- Search for the wreck -
She was still there - the "American Star" ...
Visit 10 Years "after": The Explorer Team at the Playa de Garcey ...
She is really impressive. From the first moment, when you can catch a glance of her smokestack across the beach. And then, when the whole ship slowly appears: She is lying as a stranded ghost ship in the dark bay and despite sunshine on this day, one can only imagine how it looks during different weather.
Because of our futile search for the other two wrecks, we are relieved. She is still here. It is unimaginable if Fuerteventura´s most famous wreck had disappeared as well ...
However, she is still here. We are taking a brief look back - more than 60 years of history are right in front of us. Even though the last ten years on this beach are the saddest of the American Star …
A Look Back
From the beginning, the SS America was a proud ship launched in August 1939 as the largest "Queen of the Luxury Liners" with a length of more than 200 m for more than 1,000 passengers (For the whole story read our history "SS America" by Bill Lee).
1941, she was requisitioned by the US Navy, renamed USS West Point, and converted to a troop ship. She spent the years 1941 to 1946 under camouflage paint.
From 1946 until the end of the 70s, she was in operation using various names: previously operating as SS America for almost two decades and after that as SS Australis run by Chandris Lines for more than a decade. There was an accident in 1970, when there was a fire on board during her 26th voyage (see 2nd appendix).
In the 80s, the decline of the ship started. As Italis, Noga, and finally for nearly another decade as Alferdoss the deterioration of the once proud ship continued. 1993 she received her final name, representing her last voyage and her sad ending resting at the Playa de Garcey as a ghost ship: the American Star.
In January 1994, the American Star was towed by a tug on her last voyage. Many sources suspect insurance fraud due to the planned route to Thailand around Africa during storm season. It is a fact, that the towline separated during a Force 12 storm and the ship drifted out of control towards Fuerteventura´s west coast where she finally went aground at the Playa de Garcey on January 18, 1994 …
Within 48 hours, the ship broke apart. In the following two years, the stern section rotated to her starboard (to shore), then rolled over to the portside and was destroyed by wind, waves, and tides, so that the remainders are only visible during low tide. The bow has remained for the past ten years; however, the deterioration has continued relentlessly until today (For the whole story read "Autopsy by Sea" by Bill Lee). How long can she withstand? When will she be totally destroyed - the famous American Star?
Under The Spell Of The "Lying Dutchman " …
On this Sunday, February 22, 2004, we started again from El Cotillo. This time, we wanted to use the longest route via La Oliva, Tefia, and Betancuria towards the south. Soon, we arrived in Pajara - from where we follow the road to La Pared. Now, it is not far away anymore. After approximately 3 km, we reached the dirt road turning right (N28,35° W014,14°).
If you miss this turn from the main road, you will reach another dirt road shortly after, as well turning to the right. A clearly visible sign shows that you are entering a restricted area belonging to the Spanish military. At this point the latest, you need to turn around in order to take the previously mentioned exit. The American Star obviously did not want to be taken completely by the Spanish military when going aground at Fuerte´s west coast. More later on…
On the remaining kilometers on the dirt road, we are driving our Opel Astra appropriately: at rapid pedestrian speed. This dirt road, however, is much better than many others we have been using in the past few months with our Explorer vehicle. There are no problems with our rental car and after about half an hour, we park our "expedition vehicle" next to the dirt road on the beach and walk the last meters (N28,35° W014,18°).
The last part proves what you can read everywhere about the Playa de Garcey and her ghost ship: You can hardly resist the somewhat surreal atmosphere of this dark beach putting a spell on its visitors.
We are almost alone on the beach and cannot take our eyes of this ship. The front part of the visibly rusty wreck is still so impressive that you wish to be able to overcome the few meters separating the ship from the beach. Actually, you need to visit the deck of this phantom to really have been there ...
Even though, on this isolated dark beach there is no indication to restricted access of the wreck, it is supposedly so. According to hearsay, people caught are threatened with hefty fines. Nonetheless, the past ten years, while the ship is lying at the Playa de Garcey, not all daring individuals have been kept away from this adventure. We have an extra report with photographs visitors made while on the rotting deck.
And these visitors are not the only ones the stranded former luxury liner saw on her decks: Only a few days after going aground, curious people, locals, and the Spanish military got moving to salvage everything that was not nailed or screwed down. The wreck was looted and her interior was brought to shore with everything that could stay afloat. There are rumors of using air mattresses and surfboards besides fishing boats for this venture.
This adventure has cost many lives: The surroundings of the wreck are known for their devious undercurrents despite the seemingly short distance. These have killed many swimmers, surfers, and other daring adventurers now belonging to the ghost ship´s crew ...
