The Amazing True Story of Fidel Castro's Mystery Motoryacht - PassageMaker
Granma Makes One of History’s Most Consequential Ocean Passages.

“A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

—King Richard III in Shakespeare’s play of the same name

Imagine how British history might have been altered if the doomed King Richard had the horse he so badly needed.

Now consider some of the great events in world history over the past 57 years. Recall the calamitous Bay of Pigs invasion and the world brought to the brink of nuclear holocaust by the Cuban Missile Crisis. Then there were the relatively minor matters of multiple CIA attempts to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro and the Cuban defeat of the South African military in Angola and the U.S. invasion of Grenada and the Mariel Boatlift of Cuban refugees. Consider also the outsized role played by Florida’s Cuban-exile community in presidential politics, even today with the election of President Donald Trump.

All that drama and mischief—all because Fidel Castro finds that horse when he needs her. Her name is Granma, and she is the 60-foot motoryacht that brought Castro to power.

Granma’s voyage, which is what this story is about, constitutes one of most unlikely successes in maritime history. The story has elements of the evacuation of Dunkirk and George Washington crossing the Delaware, yet the details are virtually unknown in English-speaking North America. Not only does Castro acquire the right boat—though it hardly seems so at the time—but he somehow manages to assemble the talent to make an ocean passage that on paper appears nigh impossible.

NOVEMBER 2016, DIPLOMATIC RELATIONS

We are on a mission in Cuba to scout anchorages for a future rally of U.S. cruising boats. We are driving on a country road in the restored 1956 Ford that originally belongs to my driver’s grandfather. Ivan (pronounced “Eevahn” in Spanish) 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?”

My driver, Ivan.

My driver, Ivan.

“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 place where the boat landed, and it is the name of our national newspaper.”

Granma observes the anniversary of the day that Fidel Castro met Ernest Hemingway.

Granma observes the anniversary of the day that Fidel Castro met Ernest Hemingway.

“The Communist Party newspaper,” I add. “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 the boat by the Yankee guy that owned her before Fidel.”

MAY 1943, WARTIME

U-176, a 251-foot German U-boat commanded by Capt. Reiner Dirksen, prowls along the north coast of Cuba where she torpedoes and sinks two ships, a Cuban freighter and a U.S. tanker. By May 15 she is shadowing a convoy heading north across the Florida Straits, northeast of Havana.

CS-13 is a Cuban Navy sub-hunter—CS stands for Caza Submarino. She and two other sub-hunters are escorting the threatened convoy. The CS boats are from a dozen 83-footers, built by Wheeler Shipbuilding of Brooklyn (make a mental note, reader), which the U.S. transfers to Cuba to combat the growing U-Boat menace. The War of the Atlantic threatens to force England’s surrender, and U-boat successes are a huge embarrassment to an uncharacteristically hapless U.S. Navy.

A black man, son of a poor fisherman, Norberto Collado Abreu is sonar man on CS-13, and he has a deadly ear. He graduates tops in his class at the U.S. Navy Sub Chaser School in Miami for having “sunk” the most subs during on-the-water practice runs. His instructor notes that Collado seems immune to seasickness, the bane of sailors assigned to duties below decks. At one point, according to Collado’s 2006 memoir, he is separated from his classmates and taken to Navy physicians who test and document his exceptional hearing, including an ability to recognize ultrasonic “dog whistles.” Naïve and speaking no English, Collado worries that doctors have found something wrong with him.

At around 4 p.m. on May 15, Collado is on duty, listening through his headset. Amid the routine noise of the ships in convoy, he hears “sounds that were metallic, clean and sharp like that of a bell.” At 1,600 yards away, from his cubby in the bowels of CS-13, Collado has identified a U-boat lurking behind the merchantmen. “I called the bridge and gave the instructions to proceed to the target,” Collado later writes. “This was the moment we sonar men dream about, when we are handed control of the boat.”

This is CS-13 the smallest patrol craft to have ever sunk a submarine. That is believed to be Norberto Collado next to the Cuban flag.

This is CS-13 the smallest patrol craft to have ever sunk a submarine. That is believed to be Norberto Collado next to the Cuban flag.

