Aboard Granma

The amer­i­can boat that launched the cuban rev­o­lu­tion.

Yachts International - - Contents - by Peter SwAnSon

The Amer­i­can boat that launched the Cuban rev­o­lu­tion.

The Mu­seum of the Rev­o­lu­tion on the edge of Old Ha­vana houses many relics from Cuban his­tory: frag­ments of a U-2 spy plane that was shot down, a Soviet tank and weapons, an eter­nal flame ded­i­cated to rev­o­lu­tion­ary he­roes.

Tourists can see them all, but to view the boat called Granma, they must look through steel-rimmed panes of glass. Only Granma’s care­tak­ers are al­lowed inside the 60-foot mo­to­ry­acht—the boat that launched a rev­o­lu­tion.

Fidel and Raul Cas­tro, Che Gue­vara and dozens of other rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies changed the course of his­tory af­ter ar­riv­ing at Cuba aboard Granma. So much of the back­drop of our lives, from the Cuban Mis­sile Cri­sis to the 2016 elec­tion of Pres­i­dent Trump, can be traced to the land­ing of 82 fight­ers in the man­groves of eastern Cuba in early De­cem­ber 1956. Had Granma failed, Las Ve­gas as we know it to­day prob­a­bly would not ex­ist; Amer­i­can mob­sters might never have left their casi­nos in Ha­vana.

The in­te­rior of Granma’s han­gar is air con­di­tioned and de­hu­mid­i­fied as proof against the wood rot so preva­lent in the trop­ics. This is a na­tion in which air con­di­tion­ing is some­times re­stricted (none al­lowed un­til 2 p.m.), so Granma’s per­pet­ual cli­mate con­trol is a sign of her revered sta­tus.

The last Amer­i­can to set foot on Granma was Robert Erickson, the Amer­i­can who sold the boat to a Mex­i­can arms dealer, who then handed her over to Fidel Cas­tro in 1956. More than a half-cen­tury later, it took me two tries to get inside the glass walls and aboard her.

My first date with Granma was in Fe­bru­ary, when I trav­eled to Ha­vana only to learn that my per­mis­sion had been re­voked the day I was sup­posed to go on board. You might say in­scrutabil­ity is part of Ha­vana’s charm, that is, when stuff is hap­pen­ing to some­one other than you.

But I per­se­vered, hav­ing come to Cuba with some­thing to trade: in­for­ma­tion. I’m re­search­ing a book about Granma’s voy­age. To many Cubans, she is the supreme relic of rev­o­lu­tion, the Holy Cross in its en­tirety, never hav­ing been di­vided into splin­ters for the re­tail mar­ket.

We of the United States have a Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence and a Lib­erty Bell. The Cubans have this tough, old wooden boat that I knew a lot about.

Just by look­ing down her side decks, I could see the skill of the ship­wrights who con­verted this beefy for­mer U.S. Navy work­boat into a yacht.

In her Navy days, Granma’s hull-to-deck re­gion barely mer­ited a to­erail, and the sheer was es­sen­tially flat. The ge­nius of the con­ver­sion was the ad­di­tion of bul­warks that stood about 8 inches aft and grad­u­ally be­came 16 inches at the prow, in­tro­duc­ing a pleas­ing

To gen­er­a­tions of Cubans, Granma is the supreme relic of rev­o­lu­tion; it is the Holy Cross in its en­tirety, never hav­ing been di­vided into splin­ters for the re­tail mar­ket.

up­ward sweep to Granma’s lines. The ship­wrights also in­stalled a new su­per­struc­ture made of pine and ma­rine ply­wood, in­spired by the look of clas­sic Huck­ins mo­to­ry­achts. That was a pro­file to catch the eye of a wealthy Amer­i­can of the late 1940s.

His­tor­i­cally, Granma has been re­ferred to as a yacht, but truth­fully, her S-shaped bar and nav sta­tion are the yachti­est el­e­ments of the boat. Belowdecks, Granma’s four cab­ins (nine berths) and two heads are fin­ished to what the wooden-boat crowd calls “a high work­boat stan­dard.”

