By M.P. Pellicer | Eerie.News
Over 100 years after it was commissioned as a war ship, what's left of the Sapona sits on the edge of the Bermuda Triangle, a silent witness to many eerie occurrences.
The S.S. Sapona (originally named the Old North State then changed) was one of four ships manufactured for use in WWI by the United States. Their names were Sapona, Cape Fear, Faith and the Americas. There was a steel shortage, and they were made of concrete by the Emergency Fleet Corporation at Wilmington, however the war ended before they could be used as troop transport ships.
The Sapona launched October 15, 1919. She made her maiden voyage between Wilmington and Jacksonville, Florida. By January 1920, it was being used to transport phosphate rock from Florida to Baltimore. Then she was used in the New England coal trade as part of the United States reserve fleet.
In 1923, Carl G. Fisher purchased the freighter with plans to convert it into an annex at Caesar's Creek for the Cocolobo Cay Club as a clubhouse for the Miami members of the American Legion. The Sapona arrived in Miami Beach in November of that year, however within 50 feet of the docks she grounded in shallow water.
Captain C. B. Hews had commanded on the ship down from Norfolk with a crew of five men.
The plans were to renovate her and take her to the cay and moor her to a reef, however the Sapona's destiny was never to end where she was planned to go.
During the Hurricane Season of 1924, residents of Fisher Island took refuge inside the ship.
In February 1925, she was sold to R.P. Clark, which had plans to use the ship as an oil warehouse. Fisher had never used her at Cocolobo Cay, and she had lain derelict on Virginia Key until Clark purchased it.
That same year a paving company bought the bayfront property where the Sapona was kept, so it had to be moved. While at dockside she developed a severe list, and was considered an eyesore. This led to the sale of the ship to a Nassau liquor merchant and member of a prominent Bahamian family, Bruce Bethell for $2,000. He was described as a quiet, retired British soldier, who attended church regularly. He lost his right arm during the war in France, however this did not stop him from welcoming smugglers to store their liquors in his padlocked warehouses. He became known as "Bethell of Bimini". Among the several hundred British subjects living on the island his prestige rivaled those of local government officials.
The newspapers described the transaction as "once the pride of America's war-time follies, the concrete ship Sapona today dropped a shuddering anchor into the white coral rock off Gun Cay to become the mother ship for south Florida rum runners." Bethel's plans was to use the ship as a floating warehouse for liquor.
Prior to the Volstead Act of 1919, Bethell ran a liquor store with his brother Charles Bethell in Nassau. He recognized the opportunity that Prohibition brought to anyone supplying liquor to the U.S., and Bimini was about 50 miles away from Miami. A case of liquor purchased for $18 could be sold as high as $100 in Florida.
Then on September 18, 1926, what became known as the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 (AKA The Great Bahamas Hurricane of 1926), devastated the area, along with the Bahamas and the U.S. Gulf Coast. Its intensity was equivalent to a Category 4 hurricane, and 145 mph winds swept everything in its path.
Due to the effects of the hurricane the price of rum skyrocketed.
Liquor was at such a premium that after the hurricane everyone in Miami Beach tried to salvage any intact bottles lying at the bottom of Biscayne Bay. On September 30, thirteen men including a Miami policeman were captured by coast guard, and put in jail for diving after the whiskey and bringing it to the surface bottle by bottle.
The parlance of the day was to call the liquor "cargoes of merchandise."
A story by the Chicago Tribune described it thus:
Gun Cay was a notorious rum row, and normally 10 ships ran liquor to the coast. Only one of Bethell's ship survived the devastation. This was the Sapona. She suffered a hole through the hull, and wound up grounded off South Bimini, but at least she wasn't five fathoms deep like the rest of his fleet. One of Bethell's other boats, the Queen of Rum Row a three-masted schooner went to the bottom of Gun Cay inlet. Bethell still had plans to convert the Sapona into an entertainment ship that included a thick dance floor of glass over a shark aquarium, but his idea was never realized.
Rum running or bootlegging as it was known was a lucrative, but very dangerous business as told by a story appearing at the MobMuseum.org
By 1928, Bethel estimated he sold more than $3 million worth of liquor at island prices. Eventually Bimini faded as a smuggler's paradise, but Bethell's adventures with the Sapona had not ended. In July 1933, he was onboard the ship, when a companion was seized with cramps while swimming. He attempted to save their life and was swept into the Gulfstream and then out to sea. With one arm, he hung on to a two foot piece of wood for 18 hours fighting the currents. He was rescued by sponge fishermen who took him to Alice Town in North Bimini.