CS-13’s skipper orders the launch of three depth charges set to explode at 150, 250 and 350 yards. Fuel oil floats to the surface. Actively pinging—like in the movies—Collado tracks the damaged sub and sets the course so CS-13 can go for the kill. A fourth charge is launched, causing a massive explosion and a big burst of oil to the surface. CS-13’s hammer-blow pings against U-176’s hull are some of the last sounds the Germans hear. None of the 53 men survives.

That’s the Cuban version. In the U.S. Navy version, CS-13 is alerted to the sub’s position by a U.S. Kingfisher seaplane, whose pilot drops a smoke float on the sub’s position. Nonsense, Collado and his crewmates later assert: The Kingfisher arrived after the sub had been destroyed and dropped smoke on its debris. Two facts militate in favor of Cuba’s version: The U.S. Navy’s meager success to date in sinking German submarines on its own, and the unexplained decision to keep the sinking of U-176 a military secret until after the war.

Regardless of the role of the plane, the men of CS-13 enter the record books—the smallest boat to ever sink a submarine. Citing the Washington version, Naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison later writes:

The CS-13 patrol boat, commanded by Second Lieutenant Mario Ramirez Delgado, turned toward the (smoke), made good contact through the sonar and launched two perfect attacks with deep charges which annihilated U-176. This was the only successful attack against a submarine done by a surface unit smaller than a Patrol Craft Escort of 180 feet, thus the sinking is properly considered with great pride by the small but efficient Cuban Navy.

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 that 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 60 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 1954.

This is what Granma looked like in her original role as a bomb target boat. Navy dive bomber pilots would try to hit the boat, and the boat's crew would try not be hit. The bombs were filled with water not explosives, and even though the decks and house were steel plated for protection, being hit would have been an unpleasant experience.

This is what Granma looked like in her original role as a bomb target boat. Navy dive bomber pilots would try to hit the boat, and the boat's crew would try not be hit. The bombs were filled with water not explosives, and even though the decks and house were steel plated for protection, being hit would have been an unpleasant experience.

Another view of a navy bomb target boat. Either one of these boats could have gone on to become Granma.

Another view of a navy bomb target boat. Either one of these boats could have gone on to become Granma.

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 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. 

Yacht restoration expert Jim Moores says whoever converted Granma from a naval vessel was inspired by the Huckins company's designs, such as this 1956 model.

Yacht restoration expert Jim Moores says whoever converted Granma from a naval vessel was inspired by the Huckins company's designs, such as this 1956 model.

She becomes a yacht. Jim Moores of Moores Marine, the nation’s premier restorer of wooden watercraft, 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.

Granma behind glass outside the Museum of the Revolution in Havana.

Granma behind glass outside the Museum of the Revolution in Havana.

The only other restored antique vessel in Havana is 6½ miles away at Ernest Hemingway’s old home, now the Hemingway Museum. Hemingway’s boat Pilar is blocked up on what used to be the author’s tennis court.

The author’s 38-footer had been built in 1934 by…wait for it…Wheeler Shipbuilding again. In his book “Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life and Lost,” author Paul Hendrickson interviews a Wheeler descendant and a maritime historian:

“You could ask anybody, Wheelers were known as the Cadillac of the industry,” Wes Wheeler told me, with understandable pride if not razor accuracy. “The World’s Finest Yacht Construction” was the corporate slogan Wheeler used to run on its catalogs in the fifties. When I asked Anthony Mollica…what he thought a Wheeler was closest to in automobile paradigms, he said without hesitation: “A Wheeler is a Packard. A prewar Packard. Big and strong and comfortable and sturdy. Beamy. Sea-kindly. Very well thought out. Extremely well made. Some sly, deceptive speed. Its own form of beauty. In other words, right, too.”

1950-55, ROBERT ERICKSON

Once described as “an inventive, intellectual businessman who spoke seven languages,” Robert Erickson makes his fortune in lead smelting and processing lead as a gasoline additive. In 1940, he moves his family and businesses, Schuylkill Products Company and Schuylkill Lead Corporation to Baton Rouge, near Lousiana’s oil refinery industry.

Schuylkill Products is listed as Granma’s owner when she first appears on U.S. Coast Guard documentation records in 1950. Cuban records show that Granma visited Havana twice in the period of 1950-51, so Castro’s 1956 voyage will be her third “cruise” to Cuba.

