The La Jenelle

La Jenelle

The La Jenelle wrecked off the coast of Port Hueneme. Courtesy of Jim Cooluris.

Jim Cooluris Photography

“The owners of the La Jenelle were trying to sell it to the local harbor as a hotel, similar to the Queen Mary in Long Beach, CA. In 1970, it was anchored offshore when a fierce N/W gale blew with 70+ knot winds. The ship dragged its anchor and was blown ashore as I shot this photograph.” Jim Cooluris

The La Jenelle

By Ken McKnight

We just wanted to go surfing but couldn’t find anywhere sheltered out of the wind. Our afternoon driving efforts took us from stormy Rincon to Oxnard’s, Hollywood-By –The Sea on the afternoon of April 12th 1970. Steve Whipple, David Lloyd, Steve Krajewski and myself were stuffed into David’s Ford Econoline van looking for surf when we pulled into the parking lot at Hollywood’s northern jetties.
The first two things we noticed was that the wind was NW at about 30 miles per hour, stiff, blustery, and really cold. The surf was kind of side offshore next to the jetty and looked like some of the waves could be ridden. Of course it was a solid 6 feet and was ugly with current and wind chop outside the breakwall. There was no one around because of how windy and cold it was. We had driven all this way so we climbed into our wetsuits to go surfing.
The second thing we noticed was that there was this gigantic ship anchored just off the beach. I’m not talking fishing boat size; I’m talking 400 feet long, cruise ship mentality. It was larger than life and was being buffeted by the big wind and incessant swell action. We noticed the anchor lines were taught, saw no one on board, and kept an eye on it as we paddled out in the calm water next to the jetty. I remember thinking about it being so close to shore. It was not normal. This monster was less than a quarter mile off the beach and bobbed madly in the swells that were now battering it and sending spray 100 feet in the air or more.
We lasted less than an hour in the water. Back then leashes were not on the scene and most of us swam at least once in the 56-degree water. Exhausted and standing on the beach afterwards we were stunned at how close they had moored this gigantic ship to the coast. And we couldn’t understand why it was even there in the first place; you couldn’t put passengers on it from Port Hueneme or the Hollywood jetty entrance. It hadn’t been there a few days earlier when we surfed the area but it was there now. It just didn’t make sense to a bunch of 20 year olds.. We headed home as the wind was really howling by now and the ocean was a maelstrom of whitecaps.
The next morning the television news in Los Angeles was all lit up about a ship that had run aground; a really big ship, an ocean liner. It was the La Jenelle, and it was now wedged up next to the jetty rocks on the south end of the Hollywood Beach there in Port Hueneme. The pictures and news film were almost surreal as I called the others to turn them onto the newscast.

This great ship had a storied history. The La Jenelle actually started out with another name. The luxury cruise ship Borinquen was christened on September 24, 1930, and was built by the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation of Quincy, Maine. She was a gorgeous cruise ship for her time. Her length was 466 feet and she weighed in at 17,114 tons with a breadth of 60 feet. She was elegantly outfitted and big enough to handle some 1000 passengers. There was a huge dining hall on board and spacious staterooms. She was originally meant to be a luxury vessel that boasted a glorious gambling salon.
The Borinquen ran a regular route between Puerto Rico and New York until 1949, when she was sold to the Bull Steamship Company. They renamed her the Puerto Rico.
Prior to World War II the Borinquen was in constant service between the Bahamas and Miami. The vessel was very popular with the party folk that often vacationed in the south of Florida making gambling runs out to the small islands that was just a days voyage away. When World War II broke out, she was drafted as a military transport.
The Borinquen was commissioned first to the European theater, doing service in the Baltic, then in the Mediterranean Sea ferrying troops and supplies. Late in the War she was sent to the Pacific. Something must have been right about her as she took no direct volley’s during her many voyages so no immediate action. She never got strafed, had a submarine follow her, or was even shot at. This was indeed a blessed ship and soon earned her nickname the "Lucky Star."
After the Great War and during the following 20 years, the luxury ship steamed regularly on the Bahamas run carrying thousands of passengers to the outer islands and the beautiful tropical resorts that had sprung up in peacetime.
All was not bliss during that time as businesses changed hands. The Lucky Star was sold to the Arosa luxury lines in 1954 and again renamed, this time being dubbed the Arosa Star. That name only lasted another six years when she was again sold to the Eastern Shipping Corporation and was again re-christened the Bahama Star.
It was around this period that the Bahama Star was involved in the rescue of 489 people from the burning cruise ship, The Yarmouth Castle. 160 people didn’t make it during this horrific fire. It was a terrible tragedy. A few months later international laws were drafted that prevented and even outlawed the construction of super structures in ships the size of the Bahama Star. It turns out the inside of this behemoth vessel was made out of wood not unlike the Yarmouth Castle. This was one of the reasons for the Yarmouth’s intense blaze and huge loss of life.

