let’s return to 1978. The S.S America, for her part, was the largest cruise liner that had ever built in the U.S. In fact, she had even once set the record for the fastest passenger ship crossing from NYC to Britain. Known as “America’s flagship,” the vessel promised “no finer food or service afloat” – and she had even received White House approval before sailing.
Built in Virginia for United States Lines, the America had already been christened by the First Lady at the time, Eleanor Roosevelt. Yet the ship – which was originally conceived to sail from the Big Apple to Europe – sadly wouldn’t see passenger service for several years. Why? Well, the day after the America’s inaugural sailing, Germany invaded Poland – in turn kicking off World War II.
As a result, then, the America was commandeered by the U.S. Navy in May 1941. Given the brand-new name of U.S.S. West Point and refitted as a troop carrier, the ship wore gray camouflage and boasted anti-aircraft weapons. And between 1941 and 1946 the vessel took more than 350,000 troops safely across the oceans.
In addition to the West Point’s herculean troop-carrying effort during the war, the ship also became involved in a Nazi spying operation. In 1941, you see, German agents Erwin Siegler and Franz Stigler joined the crew. Once aboard, the pair then reported sensitive military information back to the Nazis as part of the Duquesne Spy Ring. Fortunately, though, Siegler and Stigler were later caught by the FBI in the U.S.’ most wide-ranging espionage sting.
Then, after the war, the West Point once again became the America and finally achieved her original purpose. As a passenger liner, the ship traveled to and from Europe. And a young Madeleine Albright – who would go on to be U.S. Secretary of State – was once among the people on board, as she and her family used the vessel to flee Europe in 1948.
In the mid-1960s, though, cruise company the Chandris Group took ownership of the craft, renaming her the Australis. And as that new moniker may suggest, the firm put the ship to work sailing passengers from Britain to Australia and New Zealand – making her the final liner to embark on that particular run.
The Australis carried on taking Brits to Australia until 1978, when the high price of fuel and the popularity of flying, among other reasons, put an end to the route. After that, the ship was sold to a new company: Venture Cruise Lines. And later that year, both the boat and her owners would make headlines – but for all the wrong reasons.
As we’ve already seen, America’s inaugural Venture Cruise Lines journey got off to a bad start. And after the ticket furore, passengers were even more appalled when they were finally aboard the ship. Despite the claims of a luxurious refit, it was clear that whatever work had been done wasn’t nearly enough.
By all reports, the America was in a horrendous state. Aside from non-flushing toilets, some beds lacked sheets and mattresses, while bad plumbing had also flooded a number of the rooms. At dinner, moreover, one passenger noticed that the crew were merely cleaning dirty plates with cloths rather than washing them properly.
What’s more, any disappointment at the general lack of hygiene on the America may have been compounded by the utter dearth of facilities. You see, the promised beauty salon, disco and sauna were all nowhere to be found. And as if that wasn’t enough, around 100 passengers had boarded to discover that there were no rooms left to accommodate them. Venture, it seems, had overbooked the America past capacity.
Furious, the roomless passengers mounted a loud protest in front of the office of the ship’s purser. According to History.com, they started shouting, “We want to get off!” But when nothing seemed to happen, some protesters became violent, and skirmishes erupted between members of the mob and the America’s crew.
Ultimately, though, the America’s captain gave in to the passengers’ demands. Stopping in close proximity to Coney Island, the ship paused just long enough for 250 disgruntled passengers to disembark via rope ladders. Landing in tugboats waiting in the waters below, the former cruisers were then ferried to Staten Island.
After that, the America went unceremoniously back to her journey, while the former passengers were left stranded on Staten Island after being dropped off by the tugs – even though Venture had initially promised each customer a limo ride home after the cruise. Then the next morning, tales of the mutinous journey hit the headlines. But the company’s troubles didn’t end there.
Despite Venture admitting to the New York Daily News that it had “goofed” in its preparations for the cruise, the company actually attempted the journey a second time – just days after the first mutiny. This prompted the New York Post to splash, “That ship is back to load up again” on its front page. And, sure enough, that voyage had its own problems too.
