Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Legendary Ponta da Pirabura, Shipwreck of the Príncipe de Astúrias, and Other Stories


The Príncipe de Astúrias fatally damages the ship's hull on the rocks of Ponta da Pirabura; the sinking occurs in less than 5 minutes.

The Curse of Ponta da Pirabura

The Tupis who inhabited Ilhabela were skilled navigators and already knew the mysteries surrounding the dangerous Ponta da Pirabura. It is not known for sure why it is called that name - in Old Tupi, "pira" means fish, and "bura" bubbling, the word 'y-bura means bubbling water, water that springs upwards.

Ponta da Pirabura and Praia da Caveira

Therefore, the name Pirabura could be related to phenomena where fish are thrown out of the water during wave breaks, possibly due to bubbles or water agitation, suggesting a direct connection between the indigenous name and the natural characteristics of the location.

Local residents of the island said that only one ship defied Pirabura and emerged unscathed, it was the British ship Western World in 1931, "we have lost count of how many ships have sunk in that place, where the water is deep and the tide has an enormous force, first it was an English ship, then the Astúrias, the Conca...".


It's not just Ponta da Pirabura that has its mysteries; the entire island is a great enigma. Ilhabela already had its cases reported even before the arrival of the colonizers. The first reference we have is how the Tupi called it – Maenbipe, the name itself is a mystery.

In Hans Staden van Homborg's Beschrijvinghe van America, it reads: "I went thus alone, and no one paid attention to me, and I could have easily escaped from the rope, for I was on an island called Mayenbipe/' which is about 10 miles away from Brikioka, but later because of the captured Christians, of whom there were still four alive, for I thought, if I escape, they would be angry"(Ich ginch fo alleen/ende niemant en achte opmp/ ende hadde die repse kwel honnen ontloopen/want ich was op een Eplandt Mayenbipe genaemt/'r welchon trent ro. Mijlen meeglis ban Brikioka is/ maer lieter om de ghevangen Christenen wille/ban ben welchen noch vier levendigh waeren/want ich dacht/ontloope ick paer/so wozdenie toornigh).

In the text of Hans Staden's book, Ilhabela, or Maenbipe, is mentioned

Brikioka was how the Tupi called the stretch that went from Bertioga to São Sebastião (mbyriky-oka, stronghold of the muriquis, large and white monkeys that live in the region). However, Maenbipe doesn't make much sense with any word from the Old Tupi, perhaps ... (E)ma'ẽ-e'ymumẽ, which in Tupi means "Do not stop looking (at me)". There's really no way not to look at that beauty in the middle of the ocean.

Perhaps Maembipe is what linguists call a "dialect continuum," in which various related languages and dialects, where two neighboring regions spoke very similar languages, and distant ones spoke more differently. 

The translation that I like most is Mbaembype, from (Mba'e) “something”, (mbype) “thing tha is close”, referring to the island that is so close that you can swim to it, something I have already done sometimes when young.

Without taking Tupi phonetics into consideration, some scholars say that the name has the meaning of “mountain that appears in the canal”, or “place for exchanging prisoners”, which makes a lot of sense because in the tradition of war between Tupi speakers (Tupi versus Tupinambá) Ilhabela (or Maenbipe) would be a neutral place, like Casablanca of the Tupi.

Shipwreck of the Príncipe de Astúrias

The Príncipe de Astúrias was a passenger liner built by Pinillos Izquierdo y Cia., It was the largest and most luxurious ship built in Spain in 1914, had a twin brother, the Infanta Isabel, both had a length of 150.8 meters, double hull, 19.1 meter beam, and 9.6m draft, with a Quadruple Expansion Engine steam engine of 8000 hp, displacing 16,500 gross tons, reaching a speed of 18 knots (33 km/h). Launched on April 30, 1915, it used to depart from Barcelona every February 17, 1916 bound for Buenos Aires.
Diagram of the Prince of Asturias in Section

It is important to note that the world was facing its Second World War, although German submarines were attacking ships in the Atlantic Ocean, they were not involved in this case.

Final Celebration: Foliões (carnival revelers) having fun on the central staircase of the Príncipe de Astúrias during a lively carnival ball, unaware that within hours the ship would collide with the rocks of Pirabura and sink, marking the tragic end for many lives.

The Príncipe de Astúrias was on its sixth voyage to South America, it had already passed the coast of Rio de Janeiro and on Saturday, March 4th, it was approaching Ilhabela, a carnival ball was animating the passengers inside the ship while a strong storm battered the outside. Rough waters churned the waves, lightning illuminated the skies, during the passage from Saturday to Carnival Sunday, March 5, 1916.

