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West Palm Beach’s Fabulous Mizpah Wreck

One of my first dives off the Palm Beach coast was to the wreck of the Mizpah. That was 1979, and at the time, this 185-foot vessel was a cornerstone attraction for area diver operators. Today, the Mizpah is still one of my favorite dives in the area, though both of us have undergone some changes in the intervening years.

In addition to being an entertaining wreck to explore; the Mizpah is a ship with a history that took some sleuthing to uncover. For years, I’d heard that it started out as a luxury yacht owned by a Greek tycoon before the Second World War. A bit of digging into historic records proved this was not actually the case. And as I continued my research, the story that emerged was of a vessel that had a long and extremely varied career.

Much of what I learned came directly from Eugene Kinney, the benefactor whose generosity made possible the transformation of Mizpah into an artificial reef project. At the time of his donation in the late 1960s, Kinney was the vice president of the Zenith Corporation. To understand why an Illinois businessman would bother with a derelict ship in Florida waters, I set out to learn the ship’s full history.

mizpah

Originally built by the Newport News Ship Company in 1926 for the US Navy, the Mizpah— which was then called the Savarona – was scrapped even before completion. The decision to do so was based on some strange international agreement to limit the size of the world’s navies.

But before the cutting torches set to work, the still uncompleted Mizpah was sold to a Mrs. Cadwalder of Palm Beach for a price of $526,000. After completion as a 185-foot, steel-hull luxury yacht, the vessel was given the name the Sequoia, and soon re-sold to James Elverson for an undisclosed amount. At this point there was it once more changed names to the Allegro.

Inside the Mizpah's lower deck.

Inside the Mizpah’s lower deck.

In 1929, Allegro was again sold for $375,000, this time to Eugene Kinney’s uncle, Commander McDonald, the founder of Zenith Corporation. In yet another name change, it finally became the Mizpah. Being the electronics genius that he was, Commander McDonald outfitted the ship with enough of the period’s state-of-the-art electronic hardware to earn it a reputation as one of the finest floating radio labs in the world. For the next 12 years, the yacht became the floating home to the McDonald family on both the Great Lakes and in Florida.

Apparently, Commander McDonald also had a keen interest in hunting for sunken treasure. During the years he and his family lived on the Mizpah, he made a few stabs at treasure hunting with expeditions in both Florida and Bahamian waters.

At the onset of World War II, Germany’s Wolfpack fleet of U-boats struck fear in the American shipping lanes. A desperate need for ship escorts and patrol craft soon ensued. The Mizpah, with her extensive radio equipment, was donated back to the same Navy that originally tried to scrap this vessel. It served as a patrol craft throughout the war, and under the moniker PY-29, became an anti-submarine ship escort. During escort services between New York and Key West, no ship under Mizpah’s watch was ever sunk or even attacked by a U-boat.

goliath groupers, Palm Beach County, Florida

Like most of the wrecks in Palm Beach County, Florida waters, you
can always count on seeing one or more Goliath groupers.

At the close of the war, the Navy awarded Commander McDonald $175,000 for the Mizpah’s patronage and her full possession. Soon afterward, they sold the ship to the H.O. Merren Shipping Company of Honduras for $17,500. Twenty years later, while hauling bananas for Merren from Central America to Tampa, the Mizpah was caught in a storm and driven into a reef. Badly damaged, she was towed to a local shipyard.

When Eugene Kinney learned that his late uncle’s former yacht was again up for sale, he made the purchase, aiming to refurbish the ship for return to the banana trade. The venture ultimately proved too costly, so the idea was scrubbed. But with West Palm’s artificial reef program then in its grass roots stage, Kinney figured the Mizpah would be able to perform one last mission in home waters.

Organized primarily by sport fishermen, the intent of this early artificial reef program was to add more fishing sites to the sea floor in depths beyond 100 feet. So, in April of 1968, the Mizpah was towed through Lake Worth Inlet to a designated resting spot at an anticipated depth of 200 feet. The seacocks were opened to allow it to sink, but the ship refused to go down. To take on more water, sections of the hull were cut open. Then as the Mizpah finally began a slow descended, the Gulf Stream took hold and pushed the ship into shallower depths, where it came to its final resting point at a less-desired depth of 100 feet.

While not so hot for the fishermen, it became a real boon for divers

Over the years, currents and storm surges have relocated the Mizpah several times. The most significant move took place some 20 years ago when the hull ended up almost touching another wreck, the PC-1170. This former military patrol craft was sunk a few years after the Mizpah, and the two vessels originally sat several hundred yards apart. Today, both hulks are part of a collection of south-to-north lying wrecks known as the Corridor.

Schools of copper sweepers are just some of the fish life you will see on the wreck.

Schools of copper sweepers are just some of the
fish life you will see on the wreck.

To look at the Mizpah now, as compared to my first visit 34 years ago, a lot has changed. Although the ship still sits upright at a depth of 95 feet with the stern facing south and into the prevailing currents, the long years on the sea floor have not been especially kind. Once intact, now all of the structure above the main deck has fallen away. What remains is covered in a rich carpet of corals and sponges.

It’s difficult to picture this 185-foot hulk as having been one of the grandest luxury yachts to sail on the Great lakes in the 1930’s. Back then, mega yachts of that size were extremely rare, as most private yachts were typically less than 80 feet in length. With a crew of 27, she was a regal lady, with staterooms trimmed with fine hardwoods, fabrics and gold-plated fixtures. The only things that shimmer with shades of gold today are some of the tropical fish that have made the wreck their home.

Mizpah Wreck_1

On most of my descents to the wreck, the first thing that comes into view is a cloud of fish life that includes schooling jacks, blue runner, mackerel scad, spade fish and a few hefty 4-foot barracudas. Then, the shadowed outline of the hull soon materializes. On good days, waters over the wreck can be bright blue and clear, allowing a majority of the Mizpah’s profile to be seen during approach. But while the Gulf Stream can bring clear waters close to the Palm Beach coastline, it also generates currents that wash over the Mizpah at variable speeds that can range from barely perceptible to a robust flow of two knots or more.

During the latter part of summer between mid August and the end of September, the number of Goliath groupers one might see can number more than a couple dozen.

During the latter part of summer between mid August and the end of
September, the number of Goliath groupers one might see can
number more than a couple dozen.

Because of these currents, local dive charter operations practice “live boating,” which involves dropping divers up-current of the target and allowing them to drift into the wreck as they descend. At the end of the dive, surface markers are deployed, allowing divers to drift comfortably in mid-water during the safety stop. Upon surfacing, divers find the boat right there for pickup, with no need to fight the current and struggle up an anchor line on the way to the surface.

Anyone visiting Palm Beach area should definitely add the Mizpah to his or her bucket list. Its abundant fish life always makes for an eventful dive, and knowing the full history of this vintage vessel makes the visit all the more rewarding.

- Walt Stearns

About the author  ⁄ Walt Stearns

Walt Stearns started as a freelance photojournalist in 1985. Over the span of his career, Walt Stearns has become known as one of the most prolific and frequently published photojournalists in boating, fishing and diving media, with more than 8,000 articles and 20,00 images published, as well as video work for broadcast outlets such as the Discovery Channel and the BBC to producers like Wild Horizon’s Ltd. Connect with me on Google+