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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