In 1935, what little wood was left on the Sapona was stripped and sold for the construction of the Compleat Angler Hotel in Alice Town. The 12-room hotel was built by Henry and Helen Duncombe following the destruction of their first house by fire in 1934. It became notorious for its bar and late night parties. One of the most famous guests was Ernest Hemingway who stayed there from 1935 to 1937. During his stay he wrote his novel, To Have and Have Not. The hotel burned to the ground in 2006.
Bethell eventually lost his fortune in the liquor business, and opened the only hotel on the island. Bruce Stanley Bethell once known as the "King of Bimini" died penniless in 1951.
Time passed, the elements and the salt water took a toll of the Sapona. During WWII the ship was used for bombing practice by American planes. This shattered the concrete hull and tore the steel meshing.
One of these military exercises ended in mystery and left a plethora of unanswered questions, and reminds one that the Sapona sits on the corner of the notorious Bermuda Triangle.
On December 5, 1945, three months after the end of the war in the Pacific, Lieutenant Charles Taylor along with 13 crew members left from Naval Air Station Fort Lauderdale on a flight that would take them to Hens and Chickens Shoals, and a training run at the hulk of the Sampona. This was planned as a three-hour exercise between Florida, Puerto Rico and Bermuda.
On their return flight the weather deteriorated and radio contact was lost, but what little transmission was received indicated that they were disoriented and some of their instruments were not working correctly. Flight 19 included five Grumman TBM Avengers. Two rescue planes sent out for them also vanished with 13 crew members. Three hundred boats were sent out to search the Atlantic east of Florida, but none of the 27 men or the planes have ever been found.
The Navy reported that Lt. Taylor as flight leader mistook small islands off the coast for the Florida Keys when his compass malfunctioned. The disappearance was blamed on "temporary mental confusion" and "faulty judgment" on the part of Lt. Taylor. A year after the report Taylor's mother, Katherine successfully petitioned the Navy via her attorney to amend the report of the incident to "causes unknown".
Katherine Taylor never accepted her son's death, believing he was stranded on an island after floating there with a life jacket. When visiting Fort Lauderdale she would go to the docks with his photograph asking strangers, "Have you seen this man?" She was also offering a reward of $1000.
Perhaps the Navy knew more intimate details about Taylor then his mother. Rumors were that he'd been drinking the night before the flight, and he was suffering from a hangover on the morning of December 5. He tried to get a replacement, but was unsuccessful and showed up 25 minutes late.
Another rumor was he had a date with actress Jinx Falkenberg, or that he broke up with his girlfriend. Supposedly he received a letter with disturbing news that he stuck in his jacket pocket, and it went with him, wherever he ended up.
There were prior reports of Taylor being rescued three time over the Pacific Ocean after getting lost and ditching his plane in water. Most of the pilots on Flight 19 were trainees. The planes they were flying were known to sink in under a minute.
According to the book The Disappearance of Flight 19 (1980) Taylor was a good pilot who became careless, and his family and fellow pilots described him as a handsome loner and a lost soul, and contrary to reports that his troubles were owed to the women in his life, he wasn't that interested in women, or much else.
But what happened to the rescue mission who went after Flight 19, and disappeared as well? It seems that personal problems was the not cause of their disappearance.
Twenty years passed, and the Sapona continued on her silent vigil over this part of the Atlantic Ocean. In 1965, she was used in the James Bond film Thunderball, and then in 1977 for the horror flick, Shock Waves.
Hurricanes in 2004, broke the stern and partially submerged it. Sitting in 17 feet of transparent water, it has been taken over by sea life, and is a favorite spot for divers.
Mysterious Voyage, December 2020
There was something more strange about a boat traversing the Bermuda Triangle, then its disappearance.
On December 28, 2020, a 29-foot blue and white Mako Cuddy Cabin with 20 passengers left Bimini enroute to Lake Worth, Florida. This was a 140 mile trip. Within a few days the family of one of the passengers reported them overdue to the Bahamian authorities. They in turn notified the Coast Guard.
For some reason the only information given out was the particulars of the vessel, but nothing else. Was it smuggling drugs, illegal immigrants or something else that could account for the lack of explanations. Neither the name of the boat, the passengers, or the reason for the trip was given.
Coast Guard Petty Officer Jose Hernandez, reported to a local South Florida newspaper that no signal had been received from an Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon, which is activated either in an emergency or if it touches water.
The Coast Guard searched approximately 17,000 square miles, for about 84 hours, before calling the search off on January 1, 2021. No further information has ever been provided as to what happened to the vessel and those aboard as it traversed the waters of the Devil's Triangle.
Sources - The Knoxville News, Lewiston Evening Journal, The Miami Herald, The Tampa Times
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