The Ericksons’ cruising also includes the Gulf Coast of Mexico, including the port city of Tuxpán. He and his wife like Tuxpán so much that they decide to buy land and build a house overlooking the river. During construction they anchor out and sleep aboard. One night thieves row up in a launch, enter their cabin, threaten to kill them and escape with their valuables.

The crime sours the Ericksons on life in Tuxpán; he and his wife move across the mountains to Mexico City. According to accounts written decades after these events, Granma is wrecked during a hurricane in 1952, but examination of storm tracks suggests it actually happens when Tropical Storm Florence lands a direct hit on Tuxpán in 1954. The Ericksons make no effort to recover their damaged yacht.

Most of what is known about Robert Erickson has nothing to do with Granma. In the 1960s daughter Rita Erickson achieves notoriety by becoming one of history’s first transgender men. In 1963, she undergoes surgery and becomes Reed Erickson. Reed devotes much of his fortune to philanthropy in support of the Trans cause. Reed Erickson’s family photo album, part of a collection at the University of Southern California, has pictures of Henry his pet leopard but none of his father, let alone Granma.

At last, an Erickson granddaughter returns my phone call. Maris Harry is 74 and remembers being on her grandfather’s boat at St. Petersburg, Florida, when she was six. She lays to rest the assumption that Granma is named for Erickson’s grandmother. “Granma” is Erickson’s affectionate name for his second wife, Hazel. Think about it: If Erickson hadn’t been a pet-name kind of guy, Cubans today might be getting their news from a paper named “The Hazel.”

1955, ‘THE FRIEND’

Castro engages in anti-government activities throughout the early 1950s, culminating in a failed attack on the Moncada army barracks. He is imprisoned with a group of leftist followers, including a Navy war hero named Norberto Collado. In May 1955, Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista releases the lot of them as a publicity stunt, which later will prove to be his undoing.

Threatened with re-arrest, however, Castro and his brother Raul flee to Mexico in late May 1955. Things are worse for Collado, who lacks the protection of an affluent white family like the Castros. He is repeatedly beaten and tortured by police, including being burned and hung by his genitals. Collado, too, flees to Mexico, whose capital becomes a hub of anti-Batista activism as more Cuban leftists arrive.

Antonio Del Conde owns a gun shop in Mexico City and does a little gun smuggling on the side. Castro needs guns and visits his shop in June 1955. Del Conde is smitten. “When I offered to help him—and from the beginning it was something sincere, I could say on a personal level,’ Conde writes in his book “Memories of Granma’s Owner.” “His need for help was so great that I could perceive it. I was not just going to help him a little bit, or partially. No, it had to be my complete and absolute help.”

Del Conde helps arm, hide, fund, feed and train Castro’s growing rebel band. For his efforts he is eventually ex-communicated from the Catholic Church and serves time in a federal prison in Texas. Del Conde’s codename is El Cuate, slang for “the friend,” and he turns out to be quite the swashbuckler in service of the Cuban Revolution.

Che Guavera, Raul Castro and Fidel Castro share a table with Antonio del Conde. My joke is that the picture is rare because it shows an Argentine and two Cubans who don't care much for dancing with a Mexican who doesn't much enjoy drinking. 

Che Guavera, Raul Castro and Fidel Castro share a table with Antonio del Conde. My joke is that the picture is rare because it shows an Argentine and two Cubans who don't care much for dancing with a Mexican who doesn't much enjoy drinking. 

While away from the city doing errands for the rebels, Del Conde passes through Tuxpán, where the Ericksons had lived. There in the marsh grass on the edge of the Tuxpán River, he spies a wrecked white hull. The name on the transom is Granma.

“She was big…alone and abandoned. I don’t know if I felt sorry for her because even though abandoned, she looked beautiful,” Del Conde writes. He is inspired. He imagines himself at the helm, cruising through the Panama Canal and northward all the way to the Sea of Cortez. He learns the identity of the owner and visits Robert Erickson at his Mexico City apartment. In early 1956, Erickson agrees to sell Granma for $20,000, half up front, and Del Conde plans to restore the boat over time. The diesels are inundated, her keel is broken—the boat is a mess.

