Rust and Rocks: LA JENELLE’s Wreck 41 Years On

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Forty one years ago, Channel Islands Harbor in Ventura County, California came close to hosting a retired ocean liner as a floating hotel and restaurant.

Channel Islands Harbor is at the top of the map. LA JENELLE lies st the western entrance to Port Hueneme (lower portion of map).

Instead, a much different fate awaited the steamer LA JENELLE, which perished on Silver Strand Beach in Oxnard, adjacent to busy Port Hueneme. The notion that portions of the ship still exist came as quite a surprise a few years ago when fellow cruise writer/ship historian/MaritimeMatters contributor Shawn Dake mentioned a huge winter storm had uncovered much of the wreck. What wreck? Most accounts of the ship’s sad demise stated that she was scrapped on site. These same reports also misspelled her name as LA JANELLE.

LA JENELLE memorial plaque.

Here is what a brass plaque near the breakwater that now entombs large parts of the once gallant American merchant ship says:

“Buried beneath the beach is the 467-foot hull of the ‘La Jenelle’. The luxury liner was driven aground at this site during a coastal storm on April 13, 1970. The State Lands Commission coordinated a joint Federal, State and Local Governmental effort to convert the remains of the derelict ship from a safety hazard to this recreational area for public benefit. The backside park and fishing area, constructed with state funds, is maintained by the county of Ventura.”

BORINQUEN post card. Shawn Dake collection.

The LA JENELLE saga began in 1931 at the Bethlehem Steel Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts when the 7,114 gross ton BORINQUEN was completed for the New York and Puerto Rico Steamship Company. The BORINQUEN carried 261 first class and 96 second class passengers on a fortnightly service to San Juan and Ciudad Trujillo (Dominican Republic). In January of 1942, she was requisitioned for U.S. war service, serving successfully as a transport with a capacity of 1,289 soldiers. In 1946, she returned to Bethlehem Steel for a major renovation for Agwilines’ and later Bull Lines’ service to Puerto Rico. From 1949, the ship operated under the name PUERTO RICO before being laid up at New York and offered for sale in 1953.

AROSA STAR. Shawn Dake collection.

In 1954, the PUERTO RICO was bought by newly formed, Swiss-based Arosa Line, which took the ship to Bremerhaven for a USD $1 million rebuilding into the AROSA STAR for budget transatlantic service between Bremerhaven and Quebec.

AROSA STAR postcard. Shawn Dake collection.

AROSA STAR deluxe cabin. Shawn Dake collection.

AROSA STAR cabin. Shawn Dake collection.

When the AROSA STAR emerged from the shipyard, she had been reconfigured to accommodate 38 passengers in first and 768 in tourist class. She was also the recipient of a modernized, raked bow. In addition to crossings, the AROSA STAR was employed in Bermuda and Caribbean cruise service (with a reduced capacity of 414) from New York and Miami.

Arosa Line brochure text for AROSA STAR cruise service. Shawn Dake collection.

Arosa Line was a notoriously short lived blip in transatlantic liner and cruising history. Plagued by safety issues, bad publicity and financial overreach, the quickly-assembled Arosa fleet of four ships was arrested and auctioned off.

SS BAHAMA STAR. Peter Knego collection.

AROSA STAR was sold to Eastern Steamship Lines in June of 1959. Following another refit, the ship entered three and four night Bahamas cruise service from Miami as the BAHAMA STAR. With all berths occupied, the now fully air conditioned ship had a rather high passenger capacity of 735. Here is an excerpt from Laurence Dunn’s 1965 edition of “Passenger Liners”: “The passenger decks are “Promenade, A, B, C and D. The after half of Promenade Deck contains the main series of public rooms, the deluxe cabins being forward. Both Promenade and A Deck cabins have two and three berths, some 25 having their own shower and toilet, some just toilet. The cabins on the next three decks are 2-4-6 berths. The dining saloon is on B Deck, amidships. Aft, there is a calypso lounge and writing room. Public spaces and some cabins were redecorated and refurbished in 1965.”

BAHAMA STAR at Nassau. Peter Knego collection.

The BAHAMA STAR has a legacy as one of Miami’s pioneering cruise ships and remained extremely popular for the greater part of the next decade. The ship made headlines when she rescued 378 passengers from burning fleetmate YARMOUTH CASTLE off Nassau in 1965. New SOLAS regulations in the aftermath of that and several other passenger ship fires would soon force the elderly BAHAMA STAR to undergo prohibitively costly renovations or retire.

LA JENELLE at anchor off Port Hueneme. Ventura County Maritime Museum image.

BAHAMA STAR made her last cruise in November of 1968 and was immediately offered for sale. Panamanian buyers eventually purchased and leased the ship to a California-based venture as the LA JENELLE floating restaurant and hotel at Channel Islands Harbor in Ventura. After it was discovered the waters were not deep enough, LA JENELLE lay in limbo awaiting the harbor’s dredging or a further sale or charter. On April 13, 1970, an unusually fierce storm drove her from her moorings and onto the beach.