After having been given the nickname “The Mutiny Ship,” the vessel sailed a five-day journey to the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. Just like before, the water pipes leaked and toilets malfunctioned. And yet again Venture apologized for the “goof.” At this point, though, New York’s State Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz ordered the America be confined to port. The situation would continue to worsen for the cruise company, too.
In addition to charges of deceptive business and advertising practices, Venture received a fine of $500,000. The U.S. Customs Service that handed down the penalty cited that $339,000 of that sum was for allowing the passengers off the vessel during the journey. Then, as if this needed confirming, health inspectors gave the America a shockingly low hygiene score of six out of 100.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Venture’s cruise company crumbled later that summer. The America was thus sold on and given a new name. In fact, Chandris Lines bought the ship back, and this time she was christened the Italis. But while the vessel went back to cruising, age began taking a toll, and towards the end of the 1980s she was sold for scrap at a price of $2 million.
And while that scrap deal ultimately fell through, it seemed in 1992 as though a new life awaited the craft. In that year, you see, she was bought as a proposed floating hotel to be located off the Thai island of Phuket. The ship was given the name of American Star, too, but unfortunately she never got the chance to fulfill her glamorous new purpose.
As American Star was towed by a tugboat out of Greece, severe weather conditions caused a big problem. Storms somehow irreparably severed the cable that ran between the two vessels – despite the tug crews’ best efforts to fix the line. The once-famous liner was then left to float alone for more than 24 hours after her crew was evacuated by helicopter. Then, finally, she ran aground at the Canary Islands.
After a further two days being battered by the force of the Atlantic Ocean, American Star eventually gave up the ghost. Torn in two by the ferocious waves, the ship sank to her final resting place in January 1994. And until 2013, parts of the vessel were still visible at low tide. After more than 50 years of service, then, the liner is now just a shell on the ocean floor.
Yet while American Star met an ignominious end after an illustrious career, other revolt-related vessels have proved much luckier. Yes, in October 2017 another cruise liner found itself at the mercy of a group of angry passengers. This time, though, broken toilets and damaged pipes were nowhere to be found.
According to The Daily Telegraph, what sounded like the trip of a lifetime was rather unceremoniously cut short – much to passengers’ chagrin. And it all started with a trip, organized by Costa Cruises, to the Indian Ocean’s Vanilla Islands. Then, two days into the journey, some of the proposed stops were canceled.
As such, the trip’s scheduled itinerary essentially disappeared, leaving passengers in what one individual described to the paper as “a floating prison.” And paid-for trips to islands including Mauritius and Madagascar were also aborted at short notice. The reason for this, the company claimed, was the discovery of both pneumonic and bubonic plagues in Madagascar.
Alain Jan, a passenger on the cruise, offered up his opinion to Le Parisien in November 2017. He explained, “We said, ‘Okay, [the cancelations are] for health reasons.’” When further stops were also scratched out, though, passengers grew wary. And when all they received as a consolation was $175 each in ship credit, tempers understandably flared.
It seemed, in fact, that passengers were angry not only at the cancelations, but also at the rather insulting compensation. After all, on a ship where customers were shelling out at least $5 for one drink, the sum felt like little more than a Band-Aid. As Jan recounted, “There were 60 of us banging our fists on the table to alert other passengers to this con job.”
Meanwhile, Jan claimed that the cruise company must have had knowledge of the disease outbreak before the start of the trip and had therefore purposely hid it from passengers. Following a second protest, then, Seychelles authorities were called in to help sort out the mess. And according to Fox News, police heard both sides of the argument before escorting Jan off the boat.
All was not lost for Jan, though. Thanks to his removal from the liner, he spent two days in the Seychelles with his wife; they even got a free flight home, too. For its part, Costa Cruises said that it stood by its decision to avoid the islands, adding that it made “every effort” to stay on schedule.
In fact, Costa Cruises maintained that the authorities in Mauritius rather than the ship’s crew had made the decision to keep passengers aboard the vessel. Any suspected plague cases on board would have caused delays and, of course, risk to the passengers.
But while the America may now be infamous as the site of a mutiny, try not to let the stories of broken toilets and dirty plates put you off cruising. You never know: the ability to see multiple places, the endless on-board entertainment and the dreamy ocean views could leave you pining after a cruise vacation yourself.