Cubans Grant Access to American for the First Time
Granma Boarded at Last Peter Swanson
To generations of Cubans, Granma is the supreme relic of the Revolution; it is the Holy Cross in its entirety, never having been divided into splinters for the retail market.
It took two tries, but on May 30, 2018, Cuban authorities allowed me to inspect and photograph the interior of Granma, the 60- foot motoryacht that brought Fidel Castro to Cuba in 1956 to launch a revolution. I had previously had a date with Granma in February and traveled all the way to Havana only to learn that my permission had been revoked the day I was supposed to go on board. No explanation, just a one- sentence email.
No one who does business in Cuba was surprised to learn that my visit was cancelled or to find out that whoever
made the decision had then done another about-face. Havana works in mysterious ways. You might say inscrutability is part of the charm. That is, when stuff is happening to someone other than you.
Granma sits inside a hangar of glass and steel behind the Museum of the Revolution at the edge of Old Havana, along with other relics from Cuban history—fragments of the U2 spy plane shot down during the Missile Crisis, a Soviet tank, and assorted vehicles and weapons. An eternal flame dedicated to Revolutionary heroes burns on the grounds. Tourists climb steps up to walkways that provide a view of the old boat through glass. No one goes inside except Granma’s caretakers.
The interior of the hangar is air conditioned and dehumidified to prevent the wood rot so prevalent in the tropics. In a nation in which air conditioning is sometimes restricted, Granma’s perpetual climate control is a sign of status.
Escorted by four gracious Cuban officials, including the Army captain in charge of security, my first move was to walk around beneath the boat. In places planks have been removed from her bottom to better circulate climate-controlled air inside the vessel. The gaps revealed seriously robust wood construction: 1½-inch mahogany planking and closely spaced oak frames. Two 3-inch shafts swing 26-inch bronze props ahead of twin rudders.
The skill of the shipwrights that converted this former U.S. Navy workboat into a yacht is evident just by looking down the side decks. 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 upward sweep to Granma’s lines. The shipwrights also installed a new superstructure made of pine and marine plywood, very much inspired by the look of classic Huckins motoryachts. It’s a look that an American millionaire of the late 1940s might go for.
Entered from either side deck, the pilothouse is traditional; the ship’s wheel is mounted at center, with instruments on the dash and a vinyl-covered settee against the back bulkhead. A meanlooking fire axe is mounted within easy reach of the wheel.
Two steps down lead to the saloon, with an S-shaped mahogany bar as centerpiece, separating the social area from the galley aft.
At the corner of the saloon, portside and forward, is a nav station with an old RayJefferson radiotelephone the size of a dorm fridge and another vinyl settee.
Historically, Granma has been referred to as a yacht, but truthfully the 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 671 Detroit Diesels and a GM 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 old bones.
Clearly Granma is well maintained, and her caretakers have not retroactively tried to turn her into something she was not. She is authentic.
FORTUNE FAVORS THE BOLD
My visit to Granma was itself a minor postscript to the Cuban Revolution or, better still, a footnote. My Cuban hosts just laughed when I asked them whether any U.S. citizens had been allowed aboard Granma before me. The last American to set foot on her was Robert Erickson, the American who sold the boat to a Mexican arms dealer, who then handed her over to Castro in 1956.
So how did an old reporter land this scoop? I paid for it with the coin of my realm—information. I’m researching to write a book whose working title is “Granma, A Voyage That Changed the World.” To generations of Cubans, Granma is the supreme relic of the Revolution; it is 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 a tough old wooden boat.
You may admire Fidel Castro, you may despise him, or your opinion may lie somewhere in between, but the consequences of the Granma Expedition, as it is known, cannot be denied. So much of the backdrop of our lives, from the Cuban Missile Crisis right down to the 2016 election of President Trump, can be traced back to the landing of 82 fighters in the mangroves of Eastern Cuba on December 2, 1956.
So far, the biggest takeaway from my Granma research is a conclusion that Castro’s return to Cuba was nowhere near inevitable. 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 that horse. The men should have been arrested in Mexico and Granma seized. She should have sunk or capsized in the storm. She should have been intercepted at sea or bombed by the enemy air force. Heck, 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 move, and the Cubans love her for it.
So what was the information that I brought to my Cuban hosts? Two things: As anyone who has read my account of the Granma Expedition in this magazine or Power & Motoryacht might remember, my search of U.S. archives revealed Granma’s origins and internet sleuthing uncovered the whimsical nature of the name Granma itself.
As I explained to Cuban archivists and museum staff, Granma began her life as C-1994, one of ten bomb-target boats built by the Wheeler Yacht Company of Brooklyn, New York, for the U.S. Navy in 1942 and1943. The cost of each boat was $75,000, the equivalent of about $1.3 million today. Although they were 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 dummy water-filled bombs, dreading the impact of steel on steel.
I provided the Cubans with the documentation that traced Granma’s war service to her conversion to a recreational yacht. I also gave them an original U.S. Navy photo of a bomb-target boat underway with its original typed caption, which I had purchased on eBay. There’s some chance the boat depicted in the photo was C-1994 on sea trial; the background suggests Long Island Sound, so if the vessel pictured was Wheeler-built, the odds are 1 in 10.
In conversation with 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. Robert Erickson’s wife was named Hazel, but 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, everyone 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.
As I moved through Granma, I kept trying to picture the distribution of 82 men and their combat gear on a boat with
berths for no more than a dozen. According to later accounts, Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, and Che Guevara occupied the pilothouse with the captain, mate, two helmsmen, and a few other key crewmembers. That leaves about 70 who would have had to lodge elsewhere. I’m guessing roughly 30 men in the three forward cabins, 30 in the saloon, and 10 in the aft cabin. Assuming an average weight of 160 pounds per man with an additional 70 pounds of gear (based on a World War II infrantryman’s combat load), we arrive at 230 pounds per fighter.
So imagine more than 7,000 pounds in Granma’s forward compartments that normally would not have been there. Granma left Tuxpan in Mexico on November 25, 1956 as a storm was sweeping through the Gulf of Mexico, a “norther.” Sea conditions were horrible and would have been horrible even for a boat that was not grossly overloaded.
Cuban author-archivist Heberto Norman Acosta shared his 1986 interviews with Granma survivors. These men recalled that only a handful of their compatriots were not incapacitated by seasickness; the boat’s interior reeked of vomit. Tens of thousands of pounds overweight, Granma was riding nearly a foot below her design waterline. Survivors describe water flowing into the boat through gaps between topside planks (normally above water) that had not yet swollen tight. Closely spaced waves taller than the boat caused violent rolling and pitching. As Granma buried her bow in green water, her stern shot skyward, and the engines revved furiously, props slicing through nothing but air.
No, Castro’s Revolution was not inevitable, but Granma was a tough boat, and Castro was determined and lucky. The rest is history.
Scruffy from crawling around the engine room, the author poses at the helm, grinning like a chimpanzee.
My escort included museum staffers and one Army captain in case I became unruly.
Granma’s superstructure of pine and marine ply was added to her military-spec hull after the war; The genset mounted between Detroit 671 diesels.
The vessel and gear that helped put Fidel Castro in power were “made in the USA.”