The Legend of the Cartanza Senora

The Legend of the Cartanza Senora

Good morning and happy holidays! I hope everyone enjoyed their Thanksgiving yesterday. How many of you tuned in for the annual Macy’s Parade? I know I did!

If you are a history buff like me, then you are going to love the story of the Cartanza Senora, a former WWII freighter that has been transformed into one of the most popular diving sites in the Caribbean. Resting in about 45 feet of water off the coast of Buck Island, this maritime relic serves as a sanctuary for vibrant fish, colorful coral, and the occasional sea turtle or octopus. It’s also an ideal diving spot for adventure enthusiasts. Broken into three pieces, this haunting vessel tells a tale that began around 80 years ago. 

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The once majestic Cartanza Senora began her life as a WWII freighter. Measuring at 190 feet, the Cartanza was used to transport goods across the Atlantic. After the war, the vessel was outfitted as an agricultural cargo ship, bringing goods from South America to the Caribbean Islands. 

Rumor has it that the crew of the Cartanza began to expand their export in the 1970’s and their agricultural additions were not completely legal. Near the end of the decade, the captain and crew scuttled the ship in the St. Thomas harbor, apparently because the Coast Guard caught wind of their nefarious activity. There isn’t much online to back up this claim, but from what I could find, it seemed like the crew had been tipped off that they were about to be boarded by the Coast Guard, so they abandoned ship and took their cargo with them.

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The abandoned freighter was a navigational hazard for cruise ships coming into St. Thomas, so the Army Corps of Engineers were brought in by local authorities to decimate the wreckage. St. Thomas dive shops rallied against this idea because the wreck had become a popular recreational diving spot.

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The plaque (located near the Cartanza) honoring Bill Letts for his role in preserving this site

Led by dive shop owner Bill Letts, protestors took turns ‘camping out’ at the wreck to prevent the demolition. Bill Letts and others also hosted successful fundraisers, and they were able to secure the money for a crane, so they could relocate the Cartanza to a protected grave off of Buck Island.

Unfortunately, funding dried up, and the original relocation spot was no longer possible. On June 16th, 1979, the crane dropped the Cartanza in 85 feet of water, instead of the planned 40 feet, restricting its access to advanced divers only. 

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A decade later, Hurricane Hugo hit the Virgin Islands and rolled the Cartanza into shallower waters closer to Buck Island. And get this – because of Hurricane Hugo, the massive freighter had finally found its resting place exactly where Bill Letts had originally planned. Lying in about 45 feet of water in Shipwreck Cove, the Cartanza can be visited by all levels of divers and can even be seen from the surface. 

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The last time I went to Shipwreck Cove, we took the underwater scooters to get a closer look at the Cartanza. Knowing its history only added to the lure of this hauntingly beautiful wreck. Gliding just above it, I could see the hull adorned by clusters of coral, while little reef fish darted in and out of its massive frame. What was once an impressive WWII freighter is still full of life, only now as a marine ecosystem and a mecca for adventure seekers. 

Do you know of any nearby shipwrecks and their stories? If so, please feel free to share below!



10 thoughts on “The Legend of the Cartanza Senora”

  1. Awesome. I had the opportunity to learn to Dive (Recreational) from St. Thomas Dive shop at Bolongo Bay. Great People……..and they took us to this wreck! Told us some of the history. Now I know more about this wreck It was a very special and memorable experience for this 70 Yr. old. Next up – Gonna try the Rhone, which a decade ago we snorkeled. Good Stuff! Thx

  2. I have a great true story about the Major General Rodgers that lies east of Coral World in about 85 feet of water. I you think it would be interesting for your readers contact me. Kevin Smith

    • The Major General Rogers was a fun dive. We slowly sank to the stern area and surveyed the steel. It was coated with a film like algae. Lots of spongy along the keel in the sand.its big and open inside. Come out by the Bow at 40-50 saw. Slowly made our way to the boat

  3. This story is not really telling the whole true story. Yes, the ship was abandoned and sank in shallow water in Crown Bay in the very early 70’s. It is also true that in mid 70’s the Army Corp of Engineers were going to demolish it where it was. The diving community did dive on the wreck so the ACE could not do what they wanted to do and by doing so, they gave the Chamber of Commerce some time to raise funds to move it. I loved Bill Letts but, he did not own the St. Diving Club until my father Richard “Dick” Doumeng sold it to him in the late 1980’s (approx. 1987). Selling t-shirts, “I helped save the Cartanser Senior”, was generating very little funds to support a very expensive venture. As the president of the Chamber and the owner of Bolongo Bay Beach Resorts, at that time, my father saw an opportunity for some economic growth here on Island. However, the project quote was approx. $250,000, and realistically not feasible. Then on Mar 31, 1979 — The luxury cruise ship Angelina Lauro, was ablaze from stem to stern at the West Indian Company dock and settled to the muddy bottom of St. Thomas Harbor and burned long into the night. The 700′ Italian ship had 675 passengers and 374 crew members. The fire happened when most of the passengers were off the ship and every single person was able to get off the ship safely. Since the ship was a total loss, the company sold it for scrap metal to Japan and the world’s largest floating derrick or crane was hired to move the ship. My father approached the crane company and asked for a bid to move the ship to Buck Island. The man he spoke to said, “it going to cost quite a bit are you sure?” Keep in mind that he had already gotten a bid for the project scope that was going to take a week or more to accomplish. He said, “yes” and the man said, “It will cost $60,000.00 and take all day.” Trying not to yell with excitement he said, “when do you want to do it?” It was done in one day (6/16/1979) and placed almost where it lies today. It became part of the park and protective buoys were placed on all 4 corners of the wreck. Yes, Hugo and all of the other storms we have had through the past decades have contributed to the ship being broken into pieces. But it will always bring back great memories of the many many dives I lead there. The sight remains a tribute to the many people who dove the spot countless times like (Dick Doumeng, Bill Letts, Andre Webber and Pam Balash) RIP


    • Good morning! This is fantastic, thank you!
      How did they raise the funds for the crane operation in addition to the tshirt sales?
      And did Hugo actually move the Cartanza or did it just break it into several different pieces?

  4. The info on the movement of the Cartanza after Hurricane Hugo is not accurate. I was working at Chris Sawyer Diving Center from 1987 to post Hugo in 1989. We dived the wreck of the Cartanza Sr. in the cove at Buck Island all those years.

  5. Hi Hannah, as Steve wrote, the ship is basically in the same position it was placed in. I witnessed the wreck rocking back and forth in its place when I was hired by Westinghouse to film it. They used to do Sunday showcases on network TV before cable etc. Another funny story as we told the crew that we needed to film a day earlier because weather was coming and they said, “don’t worry it would be fine.” It was extremely rough as the wind and swells were coming from the west. However, it actually looked nice in post-production. Good camera. Hugo and other Hurricanes broke it up as it continued to corrode over time.
    The money was funded by sales of shirts before and after the project for years and some of it was donated by private donations.

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