MV Bianca C: Rough ride to an underwater utopia
Cursed in life, yet celebrated as an icon of the Grenadian tourist scene, the MV Bianca C has finally found peace. This is her story
Some ships are cursed to suffer a debilitating end. The ghostly MV Lyubov Orlova springs to mind, as does the abandoned MV Royal Iris – not to mention culture’s juggernauts; RMS Titanic of the White Star Line and the Italian Andrea Doria.
And then there’s the MV Bianca C; a doomed luxury cruise ship crafted by Provencale de Constructions that now rests off the coast of Grenada.
She currently attracts global recognition as the utopia for keen divers, but the ship never enjoyed such accolades during her time afloat. In fact, the French-built MV Bianca C suffered a smorgasbord of perfect mayhem that could suggest the ‘C’ stood for ‘cursed’.
Partially built in 1939 before the Nazi occupation of France, even before fate beckoned, the ship found itself being sabotaged by those who had lovingly constructed her.
It wasn't unjustified, though. Shipyard workers took it upon themselves to vandalise the vessel and prevent German officers from utilising the ship for Hitler’s war effort.
The ongoing politics of conflict ensured that development crawled along at a snail’s pace, aided by ‘hostages’ that guffawed in the face of occupied forces – smugly chomping on bread and cheese while burnt-out German officers feverishly panicked.
Every step forward in the build process was counteracted by a French-sponsored half-dozen steps back. German officers resorted to hostage-taking in a feverish bid to get the job finished, yet the ship continued to languish in an unfinished state.
As Allied forces marched towards Berlin, the hull was finally launched in a hollow ceremony in 1944. Even though a muted celebration took place, the ship was far from complete. It didn’t take long before the Germans subsequently scuttled her after cracking champagne across the bow.
If they couldn’t have her, then nobody would. However – that wasn’t the end of the story or Bianca C’s woes; they’d only just begun.
Surviving the Nazis
Unlike the RMS Titanic’s dark and isolated resting place, Bianca C remains in good company – surrounded by a plethora of other sunken vessels providing submerged companionship.
As the shipwreck capital of the Caribbean, Grenada’s warm waters provide a variety of submerged kingdoms for diving enthusiasts to choose from. Few global locations can compete with the protective marine habitats offered by the Grenadian underwater shipyard, making the area one of the most colourful diving spots on Earth.
For the budding diver, experts recommend at least 14 wrecks worthy of exploration amongst schools of fish and casts of crustaceans. Yet, MV Bianca C is undoubtedly the star attraction. Besides remaining an almost-intact golden-age cruise liner, the ship offers unabated access to what could arguably be the largest subaqueous amusement park.
And then there’s her back story. This isn’t Bianca C’s first resting place, mainly because this isn’t the first time she sank.
Originally christened the Maréchal Pétain on June 10, 1944 and towed to Port Bouc – only a matter of days after the D-Day landings – the Germans torpedoed the ship’s unfinished hull during a hasty retreat from France two months later.
The ship’s namesake - Philippe Pétain – would suffer a similar fate. The French hero turned Franco-German collaborator was sentenced to death by a one-vote majority jury, yet spared the indignity due to his aged condition. Instead, he had a life sentence to look forward to.
Following Nazi attempts to drive their French ship to an early death, the Maréchal Pétain was cradled from its shallow grave and towed to Touloun before arriving at La Ciotat. Repaired and finally finished, the completed ship eventually emerged in 1949 – renamed La Marseillaise.
She had been stylishly resurrected and, powered by three-screw Sulzer Diesel engines capable of 22 knots, was now ready to serve her paying customers, including 341 first-class, 75 tourist-class, and 371 economy-class passengers.
Boasting an interior design inspired by Vietnam’s luscious Saigon mantra, and featuring a first-class café garnished with specially-made ceramics and tropical plants, alongside a walnut-panelled smoking room, veranda café and domed dining salon, La Marsillaise embarked on her maiden voyage on August 18, 1949.
Steaming from Marseille to Yokohama, La Marsillaise was firmly celebrated as one of the most impressive cruise liners of her time. Things were finally looking bright, but that old curse was about to emerge once more.
Thanks to post-war geopolitical stresses, the relationship between France and Southeast Asia suffered considerably as the 1950s pressed on, resulting in dwindling numbers of cruisers onboard La Marseillaise’s Asia-bound itinerary.
Facing bleak ticket sales, and following a brief period as a hospital ship during the 1956 Suez Canal crisis, the cruise liner was retired from service and sold to the Panama-registered Arosa Line. Redesigned to hold two classes of passengers and doing away with economy class altogether, Arosa opted to rename the ship Arosa Sky.
