A POPULAR WRECK DIVE IN THE BAHAMAS’ BIMINI CHAIN, THE S. S. SAPONA HAS A SHADY PAST but nothing as lurid as the tales people tell about it. And while its story does include (a little) gambling and (some) Prohibition-era bootlegging, it doesn’t include the oft-credited gangster Al Capone.
It was built of reinforced concrete as a solution to the World War I shortage of steel for Liberty Ships, just not by Henry Ford. But the part about ending up as a training target for U.S. warplanes during World War II is true.
A MARINE LIFE MAGNET
Today, for divers, the Sapona is an easy dive and artificial reef near South Bimini Island, about 50 miles east of Miami. Since it sits on the bottom in only 17 feet of water, most of it’s above the waterline – what’s left of it.
Between hurricanes, bombardments and 90 years of weathering, what’s left of it is the open skeleton of its concrete structure. With a pretty much wide-open interior, it provides a home base for, among others, fishes, sponges, corals, Caribbean lobsters, various reef critters and a friendly, humongous southern stingray I met there on a night dive.
On two different liveaboards on two different visits to the Sapona, I heard about its supposed life as a brothel, casino and Prohibition-era rumrunner under Al Capone’s ownership in the 1920s. And the web is full of sites that brush past the history of the ship with casual Capone mentions, but a dearth of actual facts.
According to the tales, it was one of 12 ships constructed of concrete by industrial magnate Henry Ford as a solution to the nation’s steel shortage during World War I. After the war it was – tale-wise – sold to Capone, who used it in or off Miami (unclear which) for nightclubbing, gambling and prostitution. During Prohibition – tale-wise – Capone used it for his bootlegging operations out of Bimini.
There was a shortage of steel for Liberty Ships during WWI and the federal government did order the construction of 24 vessels of reinforced concrete. Only 12 were built, all finished after the conclusion of the war in late 1918 – and quickly sold off to civilian owners. Apparently, none survived as floating vessels past the 1930s; one was sunk to be the base of a recreational pier in California. Another was scuttled to be part of a breakwater in British Columbia. A lot just sank.
The Sapona was completed in 1920 and promptly sold to a Miami developer named Carl Fisher, who did operate it as a floating casino for a short time before selling off its machinery and converting it into an oil storage barge.
In 1924, with Prohibition in full swing in the U.S., Fisher sold it to a Nassau bootlegger named Bruce Bethel, who towed it to Bimini for use as a floating storehouse for the liquor stocks his fast boats ran into Florida. Two years into its career as a bootlegger’s supply base, a hurricane drove it onto the reef, after which it was abandoned (the liquor stocks were lost. Bethel died broke several decades later).
If you time out its career, the Sapona was completed in 1920, spent perhaps a year or so as a casino, several years as an oil storage bar, two years as a bootlegger’s floating warehouse and was sunk in 1926.
TARGET PRACTICE FACTS
The Sapona was used for target practice by U.S. Navy warplanes during World War II, a function that continued for several months after the war’s end in August, 1945.
An actual fact is that the last unit to bombard it was the famous “Lost Squadron of Flight 19,” which promptly disappeared forever into the Bermuda Triangle while returning home from Sapona target practice on December 5, 1945.
PRINCIPAL SOURCES: “S. S. Sapona,” Shipwreck World; “S. S. Sapona,” Concrete Ships.org; “The Sapona,” The Official Site of the Islands of the Bahamas; “The Sapona: No Ordinary Wreck,” Resorts World Bimini Bahamas; “S. S. Sapona,” Atlas Obscura; “Sapona,” Maritime DigitalArchive Encyclopedia; “SS Sapona,” Wikipedia.org.