Friday, January 3, 2014

Savannah - the atomic cruise ship

SAVANNAH – beautiful lines for a cargo-passenger ship, but dysfunctional.
STATEROOMS were luxurious for the time and included full-size baths
THE dining room inexplicably had seating for 100, even
though Savannah carried just sixty guests.
THE pool verandah was another innovation.
PLAQUE honouring Savannah as a National Historic Landmark
where she is tied up at Baltimore still awaiting her ultimate future.

David Ellis

A SHIP that's seemed lost in the passage of time is America's NS Savannah, the world's first and only nuclear-powered vessel designed to revolutionise shipping by carrying both cruise passengers and freight world-wide, but in fact doing neither with much success.

While the Russians were already taking passengers on their converted nuclear-powered ice-breaker Lenin to the North Pole as the world's first nuclear-powered "cruise ship," and there were three atomic cargo vessels operating around the same time, Savannah was conceived in the late 1950s by US President Eisenhower as a combination of both cruise and passenger vessel to showcase his so-called "Atoms for Peace" program.

Eisenhower trumpeted his concept as "a platform for sharing the nuclear knowledge-bank." His opponents labelled it Cold War propaganda.

Whatever, Savannah had her admirers to whom she was "a beautifully-lined luxury cruise ship," and her detractors who wrote her off as "a pretty and highly dysfunctional cargo ship."

Marrying her two roles did not come with the success Eisenhower and Savannah's designers had hoped. For starters, she wasn't really a cruise ship because she could carry just sixty passengers in thirty staterooms. And then she wasn't a conventional cargo ship either, because her streamlined design meant she could carry a mere 8,500 tonnes of freight, and required much manual labour at a time when ports were dumping workers and automising.

But from a technical point of view she was brilliantly innovative, her 20,000 hp nuclear engine fed by low-enriched uranium giving her a top speed of 23 knots, and a capability to circle the earth an extraordinary 14 times without refuelling.

Costing nearly US$50m which came from the US Atomic Energy Commission, the Maritime Administration and the Department of Commerce, Savannah quickly ran into trouble over the size of her crew – and their pay.

To begin, she needed 33% more technical and engineering crew than conventional ships of her size, and as these crew had to be specially trained to handle their nuclear responsibilities, they demanded and received higher than normal wages.

But this irked Savannah's deck officers who cited a tradition that ensured they received higher pay than engineering officers, and after an arbitrator ruled in their favour, the three government departments cancelled their agreement with Savannah's contracted operating company and appointed another. This meant Savannah was laid-up for a whole year while a complete new crew was trained – and a new pay scale sorted out that meant it would cost US$2m a year more to run Savannah that a similar-sized oil-fired ship.

But despite all this, there were no complaints from the few passengers that Savannah carried: their luxury facilities included air-conditioned staterooms with private facilities (including full-size bathtubs,) the dining-room could seat 100-guests (for some strange reason, forty more than the number of passengers she could carry,) there was a swimming pool, library, and lounge that converted into a cinema.

But her passenger carrying days came to an abrupt end after just three years when it was decided that to cut costs, Savannah would become a purely cargo vessel. Yet even this proved economically disastrous, with one shipping industry newspaper at the time summing up: "She required $2m a year in government subsidies, she had vast unused passenger spaces, and by contrast her cargo capacity was insufficient…"

Finally in 1970, just eight years and 725,000km from her first sailing, Savannah was pulled out of service and laid-up.

Ironically bunker fuel for conventionally-powered ships was just $20/ton at the time – but within a few months this had spiralled 400% to $80 with the world Energy Crisis.

Had somebody had a crystal ball, maybe it could have been a different story for Savannah – and indeed the future of nuclear shipping.

For 40-odd years its been proposed that Savannah become a museum ship for the inquisitive to explore what was another world of luxury for passengers in the 1950s and '60s, and to peer into her-once nuclear heart.

With this in mind she was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1991, and her nuclear fuel removed at a cost of over US$1m. She now sits at the Canton Marine Terminal in Baltimore waiting for someone to adopt and convert her into that museum ship.

Visit her at or see

(Photos: Courtesy N/S Savannah Association and US Historical Naval Ships Association.)

Shongololo train through Africa - a moving safari

David Ellis

WHEN we told mates we were off to Africa for game viewing and a safari-like adventure, and that we were going to do it over a near-fortnight by train, our announcement was met with much mirth and hilarity by those supposedly in the know.

