The Boat that Launched a Revolution
Granma and the Voyage that changed the world
We are driving on a country road, digging into the history of a storied motoryacht—the 58-footer named Granma that brought Castro to power. We’re in a 1956 Ford that originally belonged to my driver’s grandfather. Ivan 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?” “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 province where the boat landed, and it is the name of our national newspaper.” “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 to the boat by the Yankee that owned her before Fidel.”
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 who 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 58 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 1955.
A deeper dig into the archives reveals that she was one of 10 “bomb target boats” built by Wheeler between ‘42 and ‘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 to 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. She becomes a yacht. Jim Moores of Moores Marine, one of the nation’s premier restorer of wooden yachts, 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 exHuckins 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.
A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse! -KING RICHARD III IN THE SHAKESPEARE'S PLAY OF THE SAME NAME
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 Louisiana’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.
Erickson’s cruising also includes the Gulf Coast of Mexico, along with 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.
At last, Erickson’s 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. Think about it: If Erickson’s sensibilities had been slightly more conventional, 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, who is of African descent. 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. 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. “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 excommunicated from the Catholic Church and serves time in a federal prison. Del Conde’s code name is El Cuate, slang for “the friend,” and he turns out to be quite the swashbuckler in service of the Cuban Revolution.
While away from the city doing errands for the rebels, Del Conde passes through Tuxpán, where the Ericksons had lived. There in the marsh 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 north 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 had 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,” writes Del Conde. “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,’ he said. 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 and understand himself 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 is 92, still residing in Mexico City.
On the phone, Del Conde insists on speaking English. He lived 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 bought 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 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 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 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.
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 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.
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 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 were conducted. At one point Granma is deputized by Mexican authorities to rescue some local fishermen 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.
HINDSIGHT Granma’s voyage to Cuba can be seen two ways: simply 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 manmade 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 November 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 November 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 7 or 8 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.
Just days before departure, the transmission on the starboard engine acts up. 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 another sea trial.
Craziest of all: The boat is too small for the mission. In his book, Del Conde suggests that Castro is so determined to fight that he suspends disbelief and imagines the 58-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. 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 the 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 November 25, she is piloted slowly down river and into the ocean. She is run as quietly as possible on one engine and without lights so as 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.”
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.
Those able to defecate may 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 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 extra weight is 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 heavily 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, alternating with one other man. Alongside him at the helm are the Castro brothers, Che Guevera, and other leaders. Collado alone seems immune to seasickness. Nothing can happen to him that is worse than what he’s already suffered in Batista’s torture rooms. He was the sonarman on a Cuban patrol boat (also built by Wheeler) that sank a U-Boat in the Florida Straits, the smallest boat in history to ever sink a submarine. His ears are so good that doctors have determined he can even hear high-pitched dog whistles.
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 7.5 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 bucketfuls of seawater.
At one point, Chuchu pleases the crowd with cartons of cigarettes he has hidden with the engines.
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.
Guided by the Cape Cruz light, they reach the coast, but not where intended. The rebels realize their 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.
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. Batista’s aircraft arrive and randomly strafe the mangrove forest through which they march.
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
"The original invasion, and the ultimate success of the Revolution, seems to me the most romantic story of our hemisphere 'romantic', as my dictionary puts it, 'in the sense of the mysterious appeal of something adventurous, heroes or strangely beautiful'" - JOHN THORNDIKE, NOVELIST
brothers, reach the safety of the Sierra Maestra mountain range. Collado is among a handful spared 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. With ranks swollen to around 1,000 fighters, Castro’s revolutionary army seizes the capital.
In April 1959, Castro goes on an 11-day victory lap in the United States, a trip that happens before he identifies himself as a 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.
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 the 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.
President Raul Castro, who promises to retire in 2018, may well be the last remaining survivor of the Granma expedition. NOV. 25, 2016 For better and worse, Fidel Castro rules for more than 50 years. He outlives his most powerful enemies. 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, will often associate death with a sea voyage or river crossing. On November 25, 2016, Fidel Castro leaves the world stage and embarks on his final passage. His death happens 60 years to the day after Granma slipped from the Tuxpán River into the Gulf of Mexico, heading to the fray. ■
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Granma is moored at a Cuban port before being hauled out and put on permanent display at the revolutionary museum.
A U.S. Navy Bomb Target Boat on seatrials in what appears to be Long Island Sound. It may well be the future Granma.
Right: Norberto Collado Abreu wears a civilian suit at a ceremony for CS-13, the Cuban patrol boat that sank a German submarine during World War 2. Below: The U.S. Navy building in Miami, where Collado was trained to be a sonar operator.
Above: Che Guevera, Raul and Fidel Castro and Antonio Del Conde sit together at a restaurant in Mexico. Bottom: The route Granma took on the expedition from Mexico to southeastern Cuba.
Above: This 83 footer is the same design as patrol boats built by Wheeler for the Cuban Navy.
Right: Granma lives in Cuban popular culture. This mural by artist Jose Fuster depicts key figures of the expedition.
Above: In the only photo of its kind, Fidel Castro’s rebel force disembarks from Granma, aground, and wades into the mangroves on Cuba’s southeast coast.
A replica of Granma passes by during a march to mark Cuban Armed Forces Day and commemorate the start of the revolution in 1959. Havana, Cuba, January 2, 2017.