Diver with a flashlight swimming over the metal remains of a shipwreck buried in the sand
A 2022 expedition shed new light on the wreck of Valbanera, buried in shifting sands west of Key West. Photo: Matthew Lawrence/NOAA

West of Key West, between the Marquesas Keys and Dry Tortugas lies a hazardous sand bank known as the "Quicksands." This shoal is a ship trap; it has captured many vessels with its shallow shifting sands. In 1919, the Spanish steamship Valbanera departed Spain carrying passengers migrating to Cuba. A tremendous hurricane drove the steamship into the shallows where it grounded. All 488 persons onboard perished.


Launched in November 1906 by the shipbuilding firm Charles Connell and Company from its Clyde River shipyard at Glasgow, Scotland, this 399-foot long steel steamship had accommodations for slightly more than 100 first and second-class passengers, and 1,000 passengers in steerage. At 48 feet wide with 21-foot-deep holds fore and aft of the deckhouse, Valbanera also had considerable cargo capacity. Built to the highest insurance standard of the day, its triple-expansion steam engines turned twin propellers and an electric lighting plant lit the cabins throughout. Pinillos Izqueirdo and Company of Cadiz, Spain contracted with the builder for the vessel to service their transatlantic routes between Spain, the Canary Islands, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and New Orleans.

A painting of a steamship with a single stack and two masts on a blue ocean
Painting of Valbanera underway. Credit: Monroe County Public Library

Valbanera began its last voyage in Barcelona early in August 1919. Traveling westward it stopped at several of Spain's Mediterranean ports where passengers boarded and stevedores stowed a cargo of wine, olives, and dried fruit in its holds. After passing through the Straits of Gibraltar, it reached Cadiz. At that port, 521 passengers joined the ship, most of whom planned to emigrate to Cuba. From Cadiz, Valbanera departed for the Canary Islands to collect another large contingent of emigrants. After stopping at the islands of Gran Canaria and Tenerife, Valbanera set off for San Juan, Puerto Rico with 1,142 passengers and 88 crew onboard. In San Juan, the steamship dropped off garlic and onions before continuing on to Cuba. On September 5, the steamship reached Santiago de Cuba and disembarked 742 passengers. Reportedly, many passengers had booked passage to Havana, but instead chose to disembark at the first Cuban landfall. Continuing on to Havana brought Valbanera into the path of a hurricane. Captain Ramón Martín Cordero sought to bring his vessel into Havana Harbor on September 9th, but the harbormaster had closed the port after its harbor pilots could not safely reach ships offshore due to the mounting seas. With little choice, Captain Cordero, turned the steamship towards deep water to ride out the storm that evening.

Scattered wood and partially collapsed buildings.
Building in Key West destroyed by the September 1919 hurricane. Credit: Monroe County Public Library

The events that transpired next on Valbanera can only be surmised. Undoubtedly, the 488 remaining passengers and crew experienced a horrific ordeal as the hurricane battered Valbanera. The approximately 90-mile stretch of water separating Cuba and the Florida Keys was not nearly large enough to run from the storm. Tossed around by ferocious seas, the steamship intersected with the hurricane's eye and strongest winds during the overnight hours of September 9th and into the morning of September 10th as the storm slowly crept westward. Forensic meteorology estimates that the storm reached Category 4 intensity with maximum sustained winds of 130 miles per hour. Tropical storm and hurricane winds lasted 38 hours in Key West, where the highest wind speed recorded during the storm reached 110 miles per hour before the weather station's instruments were blown away. The storm's ferocity can be judged by its impact on Key West where buildings collapsed, ships sank in the harbor, and storm surge inundated the southern half of the island.

Divers wearing old style equipment next to a shipwreck
A somewhat fanciful depiction of hard hat salvage divers visiting the Valbanera shipwreck. Photo: La Domenica del Corriere, Milan, Italy, October 5, 1919, courtesy of Matthew Lawrence

After the storm departed the area to batter Galveston, Texas, authorities began to take stock of the damage. Several radio calls heard on September 12th and attributed to Valbanera gave hope that the steamship escaped the storm in the Gulf of Mexico. As the weather calmed, U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels patrolled in search for mariners in distress. On September 19th, the U.S. Navy subchaser 203 found the wreck of a large steamship on Halfmoon Shoal at the western end of the Quicksands. The navy returned to the wreck a few days later and confirmed that it was Valbanera. The steamship lay at an angle on the shallow sand bank with its portside boat deck and its aftermost mast projecting from the water. The visible portside lifeboat davits were still in a stowed position.

None of the passengers or crew survived Valbanera's sinking and no bodies were ever returned to shore for burial leaving those who lost family or friends doubly bereft. The Florida Keys and local maritime communities, who were surprised that no one found the passengers' remains and that the lifeboats had not been launched, considered the disaster to be mysterious. A Cuban expedition visited the shipwreck a little more than a month later. While they salvaged valuable wines, liquor, and merchandise from the steamship's holds, no new answers were found. Further salvage of the shipwreck continued in June 1920 when a specially equipped wrecking tug arrived at the site to remove other valuable components and machinery from the wreckage.


Two divers gliding over a sandy seafloor and holding devices in their hands
A research team from Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and University of Miami used advanced underwater archaeological mapping and photographic techniques to create the site's first accurate 3D representations. Photo: John Cline/University of Miami

Lacking baseline information about the Valbanera shipwreck, archaeologists and researchers from NOAA's Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Miami led a team to investigate the shipwreck in June 2020. The team used advanced underwater archaeological mapping and photographic techniques to create the site's first accurate 3D representations.

Investigators determined that Valbanera grounded stern-first on Halfmoon shoal from its orientation. Even in the chaotic, inky-blackness of the storm, Captain Cordero likely recognized he was nearing the shallows and may have tried to anchor to prevent his ship from running aground. Tragically, the shipwreck lies only a short distance from the deeper channel separating Halfmoon Shoal and Rebecca Shoal. Had it entered this channel it would have passed into the Gulf of Mexico unharmed. Valbanera's wreckage appears broken into three parts. Each section is separated by sandy areas devoid of wreckage. In actuality, the salvage that occurred on the shipwreck reduced its overall structure and the sand swallowed much of the remaining wreckage. The shipwreck's 410-foot overall extent still closely matches the steamship's original 399-foot length. Researchers diving at the site experienced strong currents that nearly overpowered their underwater scooters. These currents made investigations difficult by reducing visibility when they scoured the surrounding sediment and caused the shipwreck to sink into the sands.

A diver framed through a round portion of a shipwreck on a sandy seafloor
Shifting sands have covered much of Valbanera. Photo: Matthew Lawrence/NOAA
A diver holds a measuring device near a porthole-shaped opening in a shipwreck
More than a century after its demise, researchers have begun to piece together a more robust picture of Valbanera's remains. Photo: NOAA/University of Miami RSMAS

The research team intends to return to the shipwreck and continue its archaeological investigations. Further archival research seeks to uncover information about the people who traveled on Valbanera. Of interest are the life stories of those who perished in the disaster and the stories of those people whose ancestors traveled on Valbanera and may have emigrated to the United States in the years after. Please contact Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary if your family has connections to Valbanera.

(Echegoyen, 2020)