In green the original route that the ship should folow and altered rout in red 

According to some reports, the ship mysteriously changed course, circumventing Búzios Island, and stopped in the early hours of the morning to unload a mysterious cargo onto another ship amidst the storm.

The sinking of the Príncipe de Astúrias occurred in less than 5 minutes after colliding with the rocks of Ponta da Pirabura; the crew only managed to release lifeboat number 18, and 17 people immediately jumped into it.

Continuing the journey, the ship passed by Ponta da Pirabura at a speed of 4 knots (the lighthouse we see today was only installed in 1932). Like in the movie Titanic, First Officer Rufino y Ouzain Urtiaga asked "is it land?" upon sighting the rocks at 04:02 hs.

Captain José Lotina was not on the bridge at the time of the incident; First Officer Rufino ordered the helmsman, Antonio Salazar Linas, to run to the telegraph (engine room telegraph - a lever with various positions, which by a system of cables and bells, signaled the engine room what to do), and give instructions to the engine room:

"All astern, ...full left" (another way of saying "port", the left side of the ship, with the right side, where the rocks were called "starboard"), but there was not enough time to maneuver the ship away from the rocks, which were precisely hit at 04:08 hs.

Upon hitting the ledge, a deep gash of approximately 40 meters was made in the ship's hull, immediately flooding the lower decks.

With flooding in the engine room, the boiler exploded, causing a fire. Finally, the ship sank in just 5 minutes.

The crew only managed to release lifeboat number 18, and 17 people immediately jumped into it.

Even with only one dinghy in the water, brave sailors left survivors on the rocks of Pirabura, in a stretch where the waves were calmer, and returned several times to rescue more survivors; many died in the scalding waters of the boiler spreading through the sea, saving only those who quickly moved away to the high seas, as reported by Jeannis Michail Platon in his book "Ilhabela Seus Enigmas" from 2006.

Among the heroes stands out Doña Marina Vidal, a 26-year-old Spanish woman, who despite having asthma, swam all night and saved 4 people, including the only Brazilian aboard, Mr. José Marins Viana.

In the end, only 111 passengers were saved from the 588 officially registered aboard in their official count, but there are reports that in addition to these, there were more than 800 stowaways, fugitives from the war ravaging Europe, not to mention the stokers and coalers who were not listed as part of the crew.

The next day, the closest ship that received the distress calls, the French steamer Vega, from Societé General de Transportes Maritimes, arrived at the scene of the disaster. Its captain, Augusto Poli, ordered the entire crew to participate in the rescue effort, which lasted all Sunday.

Mirror of Principe de Asturias Ilhabela Museum

Officially, 477 people died and their bodies were retrieved and taken to the Saboó morgue, in Santos, but some claim that the total number of dead was much higher, as it is believed that around 800 stowaways were hiding on the lower decks. A few days later, unburied copros began to appear on Toninhas beach in Ubatuba.

A task force was sent to rescue bodies that appeared on the entire east coast of the island and buried them in several points, including Praia da Serraria and Praia da Caveira.

Among the valuable cargo, Asturias had in its cargo shipment 40 million pounds sterling in gold bars, belonging to the British government, in a safe recently installed on the ship, works of art, among them the bronze sculpture "La Carta Magna Y Las Cuatro Regiones Argentina", bound for Argentina.

There are conflicting reports about the fate of the Captain and his first officer, some say they committed suicide by shooting themselves in the temple, there is a code of nautical pride when commanders realize they have made mistakes that make sinking imminent. Others, however, claim that there was a transfer of cargo to a smaller ship, which was seen by some survivors close to the ship that night, perhaps to lighten the load in light of the perceived error, or even because they were involved in some type of criminal action, and fled with the fruits of the robbery, a very plausible situation since the gold in the safes was never found.

Salvage of the Prince of Assturias

The quest for the sunken treasure of the Prince of Asturias has always captured people's imagination, but the sea, with its limited visibility, depth of 30 meters requiring decompression, and strong currents, made diving work highly technical and extremely challenging.

Since the shipwreck, several salvage missions (the name given to the rescue of valuables from disasters) have been carried out, but it wasn't until the 1940s that they began to be conducted in partnership with the Brazilian Navy.

The first famous expedition to attempt the salvage of the wreck took place in July 1951, funded by the Fialdini brothers aboard the tugboat São Bento.

