ST. PETERSBURG — When Michael Barnette moved to the Tampa Bay area 10 years ago, he had heard about a popular wreck dive in 65 feet of water.
"Everybody dove and fished it," he said. "But nobody knew what it was. They just called it the South Jack Wreck because of all the amberjack on it."
Over the years, Barnette, an accomplished underwater explorer from St. Petersburg, thought often about the mysterious shipwreck.
"It was one of those things that just kept nagging at me," he said. "Even after I went out and looked at it, I still had no idea what it could be."
A royal past
In 1901, in the German port city of Kiel, the Grand Duke Friedrich August von Oldenburg, commissioned a steel-hulled yacht to be built that would be the envy of all who saw her. The shipwrights used the finest hardwoods in the staterooms, and the vessel was outfitted with, what were at the time, state-of-the-art high-performance engines.
The Kaiser, Wilhelm II of Germany, admired the yacht named Lensahn (III), which the Duke promptly presented him as a gift. In the decade that followed, various luminaries — including Czar Nicholas of Russia, King George of England and U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt — were entertained aboard.
In August 1914, when war erupted in Europe, the Kaiser received the news aboard his yacht. Eventually, the luxury craft was turned into a hospital ship, then sold to a Swedish steel magnate, who changed its name to Nohab.
The yacht soon found its way to the United States, where it was purchased by New York attorney Charles A. Ogren and his business partner D.R. Haimes. It was the height of Prohibition, and the new owners planned to fly a Panamanian flag, the only country whose ships were allowed to enter U.S. harbors with liquor aboard.
They hoped to open a regular service for the socially elite from Miami to Nassau in the Bahamas. The ship left New York with 13 men aboard and the pricey engines failed. The crew considered it a bad omen.
Seamen consider a ship that must return to port after leaving jinxed. After engineers could find nothing wrong, the Nohab proceeded to Nassau, where it changed hands again this time to real estate developer A.W. Ryerson, then sailed for Miami in 1926.
The supper club
The new owner planned to turn the Kaiser's yacht into a nightclub for Miami's rich and famous. The ship lay at anchor that summer when a hurricane swept in off the Caribbean Sea and sunk the ship with seven men aboard. Five of them died. The legend of the cursed ship began to grow.
The Nohab was raised and rested at anchor for two years, until the ship was purchased by a California businessman for the paltry sum of $5,000 and was towed to Tampa. The new owner hoped to refurbish the yacht and restore it to its former glory.
"All he ended up doing was going down there with his wife in the evenings and having dinner on her deck," Barnette said.
Eventually, the businessman realized he could build a new yacht for a fraction of what it would cost to restore the Nohab. In 1934, the boat sank at anchor, then the city "ordered her raised, towed out into the Gulf of Mexico and sunk in 66 feet of water, where shipping will not be menaced," according to a United Press report from September of that year.
Barnette was researching another ship for his new book, Florida's Shipwrecks, when he came across an article in the Sept. 30, 1934, edition of the Port Arthur News that detailed the sinking of the Nohab.
"A light bulb went off in my head," he said. "It sounded like the right size. So I went back out there and checked it out."
Barnette took measurements of what local divers and anglers called the South Jack Wreck, which lies in 65 feet of water about 15 nautical miles west of Egmont Key.
"The numbers made sense," he said. "So I knew I was on the right track."
Barnette went to libraries looking for photographs of the Nohab at anchor. "She had a very distinctive bow," he said. "I compared the old photos to the ones I had taken under water, and I knew that the ship everybody called the South Jack Wreck was actually the Nohab."
Barnette will publish the account of the Nohab in his book, but he said by no means is this the end of his mystery-solving. "There are more than 5,000 shipwrecks off Florida's 1,200-mile coastline," he said. "Only a handful of them have been identified. I have a lot of work still left to do."