Home / CRUISING THE PAST / BIANCA C – When a cruise-ship becomes a deep sea diving attraction off the island of Grenada…
BIANCA C – When a cruise-ship becomes a deep sea diving attraction off the island of Grenada…

BIANCA C – When a cruise-ship becomes a deep sea diving attraction off the island of Grenada…

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The Bianca C, on the ocean floor off the island of Grenada, faces strong tidal currents, making this an advanced deep dive (with a checkout dive required).

The top deck lies at 90 feet and most dives proceed around the stern, where you can swim into the pool, visit the wheelhouse on the aft deck and peer down at the sandy plain below. There are schools of jacks, barracuda and spotted eagle rays in abundance.

  • The Bianca C is a key site to visit when Scuba Diving in Grenada. Known as the ‘Titanic of the Caribbean’ due to her sheer size and presence.
  • The Bianca C has been listed as one of the ‘top ten’ worldwide wreck sites by several diving magazines and international experts.
  • This enormous 180 (600′) metre long Cruise Liner sank in 1961 and sits upright on her keel in 50 metres (‘165’) of water.
  • The diving on this awesome Grenada wreck never fails to impress and amaze divers.

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 The Bianca C…

  • World War II had been devastating for the world. The shipping lines had lost countless tonnage to mines, torpedoes or bombs.
  • Illustrious ships as Canadian Pacific’s Empress of Britain, Norddeutscher Lloyd’s Bremen or the Italian Line’s Rex had all fallen victim to the enemy.
  • But the most staggering merchant ship loss was without doubt when Compagnie Générale Transatlantique’s Normandie burnt out and Messageries Maritimes’ La Marseillaise in calm waters Capsized in New York harbour.

CGT, or the French Line, received a severe blow when their flagship had to be scrapped before reaching the age of ten years. They were left with the aging Île de France as flagship.

At the same time as France wanted to show its maritime might in North America, another French shipping line – walking hand in hand with the French Line – operated on East Asia run. The line was known as Messageries Maritimes and was based in Marseille. The same year as the war erupted, they had started construction on a ship which would become roughly 15,000 to 20,000 gross tons large, in the Constructions Navales shipyard in La Ciotat. But as the war slowed work down, the ship was not launched until 1944, during burning war. The name for the ship used during the launching ceremonies was Maréchal Pétain.

The hull of the unfinished Maréchal Pétain was later towed to Port Bouc, where it was supposed to stay until the war had ended. However, in August of 1944, the Germans who were in full retreat from Southern France sank the ship in shallow waters.

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La Marsillaise in Saigon…

 Fortunately, the Maréchal Pétain had not been all too much damaged, and Messageries Maritimes raised and towed the ship to Touloun in 1946, and later to the builders at La Ciotat. During this time, the ship had been renamed La Marseillaise. Construction started out slowly, and the ship was not completed until 1949 after two years of lay up. At 17,000 gross tons, La Marseillaise was not an extremely impressive ship, but she was still the largest French ship to enter service since 1939.

She only had one funnel, and sported a new kind of rounded bow. The interior was influenced by the ship’s service areas. As La Marseillaise was planned to go on the route to Saigon, the people responsible for the interior fitting gave the ship the appropriate look. In the first class Verandah Café, specially created ceramics adorned the walls and plants filled the room with the feeling of a tropical garden. In the first class, the ship offered a wide range of suites and deluxe cabins. If you wanted to go to Saigon in style, you definitely choose La Marseillaise!

The ship’s engines gave the ship a service speed of 20 knots. Just like the two White Star liners Britannic and Georgic, La Marseillaise was a motor ship. She was driven by Sulzer Diesels, which powered three screws. The ship developed 31,500 BHP and could reach 22 knots at full power. Her maiden voyage on August 18, 1949 was indeed somewhat of a success.

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S.S. La Marseillaise – on maiden voyage…

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The La Marseillaise was symbolic of MM’s recovery and was the company’s new flagship. Her maiden voyage on August 18, 1949 was indeed somewhat of a success. Completed in July 1949, her first maiden voyage was Marseilles to Yokohama and she could carry just 341 First Class, 75 Tourist Class and 371 “rationnaires” (troops). This was preceded by two Mediterranean cruises.

Although in service for only 6 years after 11 years under construction, La Marseillaise rivaled the Normandie and Pasteur as magnificent exemplars of the French paqueboat at its zenith. She was the largest liner yet built for MM and the fastest due to her triple-screw Sulzer diesels and a very fine hull form. Unlike her unorthodox square funneled predecessors, she was truly yach-tlike with an all-white livery and a heavily flaired bow with her Normandie like “turtleback” over the mooring deck.

She was remarkably spacious inside with a lighter décor than the older ships. There was a walnut panelled smoking room, veranda café forward with large windows looking over the bows, the first permanent outdoor pool in a MM liner, a domed dining saloon with grand staircase and 20 de luxe cabins with private verandas.

As France’s political status changed in Southeast Asia, ships like La Marseillaise more and more became a burden. As fewer and fewer people chose to travel on her, Messageries Maritimes decided to retire her from service in 1957. Before this however she did for a brief period during the Suez Crisis serve as a hospital ship at Suez.

Arosa Line (1957 – 1958): However as she was only eight years old she was sold for further service in 1957 to the Arosa Line, based in Panama. They renamed the ship Arosa Sky, and changed the passenger accommodation from the old three-class system to the newer one with only two classes.

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Before the refit, La Marseillaise had accommodation for 344 first class passengers, 74 second class passengers and 318 third class passengers, but as the Arosa Sky, she was only able to take 202 first class, but a whole 1,030 in the new tourist class. On May 10th, 1957 the Arosa Sky set out on her premier voyage between Bremerhaven and New York.