And with that we need to mention Thomas S., a travel journalist, who rightfully named this wreck as a kind of "Lying Dutchman" in one of his articles.
This article also talks about how one local of the close by dropout and hippie camp claims that on clear, moonlit nights, the wind blowing from the Sahara, you can hear the despairing cries of the unfortunate dead (Dear Thomas, the hippies probably used lots of drugs that night, the Sahara is on the opposite site of the island ) ...
Due to the uncanny mixture of fantasy and reality, one has to say "huibuh" together with the author and ask if the lonely campers - staying close to the beach - also wait for such an incident. Then you come again to the conclusion that the world is small and reality can be even more profane: This author conjuring up the ghost story around the ship once reported to the government of Mittelfranken - functioning as data protection agency - that the Explorer Magazine’s imprint did not correspond to legal regulations - Huibuh ..!
Even today, a little chill in light of the "Lying Dutchman" mixes with shaking of the head due to such memories; however, the visitor forgets everything because of the impressive wreck. We climb up the hill opposite of the ship where many remaining parts are carefully piled up: From pieces of containers to the brass door, you can find lots of scrap.
But all of this is no proof that in conjunction with this wreck it was thought about detonating her at her resting place for the past ten years. But whether the authorities have just been waiting for EU funds or have been accepting the ghost ship as a tourist attraction, the visitors´ imagination can decide ...
From up here, the deterioration caused by the merciless ocean over time is very visible. As our following comparing photographs from the lower edge of the hull will show that in the past few years - especially during the strong storms in the winter of 1999/2000 - the back part of the ship´s break continues to "fringe" as well as at the bow an increasing whole was created through which the ocean can unimpededly undermine and wash away the wreck.
Considering that the back part of the American Star only withstood the forces of nature for a short period of time and the ship´s side of the port side´s front part (the part turned towards the ocean) is full of holes by now, you can imagine, that she is running out of time. Or as Doug Griffiths designer of the website "Cabin 111" mentioned more than once: "She´ll go this winter ..."
Lost in thoughts, we return after a long time to our "expedition vehicle" at the edge of the dirt road. We are flabbergasted when seeing that in the meantime a row of jeeps as well as a passenger car - a compact - has found its way.
The latter is parked neatly next to our Opel Astra; obviously, the driver was inspired by our wagon. What this expert obviously missed: While we parked next to the dirt road, this car is parked onto it and blocks it. Maybe he or she thought: If I cannot go any further, why should anybody else be able to - even with a four wheel drive ..?
A pickup with the writing "American Star Tour" closes in. Luckily, he does not need to squeeze by this car since he takes a different route.
At the wheel of the pickup is an original - a cross between a biker and a lumberjack (see appendix below). We will see him again later on in Pajara where we are processing our impressions of Playa de Garcey with a glass of Canarian red wine ...
February 2004: We are happy to have seen the American Star once again - may she rest in peace!
Very valuable links to the American Star and her history:
- S.S. Australis Homepage (Ken Ironside)
- Cabin 111: S.S. America / S.S. Australis Tribute Pages (Doug Griffiths)
- A Tribute to a great liner of Yesteryear (Darren Byrne)
1st Appendix, April 2004: First Reactions ...
We hardly posted our "ship reports" and we already received a feedback! The first mail came from Ken Ironside, designer of the famous website S.S. Australis Homepage about the American Star:
I love the way you have set out the page ... It is very interesting seeing the three pictures of the Hull from 1997/2000 and 2003, this shows how far she has deteriorated.
Good luck with the site.
A second message reached us from Fuerte: Wolfgang alias fuertewolf, the same as mentioned as "original" from the "American Star Tour" in our above report (see appendix 19!). He sent us the following mail and provided us with the photograph:
Wonderful report, really great. I am the original and do another tour today: www.americanstarfuerteventura.de. If you are here again, please get in touch. Fuertewolf.
we will do it. And until then, best wishes from here to Fuerte!
Further Appendices: The Myth American Star ...
And we received further mail and pictures, for instance from Ferdi Mueller from Switzerland sending us a photograph dated July 2001 showing the hull in comparatively good condition.
As he wrote us, he found the ship by accident because he had listened to conversation of the guest in a bar talking about a ghost ship. And since he is magically drawn by such stories, he started the search ...
Since the famous ship will continue to keep us busy, as long as she is waiting for us at the Playa de Garcey, we posted additional pages:
And the story continued ...
© 2004-2006 Text/Photographs J. de Haas.
Photographs 1994 in "A Look Back" above: Steve Tacey, published on S.S. Australis Homepage
English Translation: Britta Schaa, Venice Florida