Castro, according to Del Conde, learns about Granma’s existence while they are on a drive through Tuxpán after shooting practice. Castro sneaks up behind Del Conde, who has excused himself to go down to the river to check on his recent purchase. Only recently Castro has failed in an attempt to buy a surplus PT boat in the U.S. Now he smashes Del Conde’s cruising dreams.

I was a bit surprised since I hadn’t realized he’d followed me. I told him that it was a boat I had purchased in payments. That I was going to fix her little by little because she was in very poor condition…"If you fix this boat, then on this boat I will return to Cuba.” I got up like a rocket, and I told him, “Sir, the boat does not work. I must even replace the keel. Everything is useless!"  

And again he repeated himself, more slowly as if to hear him and understand him better: “If you fix this boat, then on this boat I will return to Cuba.” He could not be any more clear. It was an order he knew I could fulfill. He had known me for more than a year now. I did not say anything. I turned around and started walking towards the car.

Like Granma, Del Conde lives. He has outlived the forceful man he regards as “an older brother.” He is 92, still residing in Mexico City.

On the phone, Del Conde insists on speaking English. He was a child in New York City until he was five when his family moved back to Mexico. Now, his hearing is bad, and he doesn’t want to talk long. He has one point that he insists on making, however, because it is important to him to correct a common misunderstanding:

Del Conde insists he is not a straw buyer for Castro. He buys Granma for himself. He alone owns Granma right up until the day she is summarily conscripted for the Revolution. “My yacht Granma,” he says.

1956, REFIT

Castro’s Mexican collaborator, Antonio Del Conde, has already begun Granma’s refit when Castro discovers the boat and effectively takes possession. Castro is determined to jump-start an insurrection in Cuba before the end of 1956, and he is running out of time and transport options. Now instead of months or years to work on the project, Del Conde has only weeks to get the boat in shape.

Castro speechifies about the importance of Del Conde (codename: El Cuate) to the future success of the Revolution. “If El Cuate does not fail me, I will leave. If I leave, then I will arrive. If I arrive—and I survive 72 hours—then I will triumph.”

The two biggest items on the yard list are going to be replacing the keel, which was broken in the storm, and both diesel engines, which have been under water. (The keel to which he refers may actually have been a so-called “false keel,” a timber that attaches to the underside of the keel on larger wooden boats.) In either event, Del Conde is determined it be made from a single hunk of wood, and sends his carpenter looking for a suitable tree.

Granma is hauled and undergoing a refit in Tuxpan, Mexico, 1956.

Granma is hauled and undergoing a refit in Tuxpan, Mexico, 1956.

There are planks to be re-fastened, re-caulked or replaced altogether. Del Conde is also worried about wood-eating toredo worms, the scourge of wooden vessels in tropical waters, so he purchases sheets of copper to tack onto the hull.

Castro assigns Jesus “Chuchu” Reyes to work with Del Conde as co-project manager. Chuchu can best be described as a “henchman.” Chuchu often acts as Castro’s bodyguard and driver, but in the context of Granma, his mechanical skills prescribe a new role. He effectively becomes the ship’s engineer. A close reading of Del Conde’s book “Memories of Granma’s Owner” suggests that Del Conde and Chuchu don’t care much for one another. Nevertheless they cooperate, all the while competing for the Comandante’s approval.

The saloon floors are removed to allow the extraction of twin Gray Marine GM diesel engines, precursors to the now legendary Detroit Diesel, which are trucked to the GM factory in Mexico City for a complete rebuild, except the transmissions. Turnaround takes about a month. Granma also gets a new generator, lights and wiring.

This is the valve assembly for a Detroit 671 diesel engine. Accounts in Mexico and Cuba mistakenly identified Granma's engines as being four-stroke. Experts have suggested it is because of Detroit's valve configuration, which is not typical of a two-stroke motor. The legendary 671 came into its own in World War II and, though long out of production, continue in service to this day.

This is the valve assembly for a Detroit 671 diesel engine. Accounts in Mexico and Cuba mistakenly identified Granma's engines as being four-stroke. Experts have suggested it is because of Detroit's valve configuration, which is not typical of a two-stroke motor. The legendary 671 came into its own in World War II and, though long out of production, continue in service to this day.

