Mailboats Article 12 for Tribune Spring/Summer 2016: European Boats

Mailboats Article 12 for Tribune Spring/Summer 2016: European Boats

           If we divide the Bahamian mailboat fleet into three parts, the wooden, the European, and the modern, this author finds the middle epoch the most colorful. Whereas at first the wooden vessels were drawn locally and often hand-built, their lives for the most part began and ended in the islands, near where they were born, as it were. During phase three, the modern era, most mailboats are built in the US Gulf or Florida, and are for the most part somewhat charmless to look at, with efficient twin-screw propulsion, square steel sterns, and utilitarian, but not graceful, cranes and ramps sticking out of their foreparts.

However during the 1950s to 1980s there came to the Bahamas a dozen or more graceful European freighters, rescued from their careers plodding along the stormy North Sea coasts and up British and European rivers with coal and other commodities, to serve the balance of their days in the sunshine, carrying or mail and cargo for us. Perhaps I am drawn to them because my father, a Swede, took the same route. Though most of them lay their weary hulks to rest at the bottom of Bahamian waters, some of them have gone on to Central and South America, where they may still be operating. Sadly, to my knowledge, none of them are still active in our islands.

Few vessels in Bahamian history have had the kind of storied past as the humble freighter Bahamian, the remains of which can still be found between Paradise Island and Blue Lagoon Cay. She was built as the racing yacht Candace in Leith England in 1882 apparently for an aristocratic British playboy. At 168 feet long, 24 feet wide and 12 feet deep she was a substantial ship of 269 gross tons with a 500 horsepower engine.  From the 1880s to 1930 or so she served the Royal Navy as HMS Firequeen, the flagship of an admiral. Then she was assigned to the Imperial Lighthouse Service in the Bahamas as a lighthouse tender named Firebird. In 1935 the Firebird Captain was W. Moxeley, the Second Officer was H. Pinder, F. Pool was the Chief Engineer, and Cleveland Malone was radio officer. For the list of the crew and officers of the Firebird, see The Early Settlers of the Bahamas and Colonists of North America by A. Talbot Bethell. 

In 1941 the underwater photographer J. Ernest Williamson shot scenes about the Firebird for Paramount’s famous film Bahamas Passage. Later she was the inter-island freighter Bahamian for eight years and Charles Munro of Nassau was her owner and likely the captain. Sometime in the 1950s, she was “reduced to a plain, general cargo ship, her stately masts were chopped off, while peeling paint and rust appeared on the hull. ….the failing derelict had one tune of glory yet to play. Tied to the wharf, waiting to be stripped of her engines and fittings, the dock master received a call that nearly 100 Bahamians were marooned on a small island 20 miles away. They were awaiting rescue from a hurricane with raging winds heading their way, but none of their small boats available to him could hold more than a dozen people.”

“The captain of the Bahamian was summoned and quickly assembled a crew, cranked up the engines and headed into rough seas hoping the old vessel would hold up for one more voyage. It was a rocky trip, but the seasoned craft made it safely to the island, loaded everyone aboard and made it safely back to port.” Wrecked just west of Blue Lagoon Island (Salt Cay), north of Paradise Island (Hog Island), she is now known as the Mahoney Wreck in 25-45 feet of water.

How many countries can boast that a local entrepreneur re-purposed a World War II life boat into a mail and freight boat on a local route? That is exactly what happened when Captain Granville Bethel of Cherokee Sound, Abaco. His home port was shallow and required shuttling of small vessels to carry cargo and people ashore, so Captain Bethel devised an ingenious way to supply the similarly isolated community of Crossing Rocks to the south. He salvaged a lifeboat from a torpedoed Allied freighter which had washed up there. According to his son Patrick, the small craft was renamed Beluga and plied its route from 1945 or so into the 1950s fitted with a small engine. The boat could have come from the O. A. Knudsen, the Athelqueen, or the Daytonian, all sunk off Abaco by German and Italian submarines in March 1942, or from any of the 130 other ships sunk around the Bahamas in WWII.

          The Marcella II was built in 1956 at Busumer Schiffswerft in Busum, Germany. Her predecessor was the Bahamian-built Marcella I, built in 1969 of wood, 90′, burned in Salt Pond, Long Island in 1986. She had been captained by Eddins and Nathaniel Taylor, sons of the owner, from Pirate’s Wells, Mayaguana. Marcella II was 170′ long, 298 gross tons and built of steel. She presumably traded coastwise from Germany 1956-1980s when she served Freeport from Nassau In around 1988 she was badly damaged in a storm and became an artificial reef off Long Island. Capt. Eddins Taylor of the Taylor Corporation, owners, said that this Marcella II was the first steel-hulled mail boat owned by black Bahamians. 

