What Hull Lies Beneath

In 1989 a boatload of Holocaust survivors watched as a German yacht with a dubious history and unconfirmed connections to Hitler was dropped to the bottom of Miami-Dade waters. As it turns out, the Ostwind is not the only yacht of German origin buried here.

At the sandy edge of the Atlantic behind the Crandon Park nature center, about fourteen paddlers eager to embark on today's Half Moon Kayaking/Snorkeling Trip wedge themselves into primary-colored plastic kayaks. The sun attacks their skin, freshly coated in protective lotions. A tanned and affable nature guide leads the buoyant procession -- roughly divided between men and women ranging from their twenties to fifties -- about a mile from shore. Though working against the current, even the weakest paddlers easily reach their destination, and all hitch their kayaks to an awaiting motor boat.

Outfitted in inflatable Day-Glo vests loaned by the park and their own snorkeling gear, the eco-adventurers leap, wobble, and, in one case, capsize out of their kayaks into the ocean, dispersing like soap bubbles. The boat's anchor scrapes impotently along the floor of this submerged desert, dragging further from the tangle of swimmers. For a moment they look like castaways, as abandoned as the submerged wreck they have come to explore.

Resting in ten feet of crystal-clear water, the riblike remains of the 154-foot-long Half Moon are encrusted with history as well as barnacles. Diver Terry Helmers, who came upon the skeletal sailboat in the Eighties, tacked together its tattered identity and in 1997 proposed its inclusion in Florida's underwater-preserve program. The sunken ship's past peaked like whitecaps through newspaper headlines: 1914: "British Naval Prizes: Herr von Krupp's Yacht Detained" (The Times, London); 1921: "To South Seas on Ex-Kaiser's Former Yacht" (The World News, New York); 1926: "Yacht, Once Owned by Kaiser, to Be Floating Cabaret" (The Miami Herald).

Poring through articles, Coast Guard records, and the ship's plans (provided by a German dentist writing a book on it), Helmers, along with state archaeologists, established Half Moon was once a 366-ton chrome-nickel double-masted racing yacht. Christened Germania in 1908 and captured by the British in 1914, it changed hands and names in the United States a couple of times for the sum of $10,000, was owned briefly by former U.S. Navy assistant secretary Gordon Woodbury (who dubbed it Half Moon for explorer Henry Hudson's ship), and finally, during prohibition, served as a fishing barge and cabaret owned by Captain Ernest D. Smiley of Miami. In 1930 a severe storm grounded Half Moon outside Key Biscayne's Bear Cut, where it remains. Last year Half Moon was designated an underwater archaeological preserve -- Florida's seventh and Miami-Dade's first. After a long, forgotten voyage, it has resurfaced, but, unlike the Ostwind, as a symbol of conservation rather than destruction.

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Robin Shear