However, business did not go too well for the Arosa Line. Already in 1958, they had to sell their flagship Arosa Sky as they were facing bankruptcy.

Costa Line (1958 – 1961):

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As a result the Arosa Sky was sold to the famous Costa Line.

The old La Marseillaise went through yet another ceremony of renaming, and this time she emerged as the Bianca C, named after the company manager’s daughter. The Costa Line spent much money on refitting the ship so that she would live up to the present standards of the oceans. The passenger accommodation was modernized, and in 1959 the Bianca C entered service with a slightly increased gross tonnage of 18,427. She was put on the Naples-Genoa-La Guaira service. The Bianca C served with distinction in the Costa Line for another two years.

Sadly her career was to end abruptly on the morning of Sunday 22ndOctober, 1961. While anchored off St. George, Grenada, the ship suffered an explosion in the main boiler room who set the engine-room and subsequently the whole ship on fire. The inhabitants of St. George all woke up to the loud sound of the Bianca C‘s whistles as the ship was attracting attention. A large number of the citizens raced towards the burning ship in whatever waterborne craft they could find. Fortunately, all people on board the ship managed to escape in time, except for one crewmember who had been killed in the explosion. Sadly, when the survivors reached land, two more died from the terrible burns they had suffered. But the bravery of St. George’s citizens had payed off and they further assisted the survivors when they let them stay as their guests until they could travel back home. Of the original 673 people on board, 670 had survived. The Costa Line was so grateful to St. George, that they presented the town a statue to honor the event. This statue stands in St. George until this day.

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The Bianca C burned for several days – her paint started to bubble in the heat and the almost glowing hull caused the surrounding water to boil. The visiting British frigate Londonderry sailed out towards the burning ship and started to tow her to deeper waters as it was feared that the liner would sink in the harbour and thereby blocking it. But before deep waters were reached, the Bianca C sprung a leak and sank, on an even keel, fifty metres down to the sandy bottom.

Today, Grenada is a very popular tourist island, and the wreck of the Bianca C is a great part of the promotion. She is the largest shipwreck in the Caribbean, and she has become known as the area’s answer to Titanic. The wreck is frequently visited by divers – professional, and less professional ones – and attracts tourists from all over the world. Just like her ‘oceanfloor-mate’ Titanic, the former La Marseillaise is experiencing a great heyday in her career.

At times there are strong tidal currents, making this an advanced deep dive (with a checkout dive required). The top deck lies at 90 feet and most dives proceed around the stern, where you can swim into the pool, visit the wheelhouse on the aft deck and peer down at the sandy plain below. There are schools of jacks, barracuda and spotted eagle rays in abundance.

HISTORY Messageries Maritimes…

The Messageries Maritimes was a French merchant shipping company. It was originally created in 1851 as Messageries Nationales, later called Messageries Impériales, and from 1871, Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes, casually known as “MesMar” or by its initials “MM”. Its rectangular house flag, with the letters MM on a white background and red corners, was famous in shipping circles, especially on the Europe-Asia trade lanes . In 1977 it merged with Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (the French Line) to form the Compagnie Générale Maritime.

In 1851, a ship owner from Marseille, Albert Rostand, proposed to Ernest Simons, director of a terrestrial carrier company, the Messageries Mationales, to merge to create a shipping company, first called Messageries Mationales, then Messageries Impériales, and finally in 1871 the Compagnie des messageries maritimes. Two engineers, Henri Dupuy de Lôme and Armand Brehic joined the company, encouraging the purchase of the shipbuilding yards of La Ciotat in 1849.

In 1851, a ship owner from Marseille, Albert Rostand, proposed to Ernest Simons, director of a terrestrial carrier company, the Messageries Mationales, to merge to create a shipping company, first called Messageries Mationales, then Messageries Impériales, and finally in 1871 the Compagnie des messageries maritimes. Two engineers, Henri Dupuy de Lôme and Armand Brehic joined the company, encouraging the purchase of the shipbuilding yards of La Ciotat in 1849.

In the beginning, the Company operated on routes to the Middle East. Its ships were used as troopships during the Crimean War, and were so helpful for the army that the Emperor gave the company the right to operate on theBordeaux — Brazil route as thanks. This was the first French transatlantic line equipped with steamers. The following year, the Société Générale Maritime (future Compagnie Générale Transatlantique) received the North Atlantic lines.

From 1871 to 1914 the Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes saw its Golden Age. This was the period of French colonial expansion and of interventionism in the Middle and Far East. The Marseille liners continuously served in the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea, then the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, the China Sea and finally the Pacific Ocean. In the West, the South Atlantic line filled out. Even the North Atlantic knew the ships with the typical double funnel, which made the line London — Dunkirk — Le Havre — Marseille. In the Middle East, the ports of call were Malta, Alexandria, Port Said, Beirut, Syria, Smyrna, Constantinople, and the Black Sea. In the Indian Ocean, the line served Mahé, Seychelles, La Réunion, Mauritius, Zanzibar and Madagascar as well as the French establishments in India. At Pondicherry the small harbor necessitated the use of ship’s tenders.

The Far East was the private field of the company. Saigon was rapidly becoming the second home port of the company. The “stationnaires”, ships of small tonnage, afforded to the local lines departed from there. They went to Hanoi, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Australia and New Caledonia.

In the South Atlantic, the Brazil line went as far as Montevideo. Less important, and above all less known, its home port was Bordeaux.

Ships of this line were some of the first large vessels to be fitted with the new water-tube boilers, specifically the large-tube Belleville boiler. Their performance was of such interest to the British Royal Navy that the Jerseyman Edouard Gaudin, who could pass for French, was sent to investigate their use. His report was an influence on their fitment to new ships, the Powerful-class cruisers HMS Powerful & Terrible.

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About Michael L. Grace