Granma must carry enough fuel to cover more than 1,200 nautical miles and arrive with a small surplus. After initial fuel burn and speed calculations, Del Conde replaces the fuel tanks with new ones, designed to fill as much unused space below decks as possible and fabricated at his own armory.

“I didn’t sleep in my bed again until the work on the Granma was finished. The work schedule was really intense, leaving only a few details such as paint left to be done once the boat was floating,” he recalls. Sea trials are conducted. At one point Granma is deputized by Mexican authorities to rescue some local fisherman marooned during a storm on a nearby island.

As the day for departure nears, Castro forbids Del Conde from joining the expedition. Castro tells Del Conde that he is more useful as his agent in Mexico. By now Batista, the Cuban dictator, has learned about El Cuate’s existence and is offering a $20,000 reward for his true identity. “I was surprised I couldn’t go. She was my boat,” he later tells a TV interviewer.

CASTRO & HEMINGWAY

Paul Hendrickson, author of “Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life and Lost,” gives me permission to speculate about Castro and Hemingway vis a vis Granma. I had wondered out loud to him whether the fact that Granma was a Wheeler, like Hemingway’s Pilar, has reinforced Castro’s determination to make Granma his invasion vessel.

            Ernest Hemingway fishes aboard Pilar.

            Ernest Hemingway fishes aboard Pilar.

Pilar is on display at Ernest Hemingway's old home in Havana, now the Hemingway Museum.

Pilar is on display at Ernest Hemingway's old home in Havana, now the Hemingway Museum.

I have found Latin Americans are generally very brand conscious. Castro actually accompanies Del Conde to make his final payment to Granma’s American owner, Robert Erickson. It’s not written anywhere that I can find, but it’s difficult to imagine that the name of the builder does not come up in conversation.

Castro is a huge fan of Hemingway’s writing. He later says his strategy for a guerilla war in Cuba’s eastern mountains is inspired by “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” Hemingway’s 1940 novel of mountain warfare during the Spanish Civil War. He says he has read the book three times. He may well have read it in prison.

When Hemingway settles in Havana in the late 1930s, he brings Pilar with him. Surely in the intervening years, Castro becomes aware of the Wheeler brand through his interest in Hemingway, who by the time of Granma’s expedition has also won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for “The Old Man and the Sea,” a novella set in Cuba.

Hendrickson says it’s fair to speculate that a man who takes his warfighting tips from a novel might have also been influenced by the author’s taste in watercraft, no matter how unsuited for the mission at hand.

HINDSIGHT

Granma’s voyage to Cuba can be seen two ways: a bad idea or a dreadful one. The term “best practices” doesn’t enter the lexicon until the 1990s. Back in the 1950s people use the phrase “common sense.” Castro’s decision-making applies neither.

One of the worst mistakes novices can make is to let a man-made schedule dictate the timing of ocean passages. For example, say your rebel planners have calculated that it will take five days at 9 knots to reach a landing zone in Eastern Cuba. The plan is to have your amphibious force arrive on Nov. 30 because that’s the date chosen for an attack against the Cuban military, which is to be coordinated with rebel allies already on the island. Rather than build in a cushion for bad weather or mechanical problems, the departure date is set for Nov. 25—exactly the minimum number of days to get there and get in the fight.

Sea trials are conducted to establish fuel burn statistics, but without dozens of men and gear on board, perhaps seven or eight tons lighter than Granma’s load during the voyage. Predictions of actual burn would be no more than guesswork.

Common sense dictates that ocean passages be undertaken when a weather window is opening, not diminishing. In Granma’s case neither applies. Bad weather is already upon the western Gulf of Mexico as a frontal system sweeps down from the U.S. These “northers” are predictable; they bring clocking winds that blow most intensely from the North and Northeast and take three to five days to pass through. In Tuxpán, port authorities issue orders forbidding any boat to leave the river.

Granma compared to a modern semi-displacement Nordhavn 59. It's difficult to imagine 82 adults squeezed onto either of these vessels. It was made easier on Granma because of a complete lack of lifejackets.

Granma compared to a modern semi-displacement Nordhavn 59. It's difficult to imagine 82 adults squeezed onto either of these vessels. It was made easier on Granma because of a complete lack of lifejackets.

Just days before departure, the transmission on the starboard engine acts up, makes noises. Transmission specialists are rushed to the boat and work on the failing clutch mechanism right up to the time of departure. There is no time for a sea trial.

