The Refit That Sparked Revolution
Peter Swanson investigates the history of a motoryacht that carried Castro and his comrades to the fight of their life.
We are driving on a country road, digging into the history of a storied motoryacht—the 58-footer named Granma that brought Castro to power. We’re in a 1956 Ford that originally belonged to my driver’s grandfather. Ivan is a nice kid. He’s well educated. He’s not a member of the Communist Party, but he is a Cuban patriot and a believer in the Revolution.
“Ivan,” I ask. “Do you know what Granma actually means?”
“Of course. Granma is the name of the Comandante’s boat, the one that brought the revolutionaries here from Mexico. It is also now the name of the province where the boat landed, and it is the name of our national newspaper.”
“Did you know that ‘granma’ is an English word?”
“I did not,” Ivan says, surprised.
“In English it means abuelita, little grandmother. They say it was the name given to the boat by the Yankee that owned her before Fidel.”
1943, A BUILDER IN BROOKLYN
Finding Granma’s origins turns into an Easter egg hunt. Particularly frustrating is the fact that the Cubans, despite a passion for scholarship and a devotion to Revolutionary mythology, appear to be institutionally disinterested in Granma’s life before she comes into Castro’s possession.
Mexican accounts suggest she was built in Louisiana, but maybe that’s because Baton Rouge is the last address of her American owner. Granma’s picture is passed around to various naval architects, boat builders, and restorers, authors and historians. Maybe she’s a Higgins, some suggest. That’s the famed New Orleans builder of PT boats and landing craft. Others say she looks like a Huckins, a Jacksonville, Florida, builder who also built defense craft during the war.
A tipster from Poulsbo, Washington, provides breakthrough information. From a 1950s listing of “Merchant Vessels of the United States” which includes yachts and certain government vessels, he knows that Granma was 58 feet long and built in Brooklyn. And he knows her U.S. documentation number.
A staffer at the Coast Guard Documentation Center checks the index-card record from the 1950s connected to No. 258549 and reports that the boat named Granma was built by Wheeler Shipbuilding and owned by a Schuylkill Products Company until she was transferred to Mexican registration in 1955.
A deeper dig into the archives reveals that she was one of 10 “bomb target boats” built by Wheeler 1942-43 for the U.S. Navy. As a bomb target boat she looks very different. There is no elaborate deckhouse, just a small helm station. These boats would dodge and weave as dive-bomber pilots tried to slam water-filled “bombs” onto her steel plated decks. Granma’s Navy designation is C-1994.
After the war, she is skillfully converted into a yacht. C-1994 has a cambered deck with toe rails where the deck meets the hull. Granma has bulwarks, and by their addition, the shipwrights introduce a sweeping sheer onto what had been fairly flat lines. She becomes a yacht. Jim Moores of Moores Marine, one of the nation’s premier restorer of wooden yachts, says that whoever designed Granma’s house has to have been inspired by Huckins and its trademark flat panels and shaped glass. Maybe Granma was converted into a yacht by an ex-Huckins employee, he says.
At this point, it should be mentioned that Granma lives. An icon of Castro’s armed struggle, she is restored and on display behind glass and steel at the Revolution Museum in Havana.
This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.