The S.S. Sapona: No Ordinary Wreck

 

The legendary island of Bimini is home to many mysterious landmarks. Visitors can drink from The Fountain of Youth, dive at the underwater Bimini Road, or experience the restorative health properties of the Healing Hole. The most famous attraction in Bimini however, isn’t steeped in lore or fairytale.  Its past is a part of American history.  Now the awe-inspiring S.S. Sapona has a new purpose.

This shipwreck steamer is living a second life as a playground for divers and snorkelers. Its abandoned and ghost ship appearance looks like something straight out of a Stephen King novel. In fact, it was used as a backdrop in the 1977 horror film Shock Waves. While many visit the wreck for its intriguing and compelling aesthetic, few know the true history of how it got there. Let’s go back in time and uncover all the lives of Bimini’s hauntingly beautiful shipwreck.

An Unrealized Warship
The S.S. Sapona was a concrete cargo ship built by the Liberty Ship Building Company in Wilmington, North Carolina for the Emergency Fleet Program during World War I.  It was originally commissioned by President Woodrow Wilson to serve as a troop transport to assist in the war effort. It was constructed out of concrete, because steel was in short supply during the war. However, by the time it was completed in 1920, the war was over, leaving the S.S. Sapona never having the chance to live up to its full potential. Only 12 of the 24 originally commissioned ships were ever built. The Sapona's concrete sister ships would end up repurposed as breakwaters and barges, but this steamer was destined for a more interesting career path.

After being dismissed of military duty, well-known Florida developer Carl Fisher purchased the S.S. Sapona and turned it into a casino for a brief time. He had plans of eventually converting the ship into a private floating club in the Florida Keys. However, that idea was never realized. Instead, Fisher traded the ship's engine and machinery to a dredging company and the ship itself was used for oil storage. In April of 1924, ownership of Sapona changed hands once again and the ship found itself in the possession of a mysterious one-armed man with illicit plans.

Built For Battle, Used For Decadence
The S.S. Sapona was sold to Bruce Bethel, a prior British war captain that came to be known as Bimini’s Rum King during the Prohibition Era. Bethel relocated the ship and used it as a sneaky spot to stash booze. Just like Fisher, he also had fantasies of turning the S.S. Sapona into a floating nightclub. This is where he planned to provide drink-starved Americans from the eastern U.S. with rum and whiskey. At the time, the illicit liquor trafficking business was booming in the Bahamas. Much of it was traded and stored on the islands before it made its way to warehouses, speakeasies, and other hideaways along the South Florida coast. Bethel helped island inhabitants make a comfortable living from the export liquor trade and put Bimini on the map as a smuggler’s paradise. As fate would have it, in 1956 Bethel’s glamorous plan ran aground along with the ship. A hurricane with winds up to 150 mph ripped through the Bahamas. This incredibly powerful storm caused death, destruction, and marked the end of yet another era for the Sapona.

Resting in Paradise
Sunken, shipwrecked, and booze-less, the S.S. Sapona suffered the shame of becoming a target practice during 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 would continually bombard the ship, causing it to lose most of its concrete hull. This destruction contributed to its hollowed, spooky appearance. Weirdly enough, the famous Lost Squadron of Flight 19 disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle in 1945 while returning home from a practice bombing of the ship.  It is said that target practices on the Sapona shortly stopped after that.

Slowly disintegrating as time and weather took their toll, the S.S. Sapona has broken apart and settled into the ocean floor. Rather than serving as a tangible reminder of its rum running days, the rusty remains serve as an artificial reef for local fish and a snorkeling attraction for visitors from all over the world.

The Sapona’s Story Is Far From Over
Now it’s your chance to uncover the secrets of the S.S. Sapona as you swim through the legendary vessel’s rusted, sun-bleached battered relics. Travel by catamaran just three miles south of Resorts World Bimini and go on Bimini Undersea’s Sapona Snorkeling Adventure. This excursion runs Saturdays and Sundays with a price of $69 per person. On the ride there, your tour guide will set a tone of mystery and intrigue with a history lesson on the Sapona. Let your imagination run wild as you snorkel through the artifact with depths approaching a mere 20 feet. It’s shallow enough for kids and beginner divers. The twisted metal and numerous holes attract a good deal of sea life. From vibrant, tropical fish and large lobsters to orange cup corals – all of which are perfectly visible from the crystal-clear waters. Swim towards the bow and then make your way to the impressive engine room. Go treasure hunting for bullet holes and ammunition left from the S.S. Sapona’s target practice days. You can even climb up to the deck, walk around, and jump off the side. Finish off your Sapona adventure with a couple of rounds water sliding off the catamaran as you watch the sun set over the skeletal remains of Bimini’s most famous shipwreck.   

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