Craziest of all: The boat is too darn small for the mission. In his book, Del Conde suggests that Castro is so determined to fight that he suspends disbelief and imagines the 60-footer to be a much bigger craft. He has 140 trained fighters hidden in villages throughout the Mexican countryside. At last recognizing that he cannot fit them all in Granma, Castro settles on 81 men besides himself, still too many. The rest he leaves behind.

So forget best practices. The voyage of Granma is essentially a romantic, amateur undertaking. Idealistic young men would replicate the voyage of Cuban hero Jose Marti, who landed in eastern Cuba 61 years earlier to fight the Spanish. The reality is devoid of romance, however. Eighty-two men squeeze together on a boat designed for 12, pounding into seas for days, soaking in each other’s vomit, unable to defecate and waiting for warplanes to strafe them at any moment.

Castro appoints Norberto Collado, one of only a handful of real mariners in his band, to serve as one of two timonels, or helmsmen. Collado arrives at Granma as she sits along the riverbank being loaded via gangplank. He is bemused at the big crowd of fellow Cubans milling about. “I had thought that many of these men were here to transport equipment, and that at most we would travel with about 30 people, because the yacht had berths for ten, but it was not like that,” he says.

A half century later, Collado writes that many of rebel rank-and-file think they are boarding Granma to be taken to some big mother ship waiting offshore. “They had no idea they were going to be packed in like sardines,” he says. Collado also notes the complete absence of lifejackets or lifeboats: “absolutely nothing.”

1956, VOYAGE FROM HELL

Antonio Del Conde, who has been wining and dining the port captain, gains his tacit approval to break the prohibition on leaving Tuxpán during the storm, but Granma’s departure must be done covertly nonetheless. On the night of Nov. 25, she is piloted slowly downriver and into the ocean. She is run as quietly as possible on one engine and without lights so not to alert other Mexican authorities in the area. Thanks to rain she is able to sneak past a Mexican frigate on patrol.

Outside, buffeted by winds gusting to over 30 knots, Granma takes a pounding. “Many feared the yacht would not withstand the furious seas,” Collado says. “But she managed to stay afloat, even though on some occasions the sea lifted her and threw her from a cresting wave so hard that it seemed like she would never rise again.”

The author poses with a mural in Tuxpan, Mexico, depicting Granma's provisioning prior to the 1956 expedition.

The author poses with a mural in Tuxpan, Mexico, depicting Granma's provisioning prior to the 1956 expedition.

Within eight hours the worn transmission is acting up again. The only way to deliver power to the prop is to throttle way back on the starboard engine. Rather than 9 knots, Granma only makes about 6.7. So much for getting to the battle on time. The bilge pump fails and the boat takes on dangerous amounts of water. The men bail with buckets until Chuchu fixes it.

By now most of the men are seasick. In a soon-to-be-published novel about Castro lieutenant Camilo Cienfuegos, author John Thorndike captures the scene:

Camilo… remembered how seasick he had been on the first day of the voyage. Almost everyone got sick. Only an hour out of Tuxpán, soon after the swells rose up beneath them, the men started vomiting. Some threw up overboard, some into buckets, some were packed so tightly they couldn’t move and puked where they sat, spattering those around them. The stench enveloped them all. Camilo himself sat wedged between two men, unable to lie down, feeling like death. For two days no one ate. There were men who shit in their pants and sat in it.

Granma crossed 1,200 miles of rough seas to reach Eastern Cuba.

Granma crossed 1,200 miles of rough seas to reach Eastern Cuba.

Those able to defecate may well have been exceptions. Thanks to a phenomenon called “traveler’s constipation,” even some cruise ship passengers find themselves unable to have bowel movements because of the disruption of their schedules and movement of the vessel. Granma’s pitching and rolling would likely have proved even more disruptive to regularity.

The good news, according to Collado, is that the tons of extra weight are actually making Granma more stable, much in the way that a dory filled with a fisherman’s catch gains stability. “The overloading…was a help toward additional resistance to the seas, without which the yacht could not reach her destination,” Collado writes. “If we had sailed empty, we surely would have ‘turned around the bell.’ That is, flipped upside down.”