"Send us pictures of the blurred fur you flash by," one chuckled. "Hope you've a long lens, a LONG lens," chortled another, while a third wished us well – and expressed the hope that "all the animals are deaf as you sneak up on them in your 500 tonne train…"

It was great fun at our expense, but it was we who in fact had the laugh on them. Because they'd not taken into account that our train was the Shongololo Express, a cosy re-vamp of yesteryear rail indulgence that has been carrying adventurers and animal-spotters for a near-20 years across a vast sprawl from Cape Town in South Africa's south to Durban in its east, Tanzania's Dar es Salaam in the north, and Swakopmund in Namibia in southern Africa's far west.

And that rather than our train trying to sneak up on unsuspecting animals in the wild, it actually parked at stations or sidings, with guests taken daily by a fleet of air-conditioned Mercedes-Benz mini-vans carried in flat-cars hooked on the back, for totally up-close animal-spotting in the wild, city and village sightseeing, and visits to museums and other highlights.

And with these mini-vans driven by the train's own on-board professional guides, and who were often joined along the way by game reserve and national park Rangers, or other professional local guides.

Better still, the Shongololo was our travelling hotel, with the need to unpack and re-pack just once in 12-nights as we indulged a reminisce back to a time when train travel was leisurely, unhurried and genteel, and amid restored yesteryear Rhodesian (now Zimbabwe) Railways' polished teak-wood carriages offering dining, lounge, bar and sleeping accommodation that was all somehow cleverly shoe-horned into the confines of narrow-gauge rail.

Also the train travelled mostly at night, making every day available for organised touring in those mini-vans – with a choice of at least two options daily that were included in the train's price, and which began after a hearty Continental and full-cooked English breakfast, and which ended with us being brought back late afternoon to find the bar open and dinner about to be served.

What surprises awaited in lounge/bar and dining cars too: local South African beers cost as little as 16 rand (AU$1.70) a can, and excellent local South African wines from just 95 rand a bottle (AU$10)… great accompaniments to nightly 4-course dinners that ranged from European to Cape Dutch, Malay, Indian and traditional African dishes embracing soup, entrĂ©e, main courses, and desserts or biscuits and cheese.

Amongst his many delights Chef offered-up roast lamb one night with a bevvy of baked vegetables, a tangy curry with numerous side-dishes another, a traditional African bobotie (baked mince with raisins and an egg-based topping) yet another, and on others pork fillet with caramelised pear sauce, chicken breast with a honey-mustard sauce, a beef pinotage, and one night good ol' English-style fish and chips… with menus never repeated during our 12-nights.

Shongololo offers four itineraries, with our Good Hope Tour taking us from Cape Town through the famed Winelands and Overberg, Kimberley and Bloemfontein, the Midlands, Southern Drakensberg, Durban, Zululand, Swaziland, Hluhluwe-Umfolozi and Kruger National Parks, Pretoria and Johannesburg where we were also given a guided tour of Soweto.

This gave us the opportunity with the train's own mini-vans to sightsee Cape Town and surrounds, taste local wines, visit the Big Hole former diamond mine and museum, tour Anglo-Boer War battlefields, go into tribal villages, communities and markets, game drive to within an almost couple of arm's length of wild animals including The Big Five (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and Cape buffalo,) take-in Durban's picturesque beaches, parks and gardens, visit museums, and see tribal dances and other performances.

And at night retreat to our own ensuited and air-conditioned cabin – nodding-off to the haunting clicketty-clack of Shongololo heading off to its next day's destinations.

We booked air, Shongololo and necessary hotels through Bench International that's specialised in Africa holidays for almost 45 years. Phone them toll-free 1300AFRICA or see



1.A MEDICINE man welcomes Shongololo Express's passengers to his Zulu village.    (David Ellis)
2. THE train's owner, Leon Plutsick with one of the mini-vans carried aboard for daily sightseeing. (David Ellis)
3. THIS lion not the least concerned as we trail and photograph him at Sabi Sabi Game Reserve. (David Ellis)
4. SHONGOLOLO's guests are invited to visit Soweto township in Johannesburg. (David Ellis)
5. DINING car aboard Shongololo Express: Chef doesn't repeat any dishes in 12-nights of travel. (Shongololo Express)
6. BABOONS (centre and right) hitch a lift on the Shongololo Express. (Shongolo Express)

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