            Marcella III has been trading in Europe, the Bahamas and South America for 57 years under different names, and is believed to be still sailing today – in Bolivia. She was built as the Jade, with green coloring throughout, and delivered in Neue Jadewerft, Wilhelmshaven, Germany on June 2, 1959. Because the yard shares a name with the ship, she was probably built on spec, or without a buyer lined up yet. About 130 feet long, the ship was 364 gross tons, 9.2 feet deep, and could carry 480 tons of cargo.

Purchased by the Taylor family in Germany in 1985, she motored across the Atlantic to her new home under Captains Limas and Eddins Taylor, then served Freeport from Nassau for many years, leaving Wednesdays at 4 pm. Marcella III traded in the Bahamas for some 22 years, still under the original green color scheme, before the Taylors sold her on to Haitian buyers in 2007. Renamed Miss Eva, her new owners then sold her to Bolivian interests around 2009 and she motored south to that country, on the southeast coast of South America, where she is believed to be trading as the Michelda.
The Andros mailboat Lisa J. began its career shuttling school children and others between the islands of Denmark in the 1960s. This unique-looking ship wwas originally named Ellen Soby from 1960 to 1973, then Runden until1999, then Lisa J.. She is 123 feet long, 28 feet wide and only 8.6′ deep. Weighing 347 tons, her MaK diesel engine, pushed the ship at 12 knots with as many as 150 passengers and 25 personal cars. She was built by H. C. Christensen’s Staalskibvaerft in Marstal, Denmark, where she served the communities of Soby and Faaborg, then Sejero and Havnsoe. From 1999 she was intended for the route from Naples Italy to Procida, in the Adriatic, however she was sold to the North Andros Shipping Co. Ltd. and instead and sailed across the Atlantic in July. Lisa J. was on the route from Nassau to North Andros, namely Nicholl’s Town, Mastic Point and Morgan’s Bluff, departing Wednesday evenings.

Sometime after 2005 she was sold on to Honduran owners, where she is today. It is interesting to know how history lives on in vessels: in 2009 I was working in Freeport at a mixed-use ship yard when a Danish yacht sailor said he couldn’t believe his eyes, but there was the ferry that took him to school as a child! It was the Runden, or Lisa J., with its original name! Scottish maritime consultant Capt. Calum Legett kindly provided rare photos of her at work.

            The Ablin was built in 1962 by MAN GHH Dock & Schiffbau, Duisburg, Germany. Her tonnage was 430. Very little else is known about this striking looking coastwise vessel, except that in the 1980s we was purchased by Bahamian owners and voyaged here. Thereafter she served ports of Long Island until around 1998, when she is listed as “detained.” It is believed that in 2007 she was sunk either “on” or “as” a reef in the Bahamas.

                There have been two vessels of this name, however the older, European version was built as the Spiekeroog in Neue Jadewerft Wilhelmshaven, Germany, the same yard which produced the Marcella III. She has also been named Wischhafen (1974-1978), and Treasure Trader (1978-1979), whilst trading in Europe. The ship is 250 tons, with 400 tons of cargo capacity. She served in the Harbour Island, Spanish Wells, Rock Sound, and Governor’s Harbour from 1979 to the late 80s. In the early 1980s she is believed to have been sold to owners in Miami, who renamed her. Capt. Junior Pinder is the master of the present, newer Eleuthera Express. He informed one of the ship’s original owners, Capt. Jan Rautawaara of Finland that the original ship sank between Cuba and Haiti in the late 1980s or early 1990s.

The enigmatic Dutch freighter Miss BJ was launched as the Sambre in 1965 at the Apol A., Scheepswerf C.V., shipyard in Wirdum, Netherlands. She was 152′ long by 24.9′ wide by 8.5′ deep, and roughly 330 gross tons. She served European coastal ports and rivers from 1965 – 1973 under the ownership of Kamp’s Scheepvaart En Handelsmaatschappij, N.V., of Groningen, Netherlands. Then between 1990 and 1999 she was named Juleta and owned by Trans-Bahama Shipping Ltd., possibly also Mail & Ferry Services M.V.B.S.. After lying unclaimed for a time at Prince George Dock, the ship was deliberately scuttled off Nassau on 22 June 1999. According to “What’s On Bahamas” this is now a dive site off the coast of Atoll Cay northeast of Nassau.

