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S.S. Sapona

Photos by Jim Raycroft

S.S. Sapona

Ghost Ship

A waypoint for cruising yachtsmen, the S.S. Sapona has a history rife with mystery and intrigue.

Just south of Bimini, a ghostly apparition rises from the crystalline depths, a shipwreck so sun-bleached and battered it resembles the skeletal rib cage of some Leviathan, long-deceased and now resting peacefully in paradise. But this is no ordinary wreck, and the S.S. Sapona was no ordinary ship. She’s got a history as colorful as the schools of tropical fish that flicker among her crevices and crags.

Perhaps the most curious thing about the Sapona is that she was constructed—somewhat counterintuitively—out of concrete. That’s because during World War I, steel was a precious resource, and shipbuilders were pressed to find alternative materials for hulls. The French had been using concrete to build boats as far back as 1848, but the material had enjoyed little popularity due to its excessive weight and resulting high operating costs. However, concrete itself was cheap and plentiful, and in the strange vagaries of a wartime economy where labor was plentiful but steel was not, its time had come round at last. Soon after he asked Congress for a declaration of war, Woodrow Wilson approved the Emergency Fleet Program, which commissioned 24 steel-and-reinforced-concrete ships to be constructed in order to aid the war effort.

Sapona was built by the Liberty Ship Building Company of Wilmington, North Carolina, and slid down the ways just a tad late to serve her country—in January 1920. Actually, because the war ended shortly after the United States became involved, only 12 of the 24 ordered ships were ever built and very few of those in time to see action. But while most of her concrete sisters were destined for pedestrian careers as breakwaters and barges, Sapona was on a much different course—one charted for intrigue and ignominy.

After a brief stint in Miami where she was used for oil storage and dredge work, Sapona was sold to an Englishman named Bruce Bethel. Bethel is one of those myriad industrious and ephemeral characters that linger on the murky outskirts of history. He was no doubt something of a name in his day, yet the passing years have nearly swallowed him whole. An officer in the war, Bethel had lost an arm while serving and subsequently retired to Bimini where he became a rum smuggler of some renown. After purchasing the ship, Bethel towed her to a mooring just offshore, where he used her to store his prodigious stock of illegal liquors. He apparently had designs on turning the ship into a nightclub as well, but cruel fate would come howling across the Atlantic before his plans could reach fruition.

The Storm of 1926 was described by the U.S. Weather Bureau as “probably the most destructive hurricane ever to strike the United States.” Indeed by some estimates it would claim the lives of 800 South Floridians, but not before first scouring Bimini with 150-mph winds and waves torn from the pages of the Book of Revelation. Sapona never stood a chance. The sea plucked up the ship and dropped her on a reef in 15 feet of water four miles away from Bimini. There it thrashed at the ship until her stern ripped free, spilling all of her precious hooch into the water, gone forever. Sapona’s three-limbed owner never recovered financially, though he would stagger on—allegedly with a tenuous grasp on his own sanity after an incident in which he was cast adrift at sea, clinging to a piece of timber in shark-filled waters—until he died penniless in 1950. And thus ends the woeful tale of the rumrunner Bruce Bethel.

But Sapona’s story was far from over. At the outbreak of World War II, U.S. Army Air Force and Navy brass quickly realized that the vessel would provide excellent target practice for their fighter planes and bombers. And so day after day, warplanes on training missions strafed the ship to Swiss cheese with deadly 50mm machine gun rounds and bombs. It was just such a mission that would further cement Sapona in the history books. On December 5, 1945, a squadron of five TBM Avenger torpedo bombers led by Navy Lieutenant Charles Carroll Taylor took off from Naval Air Station Fort Lauderdale (now Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport) headed for Sapona and the nearby Hens and Chickens Shoals. They made their runs there but after losing radio contact with the ground and becoming disoriented, the planes and the 14 men aboard disappeared—neither they nor any trace of them or their aircraft was ever seen again. Two rescue planes searching for them shortly after the disappearance vanished as well, thus sparking the legend of the Bermuda Triangle, one of the world’s most enduring paranormal fascinations.

Today Sapona’s reputation has shed some of the harrowing patina of her past, and she is appreciated as a popular destination for the divers who still find 50mm casings on the surrounding sea bottom. Her bow is scarred with good-natured graffiti, and adrenaline-minded daredevils have rigged up a crude set of rappelling ropes amidships. For those familiar with the boat, it is considered a rite of passage to climb those ropes, navigate across Sapona’s bomb-ravaged carapace to her bow, and then launch themselves into the water some 40 feet below. Thrilling? Yes. Bold? For sure. But those (mostly young men) who dare to take the leap should take heed that they are not the first reckless hearts to know Sapona, and as long as that ancient ship crests defiantly from the sea, they surely will not be the last.

This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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