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Aboard Granma

The American boat that launched the Cuban Revolution.

The Museum of the Revolution on the edge of Old Havana houses many relics from Cuban history: fragments of a U-2 spy plane that was shot down, a Soviet tank and weapons, an eternal flame dedicated to revolutionary heroes.

Tourists can see them all, but to view the boat called Granma, they must look through steel-rimmed panes of glass. Only Granma’s caretakers are allowed inside the 60-foot motoryacht—the boat that launched a revolution.

Fidel and Raul Castro, Che Guevara and dozens of other revolutionaries changed the course of history after arriving at Cuba aboard Granma. So much of the backdrop of our lives, from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the 2016 election of President Trump, can be traced to the landing of 82 fighters in the mangroves of eastern Cuba in early December 1956. Had Granma failed, Las Vegas as we know it today probably would not exist; American mobsters might never have left their casinos in Havana.

The interior of Granma’s hangar is air conditioned and dehumidified as proof against the wood rot so prevalent in the tropics. This is a nation in which air conditioning is sometimes restricted (none allowed until 2 p.m.), so Granma’s perpetual climate control is a sign of her revered status.

The last American to set foot on Granma was Robert Erickson, the American who sold the boat to a Mexican arms dealer, who then handed her over to Fidel Castro in 1956. More than a half-century later, it took me two tries to get inside the glass walls and aboard her.

My first date with Granma was in February, when I traveled to Havana only to learn that my permission had been revoked the day I was supposed to go on board. You might say inscrutability is part of Havana’s charm, that is, when stuff is happening to someone other than you.

But I persevered, having come to Cuba with something to trade: information. I’m researching a book about Granma’s voyage. To many Cubans, she is the supreme relic of revolution, the Holy Cross in its entirety, never having been divided into splinters for the retail market.

We of the United States have a Declaration of Independence and a Liberty Bell. The Cubans have this tough, old wooden boat that I knew a lot about.

Just by looking down her side decks, I could see the skill of the shipwrights who converted this beefy former U.S. Navy workboat into a yacht.

In her Navy days, Granma’s hull-to-deck region barely merited a toerail, and the sheer was essentially flat. The genius of the conversion was the addition of bulwarks that stood about 8 inches aft and gradually became 16 inches at the prow, introducing a pleasing upward sweep to Granma’s lines. The shipwrights also installed a new superstructure made of pine and marine plywood, inspired by the look of classic Huckins motoryachts. That was a profile to catch the eye of a wealthy American of the late 1940s.

Historically, Granma has been referred to as a yacht, but truthfully, her S-shaped bar and nav station are the yachtiest elements of the boat. Belowdecks, Granma’s four cabins (nine berths) and two heads are finished to what the wooden-boat crowd calls “a high workboat standard.”

From the aft cabin, which is the master by virtue of an ensuite head, there is access to the machinery spaces housing Granma’s three beating hearts: twin 6-71 Detroit Diesels and a General Motors genset. The engines are nicely painted on their mounts, but otherwise disconnected, devoid of the hoses, wiring and linkage of a working motor. The tanks are gone, too. Engine mounts are reinforced with steel supports that pass through the bottom of the boat to the concrete slab below, a measure designed to take the load off Granma’s bones of mahogany on oak.

Clearly, Granma is well maintained; her caretakers have not tried to retrofit her into something she was not. The old girl is authentic.

Granma was originally C-1994, one of 10 bomb target boats that the Wheeler Yacht Company of Brooklyn, N.Y., built for the U.S. Navy in 1942-43. The boats cost $75,000 each, the equivalent of about $1.34 million today. Although used to train pilots for one of the deadliest planes of World War II, the Douglass SBD Dauntless dive bomber, target boats were not sexy craft. Crews of four spent their working days trying to avoid being hit by water-filled dummy bombs, dreading the impact of steel on a steel-plated deck.

I gave the Cubans copies of the documentation that traced Granma’s war service through to her conversion to a recreational yacht. I also gave them an original U.S. Navy photo (bought on eBay) of a bomb target boat underway with its original typed caption.

To my hosts, I described one of the prevailing American boat-naming customs of the 1940s and ’50s: We named boats after wives. My grandfather’s boats were Lilly V, Lilly V II and Lilly V III (good thing he didn’t get to boat five). Erickson’s wife was named Hazel, and his granddaughter, now living in Houston, told me that he called Hazel by a pet name, Granma—hence the name on the transom of Erickson’s motor-yacht. Hitherto, historians had assumed Erickson was paying tribute to his grandmother. Not so.

Cuba’s daily newspaper is named Granma, too, after the boat. My hosts laughed when I joked that Cubans in a parallel universe have been getting their news from the Daily Hazel.

The amazing thing about the Granma expedition is that Fidel Castro’s return to Cuba was nowhere near inevitable. He had packed dozens of men and their combat gear onto the boat and put to sea during a horrible storm. There were so many possible points of failure in this idealistic and ultimately amateurish undertaking that no rational betting man should have put money on Granma.

The men should have been arrested in Mexico and Granma seized. Tens of thousands of pounds overweight, she should have sunk or capsized in heavy seas. She should have been intercepted or bombed by the enemy air force. The expedition came close to failing for the most mundane of reasons: running out of fuel.

“Fortune favors the bold,” ancient Romans used to say. My military instructors said it too: An indifferent plan executed vigorously often succeeds better than good plans executed indifferently.

Granma memorializes a bold stroke, and the Cubans love her for it.