The mailboat Willaurie was built in 1966 as the Willmary at Hoogezand SW of Hoogezand, Netherlands. She was 138′ long by 25′ wide, and 199 gross tons. Her single German 290 horsepower engine pushed her along at 8.5 knots. In the 1960s she was sold from Netherlands to the a firm named Antler Ltd. of London, UK, and was used for coastal trades to ports like Goole, Charlestown, Hartlepool and Fulham. In 1980 her classification by Lloyds Register was withdrawn and her flag changed from UK to Nassau, where W. B. Hart owned her. While in the Bahamas she served Rum Cay, San Salvador, and Cat Island in the southeastern Bahamas, presumably from 1980 – 1988.
This is another vessel whose demise is at least as interesting as her career, as she continues to attract tourists – divers – to our islands. According to a dive website, whilst carrying passengers and freight among the Bahama Islands on the 2nd of August 1980 Willaurie experienced engine trouble and passengers were taken aboard Royal Bahamas Defense Force vessel/s. Apparently, the ship was berthed at Potter’s Cay for years, for in 1988 it was reported foundered, or at least partially sunk, there. Then it was raised and was being towed west when in heavy seas the tow line parted. The towing vessel managed to get the Willaurie to Clifton Pier, southwest New Providence, where it sank. Then local dive operator Stuart Cove patched her enough to be towed several miles west to a point Southeast of Goulding Cay, where he sank her as a diving attraction the day after Christmas, 1988. 

The vessel had a very low freeboard, suitable for coastal waters but less so for open ocean passages to places like the southern Bahamas. I recall as a child and teen seeing her at Potter’s Cay. To me the vessel epitomized the romantic, tramp-steamer, “rustbucket” image of the mailboat fleet, a grand old lady waiting to die. At the same time her European lineage was clear, giving her an exotic air. In the early 1980s the Ministry of Transport & Aviation has entries for both “Proposed mail boat M/V Will Mary” and “Contract mail service Will Laurie Vol. 2” Today she sits defiantly upright, atop a reef. In the nearly 28 years since she was sunk, the Willaurie has become a premier dive site, and images of her have graced the photo collections of divers in all corners of the globe, a fitting tribute to her international provenance.

            The Miranda has been owned not only by the Taylor mailboat dynasty (12 ships) of Mayaguana, but by Dutch, American, and Honduran investors as well. She was built as the Geulborg by Sander Gebroeders in Delfzijl, Netherlands in 1966. Wagenborg Shipping owned here until 1977, when the Taylors purchased it, delivered it to the Bahamas and she traded from Miami to Turks & Caicos and Exumas as well as Long Island. One of her captains in the Bahamas was Captain Robert “Bob” Garroway from St. Vincent. Her dimensions were 176′ long, 28.5′ wide, 9.2′ deep, 399 gross tons, and a 450 horsepower engine propelled her at 9.5 knots.

In 1996 the Taylors sold her to Haitian owners and renamed the Paradise Express until 1999, when a Honduran company purchased her, with the name El Compa. From 1999 she was known as the Gilbert Sea, owned by the Gilbert Shipping Corp. of San Lorenzo, Honduras. However she seems to have rotted away in the Miami River. The website adds that “She was seized by the US Customs Department – 74 pounds of cocaine were found hidden inside the false bottom of a 55 gallon drum – as part of Operation Riverwalk, and is now part of Governor’s Riverwalk Reef. The front portion of the wheelhouse was painted with murals [and she] was sunk in 90′ of water just 1.5 miles from the Palm Beach Inlet, and is quickly becoming a haven for tropical and game fish.”

The Betty K VIII continues a 130-plus-year tradition of European-built vessels supplementing the fleet providing mail and freight services amongst and to and from the Bahama Islands. Though built in 1984 by Lurssen Werft, Bremen, Germany, and connecting Florida and beyond with the Bahamas, she is flagged to the tiny port of Avatiu, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (where, coincidentally, the author has sailed to). The ship is a general cargo ship of 2,191 gross tons, capable of carrying about 1,500 tons of cargo. Since May, 2014 she has been plying the cargo route between Miami, Nassau and Abaco under the ownership of the Betty K. Line of Nassau.

            This Bahamian owner, though not strictly a mail carrier, deserves mention. According to their website, they have been serving The Bahamas since 1920 and grown to be full service shipping company operating between Miami, Nassau, and Abaco. Betty K. was named after the daughter of the founder, the Late Mr. C. Trevor Kelly. A fully-owned Bahamian company was born out of an idea from the owner, who saw the need to purchase a boat to take care of their personal needs. The boat, then nicknamed the “Potato and Onion,” would transport lumber for the Kelly families.”

The original Betty K. and the smaller Kelly vessel Ena K. provided an indispensable service, connecting the colony to the US during the war, when larger Canadian ships were withdrawn to their homeland. These little ships returned hundreds of Allied sailors to the mainland after their ships had been sunk by German and Italian submarines off the Bahamas in 1942. Canadian historian and author Kevin Griffin adds that “The 164-ton Betty K. was built in 1938. The “motor boats,” as the Duchess [of Windsor, Wallis Simpson, wife of the Governor, formerly King Edward VIII] called them, offered sailings every Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday in each direction between Nassau and Miami. Before the war, they had sailed from Miami at Noon and from Nassau at 2 pm but [during World War II in the early 1940s] they moved back and forth as cargo offered. More than eighty years later, Betty K Agencies Ltd of Nassau would introduce the sixth and seventh ships of that name, the 1,457-ton Betty K VI in 2004 and 2,028-ton Betty K VI.