Helicopter rescue. Ventura County Maritime Museum image.

LA JENELLE capsized in the monster surf. Stranded crew members had to be rescued by helicopter as the ship was battered beyond salvation.

LA JENELLE on her side. Photo and copyright Gordon Ghareeb 1970.

California-based ship historian and MaritimeMatters contributor Gordon Ghareeb (co author with Martin Cox of the Los Angeles Steamship Company history, “Hollywood to Honolulu”) went to visit the wreck a month or so after she beached and shared the following series of rare and dramatic images.

Bow section of wreck. Photo and copyright Gordon Ghareeb 1970.

Midships section of wreck. Photo and copyright Gordon Ghareeb 1970.

LA JENELLE stern and rigged access. Photo and copyright Gordon Ghareeb 1970.

Astern of the wreck. Photo and copyright Gordon Ghareeb 1970.

Seaside view of the wreck. Photo and copyright Gordon Ghareeb 1970.

Gordon recently recalled, “I was also up there after demolition had started and there were lots (like dozens and dozens) of dining room chairs lined up on the beach. All ya needed to do was pick one up. But that was prior to my souvenir hunting days, so they all sat on the beach. Oh well.”

LA JENELLE on fire. Ventura County Maritime Museum image.

The U.S. Navy (a base is adjacent to the Port Hueneme harbor entrance) was eventually called in to dismantle LA JENELLE. Shortly thereafter, a fire ravaged the stranded ship’s accommodation.

Scrapping underway. Ventura County Maritime Museum image.

With her superstructure and portions of her hull removed, the gutted carcass of LA JENELLE was filled with sand, boulders and concrete to become an extension of the northern Port Hueneme jetty. Most of her superstructure was dumped a few miles out to sea to form La Jenelle Reef, an acclaimed spot for intermediate to advanced divers.

LA JANELLE partially uncovered on 13 March 1994. Photo and copyright Gordon Chareeb 1994.

Breakwater revelations. Photo and copyright Gordon Ghareeb 1994.

Over the decades, high surf eventually began to expose bits of the old liner. Gordon Ghareeb and Shawn Dake made occasional pilgrimages to the site and documented the process.

Seaside view 2011. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2011.

Singapore-based Tradewinds reporter Jonathan Boonzaier joined me on my latest trek to Oxnard this past August. LA JENELLE is some 25 miles from my house, at the end of West Road off Victoria Avenue. Today, the outer edge of the breakwater has all but crumbled into the sea, revealing patches of moss and rust-covered steel.

LA JANELLE versus the surf. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2011.

Rotting decks and framework plunge almost vertically into the surf. Even on calm days, the seas off the wreck are treacherous. A scuba diver recently drowned in a nearby kelp bed.

Rivets in rust. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2011

To visiting fishermen and casual passersby, the rusting steel between the rocks is pretty nondescript.

Counter culture. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2011.

Stairway in stone. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2011.

There are some tangible remnants of LA JENELLE, including a twisted section of the counter stern and a mangled staircase.

LA JENELLE reclaimed. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2011.

After climbing around the wreck site and out along the crumbling jetty, we drove off to the nearby Ventura County Maritime Museum to see the LA JENELLE exhibit.

Ventura County Maritime Museum, Port Hueneme. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2011.

The Ventura County Maritime Museum is located on the east side of Channel Islands Harbor at 2731 Victoria Avenue in Oxnard, California (805-984-6260). Hours are 11:00 to 5:00 daily and admission is free but donations are happily accepted by the friendly volunteer staff. The museum will be moving to a larger site on the west side of Channel Islands Harbor in the near future.

BAHAMA STAR name board at Ventura County Maritime Museum. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2011.

BAMAMA STAR Steering station. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2011.

Artifacts rescued from the LA JENELLE wreck, including the steering station, name board, cowls, a telegraph and life preserver, were donated to the museum by Martin V. and Martha K. Smith in 1998. The irony is that they are now where they would have been had LA JENELLE become a floating restaurant and hotel.

References: Fifty Famous Liners, Volume Two by Frank O. Braynard and William H. Miller; Passenger Liners by Laurence Dunn

With special thanks: Jonathan Boonzaier, Martin Cox, Shawn Dake, Gordon Ghareeb, kind Ventura Man with map

Peter Knego

Peter Knego

Having documented over 400 passenger ships and taken more than 200 cruises, MaritimeMatters’ co-editor Peter Knego is a leading freelance cruise writer, a respected ocean liner historian and frequent maritime lecturer both on land and at sea.  With his work regularly featured in cruise industry trades and consumer publications.  Knego also runs the www.midshipcentury.com website which offers MidCentury cruise ship furniture, artwork and fittings rescued from the shipbreaking yards of Alang, India.  He has produced several videos on the subject, including his latest, The Sands Of Alang and the best-selling On The Road To Alang."
Peter Knego

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