The dives with diving helmets were only sufficient for the rescue of lead ingots and part of the bronze propeller.

Diving legend Werner Krauss in his 1950s diving suit

In 1955, it was the turn of businessman Adolpho Melchert de Barros, who hired diving legend Werner Krauss; the investment was so significant that even a cable car was built to transport rescued pieces.

Krauss's first foray was on April 11, 1955, and it was the most fruitful series of dives, yielding tin ingots, kitchenware like plates and cutlery, and even a doll's head. Unfortunately, the excessive use of dynamite caused significant damage to the ship's structure, compromising potential works of art and china. To give an idea, it took 100 sticks of dynamite just to remove the propeller from the structure.

In 1974, the third phase of dives was launched, with Jeannis Michail Platon leading the way, with much larger investment than all the others. To give an idea, they even brought in the research vessel Stena Constructor, famous for being used in the Challenger rescue.

But the fact is there was no treasure! The gold and other valuable pieces were never found, at least not officially.

Location of the Wreckage of the Príncipe de Astúrias

It is quite possible that some valuables were found by a Greek named Wlazios Diamantaraz, who made several dives at Ponta da Pirabura and at some point disappeared.

Locals also report the efforts of a man nicknamed "the Gringo", who guided by a spiritual guide, made several dives in the region, some of them sponsored by a Portuguese entrepreneur. In the end, when the Portuguese came to collect the fruits of his dives, he said that "the spiritual guide had made a mistake" and also disappeared.

In the official missions, only two of the four statues were rescued - one is now on Ilha das Cobras and the other in Parque Palermo, Buenos Aires.

The twisted forks found in wrecks of old steamships can be attributed to contact with scalding water from the boiler. The extreme heat could easily deform and twist metal utensils, especially if they were exposed for an extended period during the wreck. This explanation appears to be one of the most probable reasons for the phenomenon. - Ilhabela Museum

Recently, the wreckage of the ship was dynamited 15 to 30 meters to open passage for ships in the region.

Praia da Caveira - 'Skull Beach'

In the first days after the shipwreck, several bodies arrived on the east side beaches of the island, mainly in Bahia dos Castelhanos, including Praia da Caveira, 5km from the accident.

Skulls found on the Praia da Caveira "Skull Beach" in Ilhabela

Praia da Caveira, known as the only deserted beach in Ilhabela, is closely linked to the tragic shipwreck of the transatlantic Príncipe das Astúrias. Local legends claim that the souls of the shipwrecked still haunt the beach, keeping visitors away and contributing to its loneliness.

Curiously, the name Praia da Caveira was already known before the shipwreck by this name, as noted on various maps preceding the shipwreck. One legend says that a slave ship, passing behind the island, sank; all the crew, slaves, died, and their bodies floated. A priest passing by boat through the area saw the bodies and buried them under a huge fig tree, whereupon the islanders claim that, at six o'clock in the evening, when passing near that fig tree, they hear "voices of the deceased".

Despite its grim reputation, its clear waters attract divers who practice spearfishing. Moreover, it has approximately 300 meters of sandy beaches that guarantee its paradisiacal aspect.

To this day, there are many legends about Ponta da Pirabura, including the belief in an unknown magnetic force in the region that disorients compasses and sinks ships, known as the 'Magnetic Deviation'. The head of the Port Captaincy of Santos at the time defended Captain Lotina, stating that the French steamer 'Vega' also ended up between Ilhabela and Buzios Island when the normal route should have passed 15 miles east of the islands, in the safety of the open sea.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Solana Star, Verão da Lata (summercan), coast of São Paulo and Rio from 1987 to 1988

This is the true story of a ship that, threatened by the police, dumps 22 tons of cans containing marijuana on the Brazilian coast in Ubatuba, near the beaches Grande, do Tenório, and das Toninhas, and ends up sounding like a fisherman's tale or even a surfer's story.

They say Brazil is the place where everything happens... and it's true.

It all started in August 1987, when the Federal Police delegate Antônio Carlos Rayol and Carlos Mandim de Oliveira received a communication from the American DEA, the Drug Enforcement Administration, informing them that a ship that had departed from Singapore, the Panamanian-flagged Solana Star, was carrying a large shipment of marijuana destined for Brazil, with its final destination being Miami. It was 22 tons of marijuana vacuum-packed in 1.5kg cans.

