By Halee Turner
Just off the shore of Bradenton Beach, the remains of a steel molasses barge lie hidden under the waves and half buried in the sand, just as they have been for the last 74 years. While walking on the beach, you may have passed within less than 100 yards of this historic site, but never noticed the wreckage of Regina.
Regina was built in 1904 for the Havana based Cuban Molasses Transportation Co. by an Irish shipyard known as Workman, Clark & Co. When completed, the steel steamer totaled 247 feet in length, with a 36 foot beam (the width of the ship as measured at its widest point) and 14 foot draft (the vertical distance measured between the waterline and the bottom of the ship’s hull). Regina joined the growing molasses trade, as its use by both rum distilleries and animal feed manufacturers increased. Large and small tankers alike carried the thick, syrupy cargo from locations in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico to ports in the eastern US, including some along the Gulf Coast.
Regina left Havana, Cuba on March 5, 1950 with a cargo of over 350,000 gallons of molasses on board. The vessel, now converted to a tanker barge, was being towed by the tugboat Minima on a course for New Orleans, the principal port of the world’s molasses trade. From here the molasses could be transferred to river barges and distributed to feed producers throughout the Midwest, but neither ship would reach this destination.
A cold front swept across the Gulf of Mexico, bringing with it strong winds, 8 to 12 foot waves, and freezing temperatures. Those aboard Minima planned to seek shelter from the storm in Tampa Bay, but before they could reach safety, the towing cable attaching the tug to Regina was torn apart in the storm. Regina and the eight crew members on board began to drift helplessly towards Anna Maria, before running aground on a sandbar.
The vessel was spotted by a local resident, who reported the situation to the St. Petersburg Coast Guard Air Station. Help would soon arrive, but would it be soon enough? As nighttime approached, Regina’s hull began to crack and break apart.
The crew stayed on board. Although they were just 200 yards from shore, they feared abandoning the ship would mean getting dragged under the turbulent waters. Instead, they sought shelter in the cramped crew’s quarters at the front of the vessel, despite flooding that reached almost up to their shoulders.
Along the shore, residents built fires to reassure the stranded crew that they had been spotted. Unfortunately, their wait was not yet over. USCGC Nemesis and patrol boat CG145, both dispatched from St. Pete, were unable to reach the stranded vessel at night in such shallow waters. Several attempts were then made to shoot a line from the beach to the barge, but each effort fell just short of the stranded vessel. A coast guard plane dropped life preserves down to Regina’s crew, but all, save one, were returned to shore by the wind and waves.
A man, later identified as the ship’s cook, chose to risk the perilous swim to shore. Onlookers watched in horror as he jumped overboard into the stormy sea, followed just moments later by his German Shepherd, only to disappear beneath the waves.
Fortunately, the remaining crew members were eventually rescued, although the barge and all of its cargo were lost. Over the years, the wreck has become a popular destination for scuba divers and snorkelers because of its close proximity to shore.
In fact, Regina is now one of eleven Underwater Archaeological Preserves currently recognized in the State of Florida. Each site contains interesting archaeological features, and plays host to an abundance of marine life. For a more information on these sites and how to find them visit www.museumsinthesea.com, and please remember to always use safe diving practices.
Learn more about what else could be hidden in Florida’s waters at the Florida Maritime Museum’s Maritime Mythologies: Creatures of the Deep exhibit, open now through November 22. For more information visit www.floridamaritimemuseum.org or call (941) 708-6120.