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Florida Shipwrecks: the Mystery of the Steamship Valbanera

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The Valbanera was a Spanish passenger steamship that sank off the coast of Key West, Florida during a hurricane. The Valbanera’s final hours are surrounded in mystery because of some very unusual circumstances.

On September 8, 1919 a powerful hurricane swept across Cuba. On the same day the Spanish, passenger, steamship Valbanera was headed to the port of Havana with over 400 passengers on board. Ten days later the shipwreck of the Valbanera was discovered near Rebecca Shoal, Key West by Sub-Chaser 203 and an announcement was made by Rear Admiral Decker of the Seventh Naval District in Key West. Strangely there was no sign of bodies or that passengers and crew had attempted to abandon ship. The scene of the disaster suggested that the Valbanera had capsized and sunk quickly with no survivors. However, as the days went by evidence emerged that the S.N.D. in Key West had received wireless messages from a ship claiming to be the Valbanera on September 12, four days after the ship had gone missing. There were also reports of messages from the steamship to Havana around the same time. Another report claimed that many survivors had gone ashore at various locations along the east coast of Florida.

The Valbanera was a 5,099 ton steamship built in 1906 by C. Cornell and Company ship yard in Glasgow, Scotland. The vessel was sold to the Pinillos Izquierdo shipping company of Cadiz, Spain. Pinillos Izquierdo, which in 1883 owned six large steamships, was one of Spain’s oldest and most well established shipping companies. The Valbanera was named after the founder of the company’s place of birth. The company’s route began at the port of Barcelona to Cadiz then Las Palmas and Santa Cruz in the Canary Islands. From there the steamships crossed the Atlantic to the ports of San Juan de Puerto Rico, Santiago de Cuba, La Havana and across the Gulf of Mexico to New Orleans.

When the Valbanera left the Canary Islands there were 1,142 passengers and 88 crew on board. Most of the passengers were Spanish citizens emigrating from Malaga, Spain and the Canaries to Puerto Rico, Cuba and the United States. The ship also had a cargo of goods such as wine and olives. One of the Valbanera’s most well known passengers was the wealthy Havana merchant Anastsio Saenz, who was accompanied by his three young children, Jesus, Teresa and Marie. The ships crew of 88 included Captain Ramon Martin plus three junior officers. Other crew members included four doctors, a chaplain, twenty seaman, eight cooks and two maids.

The crew of the Valbanera.

When the ship arrived at Santiago de Cuba 742 passengers disembarked despite the fact that most had booked their passage to Havana and beyond. No one is sure why this happened. It is thought that the passengers may have been aware of an impending tropical storm or hurricane off Cuba. The steamship then proceeded to the port of La Havana. By this time however hurricane force winds were battering Havana making the harbor entrance dangerous. Captain Martin contacted Captain A. Gardoqui of the steamship Infanta, which was already in the harbor, to ask if it was safe to enter. Captain A. Gardoqui replied that it was safe but that Captain Martin should proceed with caution. Nevertheless Martin decided that the Valbanera should remain at sea and ride out the storm.

First class dinner menu from the Pinillos Izquierdo shipping company.

That was the last time the Valbanera was seen until the shipwreck was discovered 42 miles west of Key West in shallow water. Two empty lifeboats and the ships mast marked the spot were the ship had sunk. The shipwreck of the Valbanera leaves many unanswered questions. Such as why were no bodies ever found? What happened in the final hours of the Valbanera and why was the ships final resting place almost 200 km north of Havana.

The shipwreck is located in an area known as Quicksands. And appropriately the shipwreck has been gradually sinking ever since, thereby taking the evidence of the steamship and the possibility of resolving the mystery of the Valbanera forever.

All images from flickr.com


teresita J. Fuente-Cervera
Posted on Oct 11, 2016
tracy williams
Posted on Jul 24, 2010
Charlene Collins
Posted on Jul 22, 2010
Posted on Jul 22, 2010

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Peter Bilton

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