Local Authors Go on Their Fourth Cuba Junket

Mar 27, 2019
Supplied Photo Gretchen Coyle and Deb Whitcraft with Cuban friends.

To do research for their book Inferno at Sea: Stories of Death and Survival Aboard the Morro Castle, authors Deborah Whitcraft and Gretchen Coyle took two trips to Cuba. In 2015, three years after the book was published, the Beach Haven residents took a third trip to the Communist country to participate in the Havana International Book Fair, where they were the only Americans honored for their book.

Whitcraft and Coyle recently returned from a fourth trip to Cuba, which they said was mostly going to be “for fun.” But the weeklong excursion wouldn’t have been complete without some learning experience, and this time it involved a person who was an authority on trains.

The authors said Mercita Herraro Sorzano, retired professor of the University of Havana and historian at the Museo del Ferrocarril (train museum), is the world’s greatest authority on Baldwin locomotives that were sold to Cuba in the late 1800s. Coyle said it made them curious about whether the Mercer B was among the locomotives. The Mercer B, Coyle said, was used to transport the people to and from the Baldwin Hotel in Beach Haven in the late 19th century.

“From what we could gather, the Mercer B was not strong enough for Cuba, where it would have traveled up and down a lot of hills,” she said. “They were work trains, used for transporting sugar canes and other items.”

As founder and president of the New Jersey Maritime Museum in Beach Haven, Whitcraft has long had a deep interest in shipwrecks. But off the coast of Long Branch, she said two locomotives are buried under 90 feet of water and she wonders if they were once bound for Cuba.

“We’re pretty sure that these trains were carried aboard a ship, so there’s a strong possibility that they were heading to Cuba,” she said. “We’re trying to see if you can get locomotives identified.”

In writing the book, published by Down The Shore Publishing, Whitcraft and Coyle were dedicated to uncovering the mysteries surrounding the S.S. Morro Castle. Christened in 1930, the Morro Castle was a luxury cruise ship that made runs between New York City and Havana, Cuba. In the early morning hours of Sept. 8, 1934, the cruise ship caught fire and burned, killing 137 passengers and crew members. The ship eventually ran aground off Asbury Park.

The book discusses the close ties between the U.S. and Cuba during the 1930s, the effect of the Great Depression on both countries and issues of safety aboard ships at the time – a problem most people thought had been remedied after the Titanic disaster.

“There have been books and accounts about the shipwreck, but we also wanted to take a different approach and write about it not only from the American point of view, but from the Cuban perspective,” said Whitcraft. “That is why in doing research for our book, Gretchen and I spent some time in Cuba interviewing relatives of people who had been on the ship.”

Although the emphasis of the authors’ trips focused on the past, it also gave them a chance to view history in the making, as the United States’ more than 50-year ban against travel to Cuba began to loosen.

While American visitors are uncommon, Cuba’s tourism is booming with Europeans and Canadians, Coyle said. The authors noticed, however, that the standard of living has gone down for the average Cuban. Houses are falling to pieces, and people are going without basics such as food and electricity.

“Some things have improved since we first traveled there,” said Whitcraft. “We can get cell phone and internet service, but not all the time.”

She said that after Fidel Castro and the Communists took over in 1959, the government has concentrated on education and the arts, not on maintenance of any sort. Castro stepped down in 2011 and died in November 2016. Today, his brother Raul Castro runs the country.

“When you get off the plane, you find out quickly that you are in a third-world, Communist country,” Coyle said. “The architecture and the beaches are beautiful, but it is a country where so many people are poor, and we had a lot of empathy for them.”

She said that after receiving their monthly government ration, people make the equivalent of $20 per month.

“The only people who really make money are in the hospitality and service areas who can get tips,” she said.

Cars on the street, they said, look like entrants in a classic automobile show.

“It really feels like stepping back in time,” said Coyle. “These were the cars people drove at the time of the revolution, and obviously they didn’t keep up with the times.”

Whitcraft said the airport, while looking nice on the outside, isn’t quite up to speed on the inside.

“When you use the bathrooms, you’re better off bringing your own toilet paper,” she said. “You might not even get a (toilet) seat.”

A year from now, the authors are looking to return to Cuba, where Whitcraft said the festivities include attending a 15-year-old girl’s birthday party.

“It’s like a coming of age party,” she said. “We’ve met so many nice people. We really feel for them because the government keeps them down. There are so many thousands of people who want to get out, but can’t.”

— Eric Englund


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