The year is 1966 and it’s about 4:00am on New Year’s morning. A magnificent schooner cuts through the waves off the coast of Florida, the moonlight reflecting off her polished teak deck and illuminating the name Mandalay painted in script on her side. Twenty-some passengers are on their way back from a luxurious cruise to the Bahamas – but everything was not shipshape on this ship. The sleeping passengers wouldn’t have guessed that someone’s miscalculation from the night before had put them more than 15 miles off course and on New Year’s Day 1966, the cruisers were rudely awakened as a violent shudder ran through the ship’s timbers. As the Mandalay ground to a halt and began to tilt precariously, pajama-clad passengers rushed out of their cabins to see what was happening.
The Mandalay had run aground on Long Reef in what is now Biscayne National Park. She was held fast, impaled by the reef’s knife-like coral like a pig on a spit. The captain immediately sent out an SOS to summon the Coast Guard and they soon arrived on the scene to begin a battle against the elements. As the guard fought to rescue passengers and crew, ten-foot waves reared in protest, trying to claim the foundering yacht. Thankfully, not a single person was injured – but there was one fatality: the ship itself.
A few days after the incident, salvage tugs attempted to pull the Mandalay from the reef. Unfortunately, the coral was too deeply imbedded in the ship’s hull and the wooden planking was badly damaged; the rescue mission was abandoned. Since then, scavengers and looters have all but picked the shipwreck clean. Many assumed that the wreck marked the end of this nautical story, but in fact another author has picked up the pen and is now writing a second chapter in the life of the Mandalay.
We recently introduced you to our newest sister company, Windjammer Sailing Adventures, and mentioned their purchase of the magnificent tri-masted schooner SV Mandalay. At the time, we didn’t know about the first Mandalay, the one that still exists underwater just off the coast of Miami.
A long-time friend of Dragonfly Expeditions, Park Ranger Gary Bremen of Biscayne National Park, brought an article to our attention that sheds some light on the original Mandalay’s intriguing past.
The article features the first Mandalay, a 112-foot, steel-hulled, auxiliary schooner built in the US in 1928. Originally named Hardi Biou and built for a man living in Massachusetts, she then sailed under five different owners as the Valor before being purchased by the owner of the original Windjammer Barefoot Cruises, Michael Burke. It was Captain Burke who renamed her Mandalay (in 1965) and used her as a luxury cruise ship for his company. The Mandalay included amenities such as a spacious saloon, a living room, cabins for officers, passengers, and crew, running water, electricity, and a ventilation system with a connection to each stateroom. She was a beauty as she plied Florida’s coastline, boasting mahogany, brass, and ivory furnishings. But unfortunately, as you read in the story above, the most lavish of the Windjammer ships wasn’t destined to stay in the company for long.
Although once hailed as the “red carpet ship of the Windjammer fleet,” the original Mandalay now serves as a simple diving/snorkeling attraction and a home for Long Reef’s various aquatic inhabitants. Her skeleton still sits in the shallow waters of Biscayne Bay and over time has melded with nature to become an important part of the underwater ecosystem. Biscayne National Park has taken advantage of this unique ecosystem to build the Maritime Heritage Trail, an underwater route featuring six shipwrecks that offer divers and snorkelers a glimpse of Florida’s maritime history that spans nearly a century. They claim that the Mandalay wreck affords an unparalleled snorkeling experience.
The world of underwater archaeology surrounding Key Biscayne includes another shipwreck that is of particular importance to Dragonfly Expeditions because we visit it during one of our excursions. Our own snorkeling experience, the Half Moon State Underwater Archaeological Preserve Snorkeling Tour, takes guests to Miami’s only state underwater archaeological preserve to explore the remnants of the twice-sunken ship Half Moon. This 366-ton, schooner-rigged, steel, German-made yacht sank in 1926 in the Miami River. She was saved and restored, but a hurricane caused her to sink again four years later, in just 10 feet of water, close to Key Biscayne. Half Moon was built in 1906 and has led an interesting life as a racing yacht, a prisoner of war, an illegal casino during Prohibition, and a simple fishing barge. She has passed through the hands of more than five owners and has borne at least three different names. But Miami is her final resting place and we are proud to keep her memory alive as one of our coast’s most enthralling underwater sites.
It is always a sad tale when a splendid ship such as the Mandalay or Half Moon is reclaimed by the sea, but these two wrecks serve as reminders of the stories and history surviving in every last piece of driftwood and sunken ballast. Dragonfly Expeditions supports the use of shipwrecks not only as fun places to snorkel and dive, but also as historical representations of South Florida’s maritime past and as perfect locations for the sharing of that past with our guests.