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Ships 3


The Valbanera Disaster Of 1919

By James Donahue

The 400-foot-long steamship Spanish steamship Valbanera foundered while battling a hurricane off Havana, Cuba, on Sept. 8, 1919. All 488 crew and passengers perished in a disaster that generated a lot of unanswered questions.

The Valbanero, built in 1906, was one of six vessels owned and operated by the Pinillos Izquierdo shipping company of Cadiz, Spain. It sailed a regular route between Spain and Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Gulf Coast of the United States.

On its final journey in the summer of 1919, the Valbanero left the Canary Islands laden with cargo and 1,132 passengers plus 88 crew members. Strangely, although most of the passengers were booked for Havana, 749 left the ship on September 5 when it called at Santiago de Cuba. No one knew why this happened, but the decisions by so many passengers to disembark early saved their lives. Did they have a premonition of the approaching storm?

The gale, remembered as the 1919 Florida Keys Hurricane, swept Havana three days later just as the Valbanera was attempting to enter the harbor. When Captain Ramon Martin radioed Captain A. Gardoqui on the steamship Infanta, which had just entered the harbor, Gardoqui warned that bringing the ship into port would be dangerous but possible. Martin made the fatal mistake of putting back out to sea to ride out the storm.

A 400-foot steel hulled ship in good condition should have been capable to dealing with the wind and seas on the deep ocean, even in a severe hurricane. But something unexplained happened to the Valbanera. There was no radio traffic and apparently no attempt to launch lifeboats. The wreck was discovered days later in shallow water off Key West, almost 200 kilometers north of Havana. No bodies were ever found.

Another oddity about this particular wreck: The Valbanera came to rest in quicksand, and has been gradually sinking in the muck ever since. All of the ship’s secrets are disappearing into the quicksand to be lost forever.