From the aft cabin, which is the mas­ter by virtue of an en­suite head, there is ac­cess to the ma­chin­ery spa­ces hous­ing Granma’s three beat­ing hearts: twin 6-71 Detroit Diesels and a Gen­eral Mo­tors genset. The en­gines are nicely painted on their mounts, but oth­er­wise dis­con­nected, de­void of the hoses, wiring and link­age of a work­ing mo­tor. The tanks are gone, too. En­gine mounts are re­in­forced with steel sup­ports that pass through the bot­tom of the boat to the con­crete slab be­low, a mea­sure de­signed to take the load off Granma’s bones of ma­hogany on oak.

Clearly, Granma is well main­tained; her care­tak­ers have not tried to retro­fit her into some­thing she was not. The old girl is au­then­tic.

Granma was orig­i­nally C-1994, one of 10 bomb tar­get boats that the Wheeler Yacht Com­pany of Brook­lyn, N.Y., built for the U.S. Navy in 1942-43. The boats cost $75,000 each, the equiv­a­lent of about $1.34 mil­lion to­day. Al­though used to train pi­lots for one of the dead­li­est planes of World War II, the Dou­glass SBD Daunt­less dive bomber, tar­get boats were not sexy craft. Crews of four spent their work­ing days try­ing to avoid be­ing hit by wa­ter-filled dummy bombs, dread­ing the im­pact of steel on a steel-plated deck.

I gave the Cubans copies of the doc­u­men­ta­tion that traced Granma’s war ser­vice through to her con­ver­sion to a recre­ational yacht. I also gave them an orig­i­nal U.S. Navy photo (bought on eBay) of a bomb tar­get boat un­der­way with its orig­i­nal typed cap­tion.

To my hosts, I de­scribed one of the pre­vail­ing Amer­i­can boat-nam­ing cus­toms of the 1940s and ’50s: We named boats af­ter wives. My grand­fa­ther’s boats were Lilly V, Lilly V II and Lilly V III (good thing he didn’t get to boat five). Erickson’s wife was named Hazel, and his grand­daugh­ter, now liv­ing in Hous­ton, told me that he called Hazel by a pet name, Granma— hence the name on the tran­som of Erickson’s mo­to­ry­acht. Hith­erto, his­to­ri­ans had as­sumed Erickson was pay­ing trib­ute to his grand­mother. Not so.

Cuba’s daily news­pa­per is named Granma, too, af­ter the boat. My hosts laughed when I joked that Cubans in a par­al­lel uni­verse have been get­ting their news from the Daily Hazel.

The amaz­ing thing about the Granma ex­pe­di­tion is that Fidel Cas­tro’s re­turn to Cuba was nowhere near in­evitable. He had packed dozens of men and their com­bat gear onto the boat and put to sea dur­ing a hor­ri­ble storm. There were so many pos­si­ble points of fail­ure in this ide­al­is­tic and ul­ti­mately am­a­teur­ish un­der­tak­ing that no ra­tio­nal bet­ting man should have put money on Granma.

The men should have been ar­rested in Mex­ico and Granma seized. Tens of thou­sands of pounds over­weight, she should have sunk or cap­sized in heavy seas. She should have been in­ter­cepted or bombed by the en­emy air force. The ex­pe­di­tion came close to fail­ing for the most mun­dane of rea­sons: run­ning out of fuel.

“For­tune fa­vors the bold,” an­cient Ro­mans used to say. My mil­i­tary in­struc­tors said it too: An in­dif­fer­ent plan ex­e­cuted vig­or­ously of­ten suc­ceeds bet­ter than good plans ex­e­cuted in­dif­fer­ently.

Granma memo­ri­al­izes a bold stroke, and the Cubans love her for it.

above: An­to­nio Del Conde was the Mex­i­can arms dealer who bought Granma from a wealthy Amer­i­can and then turned her over to Fidel Cas­tro for his in­va­sion of Cuba. left: This vin­tage 1956 pic­ture shows fight­ers dis­em­bark­ing from Granma af­ter she was in­ten­tion­ally run aground in eastern Cuba.

above: Arms dealer and briefly Granma’s owner, An­to­nio Del Conde, en­joys a mo­ment with rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies Fidel and Raul Cas­tro and fu­ture poster boy Che Gue­vara. bot­tom: A Granma replica is pa­raded through the streets upon the death of Fidel Cas­tro in 2016. Cas­tro died 60 years to the day af­ter Granma be­gan her ex­pe­di­tion.

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