The Sinking of the SS Cuba

I’ve written about the SS Cuba in short-form a few times, short because I always had to get to the coffee punchline. This is the first time I’ve allowed myself to write it out long-form, which means chasing almost every single tangent. Good luck.


On a foggy night in September, 1923, The SS Cuba was steaming north along the southern coast of California. Built by German shipbuilders Blohm & Voss, who would one day build the Bismarck, it was launched as the SS Coblenz in 1897. Twenty years later the Coblenz happened to be in a Philippine port when the United States declared war on Germany and took possession of every German ship docked in a US port, including the Philippines. Spoils of war. Sold to Pacific Mail Steamship Company after the war and renamed the Cuba, the ship was put into dry dock for repairs and a paint job and a significant upgrade. When the SS Cuba was once again afloat it was the first passenger ship under an American flag to have turbo electric engines and synchronized propellers.

Pacific Mail is the same steamship line that brought J.A. Folger to California in 1850.

On September 7th, 1923, the Cuba was headed for San Francisco after stops in Central America. Though it occasionally went other places, San Francisco to Panama and back was its regular route, carrying both passengers and cargo. They had been sailing through heavy fog since they last made port in Mexicali on the 3rd, and their radio was not working. That evening the captain retired to his cabin, but not before leaving strict instructions with the Second Officer to wake him if visibility fell to less than six miles, and in any case wake him at 3 am.

Perhaps the Second Officer, who would later be brought up on charges, wanted to let the captain sleep, or maybe he just liked being in charge, but they didn’t wake the captain until 4 am and when he arrived on the bridge, in his socks and shirt sleeves, visibility was less than 4 miles. Familiar with the passage, the captain must have done some quick calculations because he immediately called hard to port, a left hand turn.

But it was too late and the SS Cuba struck some rocks about a quarter mile off Point Bennett on the west coast of San Miguel Island.  San Miguel is the western most island in the Channel Islands just south of Santa Barbara and just west of Malibu, so right under the spot where the California coast runs east to west for about 60 miles.

The Captain reversed engines and came off the rocks. Unfortunately, there had been an earthquake in Japan a week before, on September 1st. Not just any earthquake, a huge earthquake, 7.9 on the Richter scale. It killed over 100,000 people. Thirty-seven miles from the epicenter, in the town of Kamakura, a 95 ton statue of Buddha moved two feet. A week later, in the early hours of September 8th, unusually rough seas and very strong currents were arriving in California. Some theorize that because the Cuba was navigating by dead reckoning due to the fog, unexpected and unusually strong currents contributed to the ship being off course. Currents are also blamed for what was for a long time the worst peacetime disaster for the US Navy that same day. On the evening of September 8th, seven destroyers in Squadron 11, one after another, ran into the rocks at Honda Point, which is near Point Conception, which is the “horn” of California, where the coast runs east-west.

Not only were ships contending with current, but high seas. As soon as the Cuba freed itself from the rocks, a large wave pushed the stern back into the rocks, wrecking the propellers. It was time to abandon ship.

Five of six lifeboats were launched, the sixths remaining with the ship along with the captain and a handful of crew. The Cuba was not sinking quickly, so the captain wanted to remain aboard as long as possible to guard the cargo. Two lifeboats made it to the nearby beach on San Miguel, where they had to deal with some unruly sea lions. If you look at San Miguel on Google Maps you can see that beach and it’s still covered with sea lions.

One life boat headed east toward the California coast and halfway there hitched a ride with an oil tanker to San Francisco. Two lifeboats made navigational errors, meaning they read their compasses wrong, and they were headed west out into open sea. One of those lifeboats, by the way, was led by the same Second Officer who crashed the ship.

Five groups of survivors, each on their own adventure. Fortunately, first light was just a few hours after the wreck so they did not have the disadvantage of darkness, but it was still very foggy. The two lifeboats whose future was most questionable were the two heading further out to sea.

The seven navy destroyers that would slam into the coast of California that night were part of a squadron of 14 that were part of a larger fleet engaged in naval exercises. One of the destroyers running well south of those heading for disaster was the USS Reno. The Reno was not named after the city, as would be subsequent ships, but after Walter E. Reno, a navy commander who died in WWI while on convoy duty when his ship was rammed by a British merchant ship. Walter had been stationed in the Philippines when the US declared war on Germany and when the Cuba was seized.

The fleet was engaged in exercises that required they travel south at full steam ahead. But when the captain of the Reno encountered dense fog, he went by the book and slowed his speed considerably. His comrades on seven destroyers in the 11th squadron would not exercise the same degree of caution a few hours later. If the captain of the Reno had not slowed down, his route south would not have coincided with the westward movement of two lifeboats from the Cuba. And they still almost missed each other. The Reno had to come about when a crewman informed the captain he spotted two boats through the fog off port.

Passengers from the Cuba were brought aboard and then sailed to San Miguel and the site of the wreck, where the Reno crew went about rescuing those who were on the beach. All of this activity created a lot of radio traffic, including a destroyer from Squadron 11 requesting permission to assist survivors of the Cuba. The request was denied. Rescuing passenger from the beach was difficult in rough seas and required a small motor boat and a row boat. The operation was dangerous enough that the officer in charge was recommended for a commendation afterward.

All the passengers were safely aboard the Reno by sunset and headed for the harbor at San Pedro. The next day, a flotilla of private boats headed out to San Miguel island to rescue cargo from the Cuba where and were greeted by the captain. Not knowing how long they had before the ship would sink, he asked that the most valuable cargo be unloaded first, the silver bullion, and the coffee.

I came across the story of the SS Cuba years ago when I was researching coffee imports into San Francisco during WWI (an increase of a million bags during the war). The fact that the green coffee cargo on the Cuba was considered so valuable is a post war reality. Prior to WWI, if there was green coffee on a cargo ship sailing from Central America to San Francisco, the chances that it would be a high quality/ high value coffee would be small, and if there was high quality coffee on board it would not be in sufficient quantity to be deemed a priority if the ship was slowly sinking. The green coffee on the Cuba being of great value, alongside the silver, was a sign of the times, the times being that the San Francisco coffee roasters had seized the opportunity provided by the war to get their hands on great Central American coffees and these coffees would help fuel their expansion eastward.

Photo: View from the beach where passengers from Cuba awaited rescue.