LA PAZ, pearl of the Sea of Cortez. A beautiful city located at the southern end of the Baja California Peninsula, surrounded by the Sea of Cortez and the Bay of La Paz. For centuries, one of the most remote of Mexican towns. Now a city of 160,000 inhabitants.
Until the mid-twentieth century, La Paz was accessible only by sea -- the land routes lay over an inhospitable desert, broken only by rough trails. Only in the latter half of the twentieth century was it possible for La Paz to be supplied by land, and even then a paved road was in place only after 1972.
To supply the city of La Paz required freighters and ferries to cross the waters of the Sea of Cortez. This commerce continues actively to this day, despite the paved highway now stretching 900 miles north to Tijuana. Today La Paz connects to the mainland of Mexico by means of two ferry routes -- one to Topolobampo and the other to Mazatlán.
This story concerns one of the earliest ferries serving La Paz. This ferry, the Salvatierra, was operated by the Ruffo family of La Paz, through the company Naviera del Pacifico, S.A.. The vessel was named after the Jesuit padre Juan Maria Salvatierra, founder of the mission at Loreto, the first permanent Spanish settlement in the Californias.
This ship was unusual, and was an outgrowth of the ship-building during the Second World War. It was based on the conversion of an LST (Landing Ship Tank). After the basic LST hull had been completed, a decision was made to finish the vessel as a ferry to carry shipyard workers across Chesapeake Bay to Newport News, Virginia. In this fashion, the ship served out its WWII years, with a name which is unknown to me.
The ship measured 320 feet in length, and 50 feet in beam. A great housing was constructed on the flat deck, and perhaps 400 chairs were installed for passengers. The design of the LST called for a double bottom between the engine room and the bow -- a fact which will figure later in this story. The space between the two hulls could be flooded with water to compensate for cargo loading or unloading, while run-up on a beach.
Following the end of the war, the ship was eventually sold at auction. The Ruffos bought the ship on the East Coast of the US, and brought it through the Panama Canal to La Paz. Given the name Salvatierra, and flying the Mexican flag, the ship was placed into ferry service on a route between La Paz and Topolobampo (near Los Mochis in the state of Sinaloa). The ferry dock and loading area in La Paz was located where the Mexican Navy base is now sited. About three round-trips each week comprised the regular schedule.
The water connection between the Sea of Cortez and the Bay of La Paz, at least at the southern end, is the "Canal de San Lorenzo," a channel of about two miles in width. Because of tidal flows, currents in the channel can reach 4-5 knots.
Located in the northern half of the San Lorenzo Channel lies one of the villains of this story, Suwanee Rock. Covered by at least six feet of water, this rock lurks beneath the surface -- waiting for the unwary mariner. This is an unusual name to encounter in Mexico, and I do not know the origin of its usage here. Possibly the name derives from the river of that same name in the area of the Florida-Georgia border, and made famous in song by Stephen Foster.
There are several navigation lights present in the San Lorenzo Channel, one of them marking a reef not far from Suwanee Rock. Because of the reef and Suwanee Rock, it is imperative for the mariner to carefully maintain a center course, especially at night.
In the investigations which followed the sinking of the Salvatierra, there was much finger-pointing. The captain claimed the nearby navigation light was not functioning at the time. Others who were in the channel that night testified otherwise. The matter of fault was left adrift and never settled.
It was on a special trip in June of 1976 that the Salvatierra and Suwanee Rock met, for the first and last time. The ship was carrying a highly combustible cargo -- gasoline, jet fuel, butane and diesel fuel -- from Topolobampo to La Paz. No passengers were allowed on such a trip. Also, the ship had recently returned from an extensive refitting at the Bethlehem Shipyard in San Pedro, California. A new bulbous bow had been retro-fitted, and the ship was in good condition considering her age.
When the Salvatierra hit Suwanee Rock that night in June, the bow had cleared, but the engine room sustained a gash 12 feet long by 1 foot wide. Like a can opener, Suwanee Rock opened the Salvatierra to the sea and brought the ship's engines to a halt. The generator quickly failed and, lightless, the Salvatierra drifted across the channel to settle in about 60 feet of water.
Besides the crew, there were 22 truck drivers on board. The only injury occurred to the cook who suffered severe, but not life-threatening, burns. All aboard took to a life boat and proceeded to Playa Tecolote. They were back in La Paz by dawn.
The ship sank and laid on its port side, with the bow facing south. This location is not far from the present resting place of the Salvatierra, so often visited by scuba divers. The story of how the ship moved after the sinking involves the second villain of this story, to be introduced shortly.
Since 1956, my wife and I have operated La Paz Diving Service, primarily a business offering scuba diving trips out of La Paz. In the late 1960's we acquired our Marisla II, a 120 foot former U.S. Coast Guard buoy tender. This ship had a strong lifting boom for raising buoys to the foredeck.
