The Intriguing History of the SS Sapona Wreck
If you have ever visited Bimini Island in the Bahamas, chances are you have heard about the famed “Ghost Ship” that tourists love to snorkel and dive around. While the Ghost Ship is far from being haunted, it does provide refuge for hundreds of species of tropical fish. But while many have visited the historic wreck, few know the true history about how it got there. The SS Sapona was a cargo ship originally commissioned by President Woodrow Wilson to serve as a troop transport in World War 1. Although only completed soon enough to make one war time transport, the SS Sapona served many other purposes throughout her short years on the ocean. In the late 1920’s the ship came to her final resting place after running aground and ever since then she has been living a second life as a popular diving and snorkeling site in the middle of paradise.
The storied history of the SS Sapona begins during World War 1. Soon after declaring war, Woodrow Wilson approved the Emergency Fleet Program which ordered 24 steel and reinforced concrete ships to be constructed to assist in the war effort. With Steele being so scarce during the war, shipbuilders were pressed to find alternative hull materials which is why the SS Sapona was uniquely constructed with concrete. Built by Liberty Ship Building Company in Wilmington, North Carolina, The SS Sapona didn’t see much war time because very soon after her 1920 launch, the war was over. Only 12 of the 24 originally commissioned ships were ever built. Sapona’s concrete sisterships would end up repurposed as breakwaters and barges but Sapona was destined for a more interesting career path.
After being relieved of military duty, it is believed that well-known South Florida developer, Carl Fisher, purchased Sapona, owning her for a brief period. He had planned to convert the cargo steamer into a private floating club in Miami but that idea never came to fruition and instead she was used for oil storage. In 1924 ownership changed hands once again and Sapona found herself in the rum running business with new owner Bruce Bethel, a prior war captain who lost an arm in battle. Bethel moved the ship to The Bahamas where he was a big player in the rum running during The Prohibition Era. Just like Fisher, he too had high hopes of turning the SS Sapona into a floating nightclub or liquor warehouse to provide the Eastern United States with illegal liquors. As fate would have it, this plan was never meant to be for Bethel and The SS Sapona because in 1926 a destructive hurricane ripped through the Bahamas and U.S. Winds in excess of 150mph caused widespread death and destruction and it was during this incredibly powerful storm that the SS Sapona ran aground just south of Bimini, Bahamas.
The SS Sapona was no match for that violent 1926 hurricane and unrelenting seas landed her in about 15 feet of water atop a reef, where she remains to this day. Much of the stockpile of alcohol on board was lost when the stern of the ship was ripped away by hurricane crazed waters and Bruce Bethel was never able to recover financially. While Sapona would never travel the ocean again, her story doesn’t stop here. During the onset of World War II, the United States Army, Navy and Air Force saw Sapona as the perfect training opportunity and she became a part of U.S. military history once again. Now employed for Armed Forces target practice, fighter planes and bombers would barrage Sapona day after day with 50mm machine gun rounds and bombs.
Today, repurposed once again, The SS Sapona is appreciated as a popular diving and snorkeling destination in Bimini, Bahamas teeming with vibrant marine life and corals. An easy dive for beginners, this wreck only approaches depths of up to 20 feet. Thrill seeking visitors can climb her bomb ravaged structure and launch themselves 30 some feet into the crystal clear waters below. Recently, at the annual HMY Bimini Rendezvous, guests enjoyed time spent snorkeling around the wreck which has a past as fascinating as the tropical marine life it is now home to.