As the new company flagship, Arosa Sky sailed her debut voyage between Bremerhaven and New York to great fanfare. Once again, the outlook seemed secure, but fate had other ideas.
Arosa suddenly found itself in financial difficulty and the ship was sold to the Italian Costa line, where another refitting took place to maintain the standards of the day.
It was at this point that the cruise ship finally received the name she is still recognised by today. Christened the Bianca C, and becoming the second Costa ship to bear this title named after the company manager’s daughter, the Italian itinerary set a regular route between Naples and Guaira, Venezuela.
The following 18 months seemed calm but, upon departing on a routine voyage on October 12, 1961, things took a turn for the worse. Ten days into the journey, the ship found herself anchored off St George’s in Grenada. It was the last stop on her itinerary, except she would never return home.
MV Bianca C meets her fate
During the early morning of Sunday, October 22, the ship’s main boiler room suffered an explosion, igniting an intense fire that spread rapidly throughout the ship.
The initial explosion was loud enough to awaken the nearby residents of St. George’s, who quickly clocked the situation, and put together a rescue effort that employed every vessel that happened to be available.
From luxury yachts to flaky fishing boats, the motley-looking Grenadian rescue effort ensured that passengers and crew enjoyed the ‘pleasure’ of watching the MV Bianca C flounder from afar, rather than from the ship’s deck.
All 672 living souls (plus the body of one crew member who sadly perished during the explosion), were successfully evacuated, even if several individuals required medical attention after suffering injuries and third-degree burns.
Sadly, two crewmen would later perish due to their injuries.
Now empty and left to burn, the Bianca C turned herself into an ocean-going furnace. Witnesses claimed that the fire was rabid enough to bubble the ship’s paint and glow red through the hull. The water around the cruise ship was said to have boiled.
Unequipped to deal with such a raging inferno, the Grenadians could only watch the ship burn until assistance from a British frigate arrived. The HMS Londonderry – stationed in Puerto Rico – took 48 hours to appear on the scene, yet her mission was not to save Bianca C.
Rather, the Londonderry was tasked with prevention; if Bianca C sank where she was anchored, she would obstruct St. George’s main shipping lane and cause a serious navigational hazard.
The HMS Londonderry’s crew had the unenviable task of boarding the fiery ship and attaching a tow line before cutting her anchor free and attempting to beach the still-burning ship off Point Salines. However, the weather had now turned and Bianca C’s rudder was almost useless following fire damage.
With the Bianca curse still raging on, the fraying tow line soon snapped, sending the cruise liner into a violent starboard list. The Frigate crew desperately attempted to establish another tow line, but it was too late.
The cursed liner started to slip beneath the waves, quenching the fire as clear waters slapped down through the cabins and interior. Having lit up the sky for two straight days until October 24, the Bianca C unceremoniously disappeared from view.
A gift from Italy
Grenada is far from a large settlement, and the influx of stranded passengers quickly overwhelmed the island’s modest tourist infrastructure. Passengers were also without their luggage, clothes or sustenance; what hadn’t been eaten by fire now lay entombed on the seabed.
However, survivors had nothing to fear as the Grenadian’s trademark hospitality was in full flow. Local families welcomed castaways with open arms, feeding and clothing those who had nothing until transport arrived, able to take them home.
The compassion shown towards traumatised survivors didn’t go unnoticed back at Costa HQ. Grateful for the islanders’ actions, the Costa Cruise Line thanked the people of Grenada with a replica of Guido Galletti’s Christ of the Abyss statue.
While that token of gratitude spoke volumes, arguably the greatest gift was the ship itself. Lurking roughly one mile off Grenada’s southwestern shore, the ship has brought a never-ending stream of underwater explorers and tourists to the island ever since.
The ship’s legacy as a visitor attraction certainly heightened the island’s status for travellers and historians alike, securing a stream of economy-boosting cash injections for local hotels, diving guides and businesses.
MV Bianca C: A curse finally lifted
The MV Bianca C endured many name changes and troubles before a quiet retirement beckoned as a renowned and celebrated paradise for divers.
Born into turbulent war and quickly sabotaged, before Nazi officers scuttled her in hopes of her destruction, the ship's future was far from over.
Having been subjected to geopolitical circumstances and passed between various cruise lines akin to a hot potato, the French-built liner may have ended her career as a marine inferno in a foreign land, but she has finally found peace.
To others, the ship also set the foundations for strong relations between Europe and the Caribbean – which remains anything but cursed, with cruise lines frequenting the Grenadian coast to this day.
Philippe Pétain may have become an indignant echo in the midst of history, but his ocean-bound namesake is still going strong – even after more than six decades beneath the surface.