There is an old sailor’s superstition that the 13th day of any month (especially if it’s a Friday), is a jinxed day. On April 13, 1970, winds off southern California reached gale strength and the offshore seas were mountainous. For the liner La Jenelle and her crew of two anchored outside the harbor at Port Hueneme, the old seaman’s superstition of the 13th being a hoodoo day was proven again when the liner was violently driven ashore.
La Jenelle was launched as the 1,000 passenger, luxury liner Borinquen at the Quincy, Massachusetts yard of Bethlehem Shipbuilding, 24 September 1930. Lavishly outfitted, the ship made runs between New York and Puerto Rico until the outbreak of World War II. During the war, the Borinquen operated in nearly every theater of combat – North Atlantic, Mediterranean and Pacific – and survived unscathed. With the close of hostilities, Borinquen returned to transporting passengers.
In 1959 Eastern Steamship Lines purchased the vessel, renamed her Bahama Star and began operating her as a cruise ship running trips to the Bahamas. It was during this period the Bahama Star was involved in the rescue of nearly 400 passengers from the ill-fated liner Yarmouth Castle.
On 12 November 1965 the cruise ship Yarmouth Castle departed on her regularly scheduled Miami to Nassau run. Around 1 a.m. the next morning, (the 13th — there’s that unlucky 13 again…) a fire broke out, and in short order the Castle was engulfed in flames. The captain of the Bahama Star just a few miles astern of the burning Yarmouth Castle put on all speed and raced to assist the doomed liner. In a daring and heroic rescue, the Star’s crew and passengers rescued 373 souls from the Yarmouth Castle. Their efforts were made famous in the popular Gordon Lightfoot song, “The Ballad of Yarmouth Castle.”
In an ironic twist, the loss of the Yarmouth Castle led to laws requiring vessels carrying more than 50 passengers on over-night voyages to be of all-steel construction. Unfortunately, Bahama Star had some wooden superstructure, and was forced from the passenger carrying business.
In 1970, sold and renamed once again, Bahama Star became La Jenelle for the Western Steamship Company. Plans the company had for her – rumors of her conversion to a floating restaurant or perhaps her sale to a Far East shipping company – never came to pass. Anchored outside the harbor at Port Hueneme to save mooring fees, the La Jenelle was caught, exposed and helpless against the violent northwest gale that struck southern California that day. With only a single anchor out, the tremendous wind and waves pushed the 9,000 ton liner on to the beach in less than a half-hour.
Subsequent salvage efforts to remove La Jenelle from the beach were unsuccessful. Over the next few years several salvage companies were formed and failed in their efforts to make a profit off the stranded liner. Finally, Navy Seabees were handed the task to take care of the “attractive nuisance” that the wreck had become. They cut away the remaining superstructure and upper portions of the hull and filled the remaining structure with quarry rock, creating an extension of the western jetty protecting the Port Hueneme harbor entrance.
When conditions allow, visitors can walk out on the La Jenelle jetty and view sections of the ship through the boulders that cover her. In flat, calm conditions, snorkelers can see more of the hull below the water. For divers though, the real interest is not the final resting place of the ship, but the area called La Jenelle Artificial Reef. Located about 85 feet down, just a few miles offshore, this was initially a convenient dumping ground for the material the Navy cut away during their work on the La Janelle. Since then, these structures have become a vibrant artificial reef and an interesting local dive site.
Located just few miles from Channel Islands Harbor makes it a close, easy-to- reach and interesting dive destination. The remains of the venerable old liner that make up the reef are strewn in a line running generally east and west. The reef is made up of at least three main clusters with multiple structures making up each cluster and smaller scattered pieces surrounding each major section. Each of the main sections is made up of fairly large pieces, some of them nearly intact cabin or companionway pieces. Other structures are obviously portions of the deck complete with huge chocks and mooring bits. With some pieces rising up to12-feet off the bottom, the remains of La Jenelle provide a great substrate for many invertebrates.
For the photographer, there are vast areas of the reef that are encrusted in Corynactus of myriad hues with nudibranchs of all shapes, sizes and colors roaming about the saline-soaked sections of the once proud liner. Many species of fish also find food and shelter amidst the steel plates; cabezon, sand bass, sculpin, calico bass, Garibaldi, sheephead and rockfish of every type are all commonly seen cruising the site. For some reason, sheep crabs seem fond of the La Janelle’s remains and they too are often seen making their way about the wreckage.
As good as this sounds, there are some cautions to be considered. Often, because of its convenient, close-to-shore location, the visibility can be very poor. On recent dives on the La Jenelle Artificial Reef, visibility was a dark, 15 to 20-feet, probably about as good as one can expect here. A second consideration is the gill nets local commercial fishermen often set in the area. Sometimes in their attempt to reap the bounty of fish that call the reef home, they miscalculate and entangle their nets in some of the reef structure. If when approaching the site the flags marking a gill net are seen on the reef or nearby, choose another location to dive. Entanglement with such nets underwater can have very serious consequences, and with the numerous great dive spots available at Anacapa and Santa Cruz Island, just a short, channel hop away, it is wiser to pick a day when there is no chance of a run in with a gill net.
Dive Spot At A Glance
Location: A few miles outside Channel Islands Harbor
Access: Charter or private boats from Ventura or Channel Islands Harbor
Depth: 85-90 feet
Visibility: 5-20 feet
Skill: Intermediate to advanced
Photography: Excellent macro subjects with possibility of wide-angle on good visibility days
Hunting: Good potential for bass and rockfish
Hazards: Frequent limited visibility and the potential to encounter commercial fishing nets on or near the site.