The mastermind behind the operation was a criminal from Aspen, Colorado, who had sponsored another trip before this one, departing from Panama and heading to the Philippines via Vietnam, with a shipment of narcotics bound for Los Angeles.

Since the ship was not captured, the operation had been successful and very profitable. The mastermind ordered a second trip, commanded by the same captain named Archibald, who would take a new route this time.

A new boat was commissioned in Australia, a tuna boat named Solana Star measuring 41m x 7m x 3m, capable of displacing 540 tons, with a diesel engine of 1,500 HP and two 350 HP auxiliaries. He sailed with his new boat to Bangkok, via Japan, where he loaded the merchandise, marijuana packaged in grapefruit juice cans, from a front company called "Berri," created especially for the operation.

Once loaded with the cans, he headed south, through the South China Sea, bound for Rio de Janeiro.

Berri Grapefruit Juice - fictitious brand of the cans from the summer of 1987

Hunt for the Solana Star and Can Hunt Operation

On August 8, 1987, at 10:00 a.m., the first hunting mission set sail from the port of Rio de Janeiro, aboard a frigate of the Brazilian Navy in partnership with the DEA. The operation was not successful because the ship had not yet reached Brazilian territorial waters; it was in the middle of the Atlantic due to two storms that hit the ship in the middle of the Atlantic.

New developments led to a new hunting operation, due to the arrest in Miami of the drug lord as he attempted to board a flight to Rio de Janeiro. DEA intelligence indicated that the merchandise should be transferred to another vessel off the coast of Ilha Grande, Rio de Janeiro.

Once again, Delegate Mandim organized a police operation on August 28, 1987. This time, they used the destroyer Sergipe, lent by the Brazilian Navy. Again, the operation was unsuccessful.

How did those cans end up on the beaches?

The most interesting outcome emerged with a report from A Tribuna de Santos on September 19, 1987, saying that in Guarujá, a street sweeper collecting garbage on Astúrias Beach came across a large closed can, moving back and forth in the foam of the waves. Other cans began to be found by fishermen on the coast of Guarjuá, Ubatuba, and Ilha Bela; later, carried by the tide, they began to arrive in Rio de Janeiro as well. Immediately, a clandestine trade of the cans and their contents began, promoted mainly by fishermen who hid the cans in styrofoam boxes full of fish, a much more profitable contravention than fishing.

On September 14, the crew of the Solano Star was informed that the Federal Police, the Brazilian Navy, and the DEA were already aware of the marijuana cargo on board. Afraid of being arrested, the crew – five Americans, one Haitian, and one Costa Rican – dumped the approximately 15,000 cans containing marijuana into the sea, and the episode became known as the "Summer of the Can," marked in Brazilian history.

Solana Star crew tossing marijuana cans into the sea

The story gained media attention and caused a race between the curious and the authorities to see who would find them first. The fact that the marijuana was packaged in metal cans similar to powdered milk made the situation even more unusual.

Solana Star dumping the cans into the sea

Soon, the situation became very popular and comedic. Some said the can, much like what happened with the sailor Popeye, changed reality, bringing special powers to those who consumed it. Others said that what was contained in the cans was considered of superior quality to anything ever seen before. The story became so memorable that it inspired books, songs, and even a mystique on the subject, in which feats were performed with a ritual of opening cans in honor of the product's quality.

Despite the efforts of the authorities to seize the cans and investigate the case, only a small fraction was recovered by the police, as the vast majority was found by bathers and fishermen and subsequently commercialized.

Federal Police managed to recover 3,292 cans. If the final product had reached the traffickers in Miami, it is estimated that the operation would have yielded US$90 million.


Of the seven crew members, six escaped through Galeão Airport two days after arriving in Rio. Only the American cook Stephen Skelton was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison but served only one year in Brazil before being extradited. The ship involved in the incident was seized and later auctioned off; the Solana Star was eventually sold after the conclusion of the investigation into the marijuana smuggling case. Its name was changed to Charles Henri and, finally, Tunamar II when it belonged to a Japanese tuna fishing company.

American cooker Stephen Skelton was arrested

Strangely, the fate of the vessel was intertwined with Brazilian waters. On October 1994, it met its tragic end, sinking 8 nautical miles off Arraial do Cabo, on the coast of Rio de Janeiro (22º59'240"S / 41º57'250"W), resulting in the death of 11 crew members.

In 2012, the book "O Verão da Lata: Um verão que ninguém esqueceu" ("The Summer of the Can: A summer no one forgot"), by the writer Wilson Aquino, was released, addressing the subject.

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