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SS PRESIDENT COOLIDGE TURNS SEVENTY

By Nigel Marsh & Helen Rose

 

The SS President Coolidge is regarded as one of the world’s greatest shipwreck dives. In October 2012 the grand old lady celebrated 70 years underwater with a week long festival held in Espiritu Santo to commemorate the special occasion.

 

We headed over to Vanuatu to join in the celebrations and also dive this amazing shipwreck, considered to be the largest accessible shipwreck in the world. For those that have never heard about this incredible shipwreck, here is a little background information.

 

The SS President Coolidge was a luxury liner built in 1931 for the Dollar Lines. At 198m long, she and her sister ship, the SS President Hoover, were the largest ships built in America at the time. The ship cruised the Pacific and Far East until the Second World War, when she was refitted to carry cargo and troops.

 

On October 24 1942 the SS President Coolidge was approaching Luganville, the capital of Espiritu Santo, where the Americans had established a massive base. With reports of a Japanese submarine in the area the captain was anxious to get his ship safely into the harbour, so didn’t wait for the pilot boat to arrive. This proved a costly error, as the ship entered the wrong channel, where a mine field awaited. Two explosions rocked the ship, forcing the captain to run the massive ship aground.

 

As the 5000 plus troops and crew abandoned ship the stricken vessel listed to port and started to sink, disappearing below the waves only ninety minutes after striking the mines. Considering how many people were aboard, only two tragically died. Salvage divers visited the SS President Coolidge over the next few days, finding the ship resting in 18m to 70m, but the ship remained largely untouched until other salvage divers arrived in 1969, one of those divers was Allan Power. Allan stayed on in Santo and later started to take divers through the ship, starting one of the first dive tourism operations in the South Pacific.

 

Today Allan Power is still in Santo, with his company and five other dive operators all coming together with the local resorts and tourism association to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the sinking of the SS President Coolidge.

 

Arriving before the festival started gave us a chance to explore the shipwreck with Santo Island Dive. My last visit was 23 years ago, so it was going to be interesting to see how she had changed. The SS President Coolidge is still one of the most spectacular shipwrecks in the world, that first view of the bow with the ship lying on its port side still takes the breath away. The ship is just immense, with so much to see, and our five dives barely gave us time to see just a brief section of the ship, inside and out. While much of the ship was just as I remembered it, the biggest change was that the promenade deck had collapsed.

 

The official celebrations kicked off on the evening of October 19 with a cocktail party hosted by Coral Quays Resort. A day of heavy rain, which also murked up the visibility on the Coolidge, kept a few of the invited guests away, but over fifty attended to mark this historic occasion. After sampling the finger foods, the ‘torpedo juice’ (a punch made from the same recipe that the US Troops cooked up) and talking to the who’s who of the Santo dive scene, Phil Jones, the manager of Coral Quays Resort, welcomed everyone to the celebrations. The lovely ladies of the Boybavarava Dance Group then performed and a range of speakers came forward, including Ben Healy, the chairperson of the Espiritu Santo Tourism Association, Kingsley Mica, from Sawma Provincial Council and Sebastian Bador, from Vanuatu Tourism Office.

 

The key note speaker was Kevin Green, who established Bokissa Island Resort and Aquamarine but is no longer involved in the dive industry, who recounted his diving experiences on the SS President Coolidge over the last 24 years. A wonderful night closed with the Leuweton Custom Dance Group, which snuck out of the gardens with their spears and clubs and put on a very dramatic performance.

 

The next day we were lucky enough to have lunch with Allan Power to talk about his experiences on the SS President Coolidge over the last 43 years. Allan explained that he joined the salvage expedition in 1969 mainly to take photos, but soon got dragged into the salvage work and stayed on after the team departed. He also said how overwhelming and frightening it was to see the size of the shipwreck for the first time. Allan also talked about changes to the shipwreck, the marine life and Santo over the years he has lived there. He finally talked about how the dive tourism market has changed, especially over the last decade, with small groups, couples and individuals now far more common than large groups from dive shops.

 

Unfortunately we couldn’t stay for the entire festival, so missed out on the nightly parties, films, talks, photographic competition and the wreath laying ceremony to remember the two victims when the SS President Coolidge sank.

 

Special thanks to the Vanuatu Tourism Office, Coral Quays Resort, Santo Island Dive, Allan Power Dive Tours, Deco Stop Lodge and Butterfly Adventure Tours for making our stay in Santo such a wonderful experience.

 

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