A few days after the sinking we were contracted to attempt to salvage the Salvatierra. The Ruffos would supply any compressors required, and we would supply the salvage ship and the diving expertise.
I called upon John Dunn, from the Oakland shipyard where the Marisla II had been drydocked, to come to La Paz and work with us until the ship was raised. One of the first things John did was to make a large number of wooden wedges to be driven into the gash. The wood would swell and effectively seal the gash. From his sledge hammer activities driving these wedges into place, John earned the name "Big John." A well-deserved nickname!
Beyond sealing the gash, we began inflating truck inner tubes inside the passenger compartment. After securing every spare inner tube in La Paz, we had a truckload sent from Tucson. The Ruffos supplied two large "pillow tanks" used to store liquids. These were inflated inside the truck compartment of the ship -- each had a capacity of 1000 gallons, or a lift of almost 8000 pounds.
The bow began to rise off the sea floor, and we had hope that some further effort might result in the ship refloating. The next thing we did was to release the butane from two tanks being trucked across in the ferry. By releasing the liquid we would gain added lift from the gas remaining in these tanks.
While these tanks were being emptied, the Marisla II was tied off the wreck and subjected to great bubbling gases rising from the sea. No form of ignition was allowed on the ship for a tense 24-hour period.
The last "trick" we had in mind was to pump air into the ballast area between the two hulls of the LST. There was a problem with getting air into the ballast area though: it required that the doors into the cargo area be opened. It was during the opening of these doors that we suffered our only injuries of the salvage attempt.
"Big John" and I swam into the cargo area containing the many trucks and tanks to release the door catches. While we succeeded, as we returned we experienced a burning sensation. I, especially, felt an intense pain all over my body, and had to rush to a shower where I was scrubbed, scrubbed, and scrubbed some more! Vinegar helped neutralize some of the effects, but we were dealing with a problem of unknown origin at that point.
It turns out that John and I had been swimming in jet fuel! The fuel had leaked from tankers and floated upwards to gather at the doors. It produces a first-degree burn on the skin, and we were not aware of the possibility. I seemed to have been much more affected than John, probably due to where I was diving.
While forcing air into the ballast area offered the chance to quickly finish the refloating, it turned out that leakage of air kept us from gaining much by doing this. It seems that years of truck traffic on the lower deck had bent the deck plates to the point where there were too many cracks in the deck.
The solution to this problem was to get a larger compressor so we could keep ahead of the air lost through these deck cracks. My wife and I flew to Tucson to arrange for the shipment of a sufficiently large compressor. While waiting for the compressor to be shipped, we spent a week in a friend's home. The date was now late September, 1976.
On September 30, the second villain of this story entered the picture: Hurricane Liza. This immense storm moved over La Paz with winds reaching 120MPH, and torrential rain falling throughout the La Paz area. It was this hurricane that brought so much devastation and loss-of-life to La Paz, especially when an earthen dam broke. Many thousands lost their lives in the flood of waters released by the dam.
I flew back to La Paz on the first plane possible, and found a sea of destruction on the land. At sea, the Salvatierra had rolled over onto its bottom, and the action of waves had torn the entire housing off the deck. It had truly become a wreck, and was beyond raising. There were hundreds of inner tubes scattered across the beaches of La Paz, carried in by the wind and tide. Every kid in La Paz had an inner tube for the rest of the summer!
The ship was declared a loss. However, our salvage job was not entirely over, due to bureaucratic regulations! Many of the trucks on board the ship were new, and the owners had paid heavy duties to import them into Mexico. If they could produce the ruined truck, with serial number intact, they would be allowed to import a replacement without paying any further duty.
With the housing and much of the upper deck torn off, the cargo of trucks was exposed. We succeeded in lifting nine trucks off the Salvatierra and took them to La Paz. Six stainless steel tanks for corrosive liquids were also salvaged.
Since 1976 and the great Hurricane Liza, the Salvatierra has rested on the bottom of the San Lorenzo Channel. The Ruffos lost their ferry concession and the land they had used for the dock and loading area -- the land was taken by the Federal Government to become the site of a Navy base in La Paz. The government became the only operator of ferries in La Paz, using the docking/loading area at Pichilingue, north of the city. The government passed the ferry operation into private hands in 1989.
The Salvatierra is a wondrous haven for fish life. It has been, for many years now, a marvelous place for scuba divers to explore and observe an environment rich in sea life. If there is a silver lining in the story of the Salvatierra, it has to be this creation of an immense and thriving artificial reef. On our Marisla dive trips, the wreck of the Salvatierra has been a standard visit. Since other dive boat operators entered the business in La Paz, in the early 80's, they also have made the wreck a "must" dive.
Life takes many strange twists, and I can't help but wonder at how different some things would be today, for a number of us in La Paz, if the Salvatierra and Suwanee Rock had not encountered each other that fateful night in June of 1976.
Richard Adcock (1924-2012)
( As told to Fred Metcalf (email@example.com) )
(Written in October, 1997)