By the end of the 60s and early 70s, cruising in the Caribbean was relatively new. Old, refitted ships made short treks south of Florida to unfamiliar lands at very low cost. Short cruises of 186 miles were offered as three-day cruises to Nassau for a mere $59; four-day cruises $69. Two of the ships were the Yarmouth and Yarmouth Castle. Their competition was the Ariadne, the Anna C. and the Bahamas Star. Many 21st century cruise moguls were cutting their economic teeth at this time; Cuba was closed, new Caribbean playgrounds were ripe for development.
My husband, daughter JoAnn and I visited his parents in Ft. Lauderdale in June of 1965, and it seemed an exciting idea to take one of these amazingly affordable Caribbean cruises. We booked the four-night Yarmouth Castle cruise which included a free bus ride from Lauderdale to the ship. It was a time when Haitian and Cuban immigrants were seeking work at anything they could find as they retrained for professions they held in their home country. For instance, our ship’s Haitian photographer had been an attorney. We booked late, so were not surprised at how cramped our cabin was. Everything except a small sink was down the hall.
This was a new adventure, and we were excited as we sailed out of beautiful Biscayne Bay around 4 pm. The Castle was clearly old-days-opulence, its gilt and heavy carved mahogany banisters graced a once-magnificent swirling staircase. We found the food pleasantly fancy and plentiful. This was almost 45 years ago and for a dizzyingly low price of $69. We planned to enjoy.
Shortly after we were underway, they announced, as a bonus, we would dock at Freeport, Bahamas at 2:30 in the morning before arriving in Nassau. Passengers, who wished, could disembark and be driven to the Lacayan Beach casino to gamble. It was a very dark night, no lighting, no formal pier at Freeport, only a seawall with a lone, British guard in full-dress uniform. The Bahamas were still under British rule, and this was also pre-Las Vegas. The Lacayan Beach was a very glitzy casino, also our first. After a couple of hours we boarded the bus and returned to the Castle.
Just a couple of hours later the same morning, we arrived in Nassau, no fancy pier, where excited local boys climbed up our bow and dove for coins passengers tossed. They were excited. We were excited, and it went on for some time. The dockside straw market was just that, row on row of wooden booths with busy native women weaving reed and raffia, listening intently to scripture readings. Then as now, Solomon’s Mines was selling its jewelry from a small building. A little further inland, we enjoyed browsing the Brit apothecaries, examining the fragrant talcs and sundries we had never seen before.
Next, we were off to Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, on the north shore of Hispaniola. We opted for the Brugal Rum factory tour and grinned at the early TV-magnifying lens they used to detect foreign bodies in the rum bottles on the production line. We continued on in the old Volkswagen bus with our movie-star-handsome native guide hanging rakishly out the van’s opened door. Next we unloaded at the amber market where polished, unpolished, jagged and smooth amber awaited our purchase. Some of the composed jewelry was very good looking.
Too soon, we pulled anchor and headed for the northwest end of the island, and the country of Haiti, its town of Cap Haitian.
We were told two things: go to the left at the end of the pier. Second, if you go to the right, this is voodoo territory. We did as told and found ourselves on a brightly-colored small, tap-tap. What we saw was fascinating. Apparently women had just begun covering their breasts, and as our tap-taps raced by their tiny homes, they raced out to see us, pulling tee shirts on as they ran out to see us. This was the San Sousi Palace Ruins tour, ruined in a major earthquake a century earlier. Our native guide stood on an upper level giving us a little history as he occasionally used a whip to keep local children from spoiling his presentation. On the way back we shopped for some wily-looking wood carvings. When we reached the top of our narrow gangplank, a crew member sprayed our carvings with bug spray, presumably against termites.
Reluctantly we headed back to Miami, the end of our first fun cruise. We had a great time. It was crowned perfectly when an enormous sea turtle broke the waters of Biscayne Bay just as the bright sun burst through that morning. All too soon we were headed back to Ft. Lauderdale on the free bus.
We sailed on the Yarmouth Castle in June of 1965. Just 120 miles from Miami and 60 miles northwest of Nassau, the Castle sank on Saturday morning, November 13 of the same year, her red-hot, flaming hull sucked down to its doom at six o-clocks. Ninety people died that morning, 462 somehow survived.
The Castle, originally christened the Evangeline, was 38 years old. She first served fashionably between Boston and Nova Scotia until World War II. During the war she became a troop carrier and hospital ship in the Pacific. After a major refitting, Yarmouth Cruise Lines re-named the Evangeline and her sister ship the Yarmouth Castle and the Yarmouth. They used the ships for pleasure runs between Miami, Nassau and the Dominican Republic under Panamanian registry.
About 1:00 am on the fate filled morning, a storeroom, above the boiler room, one strewn with used paint cans and old mattresses, was ignited by the heat of a light bulb. Halls and stairwells filled immediately with smoke and flames. The 35-year-old captain ordered the second mate to sound the ship’s horn. However, the bridge was in flames, the radio shack was totally charred and the sprinkler system did not function. The ship’s natural ventilation system served to fan the flames through stairwells and wooden decks laden with many layers of old paint which sizzled and burned viciously. Fire hoses were inoperable, ropes to lifeboats clogged with more layers of paint. Only six of 13 actually launched; none had oarlocks.
The only nearby ships who saw the flames were the Finnish freighter Finnpulp and the Bahamas Star, and they came to the scene to assist. Shamefully, the first, half-filled, lifeboat contained the captain, himself, some crew and only four passengers. He was abruptly ordered back to his burning ship to look for more survivors and was later charged for his negligence in court. By 4:00 am all survivors were rescued.
Findings revealed no fire doors were shut off during the blaze, they lacked sufficient lifejackets, inflatable life rafts were absent, they were short one radio operator when two were required and passengers never took part in an emergency drill. Yet, the ship had passed a safety check and fire drill three weeks before sinking.
There’s a reason cruises do not come at give-away prices, as it’s expensive to keep passengers safe. Back then ships did not have to meet North American requirements because they were registered under a Panamanian flag. Now the Safety of Life at Sea laws (SOLAS) are updated regularly for cruisers’ protection.