A Man and His Ship and My Uncle the Accountant

SS United States, the fastest ocean liner ever built, designed by Gibbs & Cox.
SS United States, the fastest ocean liner ever built, designed by Gibbs & Cox.

When we were growing up, a big part of our family lore was that our great uncle, Frederic H. Gibbs, designed the fastest ocean liner ever built. We used to visit FH and his wife, Bess, at their summer cottage at the Weekapaug Inn on Rhode Island’s coast. Fred had a Ferrari that he used to drive while wearing a leather aviator’s cap and goggles. I was terrifically disappointed to hear the real story of my great uncle when I read a new book by Steven Ujufusa, called “A Man and His Ship.

It turns out that man was actually Fred’s brother, William Francis Gibbs. He was the most famous naval architect of all time, designing thousands of Liberty ships and a fleet of fast destroyers for the US Navy. All the while, Frederic took care of the books for the big firm, Gibbs & Cox, which both of them owned without any shareholders.

Even in college William Gibbs was obsessed with designing big ocean liners. He nearly flunked out of Harvard because he and Fred spent so much time studying old British ship blueprints, and he began designing the SS United States back in those days, 1916. The ship wouldn’t be christened until 1952, when United States Lines had secured a generous 25-year subsidy by building the fast liner to navy specifications, so it could be quickly turned into a troop ship if needed. Nearly every time it sailed out of NY harbor, Gibbs would have his driver take him to a point where he could watch his pride and joy glide by on its way to Southampton England.

Gibbs always said that this ship, his crowning career achievement, meant “1000 times more to him than his wife Vera.” As a dad, he was Victorian in his aloofness, and when he died, sadly, one of his sons didn’t come to the funeral. His death in 1967 came at a time when the big liner was facing dire straits.

Maritime unions were hammering the money-losing United States Lines for higher pay, and more and more travelers were electing to take the plane to Europe, and not endure the tough North Atlantic three-day crossing. It was an era that had passed, no longer would the SS United States be the way to travel to Europe–it was just too slow and became a relic of an earlier era.