It was just too expensive for the owners to re-fit a ship this size to abide by the new rules and regulations outlined by the Maritime Committee at the Geneva Convention of 1964. The ship was again sold, this time to the Western Steamship Company, who promptly named the aging vessel, the La Jenelle.
For reasons unknown today, those new owners brought her to Port Hueneme. Some claims said she was to become a floating restaurant or a tourist attraction much like the Queen Mary down south in Long Beach. One report had the ship being sold to an Indonesian shipping concern. Whatever the reason, The La Jenelle was doomed, as she lay at anchor directly offshore of Port Hueneme in April of 1970. Most likely the owners didn’t want to pay for mooring costs on that fateful day. Instead opting to anchor in open seas.
Sometime during the night with the full brunt of the wind and seas in her face, the La Janelle’s starboard anchor, apparently the only one out dragged along the bottom. With only a couple of crewman on board at the time it was only a matter of minutes before the La Jenelle struck sand just west of the breakwater in Port Hueneme. She started to list immediately and water poured into the ship thru the broken porthole covers and smashed windows. It took a helicopter to rescue the crewman as they worked frantically to try and get the bilge pumps operational. But all efforts proved in vain.

Once the weather subsided people scavenged the wreck. Later a fire started inside the carcass and the interior was gutted. The huge steel plates that fitted her sides ultimately caved in to the pressures and pounding of the Ventura coastlines incessant surf and raging winds. Water filled almost all the compartments and sand settled in to make the vessel a solid fixture. With insurance companies screaming, authorities wracking their brains, and surfers waiting for the right sand bars to form, the owners did a quick disappearing act. The Coastal Commission put out a scrap bid for “as is, where is,” and
the final blow came as the U.S. Navy, fearful of a navigational hazard, cut the top off of what was left and filled her innards with huge boulders. The breakwater got an extension and the local towns people, whether they liked it or not, ended up with a very strange bedfellow, The La Jenelle.

I couldn’t get back up there for a few a months. I definitely wanted a first hand look. By the time I made it back it seems the whole world had already been there. The surf was almost flat now and it was real glassy, not a breath of wind. What a change from the day we had been there. The La Jenelle had indeed gone up on the rocks and the bottom was against the jetty side with the superstructure pointing at an odd angle out to sea. There was no one in charge, no tugs, no Navy guys, no salvaging going on. There was a lot of what I’d call looting though, with people walking back from the ship with Port Hole covers, books, and whatever else they could get.
By June, the behemoth ocean liner was really listing. Months later we heard someone fell off the rigging, drowned, and died. What a strange way for this vessel to claim it’s destiny by dying on the rocks and taking someone with it. The only positive thing was that a sandbar had formed off the bow of the ship and there was a left you could ride that had good shape depending on the tide, wind, and whether the local surfers would let you surf with them.
I only went back there a couple more times in my surfing career as I had moved south for college. The crowd on the Silver Strand beach area made surfing unbearable even though I knew a couple of the crew there. We had surfed the entire beach since 1961 without much hassle and well, now it just wasn’t worth it anymore.


pranaglider said…
Happy to have this piece from Kendog here on 23B this morning, enjoy this bit of SoCal history.
chiledub said…
Great story!

Does anyone from Santa Cruz have a story about the S.S. Palo Alto, a cement ship at Seacliff State Beach (read great whites) in Aptos breaking up in 2016?
Mike Janich said…
Great story! Well told.
speedshaper said…
Paddled out and surfed the La Jenelle back then. No one out but the Lithuanian "J" brothers, the dad of the Gudauskus boys (long before they were born) and myself. We came up in the old blue van of the "J" bros., saw it breaking and thought "Why not?" Paddling out--hiding in the lee of the bow, sprinting around the corner between sets. Dropping in and getting past the bow hopefully on the first turn. Quite the experience! I was in my "Jeff Hackman phase" on my 7 ft. Rick pintail. Imitating Hackman, coming off of the bottom in the middle of the board, I kept my body vertical, knees slightly bent and used ankle flex to drive the rail in. I went really vertical to the top of the wave so fast I couldn't believe it! Hackman could really use his edges, I mostly flailed. Was sure fun though! An amazing wave while it lasted.

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