Sam Devlin, designer-builder of semi-displacement watercraft, says the benefits to stability would have come with a significant downside. “With the overloaded yacht lumbering about in the water with her undersized rudders and operating at a speed that was well below the optimum efficiency of a semi-displacement design, the helming of her must have been almost of super-human effort,” Devlin says. “Holding her to any consistent course would have been almost impossible.”

With a heavy laden vessel struggling against waves, wind and current, Castro must have been “sweating fuel” as any thinking skipper would when pushing the limits of a vessel’s range. Unlike modern autopilots, human helmsmen steering to a wet compass tend to zig and zag to their destinations. That kind of meandering wastes fuel, and over 1,200 miles the amount of wasted fuel can be significant. Granma’s helmsmen must come as close as possible to achieving the “almost impossible.”

Collado mans the wheel with both Castro brothers, Che Guevera and other leaders watching from behind. Could they have imagined a better man steering? Collado may well be the only person on board who is not seasick. Nothing can happen to him that is worse than what he’s already suffered in Batista’s torture rooms. His skills helped slay 53 enemy sailors and their death machine. And he has been diagnosed with some kind of aural superpower.

By the third day the sun shines and seas mellow. The frontal system has passed and winds diminish to 20 knots—trade winds—contrary but manageable. The navigator takes a noon shot with his sextant.

Chuchu’s tinkering improves the performance of the troublesome starboard engine, and Granma now makes 7½ knots. Collado recalls “the clamor of hungry guts.” Too bad, much of the food is still in Tuxpán, left behind in the rush to embark. Fortunately the men of Granma have a couple thousand oranges to suck on. They wash themselves down with bucketfulls of water.

At one point, Chuchu pleases the crowd with cartons of cigarettes he has hidden with the engines. According to Collado, even asthmatic anti-smoking Che Guevera appreciates the boost to morale.

The Cuban government has learned of Castro’s “invasion” plan and alerts its naval and air forces to hunt for a white motoryacht. Granma is most vulnerable to interception when she passes through the Straits of Yucatan, in which only 104 miles separate the westernmost tip of Cuba and the islands off Cancun, Mexico. She thunders on through, unobserved.

On the fourth day, the rebels set a course for the Cayman Islands, well away from Cuba’s South Coast in an attempt to avoid enemy air patrols. Granma, reverting to her role as a “bomb target boat,” is then turned to run directly toward Castro’s intended landfall near Cape Cruz in eastern Cuba. On the last night, the navigator falls overboard. Castro refuses to abandon him, despite having to expend precious fuel for the search. They sweep the water with a searchlight and finally locate and recover him.

Guided by the Cape Cruz light, Granma reaches the coast, but not where Castro has intended and not where his allies await. The rebels realize their nautical charts for this coast are wrong. Low on fuel and with dawn approaching—with the potential for discovery by enemy air patrols—Castro orders full-throttle and runs the boat aground about 100 yards from mangroves. Che Guevera later quips that their arrival more like a shipwreck than amphibious assault.

The mortars and machine guns are loaded into the dinghy, which promptly sinks. Then the men lower themselves into the water and, chest-deep, carry their rifles over their heads into the swamp. There is a famous fuzzy picture depicting this event. Batista aircraft arrive and randomly strafe the mangrove forest through which they march.

This is the famous fuzzy photo of the Castro's fighters disembarking. Only about 20 of the 82 survived the first 72 hours.

This is the famous fuzzy photo of the Castro's fighters disembarking. Only about 20 of the 82 survived the first 72 hours.

Still, Castro has achieved his first two goals. His force has left Mexico and eight days later arrives in Cuba. Now, as he says, they must survive 72 hours. He is prescient. Three days after coming ashore the rebels are betrayed by their guide and ambushed by government troops, and most are killed.

Only 20 or so bedraggled survivors, including the Castro brothers and Che, reach the safety of the Sierra Maestra. Collado is among a handful not executed upon capture; back to prison he goes. Chuchu Reyes also manages to survive.

AFTERMATH

Castro fights on with a force that usually numbers no more than 300 insurgents. They win a succession of victories against larger government forces, whose numbers nationwide total more than 35,000. By January 1959 Batista has fled the country. With ranks swollen to around 1,000 fighters, Castro’s revolutionary army seizes the capital.

