Cubans Grant Ac­cess to Amer­i­can for the First Time

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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.


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.”

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