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.

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