Antonio Del Conde continues his naughty ways, culminating in his arrest by authorities in Texas. Having become a full-fledged smuggler, Del Conde is among 34 Cubans caught on a boat off Brownsville in March 1958 with $20,000 worth of weapons bound for Castro. He’s arrested again soon after, this time for a truckload of guns, and sentenced to five years in prison.

Antonio del Conde shows his continued support for the Castro regime in a Mexican television interview.

Antonio del Conde shows his continued support for the Castro regime in a Mexican television interview.

In April 1959, Castro goes on an 11-day victory lap in the United States, a trip that happens before he identifies himself as Communist and begins nationalizing American-owned property. On a detour to Texas, a Castro charm offensive convinces the governor to intervene on behalf of “friend” Del Conde, who is released from prison after serving only 11 months. He and his family live and work in Cuba until the mid-1960s when they return to Mexico. Today Del Conde is celebrated as a hero at home. When Castro dies, the news media seek him out to record his reaction.

Cuban rebels free Norberto Collado from prison in 1959, and he is returned to military service as a naval officer, something he says could never happen in the World War II navy because of the color of his skin. He rises to the rank of captain, and one of his special duties is caretaker for Granma, now become the Old Ironsides of Cuban Revolution. “Granma had completed an incredible transit,” he writes. “Although overloaded and experiencing mechanical problems, she handled the angry sea like a big ship. She was my boat!” He dies on April 2, 2008 and is buried with military honors.

"She was my boat," says Capt. Norberto Collado before his death in 2008.

"She was my boat," says Capt. Norberto Collado before his death in 2008.

Raul Castro, who recently retired as Cuba's president, is among a handful of survivors from the Granma expedition.

CS-13, Granma and Pilar—this is a tale that involves not one but three Wheelers. Readers could be forgiven for thinking Wheeler was the only boatbuilder in the hemisphere during the 1930s and 1940s, but she is actually one of dozens serving U.S. commercial, recreational and military markets. The financially troubled Wheeler family loses control of the company in 1961. Wheeler closes down for good in 1965 after having built more than 3,000 watercraft since the turn of the century.

Tuxpán today is a thriving city of 143,000, proud of its role in the Cuban Revolution. The Mexico-Cuba Friendship Museum at the former Erickson homestead is dedicated to the Granma story. And the El Che restaurant near the mouth of the river is dedicated to the art of the Mexican seafood cocktail.

NOV. 25, 2016

Fidel Castro is pharaoh. For better and worse, he rules for more than 50 years. He outlives his most powerful rivals at home and enemies abroad. Famously, he once says, “History will absolve me.” History, for sure, will judge him, and the examination begins well before the Comandante dies at his comfortable Havana estate near the sea. Throngs of Cuban people line the roads as a jeep carries his ashes to a place of interment at Santiago, Cuba’s easternmost major city.

Believers in an afterlife, which Castro was not, often associate death with a sea voyage or river crossing. On Nov. 25, 2016, Fidel Castro leaves the world stage and embarks on his final passage. His death happens 60 years to the day after a warhorse named Granma slipped from the Tuxpán River into the Gulf of Mexico, heading to the fray.

Fidel Castro's ashes are borne by jeep for entombment in Eastern Cuba. In a truly Granma moment, the jeep breaks down and has to be pushed along the route by Cuban soldiers.

Fidel Castro's ashes are borne by jeep for entombment in Eastern Cuba. In a truly Granma moment, the jeep breaks down and has to be pushed along the route by Cuban soldiers.

SPECIFICATIONS

From U.S. and Mexican registration documents and other sources

LOA…60 feet

Beam…15 feet

Displacement…54.9 tons (gross), 19.2 (net)

Power…(2x) 250 hp, six cylinder, two-stroke Gray GM diesels

RPM at cruise…2,500

Cruising speed…9 knots

Fuel consumption at cruise…10.6 gallons/hour

Fuel tankage (4)…2,113 gallons*

Capacity…7 people, 25 for short trips

Hull type…semi-displacement

Hull construction…Carvel planked: long-leaf pine on oak frames with repairs in mahogany and native sabicu and majagua

Superstructure materials…mahogany, cedar and marine plywood.

Abridged versions of this story are being published in PassageMaker and Power & Motoryacht magazines.

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