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Vamar Shipwreck: The Shipwreck of a Shipwreck

Located just under four miles from Mexico Beach in the warm shallow waters north of St. Joseph Bay, divers will find the final resting place of the Vamar. Surrounded by abundant sea life, such as the Goliath Grouper, Townsend Angelfish, Yellow Jacks and Blue Tangs, she lies in the silence of the sea just 25 feet below the surface.

But oh, if she could only speak, what tales of adventure she could tell!

Her origins

Originally intended to defend England in the Great War, she was built to be a patrol gunboat, or sloop of the Kil class. Of the eighty-five ships ordered from British ship yards, only thirty-eight were completed before Armistice. Fewer still were launched into service. The Kilmarnock, as the Vamar was originally named, never went to war. She was purchased by a private company and renamed the Chelsea. Her double ended design built to confuse the observers in German submarines, served her well in her new mission: running rum for smugglers during prohibition!

Since smugglers don't keep accurate records of their specific missions, little is known of the Chelsea's escapades other than the at some point she was captured and confiscated by the Coast Guard. Fortunately, her new owner gave her the opportunity to redeem her reputation.

A new adventure

In 1928, a young American war hero purchased equipment for his first expedition to Antarctica. Rear Admiral Richard E Byrd Jr. bought the disgraced vessel, not because she was well-suited for the journey, but because she was cheap at just $34,000. None the less, the Chelsea joined another ship and three airplanes under Byrd's direction. The flagship, a Norwegian sealing ship called the City of New York, boasted a wooden hull, perfect for navigating through polar ice packs. Unfortunately, her hold was insufficient to carry the airplanes Byrd intended to fly over the pole. The Kil boat was one hundred seventy feet long and thirty feet in the beam. The steel hull had a hold of sixteen feet and had a capacity of 800 tons.

Byrd invested another $76,00 in the Chelsea in repairs and upgrades to prepare her for the trip. In honor of his mother, Bryd renamed her Eleanor Bolling. She was a hearty component of the expedition, bravely making a number of voyages between Antarctica and New Zealand between 1928 and 1930. Unfortunately, stability wasn't her finest attribute. After being hit with rough seas, the crew nicknamed her Evermore Rolling. But Byrd had reinforced her bow to help withstand the massive ice packs and she managed her duties admirably. She enjoyed the fanfare along with Byrd when he returned to New York harbor in 1930. But he felt she was not seaworthy for a second expedition, so he sold her to a sealing company for just $15,000.

Kayaking at sunrise on a bay in north Florida with beautiful golden light on the water

Her last days

Three years later, she found her way to the Vamar Shipping Company who renamed her the Vamar. She became a tramp steamer under Panamanian registry and began a steady decline into significant disrepair. Her equipment was shabby and she didn't have an radio operator. On March 21, 1942, she left the dock at Port St. Joe and headed for Cuba with a load of lumber. As she moved through the channel, the harbor pilot, J. Melvin Beck, realized she was listing to port. He had noted that there was far too much cargo on the deck of the overloaded steamer, making her seem top-heavy. Beck struggled to get her out of the channel before she sank and blocked the harbor. Once he had accomplished that, he and the crew all abandoned the ship and left her to her fate, prompting suspicions of sabotage. Subsequent investigations never revealed proof of wrongdoing, but the rumors remain to this day. Beck had allegedly warned the captain that the ship was overloaded and top-heavy. Since that issue was never rectified, it was blamed for the Vamar's demise.

Her final resting place

Despite attempts to bring her to the surface, the Vamar was eventually declared a total wreck and was dynamited to eliminate navigation hazards. Although she was scattered, there are plenty of the ship's elements that remain for divers to view. Her huge steam engine and connecting plates are exposed as well as the bilge keel. Mast supports and davits can be seen, as well as the generator. These elements and much more made the Vamar a welcome addition to Florida's "Museums in the Sea", of the Underwater Archaelogical Preserves.

You can learn more about diving the Vamar and nineteen other shipwrecks in the Florida Panhandle's Shipwreck Trail. Whether divers are most attracted by the fascinating ships on this historical preserve or the diverse sea life that now makes them their home, this trail will not disappoint. Be sure to get your dive passport before you embark.

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